Our fifth episode of #HistChem, “Drawing History: Telling the Stories of Science through Comics and Graphic Novels,” approaches the human stories of science in a new way: by visualizing them. Our guests, historian Bert Hansen and author and illustrator Jonathan Fetter-Vorm, discuss how the comics of the 1940s and 50s relayed stories of “real heroes”—including doctors, chemists and physicists, and how new graphic genres are engaging readers and sparking their interest in history.
Fetter-Vorm and Hansen suggest that elements of surprise, emotion and showing the impossible work to engage readers in ways that written words alone cannot.
Learn more: chemheritage.org/media
02:01 VIDEO: Jonathan Fetter-Vorm in his studio
05:09 BOB KENWORTHY: What got you each interested in your topic?
05:36 JONATHAN FETTER-VORM: I like the idea of telling stories sequentially, so you can get away with drawing several images instead of just drawing one image to get your point across.
06:25 JONATHAN FETTER-VORM: My grandfather worked on the Manhattan Project. He worked at the Hanford Site. It was only after the first atomic bomb had dropped, when they got the newspapers announcing what had happened in Hiroshima, that he realized what he had been working on.
07:18 BERT HANSEN: I’m a historian of science, science and medicine, but I’m interested in how the discoveries of science and medicine have been received.
08:26 MICHAL MEYER: We’re talking about telling true stories, history through words and images. What makes joining words and images, creating visual media, what makes that such a powerful tool in telling history?
08:44 BERT HANSEN: Well in the comic books, in this Pasteur story we’ll see that the drawings are simple, but this artist has taken a lot of liberties.
10:23 MICHAL MEYER: So why did people at the time think it was important to tell stories about Pasteur through this approach?
10:31 BERT HANSEN: Biographies were very popular in America from the 20s to the 50s. So it wasn’t just history of science and medicine.
12:23 MICHAL MEYER: Jonathan, from your perspective, as an author rather than a reader, what makes this such a powerful storytelling tool for history?
12:33 JONATHAN FETTER-VORM: It’s a great way to surprise people. One of the challenges of history is to present something that’s happened, with a forgone conclusion, in a way that’s going to surprise readers.
14:20 MICHAL MEYER: You spoke also about showing the impossible in some ways, that what you can’t get from pictures, which perhaps are more static, you can bring alive.
15:05 JONATHAN FETTER-VORM: I tried to make images that couldn’t be looked at.
16:31 BOB KENWORTHY: Bert, as a historian, what other purposes are there for using visual media and what are some successful examples?
16:40 BERT HANSEN: In my case it’s not so much about surprise, but about creating images that stick with us even if we read or go on.
20:06 VIDEO: University of the Arts animation: “Real Fairy Folks”
25:13 BOB KENWORTHY: As you create it you kind of have to make it your own, is there a process you use for owing the material you draw?
25:25 JONATHAN FETTER-VORM: My goal was to make the science legible for people like myself and also for scientists, so they wouldn’t be horrified but what I’ve created.
27:40 MICHAL MEYER: In the comics you study they seem to be much more straightforward.
27:49 BERT HANSEN: They are. It’s an era and it was an audience that wasn’t looking for a lot of complexity. And it was a golden age of enthusiasm for science.
32:45 BOB KENWORTHY: The readers of the 1940s and 50s, and the readers of 2014, are there differences?
32:57 BERT HANSEN: They’re quite different. I wish I could get my students to slow down a little bit.
34:42 VIDEO: University of the Arts animation: “An Alchemist in his Laboratory"
43:25 MICHAL MEYER: I also wonder, in terms of you saying how difficult it is to tell stories now about science. Perhaps in 50 years time a narrative will become clear. Perhaps it’s only something you can do by looking back in time.
44:15 MICHAL MEYER: So your book is nonfiction, but technically it’s a graphic novel. Is it that this is a new kind of genre? It seems like a silly question in a way, but I think it says something about the genre as a whole.
48:37 BOB KENWORTHY: Let me ask both of you to forecast the future, where do you think this medium is going for the future?
50:32 MICHAL MEYER: I have a question about responsibility, when it comes to history there’s always the question about treating history with respect while telling a good story.
55:06 MICHAL MEYER: Have you had any responses from audience and readers, in terms of what their takeaway was?