I’ve been a fan of Zander Cannon‘s since I discovered The Replacement God and Other Stories, back in the heyday of Image Comics in the early-to-mid 90s (I was just making the jump from underwear pervert comics into the wide world of indies, so I wasn’t aware of the earlier issues published by Slave Labor Graphics quite just yet—it took the discovery of Evan Dorkin‘s Milk & Cheese and Hectic Planet during my ska-tinged college days for me to start following SLG, but I digress). His graceful and confident lines and whimsical storytelling were an immediate hit with me, and I found myself eagerly anticipating more of the adventures of Knute.
Now Zander, along with his Big Time Attic collaborator Kevin Cannon (no relation!), and Mark Schultz have brought us a wonderfully soft take on some hard science with The Stuff of Life: A Graphic Guide to Genetics and DNA, a comic that sets out to explain the mysteries of DNA and genetics in an accessible, friendly way. Chock-full of solid science, the book wraps a solid primer on the workings of the building blocks of life as we know it in a charming and simple story, a perfect way to introduce, say, middle school or high school students to the subject of genetics and heredity.
Check out a quickie intro to the basic conceit of the book in this video:
Even for an adult, the book is worth picking up—while I consider myself to be adequately educated (as a layperson, of course), the book worked as a substantial refresher course for concepts that I hadn’t revisited since high school, and the authors take care to lay everything out in very accessible, easy-to-understand ways.
The Stuff of Life is yet another perfect example of the power of comics (or sequential art, if you will) to take complex, dry subjects and make them not only accessible, but highly entertaining.
Below, Zander Cannon and Kevin Cannon were kind enough to take some time to answer questions from yours truly. I’ll echo their sentiment in regards to The Stuff of Life by recommending it to any science teachers who are looking for a fun introduction to their curriculum, or any adults who want to brush up on their knowledge of the inner workings of our species.
What was the genesis of The Stuff of Life—who came up with the idea, and who approached whom?
Zander: I’m not certain—[editor] Howard Zimmerman contacted us once Mark [Schultz] was already on board and they were in discussions for how to put the book together.
Kevin: I think the genesis was with Howard. He approached Hill & Wang about doing a series of primer-level science graphic novels.
What attracted you to the project—what made it compelling, and how do you hope it will be received?
Zander: For me, I liked that it was put out by a book publisher rather than a comic book publisher, so we could be relatively certain that it was going to be placed in stores as a text science book would, rather than the (up to now) extremely niche market of educational comics, which would bury it in the back of a comic book store. Kevin and I have some history working on educational comics as well, and we could see that Howard and Mark’s philosophy on how best to put across the information was very much in line with ours.
Kevin: As for how it will be received, we’re hoping that every high school and college science teacher in the country will view The Stuff of Life as an indispensable way to open their classes—to lay the groundwork for an understanding of and interest in biology and genetics.
It’s clear that in order to illustrate all these biological processes in a way that is easy to understand by the layperson, you first have to have a very comprehensive understanding of how they work. How daunting was the process of learning all this science?
Zander: Not nearly as daunting as it was for Mark, I’m sure! Once the scripts came to us, the difficult work of focusing on the most important information and filtering out the less important was already done. What that left for us was the research on the mechanical and chemical processes that were described, as well as visual research on certain kinds of animals or ancient humans, etc. While that is a lot of work, it is also reasonably straightforward. Since we knew what was going to be in the book based on the script, there was no real wasted effort for us, research-wise.
Kevin: The hardest part was trying to figure out how to represent things at a cellular, molecular, and even atomic level. We kept bumping up against the question: do we draw things based on how they look under a microscope, or based on how they function? We ended up doing both, drawing something like a tRNA molecule many different ways depending on what specific lesson we were trying to teach in each panel. That is, sometimes they looked structurally accurate and sometimes they had cartoonish faces and bodies!
You guys have been collaborating now for some years—How are you splitting the illustrating duties, and has that process changed at all from when you first started working together?
