Atomic Size Matters

Way, way back, Veronica Berns and I went to high school together. Not for very long, mind you, since she was a senior when I was a freshman. Veronica has since gone on to do a lot of cool stuff, including getting a PhD in chemistry, turning her dissertation into a comic book in the process. That comic, Atomic Size Matters, is funding on kickstarter right now. She and I recently spoke about chemistry, comics, and grad school. 

Josh Kopin: Before we get talking about your comic "Atomic Size Matters" itself, can you explain your graduate work and your dissertation project? 

Veronica Berns: I'm a solid state chemist, and I did graduate work on the crystal structures of metals, that is, the way that atoms arrange themselves in solid compounds. The Fredrickson Group (the research group I did graduate work in) focuses on the complexity in intermetallics. It may be surprising, but we still don't have a good idea of why certain compounds form one arrangement over another. And we certainly don't have a good way to predict when a structure will be really simple or really complicated.

My project specifically dealt with the influence of atomic size on the resulting crystal structure. Intuitively, the size of one atom should impact the arrangements that it can make, but it turns out that is a really hard thing to test. So I did a lot of calculations to draw conclusions about the connection between size and structure. The project is ongoing, as other students have taken over, but my portion of the work culminated in a connection between a very simple compound called CaCu5, and an icsoahedral quasicrystal, a material that contradicts our definition of "crystal"; they have 5-fold rotational symmetry, but no translational symmetry. Quasicrystals are seemingly impossible materials, but they actually do exist! And their discoverer recently won a Nobel Prize in 2011.

JK: Writing a dissertation is a long and complicated process; why did you decide to do the extra work of turning your dissertation into a comic? 

VB: You're right, writing a dissertation is really hard!

About a year before I intended to graduate, I thought about how long and complicated the dissertation writing process would be. And I thought about how much I loved my graduate work--I often stayed late at work not because I had a deadline (though I had plenty of those too!), but because I was lost in the joy of what I was doing and I would forget that I needed to sleep. Ultimately, I was excited about the prospect of creating a thesis, a document that would make all of my efforts tangible, but I was sad that my family wouldn't understand it. My field is really specialized, and the academic language we use is very efficient and necessary for talking to other experts, but those same academic words are admittedly impenetrable to most people who haven't studied chemistry since high school.
It started off as a fun thing to do for the benefit of a few people, and I ended up with a fairly long comic book. Yes, it was hard to do in addition to the work of writing a thesis, but it was ultimately worth it.

JK: Can you describe the differences between the two versions of your dissertation?

VB: There are a few differences. The dissertation covers more ground. There was just no way I could cover everything in a comic book. I chose the chapter with the broadest appeal to turn into a comic.
The dissertation goes into a lot of mathy detail about the programs that my colleagues (Kale Engelkemier and Yiming Guo) coded. I used those programs to run calculations, and then I drew conclusions about the results. Though the comic explains the gist of the calculations, it focuses more on the conclusions.

The dissertation also includes a few things completely left out of the comic. Though I did a lot of theoretical calculations, I also did experimental work: I mixed metals together to make the compounds we were thinking about. A few new compounds came out of those efforts, but nothing that connected to our work on icosahedral quasicrystals.

I should also point out that the comic book is actually the last chapter in the thesis itself. So soon the University of Wisconsin's esteemed library will include a silly drawing of me as a runway model.

JK: What did your committee think of the comic book, and how did they feel about it being included in your finished product? 

VB: One of my committee members, when I handed him the thick, paper dissertation, immediately started thumbing through it. Suddenly he saw a flash of color, and had a very confused look on his face. So I explained the whole thing, and he giggled excitedly! He told me later how read that part with his school-age kids, and he was very impressed that they could follow what I was saying.
I didn't plan to mention the comic at my defense, but they brought it up first! Our department has open defenses, and my committee wanted me to show a few pages to my classmates who hadn't seen it before. They encouraged me to do something with it, and approved of the idea to self-publish on Kickstarter. I think one or two of them has even bought a copy!

