Interview: Cartoonist/Scientist Jay Hosler Answers

1. Next Project?

[Sweetwind] I didn’t see any news about upcoming projects on your web site, have you
started working on a new series or graphic novel? (Please say yes! :-) )
What kinds of topics would you like to tackle next?

[Hosler] My next project will focus on the life of Santiago Ramon y Cajal. Cajal was Spain’s greatest scientist and the father of modern neurobiology. He won the Nobel prize for his work as a histologist. For those that don’t know, a histologist stains slices of animal and plant tissue to examine the microanatomy of a particular organ or tissue. Cajal’s research provided some of the first concrete evidence that the nervous system was composed of individual cells (that we now know as neurons) and not a network of phyically linked cells acting as a sort of nerve net. Now, to me that is pretty interesting, but what makes Cajal’s story particularly compelling (I think) is that as a small child he wanted desperately to be an artist. Unfortunately, his parents viewed art as a sinful diversion and constantly discouraged his passion. Unfortunately for them, Santiago was a strong willed young man and pursued his art mania (as he called it) despite parental protest. Cajal’s father was a strict, practical physician who dismissed the humanities as a waste of mental time and effort, so there is a pretty interetsing father/son conflict here. Now, I don’t want to give too much away, but obviously something happened along the way and Cajal became a scientist. However, he did so in such a way that he still was an artist. He was just working on a very small canvas.

All of the stories I write need to have layers for me to find them interesting. With Clan Apis there is the straightforward coming of age story, but layered on top of that is the biology of honey bees, my own feeling/fears of change and mortality as well as what it means to have a purpose and where that sense of purpose comes from. In the Sandwalk Adventures there is the basic component of explaining Darwin’s theory, but we also have the humanizing biographical material, a peek at the biology of follicle mites as well as an exploration of mythmaking and storytelling. For the Cajal project, I’ll be exploring his life as well as talking about the relationships between fathers (my Dad is very supportive so the relationship between Santiago and his father will not be autobiographical) and sons (I have 2: also not autobiographical!) and the relationship between art and science, which I feel privileged to know, through experience, a little about.

2. Influences?

[Sweetwind] I had forgotten about
Good ol’ Charlie Darwin
when I compared the mites of
The Sandwalk Adventures
to Charlie Brown and Linus in
my review.
So, I take it Charles Shultz was an influence on you, and perhaps
too (based on your reading matter in a panel of
Killer Bee).
Who would you say are your primary creative influences?

[Hosler] Charlie Brown taught me to read and inspired me to draw, first by imitating what I saw in the strips and later to create my own work. I’m sure the psychology of Charlie Brown has been analyzed in some detail somewhere. I connected with him because like most kids growing up we feel alone and unliked. CB was a hero to me because he endured. He got frustrated, but he usually bore the indignities of life with an intellectual stoicism that reflected a wisdom I aspired to. When I got older I found the same kind of connection with Peter Parker: geeky, bespectacled science nerd that never got the chicks (until he hooked up with a super model that is..). I guess that makes Steve Ditko and Stan Lee infulences. And then there is Jack Kirby’s Fantastic Four run that I loved. So, I guess those are the influences that were there at the beginning, the ones that drew me into wanting to do cartoons/comics. Later there was Gary Larson and Bill Waterson and comics by storytellers like Jeff Smith, Linda Medley and Larry Marder. Of course I am constantly being inspired to create by the work being done in comics today. If I had to pick someone that consistently inspires me month and month out it would be Stan Sakai. In fact, in many ways he inspired me to fuse my love of biology and cartooning into science comics. I recall one scene in particular on the making of samurai swords that blew me away. Here, in the context of a fictional story, I was learning something facinating about Japanese culture. Of course, his great gift as a storyteller is the ability to weave in the history and mythology of Japan into his comics. That is what I try to do with science in comics.

3. Education

[rickyjames] You are both on the staff of Juniata College and the father of a
four-year-old that will soon be starting kindergarten. As someone with
vested interests at both ends of the educational experience, what’s your
opinion of the vast middle? What’s your take on the strengths and weaknesses
of the elementary schools that your son will soon attend and the high
schools that graduate those you lecture to? What would you do to change or
strengthen these institutions, so they produce better students and thinkers?

[Hosler] Whew. That’s a big one. Actually, I should point out that I now have two sons (Max 4 and Jack 1.5). Much to my chagrin I have not updated my web page since Lisa was preganant. I have to do that before Jack figures out how to get online.

