Thursday, January 20, 2011

The Stuff of Life: A graphic guide to genetics and DNA

Many of the recent advances in genetics were not too long ago thought only possible in the realm of science fiction, so maybe it is only appropriate that science fiction elements are brought in here to explain scientific theories. This graphic novel (which is more of a graphic textbook, if you ask me) includes the full report of Bloort 183, an alien scientist. He comes from an asexual race of beings who resemble sea cucumbers and are being threatened by disease. In seeking a cure, he is charged with researching how life on Earth works.

His report is chock full of information, starting with chemical and biological explanations for how DNA works on the cellular level. From there, Bloort 183's report explains how heredity works, traits get passed on or selected, and how these genetic processes are coming to be manipulated by people. Along the way, many of the major genetic researchers are highlighted, including Darwin, Mendel, Franklin, Watson, Crick, and Thomas Hunt Morgan. Luckily for the reader, the alien monarch who sent Bloort 183 on this mission needs things explained more fully, so what can be dense information gets relayed in more relatable ways.

This book is the creation of Mark Schultz and the brother art team of Zander and Kevin Cannon. Schultz has been working in comics for decades, most famously on sci-fi adventure stories like his Xenozoic Tales (aka Cadillacs and Dinosaurs). He has won multiple Harvey and Eisner Awards and is currently writing the Prince Valiant newspaper comic. The Cannons often work together, on books with Jim Ottaviani and Alan Moore, but Kevin has published his own Eisner-nominated graphic novel Far Arden. Zander's most notable solo work is the Harvey-nominated series The Replacement God. Their expert craft and attention to detail are apparent in the artwork.

This interview segment on NPR sheds more light on what went into the book's making. Along with this media attention, the book has received mostly positive reviews. John Hogan appreciated the mix of serious science information in a not-so-serious format. Berel Dov Lerner thinks that the book is entertaining and informative, even if it does try to tackle a bit much at times. Johanna Draper Carlson was a bit put off by the text heaviness and amount of technical information, but in the comments section it seems like her critiques may be a function of audience.

A preview, video, and other reviews are available here from the book's publisher Hill & Wang.

A sequel of sorts, Evolution, is also available from creators Jay Hosler and the Cannon brothers.

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