JK: What, if anything, were the particular difficulties in the creation of Atomic Size Matters? Are those difficulties different to those you encounter trying to explain you work conversationally, or are they more or less the same? 

VB: Ironically, it is difficult to remember the difficulties I had in making the comic. I know I struggled with simplifying certain concepts, but ultimately it was something I was doing for fun and at those times I would take a break, and return to the work later. What got me through the hard parts was thinking about a metaphor that my dad or mom would understand. Like I would revise the comic by asking myself, "What question would dad have after he read that?"

I think the difficult concepts are always difficult, no matter the medium. I see the comic as a practical substitute for having a face-to-face conversation with someone.

JK: Some comics makers, including Art Spiegelman, have described comics as essentially diagrammatic. What's the relationship between your work and more traditional chemical diagrams? 

VB: I tried to incorporate as many traditional chemistry visualizations as possible. It was important to me for someone who reads the comic to be able to pick up one of my academic papers and look through the figures and say "Hmm, this looks familiar. Maybe reading this isn't going to be as difficult as it seems." I get very jazzed up about demystifying and making hard science less intimidating to people who don't think about that stuff daily.

A few examples of this are the diagrams of crystal structures, the Chemical Pressure plots, and the "Energy-distance diagram" that appears pretty early in the book. We draw these a lot, especially in chemistry classrooms, to talk about distances in a molecule.

JK: What parts of the book were particularly fun or challenging to make?

VB: There are a lot of Easter eggs in the book. Because I made it for my family and friends, I tried to put in a lot of stuff that would just make them laugh. I don't know how much I want to give away, but there's a spaceship from one of my favorite videogames and a famous internet cat that were really fun to draw. There's also a picture of me as Ron Burgundy, which was really fun too.

It was hardest to draw the Chemical Pressure diagrams. They obviously come from a computer program, but I was really set on making those in the style of the comic book. Oh man! Getting those the proper scale and shape was really rough! I scaled everything as accurately as possible, but every drop of ink you see is a drawing, not a computer generated image.

JK: Do you have any particular influences, even outside of comics in more traditional science writing?

VB: In my Kickstarter video I mention that I loved Magic School Bus and Bill Nye the Science Guy as a kid. Obviously, those materials are geared towards a younger audience, but the spirit of them is something I would like to carry forward. Even if someone is a fan of dinosaurs or space travel or whatever as a kid, I think at some point most adults stop talking about science in an excited way. In high school or college, many people decide that they're never taking a science class again because they don't like it, or it is too hard. But that shouldn't stop the ideas from being exciting! There's so much out there that people are just learning right now, and it is all just as cool as T-rexes and triceratops. Figuring out how to present it is often a problem.

There's one episode of Radiolab called Tell Me a Story, where Robert Krulwich basically lays out an argument for talking about science in a graduation speech. I listened and relistened to that piece quite a few times when I was making the comic.

So anyway, I would say that I really respect that essence. I think Bill Nye has done some awesome work recently, especially with Neil deGrasse Tyson on Star Talk Radio and Cosmos. Though I read a lot of comic books and graphic novels, most of the influences on my art come from Sunday comics strips like Peanuts and Pearls Before Swine. A thick black line, bold color, and handwritten text.

JK: Do you think that the fact that comics are words and pictures working together in a particularly close way makes it a particularly useful medium for science writing?

VB: Yes! Whenever I'm talking about science--to either an expert or a novice--I rely heavily on pictures. I think most scientists do. It's natural to want to support your assertions with evidence, and that evidence is often a graph or an image. If you think about it, a really good power point presentation is basically a panel-by-panel view of a comic book: a few sentences that refer to an image on a slide is just like a panel with a caption.

I think comic books are a great way to explain a lot of things, beyond science. I'm just most able to talk about chemistry.

JK: Would you be willing to share what it is you're working on now that you're done with your PhD. program? Are you hoping to turn further research into comics as well, or to help other interested scientists do the same? 

VB: I am a research scientist for a company called Honeywell. I can't really talk much about the materials that I make, but my day focuses on making things that have never been made before, and finding the most efficient way to make them.