Anyway to your questions: Let’s point fingers, shall we? I would have to say that if the current atmosphere of unrelentingly standardized testing is left unchecked it will kill our educational system. The inevitable results of any situation in which funding is dependent upon a certain set of scores are 1) teaching to the test and shift from educational content to teaching students how to test and 2) a decline in all programs except those deemed “necessary” (shades of Cajal’s father…) which means everything from music, art and science are potentially on the chopping depending upon the political agenda of those in charge. Let me give you a recent example. Over the last few weeks I have been visiting a local elementary school. I am working with the 4th and 5th grade students on how to write and draw a one page comic story about an invertbrate of their choice (this is all in preparation for
a bug movie fest I host at Juniata college called Invertebratarama!). Anyway, in my initial meeting with the teachers, I found them extremely enthusiastic for any science opportunities because state regulations had made them cut back of science offerings. Likewise, on my first visit with the kids, I showed them a wide array of preserved specimens and I was bowled over by their enthusiasm (something happens between 4th grade and college, by the way. I don’t get the kind of unbridled enthusiasm for participation in my college courses that I get from those elementary school kids. I wish I did….).

As far as the schools that my sons will attend, they are full of hardworking, innovative teachers. In fact, we recently purchased a house and one of the criteria was to be in a particular school district. I think (and this may be my bleeding liberal heart) that the weaknesses that exist are a lack of funding and hamstringing state regulations. I think this only gets worse as they move toward high school and bigger and bigger classes and receive less and less attention. I would try to find a way to make classes smaller. In a world of unlimited funds and enthusiastic educators, I would frankly like to see high schools unconsolidated and smaller (as long as you don’t start losing the myriad forms of diversity in the student body). Then, I think student could learn to think and problem sove instead of attempting to accumulate facts and spit them back out like a Pez dispenser.

4. Evolution

[rickyjames] Teaching evolution in the classroom is a hot button topic.
Just today I read that Georgia’s State Superindendent of School’s
Kathy Cox
proposes that
the word “evolution”
be taken out of textbooks and the wording “biological changes over time” be
put in its place. Your comics promote Darwin and evolution to children;
what’s your take on this nationwide effort to prevent children from coming in
contact with ideas you espouse?

[Hosler] Of course, I think it is a tragedy. The Georgia case is also a comedy, since my understanding is that they are just taking the word evolution out of their state education guidelines. From what I had heard, textbooks wouldn’t be changed and teachers were not asked to stop using the word evolution in class. So, now we get a semantics thing and I’m not sure what kind of message that sends. A dumb one I guess. Ultimately, this is the influence of religious special interest groups. And it is so specifically targeted to to one theory: evolution. What’s more, because evolution seems to threaten some folk’s notions of humanity’s uniqueness, more people than should seem to think it is an OK course of action to pull evolution out of the schools or at the very least give equal time to “creation science.” But can you imagine the response of parents if some group wanted to stop the teaching of gravity? We would howl at the absurdity! But, it is the same science, the same method that illucidated and explained both ideas. We can’t pick and choose what we believe from science just because some ideas make us uncomfortable.

5. Bees and Land Mines

[rickyjames] Your specialty research area is the Pavlovian
conditioning of honeybees.
This has become a very hot national security topic with recent results
suggesting such conditioning can
train bees to “sniff out” landmines.
Are you familiar with the work of Jerry Bromenshenk at University of Montana
and others in this area, and do you have any comments on training bees for
practical substance detection?

[Hosler] Sure, I know Jerry’s work. I hope it succeeds. The proliferation of lindmines is one of the more chilling and barbaric ways in which we have learned to kill each other. If you can find a way for bees to detect landmines in advance, then with any luck we can save the lives civilians and soldiers alike. Imagine little super bees saving the day. Hmmm, there might be a story in there….

6. Preferred subject matter

[apsmith] Most of your drawings seem to be on biological topics -
at least looking at
the website and some other things I seem to recall of yours. Do you find
biology topics easier to draw, or just more fascinating? Or do you think
there’s just a wider audience for that subject? Or is there just more
variety? With theoretical physics I can see how Harris sort of covered it
with all his drawings of rotund professors at the chalkboard :-)

[Hosler] More facinating! Of course, I would say that given my training in biology. But, it also provides me with my own voice in comics. I did plenty of pedestrian cartoons for my college and graduate school newspapers but in most of them I was trying to be someone else (Larson, Schulz, Watterson, Trudeau…). It wasn’t until I was preparing for my postdoctoral research that it finally occured to me that I should marry my two loves: biology and comics. From that profoundly delayed epiphany came Clan Apis. Since then, these have been the topics that I am drawn to. Keep in mind, I am the nut that reads something cool about the mating behavior of the Zeus Beetle and has to tell everyone the gory details! I love this stuff, because it is so other worldly and so OVERLOOKED by most people. There are aliens underfoot that live lives that would boggle our minds. I just want people to be aware of the biological wonder around them.

