Real science gets inked!

Artists, virologists and science educators collaborated to make “World of Viruses.”

Scientists can be heroic – making lasting advances that better people’s lives. Comic book creators have historically recognized this and given scientists their due by turning them into superheroes in print. The list of comic superhero scientists and science lovers is long, featuring big names like Spider-Man, the Invisible Woman, the Black Panther, Iron Man, and the Incredible Hulk. But any actual resemblance of these costumed crusaders to living scientists can be iffy. In the name of entertainment, comic books play fast and loose with the realities of research, discovery and scientists’ actual abilities to control threats to human survival.

Judy Diamond

It’s a bird! It’s a plane! No, it’s a … virologist!

Enter “The World of Viruses,” a strikingly illustrated comic book that is the brainchild of Judy Diamond, professor and curator of informal science education at the University of Nebraska State Museum. An American Association for the Advancement of Science fellow, Diamond created a super legion of virologists, science educators, writers and artists to produce the graphic novel, which pits scientists against viruses in a battle for human survival.

Conceived as a new way to increase public understanding about viruses and infectious diseases, “World of Viruses” succeeds in being a comic work of art, taking readers on a visual journey across tundra and space and into the ocean and human bloodstream while personifying the viruses, often as devious and dangerous characters.

Neither alive nor dead, viruses are so small they can only be seen by powerful microscopes. With the potential to wreak havoc on food supplies and sicken scores of people through simple programs of replication, viruses impact nearly every facet of human life.

When Diamond’s team brings them to life, the viruses HPV, foot and mouth disease, HIV, influenza, and Emiliania huxleyi prove to be formidable foes. To make the viruses relatable to an audience, the team has given them humanlike features. This is intended to make it easier, Diamond says, to get readers “to appreciate how things seemed from a virus’s perspective … to get out from a human-centered framework.”

In one story, human papillomavirus, or HPV, is personified as a crafty, blue-skinned girl wearing a leather jacket and boots. To the reader, she playfully explains that all she desires is a “nice and safe place to live and reproduce” as she slips into a host through a small skin cut. Zipping through arteries and veins, she hides from an army of armor-clad, space-soldier immune cells seeking to destroy her. She reveals how viruses replicate through the host and have turned an Indonesian man into a wart-ridden circus attraction with rootlike growths extending from his hands and feet. (In an actual case study, an Indonesian man working in a carnival sideshow with just such growths was dubbed “the Treeman.”)

A U.S. physician arrives on the scene certain he can help the man and explains how HPV caused the Treeman’s symptoms and how treatments to kill the virus will reverse them. Swarmed and captured by the soldiers, the HPV girl loses her battle with the immune system but vows to return.

Not all the viruses in the book are bad. The Emiliania huxleyi virus is a teenage hero in a green hooded sweatshirt who combats out-of-control E. huxleyi algae blooms that produce a gas capable of reflecting sunlight and cooling the planet. In the spirit of comic supervillains, the untamed algae bloom erupts from the sea as a giant monster, destroying everything in its path. The boy and his virus friends take small spacecrafts into battle and fight the menacing algae, restoring balance to the sea.

Weaving science into art

Supported by a grant from the National Institutes of Health, Science Education Partnership Awards, Diamond assembled the team behind “The World of Viruses” with the help of comic book illustrator Tom Floyd. Author of the online comic Captain Spectre, Floyd is a graphic artist and illustrator for Nebraska Education Telecommunications and has worked on “Reading Rainbow” and animated segments for “NOVA Science Now.”

Tom Floyd

Creating a comic book was no small task for Diamond and Floyd. It required bringing together writers, illustrators, inkers and colorists and finding a way to convey hard science through a medium that traditionally tells fantastical stories.

Floyd brought in Martin Powell to write the stories. The two had worked together on a comic strip for the publisher of “Tarzan.” Diamond and Floyd developed the characters, Powell and Diamond worked on the scripts, and for “The Curse of the Tree-man,” Floyd brought in Josef Rubinstein, an inker for comic book giants Marvel and DC Comics.

As part of the illustrating team, an inker goes over initial pencil drawing outlines with black ink to add depth and dimension to the art. A friend of Floyd’s, artist Scott Beachler, was the colorist, adding, in the final stages, the color, mood and lighting that gives the pages and characters their finished, three-dimensional look.

This looks like a job for scientists!

“Not compromising the story while keeping the science accurate” was the most challenging aspect of the project, Diamond says. All aspects of the book – characters, stories, and scripts – were run by virologists to make sure the science was sound. It was the first time Floyd and Powell had worked so closely with scientists.

The illustrations that bring the stories to life contain clever nods to scientific details. “Specific traits were something we included with each of the characters,” says Floyd. The HPV girl wears an earring that is a graphic representation of the actual virus. The Emiliania huxleyi monster wears wristbands that are patterned after the virion structure. Another story on influenza incorporates the shapeshifting nature of the virus by representing it as a villain with an unknowable shape that escapes even the scientists.

With great power comes great responsibility (to teach science)

Recognizing that new and innovative tools urgently are needed for scientific outreach, Diamond happened upon the comic book idea while looking for alternative avenues to educate a young public.

“We wanted to reach teens with information about the science of viruses,” Diamond explains, and “youth librarians advised us that developing comics would be an effective way to reach this goal.”

The advice was not unfounded. Interest in comic books is surging, and Diamond Comic Distributors (no relation to Judy) reports comic book sales of $540 million in 2014 – a number that is up from previous years and continues to rise. Carol L. Tilley, a professor of library and information science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, maintains that comics are as effective as the most sophisticated forms of literature in teaching kids. In fact, Tilley’s research has found them just as effective as books, if not more.

Perhaps what is most encouraging to Diamond is reader reaction to their particular comic book. “We have lots of anecdotal evidence that kids develop strong attachments to the comics and carry them around in their backpacks. We also know that science teachers are using them in classrooms, because they have requested classroom sets,” she says.

Diamond currently is running studies investigating how teachers are using the comics in formal educational settings. She has published a number of peer-reviewed articles on the project (See Spiegel, A. N. et al, Diamond, J. et al and Jee, B. et al), including one looking at the impact of comics on kids’ interest in science.

Riding the success of “The World of Viruses,” Diamond is working on a 30-page comic about measles and vaccines called “Contagion,” which she estimates will be released in a year. Onboard for this project is artist, writer, West Coast Avengers creator, and Marvel veteran Bob Hall.

Perhaps researchers and doctors will again appear as daring heroes on a quest for cures, playing into that common theme of good versus evil that makes comics hard to put down. In the case of real scientists, that theme might just contain some semblance of truth.

Paul Sirajuddin Paul Sirajuddin is is a second-year radiation oncology postdoctoral fellow at The Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. A native of Michigan, he ventured to the East Coast for a postbaccalaurate fellowship at the National Cancer Institute in 2008 and then earned his Ph.D. from the Georgetown University Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center in 2013.