I'm going to continue making comics, but my work now is confidential, so I'll be tackling other topics.

I would love it if more people made their work into comics. Even if it isn't a comic. Maybe someone is really good at music or creative writing or claymation, who knows! Forcing myself to think differently about my work had huge benefits--both in the lab and out-- and I think more people should try it out. And if they need help in any way, I'm available!

Line Wide Covers and Comic Shop Design

IGN has posted 40 variant covers for DC's upcoming Convergence event, each of which was put together by noted designer Chip Kidd. There's an interview, too, and Kidd mentions a few guiding principles-- the color blocks match up to the four color printing process and correspond to particular release weeks, the vintage art, a few other things. One of the more interesting choices he doesn't talk about is the way that the words relate to the pictures; the specific series title isn't always legible against the art, and the second half of the word "convergence" is always covered up, making the covers as a whole a little too dependent on iconographic recognition, in the first instance and prior knowledge, in the second. The burden for a new reader is a little high, for my taste, which means some of them fail as covers. On a purely visual level, some of them work better than others (the black works the best), at least on a computer screen. But, in general, I think they're pretty striking.

The last time I remember anyone doing any thing this design forward for a Big 2 comics was Rian Hughes's work on Iron Man: Disassembled. What's really different here is that Kidd's work for Convergence is line wide. If these were the main covers, the DC shelves at every comic book store in the country would be a sight for two whole months. That's the masterful bit of design here, that Kidd has designed the comics shop, as much as anything. It's a neat trick, and it points to something about the materiality of comics that we forget, that comics are things that we acquire and that the method of acquisition matters, at least a little. In terms of purchasing, if nothing else, I could see myself splurging on a couple of these, at least out of curiosity. It's a shame that the fact that they're variants means that they'll be hidden, and they're impact will be blunted. But maybe, just maybe, we'll see some more stuff like it in the future.

Wednesday's New Things: First Day of Class

My semester started yesterday. Here we go!

March: Book Two, written by Congressman John Lewis and Andrew Aydin, art by Nate Powell
My great regret, perhaps my only regret, about my time at ICAF last November was that I had to skip out of Columbus before a Saturday night presentation by Congressman Lewis, Aydin, and Powell, coincident with the Billy Ireland's excellent exhibit on comics and civil rights. Still, it's good to see the publication of the second volume of their (auto)biography of Lewis, drawn by Powell in really rich black and white tones. I think a book like this would have been widely acclaimed whenever it appeared, but I think its timing is particularly good-- the idea that the battle for civil rights didn't end in the sixties is becoming increasingly evident to people who aren't either activists or academics, and it will be interesting to see if the events of the last year or so will result in a different sort of reception for this book than the last one. Very short preview here

Run Like Crazy, Run Like Hell, by Jacques Tardi, adapted from the novel Ô Dingos! Ô Châteaux! by Jean-Patrick Manchette, translated by Doug Headline
I've always wanted to read Jacques Tardi's adaptations of Jean-Patrick Manchette's crime novels, but for whatever reason I've just never gotten around to it. One time, in particular, I was determined to buy Like A Sniper Lining Up His Shot, so much so that I walked from the Angelika theatre on Houston Street to the Strand, only to learn that the book wasn't out yet. Tardi's clean, elastic lines are a real pleasure, and are of course the real draw here, but the story seems like its the kind of crime tale I love the best, the one that's just this side of absurd, played out by characters who are only caricatures when they need to be. It's interesting that Manchette gets equal billing with Tardi here, like they collaborated on the projected (they could have only done so with the help of a medium, as the former died in 1995). My hunch, and I've no way to back this up, is that Tardi must feel unusually indebted to the source material, perhaps even that he's working with or in Manchette's spirit. It would be interesting to read these adaptations alongside the original, and compare the way they were handled with the way, say, that Darwyn Cooke's Parker was. 