7. Great! Another science cartoonist!

[Drog] I’m a big fan of science cartoonist
Sidney Harris,
having stumbled across his book
“What’s So Funny About Science?”
ages ago. Do you and him hang out and swap funny science jokes over beers?

I had always hoped to stumble across another science cartoon one day, so I
will definitely buy your graphic novels. I’m wondering though, if you would
ever consider creating a daily strip that might have more exposure?

[Hosler] I did a daily strip for five years in graduate school and was never really satisfied with it. Specificaly, I found myself aping the comedic rhythm of other cartoonists and frankly, I didn’t do the 4 panel set-up very well. I like to think that most of the interesting elements of my stories come from the characterization of the cast. Also, longer form comics allow you to drop in jokes at a more natural pace. I love the expansive nature of long form comics and the capacity for storytelling they provide. I guess you could liken it to moving from apartment to a house (which my family and I have just done). The apartment is OK while you’re there but once you experience all the room a house affords, it is pretty hard to go back to a two bedroom walk up. For the same reason I don’t think I could go back to a strip (although the whole more exposure thing does make it tempting…)

8. Vocation/Avocation

[Sweetwind] Do you consider your research and teaching career a
“day job”? That is, if
your cartooning career began to bring in more money, would you quit (a la
Scott Adams)?

[Hosler] Nah. One informs the other. As I often say, “As a biologist I make an OK cartoonist and as a cartoonist I make an OK biologist.” Telling people about science (and biology, in particular) is too wrapped up in who I am. If I was only doing one I would feel the deficit profoundly. In fact, I really consider my books an extension of my teaching. It allows me to reach a bunch of student that I will never meet.

9. Movie Options?

[jayrtfm] Have any of your books been optioned for a movie/tv/video? If so, what’s the
status of the project?

[Hosler] Wouldn’t THAT be cool? Darwin and follicle mites on the big screen. Or better yet, BEES! Unfortunately, no nibbles yet.

10. Active Synapse

[rickyjames] Your award-winning works are published by
Active Synapse.
Is this your own publishing company? Have any of the more mainstream
publishers, comic book or trade book, expressed any interest in publishing
your works so they might reach a wider audience? Any interest in movie
offers from Pixar or other studios? What business possibilities do you see
that would bring your works to a wider audience, or is that even important
to you?

[Hosler] Active Synapse is helmed by myself (creative stuff) and the indefatiguable Daryn Guarino. Daryn handles any and all things related to business, money, shipping, the web page. Frankly he does all of the stuff that I couldn’t/wouldn’t do and he does it with unparalleled zeal. There would not be books without him.

No other publishers/studios have expressed any interest. But the last portion of your question is the most interesting. Business opportunities are important to me because I would love to make a zillion dollars (for my family and Daryn’s family), have my work widely known and preach the wonders of biology to the world. That is our hope when a project is completed and sent out into the world. However, that isn’t really my goal in the creative process. In fact, I am sure I would be making these books even if we hadn’t had success. This stuff is inside and I gotta let it out!

11. Beekeeping

[rickyjames] Do you or those around you have any practical
experience in beekeeping? Any
comments on the severe problems being faced by agricultural bees in America
today, such as mites, pesticides and Africanized bees moving in?

[Hosler] It’s bad these days. I keep bees for my reseach and it is all I can do to keep my small hives healthy through the summer. Natural populations are being assaulted by two types of mite (one of which lives, breeds and dies in the breathing tubes that branch throughout their body) and a hive beetle. The latter defecates in the hive which is a big no-no for bees. These tiny beetles will quickly foul a hive and because they are so small, the bees can’t really drive them out so they often abandon the hive altogether. If this happens later in summer there won’t be enough time to build a hive and store up for winter. All three parasites have posed profound problems for natural/artificial colonies.

Africanized bees are another matter altogether. Having evolved in a climate that doesn’t require overwintering, their life strategy is to found a hive, rear a lot of brood, split the hive, swarm and then found a new hive. They are very aggressive defenders of their hive as well as aggressive foragers, often beating other bees to the nectar in the morning. Because of this, they have been very succesful in outcompeting other bees and their range is rapidly expanding. It will be interesting to see if their advance is stopped by the frost line as many believe. They are reported to be less cold hardy that the honey bees we have in the US. Of course, you cannot rule out interbreeding, the downside of which is that many of the aggressive Africanized bee traits seem to be dominant.