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S.T.E.A.M. within the Panels

Phantom Lady. Artwork: James Harvey, with Stanley Von Medvey. Used with Permission.

AAAS recently launched a new exhibition in its art gallery, and it's taking science to new heights and other dimensions.

S.T.E.A.M. Within the Panels: Science Storytelling through Comic Books, Comic Strips, and Graphic Novels explores the science that supplies the inspiration to sequential art, better known as comics. Since very early in their history, comics have been inspired by science, resulting in stories that range from hopeful to bleak, utopian to dystopian, and everywhere in between. The exhibition explores how science has been depicted in comics and narrative literature, as explicitly connected to, building from, or in reaction to science and technology, as well as the public's reaction to and understanding of it.

Maria Sosa, the senior project director at AAAS who came up with the idea for the show, said, "S.T.E.A.M. Within the Panels looks at how science and technology are portrayed in comics and aims to start a dialogue about how sequential art can be a vehicle for communicating scientific ideas to the public. We hope that the show will spark more creativity and storytelling about science and will be working with local school groups to explore the use of comics in STEM education."

Kata Kane, who reenvisioned superheroes Butterfly and Jenny Everywhere for the show, agrees. "I think comics are a unique storytelling experience. There are so many things we can do in comics, and so much for readers to enjoy. Comics are a great gateway in to a love of reading, creating, and using our imaginations. I think a big part of getting interested in science is to use your imagination to wonder what is possible and yet to be discovered, and what we can learn through STEAM education. It's fun to think about what we know as facts in STEAM, and also to imagine what could exist, like planets or existences we maybe don't know of yet."

While early comics were inspired by the fast-evolving technology and science of the post-World War II era and limited only by their originators' imaginations, modern comics, whose audience has easy access to facts and data, often require a firmer understanding of what is or may be possible (but not yet discovered or invented) from a scientific standpoint.

The show includes art that dates back as far as the late 1930s, as well as recent work. It also includes both original material, as well as characters reimagined for a modern audience.

Kane explains how she updated her characters and the work she put into exploring both their original stories (to remain true to their creators' work) and the science she'd need to explain their powers or abilities. "I researched the origins of the characters and their powers, and tried to imagine how they would translate to modern day. Butterfly was a character who first appeared in the early 1970s, and her alias was a cabaret singer. I thought in today's world she would be a pop star vocalist, and, like the bright lights of the stages she performs on, her butterfly wings also emit bright strobe lights, similar to insects who use their bright unique colors and patterns to warn off predators and defend themselves [an adaptation known as cryptic coloration]. Jenny Everywhere has more of a sci-fi aspect to her since her abilities are traveling through worlds and existing in different dimensions."

While some of the work clearly leans toward the science fiction end of the genre, some artists directly use the medium to reach out to an audience to better explain the science they love, as well as to explore their own understanding of their field.


The Senses. Story and artwork: Matteo Farinella. Used with permission.

Matteo Farinella, a neuroscientist who studies the use of comics and other visual narratives in science communication and the author of several comics, says, "The more I write and read comics, the more I become convinced that this is a great format to talk about science. Because comics are often perceived as something very 'easy' and accessible, for both adults and children, and this allows me to reach a whole new audience who may not otherwise be interested in reading a book about science. Moreover, comics can turn scientific entities, like a cell or a protein, into characters and transform an abstract and cold scientific subject—like neuroscience—into an engaging story. In practice this means that when I'm writing a comic I often have to come up with new metaphors to describe the things I have been studying, and this could also be incredibly useful for me as a scientist, to looks at things from a different perspective."

If you're local to Washington, D.C., please join AAAS for the opening reception for S.T.E.A.M. Within the Panels on Thursday, May 25, 5:30–7:30 p.m, at its headquarters at 1200 New York Ave., N.W. Learn more and RSVP here. Complimentary copies of artist Matt Dembicki’s book, Wild Oceans: Sharks, Rays, and other Endangered Sea Creatures, will be available to attendees while supplies last. (Courtesy of Fulcrum Publishing.)

If you aren't able to attend the event, Kane has created coloring pages of Butterfly and Jenny Everywhere for you to use at home or school.

The exhibition remains open during AAAS business hours until Sept. 15.

The character of Jenny Everywhere is available for use by anyone, with only one condition. This paragraph must be included in any publication involving Jenny Everywhere, in order that others may use this property as they wish. All rights reversed.

 

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