Bucky Barnes: The Winter Soldier, written by Ales Kot, art by Langdon Foss and Marco Rudy
I want to love this comic. I love the character, I like the writer, I even think that the concept has some serious legs. But Marvel totally botched the art assignment, handing it to Marco Rudy to give this space espionage opera a little bit of a painterly European album flavor, which, while interesting, only really serves to make the comic stiff and illegible, exactly the opposite of what this book needs. Now they've added Langdon Foss to handle some of the drawing, and he's all the way at the other side of the spectrum

I give up.  

The Autumnlands: Tooth and Claw #3, written by Kurt Busiek, art by Ben Dewey and Jordie Bellaire

The Wicked and the Divine #7, written by Kieron Gillen, art by Jamie McKelvie and Matt Wilson

Galaxy Quest: The Journey Continues, written by Erik Burnham, art by Nacho Arranz and Esther Sanz
Finally, from the annals of WHO IS THIS COMIC FOR?!

Episode 4.5

I have a general policy against buying licensed comics. In general, although not always, they're just not very interesting; they're formally boring, by nature the writing is not very inventive, and they're weirdly placed in relation to the main stories of whatever property is being turned into a comic. Licensed comics (in fact, anything that's adapted from one medium to another with the express purpose of drawing fans of the first thing to the adaptation and not of making a unique work with its own successes and failures) assume that what I like about a particular thing is the plot and perhaps the general outline of the characters and not whatever artistry made the original thing worthwhile. Remember: the movie can't ruin the book, because the movie and the book aren't the same thing, because the joy of watching a movie and the joy of reading a book are not the same. 

The fact that comics adaptations tend to forefront plot and characters is a more acute problem than it is elsewhere. The difference between the licensing of television and movie properties for comics and the adaptation of, for example, books into movies is that the economics of the two are significantly different. The latter is much more expensive, and it behooves who ever is putting up the money to make sure that the product is good (of course, that doesn't always pan out), while the risk of putting together a licensed comic is much smaller. I can't imagine that the market for comics based on the original Battlestar Galactica television show is particularly strong, but, because the production of those comics isn't very expensive, Dynamite doesn't have to sell more than a few copies to turn a profit. Such comics are designed to attract rabid fans of a particular property and no one else, while the Battlestar Galactica reboot was able to draw new fans in on its own merits. These comics are for those who can't get enough, who will do anything for more of the thing they love. Accordingly, the creators assigned to such comics are new, or not highly regarded, or just not very good, because they don't have to be. This is part, although not all, of the reason that we go batshit when they turn a comic into a movie, but why nobody cares when, say, Django Unchained  or Fight Club is turned into a comic book. 

Star Wars is, of course, a fundamentally different kind of property, although I can't say I think any differently about the Star Wars comics than I do about the Battlestar ones, at least, until this new Star Wars #1. Marvel isn't exactly betting the farm here, but I've read that there are at least a million copies of this book in existence, which is an incredible number, even when you factor the equally incredible number of variant covers (my store lists fifteen, and surely there are at least a few more floating around). Even the top selling individual issues for the last several years have topped out at around a third of that number, and the last time that this many sales of an individual issue was reported it was 1993

So what's different? Well, the excitement about the new Star Wars movie, for one-- Disney is hoping that it can turn that into sales figures for comics and toys, as well as revenue from shows like Star Wars: Rebels. The mere fact that the muscle behind these releases is Disney and not a pretty well respected comic book company like Dark Horse is another. Even so, I have a feeling, call it a gut feeling, that we'll be seeing these Star Wars #1s floating around and easily available for awhile, like those Spider-Man Obama variants from 2008. I don't know a ton about the economics of comic books, but it'll be interesting to see whether or not Marvel chooses to reprint this issue, and how many of the next few issues they produce; check back in a year, and I expect the number of copies will be a lot closer to what that market is actually able to support.

There's also a difference on the level of the comics themselves, though, and that is that they might actually be good. Look: except for some my parents bought me when I was a kid, I've never bought a Star Wars comic, and there's nothing particularly exciting about these new Star Wars comics, except the creative teams involved. I remain disinclined to buy a Star Wars comic, but I will absolutely buy one or two issues of a Star Wars comic written by Jason Aaron and drawn by John Cassaday just to see if, maybe, two creators I really like could make it worthwhile. 