Zander: On a narrated book like this one, where the panels for the large part are independent of each other, the layouts could be done half-and-half. Kevin could focus on the panels that he was going to be predominantly drawing (the metaphorical ones that anthropomorphized chemical processes, and ones that showed microscopic structures), and I could focus on mine (humans, animals, Neanderthals, the aliens, etc.). On previous books that were more straightforward narratives, we worked in a more integrated way, with me doing most of the layouts and the illustrations of people, while Kevin did the intricate backgrounds. And, of course, the lettering. So there hasn’t been much of a change in terms of how we generally work; it depends on the needs of the project.
Kevin: Ditto. Every project is different for us, but we always figure out the division of labor before setting pen to paper. Whatever that division of labor ends up being, we want it to be consistent throughout the whole book.
What’s next? Any new projects on the horizon?
Zander: We’ve just finished a book with Jim Ottaviani (with whom we worked on Bone Sharps, Cowboys, and Thunder Lizards) about the US-Soviet space race called T-Minus: The Race to the Moon. We also just finished a writing stint on a series called Top Ten Season 2, which is a continuation of a series written by Alan Moore that I worked on with Gene Ha several years ago.
Kevin: We’re also illustrating a sequel to The Stuff of Life on the subject of evolution. This one will be written by Jay Hosler of Clan Apis fame.
Any chance we’ll see any more Replacement God (I’m a big fan, so this is my vanity question)?
Zander: I’ve been working on new pages when I can, and I plan on finishing it, but it’s difficult when I’m working on comics all day, and my wife and I have a new baby, to come home and draw some more.
What artists do you have you eye on these days—whose work is really blowing your minds?
Zander: I’ve been a big fan of Adam Warren for many years, but his newest stuff, which is all drawn in pencil, called Empowered is my favorite work by him so far. I’m also a big fan of Scott Pilgrim by Bryan Lee O’Malley.
Kevin: I can’t get enough of Jeffrey Brown. He is—literally—a riot.
Aside from The Stuff of Life, what’s your favorite assignment/project from recently, say, in the last couple of years?
Zander: Writing Top Ten has been great fun—working with Gene Ha and playing with an extremely rich universe that was created by Alan Moore—it’s tough to beat.
Kevin: I’m having T-Minus withdrawal. We just sent that off to our publisher and I don’t know what to do with myself now that I’m not surrounded by stacks and stacks of books about the space race.
Have either of you had formal art training? And if so, what kind?
Zander: I took a printmaking class in college. That taught me very little. I learned everything I wanted to know by drawing a weekly comic strip in the college paper and hearing people’s criticism based on that.
Kevin: I was a studio art major in college, and had college level art training in high school, but I have to agree with
Zander: drawing a weekly college newspaper strip was the best training in the world.
What was the hardest part about establishing yourselves in the field?
Zander: It’s difficult to kind of brand yourself as an artist who does a certain kind of thing without limiting yourself too much. That sort of thing always has to be done organically—you need to do what you love, and people eventually come to see the value in it.
Kevin: Looking back, I think I tried to be too many things to too many people. That is, I always changed my style on every project to match what I thought my clients would like. That left me feeling like I didn’t have my own personal style.
Do you think formal art training is indispensable for developing into a professional?
Zander: Strangely, I think the opposite. Formal art training is never bad, but I think being a professional requires you to simply do the thing you wish to do. If you want to do comics, make your own comics. By doing that, and learning how to do everything, you become better at the thing in which you eventually specialize. When I see people who are taking art classes about how to pencil comics that neglect lettering, inking, and coloring, I feel like they are being robbed of the hard lessons inherent in getting in over your head. I’m a big fan of practicing in public.
Kevin: I think formal art training is good if you have an idea of what you want to get out of the training. Speaking from experience, I think it’s good to try and make your way in the art world, fail and fail and fail, and then go back to the books (or the classroom) with a real understanding of what you need to learn to be a better artist.
Any advice for artists just starting out?
Zander: Don’t worry about what editors are looking for. Don’t worry about making your portfolio “what it’s supposed to be.” Draw whole comics, copy them, send them to people you respect. Create your own characters; create your own style. Learn how to do everything—write, pencil, ink, letter, color, prepress, everything in that style, and work will come your way.
Kevin: Take on as many random freelance jobs as you can. That way you’ll learn things about deadlines, accountability, flexibility, etc. that you won’t learn in a classroom. Working for a newspaper or magazine is the best experience, because if you turn something in late, guess what? Your piece won’t run and you won’t get called back.