Creationists put in their place by mite of Darwin...

August 8, 2003

...and that's not all that happens when a biologist turns his hand to comic books. Stephen Phillips meets a man to whom honey bees are superheroes

If you thought comics were mindless entertainment devoid of intellectual merit - think again. Moonlighting biology professor Jay Hosler logged two and a half year's research and a reading list spanning 37 reference works for his latest cartoon opus.

By comparison, the day job at Pennsylvania's Juniata College is a breeze.

Thirty-six-year-old Hosler is probably the only person in the world who can claim funding from the US National Institutes of Health and the co-creator of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

Naturally he was pleased to have the cost of his postdoctoral research into the olfactory functioning of honey bees at Ohio State University picked up by America's leading science-funding organ. But the $1,500 (£900) stipend to self-publish his first comic book in 2000 from the brains behind the "heroes in a half-shell" - the animation sensations that captivated kids in the early 1990s - gave the NIH a run for its money in terms of personal gratification, Hosler concedes. "I'm not sure which one I was most excited about," he says.

Not that Hosler is equivocal about his academic career - it is as much of a labour of love as the comic strips. But the windfall was a major break that allowed him to put out Clan Apis, a graphic adventure chronicling the life cycle of a honey bee. It has garnered glowing reviews and has shifted 7,000 copies, selling out three print runs.

"There's enough about biology that may be familiar, but there's also enough that's bizarre - I draw the readers in with the familiar and hook them with the bizarre," Hosler says.

His first comic book effort took some topping in the strangeness stakes.

Cow-boy, published in 1996, is the 72-page tale of a hero with, instead of a utility belt, an udder wrapped around him, each teat of which is endowed with special powers.

But then, biology is pretty strange. Bee larvae spring from cocoons built with their own faeces, then incubate inside pupae where they undergo a complete cellular metamorphosis before they emerge as adult bees and join a colony of drones and workers ruled by a single queen using pheromone secretions. Compared with that, a bovine superhero seems decidedly humdrum.

After Clan Apis, Hosler levelled his comic gaze at the scourge of American biological scientists - creationism - which remains a potent political force in the US because of the clout of Christian fundamentalism.

The Sandwalk Adventures, published last year, features a loquacious follicle mite residing in one of Charles Darwin's eyebrows who goads her irascible host into elucidating his theory of evolution in a Socratic dialogue that debunks creationism and mulls how myths get spun in the first place.

If these books were movies, they'd be classified "U". But Hosler bridles at their being pigeonholed as solely for children - the customary fate of films with such a designation. "The inference is that they're for kids, but I was reared on Warner Bros cartoons, and they functioned on different levels," he explains. "I laughed when Daffy Duck's bill got blown off and spun around his head, but my dad laughed at the word play."

Accordingly, witty puns vie with toilet humour in Hosler's work, propelled by plots pacey enough for youngsters to gloss over concepts they're not ready to grasp, while the learning is leavened with enough entertainment value to keep all ages interested.

Not that Hosler skimps on the science. He devises ingenious plot twists to get this across. To demonstrate the flaws in a classic icon of evolution, Darwin stumbles to the ground in Sandwalk, picking himself up in four moves lampooning the march of progress, the popular view of human evolution as a tidy succession of development from knuckle-walking primate through stooped ape and tool-wielding (in this case, Darwin's walking stick) primitive man to Homo sapiens. After the pratfall, Darwin lectures his garrulous parasite that "evolution is not a nice neat progressive march - there's no predictable destination - it's a process of surviving unpredictable events in often unpredictable ways."

Clan Apis (Latin for "bee") features a cameo by a charitable dung beetle called Sisyphus, who saves the heroine, Nyuki (Swahili for "bee"), when he inadvertently rolls his dung ball into a flower and knocks her free from the clutches of Thom the praying mantis, before offering her refuge under it from a predatory bird. Nyuki initially recoils from the cow dung, but Sisyphus rejoins that her beloved "honey is nothing more than regurgitated nectar - bee vomit".

Despite the wisecracks, Hosler shuns any cute "Disneyfication" of his anthropomorphic creations. "That's one of the most repellent things about (the animated movie) A Bug's Life, and my son loves it," he laments. "It'll take years of de-programming."

"My questions in writing Clan Apis were: Do I have to give this bee human eyes to make the reader feel the character? Do they have to walk upright? Do I give them only four limbs because six is weird? Should I make it more like a human culture?" He resisted the temptation. "My goal was that you could remove the word balloons and you wouldn't see bees doing anything they wouldn't do in nature."

Nor does Hosler shrink from the harsh facts of life. Through various trials, Clan Apis' Nyuki learns to sublimate her individual impulses for the greater good of the swarm and that she can't buck her fate to follow the trajectory of a bee's short life span. While hardly morbid, mortality is always in the air - from the demise of Nyuki's mentor Dvorah (Hebrew for "bee") after making the fatal decision to sting a woodpecker intent on pillaging the hive's larvae, and the sex-death pact of her brother Zambur, who impregnates the queen.

Plot is grounded in fact in Sandwalk, too. Darwin's legendary ill-health is incorporated, and the title refers to the beloved path near the naturalist's Kent home where he took his daily constitutional.

Both books are being snapped up in droves by public libraries across the US and have wound up on the bibliographies for undergraduate entomology and advanced biology courses at Ohio State, not to mention Hosler's classes and colleagues' at Juniata. "If information is placed within the context of a story, people get a more immediate grasp of [it]," he explains.

Juggling cartooning with academic and paternal duties as father to two young boys, Hosler often rises bleary-eyed at 4.30am, snatching any downtime to take turns at the drafting table in his office.

Academic life and comic-book writing are not too much of a stretch, Hosler insists. Scientific method and the classic four-panel cartoon strip have much in common, he notes. "There's observation, hypothesis, experimentation and conclusion - which is the punchline. There's one fundamental thing that (science and cartooning) share and that's creativity - there are thousands of comic-strip writers, but only one Charles Schulz [who drew Peanuts ], just as there's only ever been one Albert Einstein."

Both passions had a common genesis in Hosler's childhood fascination with dinosaurs. "I had lots of books, but they didn't have a lot of images so I started drawing pictures to manipulate them," he recalls.

On a trip from his Midwestern home to Utah's Dinosaur National Monument one summer, Hosler had his first run-in with Spiderman in the comics section of an out-of-the-way drugstore the family car stopped at. With that, he was hooked on cartoons.

He identified with the superhero's alter ego right away. "Peter Parker was a sort of grown-up Charlie Brown, a skinny, nerdy guy who liked science and no girls liked - boy, if I couldn't identify with him."

Hosler doodled throughout his childhood, contributed cartoons to the campus newspaper as an undergraduate at Indiana's DePauw University, and graduated to his own weekly strip while studying for his PhD at the University of Notre Dame.

Frustration with the restrictions of the format drove Hosler into feature-length comics. "My humour is more character-driven - you can't do that in four panels." The longer form also serves as a vehicle for his intellectual preoccupations. The latest two are the brain and the intersection of art and science.

To explore both themes, he has in the works a life story of 1906 Nobel laureate and accomplished artist Santiago Ram"n y Cajal, the University of Madrid neuroscientist who demonstrated that the nervous system is composed of neurons and whose remarkable neuroanatomical drawings still grace textbooks.

The project is still pretty formative. But Hosler is a determined sort.

After all, "bee man", as students dub him, overcame a potentially deadly allergy to bee stings that threatened to derail his research. He recounts the epic tale of the gruelling desensitisation regime of 22 venom shots in a zany strip titled Killer Bee.

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