And, in fact, they more or less have. Star Wars #1 is a pretty good comic book, which is extraordinary given the fact that its hamstrung by its setting in the timeline, right after the end of A New Hope. If the stories that Cassaday and Aaron were going to tell were of real importance, they would have already been told. Instead, we got The Empire Strikes Back, which I think we can probably agree is better than the best case scenario Star Wars comic. The problem is not that we already know what happens in the end, although that does limit the potential opportunities for dramatic tension. Instead, it's just sort of hard to shake the feeling that these stories don't matter, that they're just vehicles for profit through fan service, products for fans who want just want more, which is, of course, exactly what they are. 

Aaron and Cassaday's key choice was to understand what was at the core of these comics, and embrace it. Star Wars #1 is chock full of moments that seem tailored to get the eight year old in me excited; there are lightsabers, AT-ATs, a smooth talking smuggler, a badass princess, and a cliffhanger ending that suggests an upcoming fight scene between father and son. Aaron's character beats are perfect, particularly his C-3PO, and Cassaday is back to old form, something that probably has to do with the seriously long lead time he had for this book. On the whole, it's competent and well executed, even if some of what goes on in the first few pages is an attempt to do in comics what movies do well. In other words, it's everything that bad licensed comics are not, with just a dash of what they are. This series isn't going to break any ground, and its not going particularly interesting or exciting, but I do think we can count on it to be fun. Which I think is worth a lot, although maybe not $4.99 a month. 

What's particularly revealing here is that Star Wars #1 feels a lot like a contemporary Big 2 comic book, even if its not, not really. It may be that, as Marvel and DC Disney and Warner Brothers find new ways to make cross medium profits by synergizing their traditionally-mostly-comics properties is that comics from those companies will increasingly look like this, even as things have already sort of been this way. I know that Marvel and DC aren't really at the cutting edge, and haven't been for a long time, but I do believe that, as recently as a year ago, the former was at least giving some interesting things a shot, putting out books drawn by interesting young writers and drawn by talented artists. They've stopped doing that in favor of what I gather is likely to be a kind of gimmicky reboot, and some of these books have been canceled, but many, like, Black Widow, remain. From this vantage, the landscape looks a lot different. And maybe that's ok-- the creative aspects of the big two companies has seemed moribund for a long time, with occasional, line wide blips of hope. We've got good stuff, really good stuff, coming out the years these days. If the Big 2 want to step into the position of providing comfort through branding, maybe it opens up room for some of that other stuff to see a wider audience. And, I feel strongly about this, creativity finds a way. Good mainstream superhero comics aren't over, but we may have to strain harder to find them from the swaddled comfort of what's to come. 

Wednesday's New Things: The Force Awakens

Sam Zabel and the Magic Pen by Dylan Horrocks
Dylan Horrocks's Hicksville is one of the great comic books of all time, a book that doesn't star a super hero and yet maybe one of the great books about super heroes (and the fan favorite artists who make them) of all time. Sam Zabel, which is set in the same universe, has been serialized online and you could read it there. But Horrocks is a master, and I have a feeling that this the kind of book--itself a beautiful object-- you'll want to keep on your shelf.  

Henshin by Ken Niimura
Henshin is a collection of short stories by I Kill Giants artist Ken Niimura, who focuses on a story's turn-- that moment when everything changes. I was curious, but not particularly intrigued, until I read this story, which was affecting without being sentimental. 

Star Wars #1, written by Jason Aaron, Art by John Cassaday

This is by far the most interesting comic coming out this week, no offense meant to some of the other stuff coming out, which is bound to be better. More tomorrow.

S.H.I.E.L.D #2, written by Mark Waid, art by Humberto Ramos
I want to like this comic. I really do. I like the tv series that it's based on. But the first issue was atrocious, poorly written and poorly executed, and the cover price was an absolutely batshit $4.99. No thanks. Preview here, if you're more interested than I am.