Dutch comic book artist Magreet De Heer comes to Cambridge tonight to educate children of all ages with her new graphic novel, Science: A Discovery in Comics (NBM Publishing). It was a delight to read her book and get some feedback on her exhaustive research, women in science, and how her husband contributes to the book as colorist and number one fan. Margreet will be at Million Year Picnic at 5pm tonight for the signing.
DIGBOSTON:Margreet, thanks for taking the time today to talk about Science: A Discovery in Comics!
MARGREET de HEER: No problem at all, thank YOU for the interest in my book!.
After your acclaimed comic Philosophy: a Discovery in Comics, what motivated you to take on Science?
Science is actually the third book in the series – but it is the second book published in the States. The second book published in The Netherlands was about Religion, and there’s a good chance that will be published in the US next year.
When I was invited by my Dutch publisher in 2009 to talk about making a graphic novel about philosophy, he tentatively mentioned that it might be the start of a series. My husband and I looked at each other and immediately said: “Well, then the next needs to be Religion (because I am a theologist and come from a family full of church ministers) – and after that Science, of course.” It seemed a logical trio to us: philosophy, religion and science are all ways in which people try to make sense of the world.
Science is definitely the largest of the three, by the way. Philosophy and Religion are both 120 pages, Science is 192 pages. We always knew this would be the most challenging one to make – but also the most fun, in a way.
The research for the book is beyond impressive, and gives not only a breakdown of the mathematics, scientific method, and one of my favorites—quantum physics—but also a history of the world and how we as humans have related to our environment. Tell me please how you go about structuring your research and getting that all on the page.
Well, the first part of that is having a general approach, and I knew before I started how I wanted to structure the book (basically chronologically, from Ancient Greece to Modern Times), what messages I wanted to get across and how I wanted to end it. So I always knew what I’d be doing next. My basic routine is to spend a day or so reading up on a subject, in books but also a lot online, for many tough subjects such as quantum theory I found there were great YouTube videos! Then I let it all soak in – literally: I often joke I do the “real” work in the bathtub, where I relax and just let my mind wander. That’s when I figure out the basic layout of the comic, the jokes, the highlights.
I write out the basic text next, and get to see what “works” in terms of word flow and length.
Only then do I sit down and start sketching.
Many of us artists are visual by nature, I love your cartooning of the philosophers and scientists over the years. You’ve found an effective way of communicating and associating ideas with scientists by using word balloons on the comic page.
How did you keep the narrative flowing in such a logical way while structuring the book?
I think that might have a lot to do with the fact that my husband and I work so close together. I always tell him where I want to go with the next chapter, and he gives me his opinion. For the Science book, we had a lot of different opinions, since his approach to science is more encompassing, he sees all parts of science as a great whole (which it really is) but I insisted on treating it in separate chapters on different disciplines, the way we learn about science in school nowadays. So we were always in discussion about the narrative flow of the book, and I tried to convince him of my view.
Some of this appears in the book as literal fights between our cartoon characters, which was great fun to draw.
I was glad to see you focus on the role of female scientists in the book! Do you think we will see female scientists of the past get more recognition as the history books are written? Perhaps that can be your next book!
I definitely hope there will be more insights in the role of women scientists through the ages! The question is how much of that might still be known. Women were not generally admitted to education the way men were, so they had to be from a rich, encouraging family that would pay for private tutoring – like Ada Lovelace in the early 1800s, mathematician and first software developer. Or they had to be lucky enough to marry a scientist who welcomed their assistance, such as Marie Lavoisier, wife of famous chemist Antoine Lavoisier, in the 1700s.
Around that same time, women in Germany were allowed into the new field of astronomy, making observations through telescopes.
A lot of the early discoveries of heavenly bodies have been done by women.
That would definitely be interesting to put into a book.
But no, my next book will probably be about the Brain. We did an awesome Summer school course in Oxford on the brain last Summer, and I think it would make a great subject for a new graphic novel. But then, we also want to do Love and Death. And World Domination. Of course.
The book is all ages, and covering all aspects of science from Alchemy, Chemistry, Astronomy, Geology, you name it. Are you hoping to target younger readers to get them interested in science? Are schools and libraries supporting the book?
I am absolutely thrilled when young readers love my book.
I did not necessarily aim for a younger audience, I just wanted to make it accessible for anyone with an interest in these things.
The general advice is 12+ for my books. At SPX in Washington last week, an 8-year boy came up to our booth and said: “I love your book! I love Science!” That really made my day.
I can say I not only enjoyed the artwork and your charts and characterizations of familiar names, but I truly learned a lot about science and history as well. As we learn more about the universe, we only have more questions it seems.
If you could speak to any of the people mentioned in your book, living or dead, what would you ask them?
Hmm. Good question. Who would I like to meet? I’m definitely curious about what it would be like to be around Aristotle or Leonardo da Vinci. I wonder what kind of persons they were.
But I suspect that meeting them in person might be a bit disappointing: they were probably very preoccupied and had little patience with small talk.
Like Isaac Newton for instance, who seems to have been a rather grumpy man.
So… I’ll choose Albert Einstein. He was a brilliant scientist but also a nice man, with great ideas about world peace. I’d ask him to play something for us on his violin.
You also star as a cartoon with your husband in the book, who is also your colorist. Besides coloring the books, in what other ways does Yiri help you produce comics?
Yiri is my first audience. He is my sounding board, my greatest fan and keenest critic. He supported me through the lows that inevitably come with such a project: he encouraged me to go on when I was stuck or doubted anyone would be interested in a book like this. That’s why I like to call them “our” books – they are my vision, words and artwork, but without Yiri, they probably wouldn’t have come about.
Thanks so much for spending the time with us, Margreet! See you at Million Year Picnic!
5PM-7PM ALL AGES
MARGREET DE HEER SIGNING
MILLION YEAR PICNIC
99 MT. AUBURN ST,
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