The evolution of comic books: From “mentally deficient” to brain boosting

From a low-brow adolescent distraction to a sophisticated art form and educational tool, comic books are finally having their moment in the sun.

Gene Luen Yang: Out of all of the visual storytelling media that are out there – film, animation, television – comics is really the only one that is not time-bound. That’s what I call permanent. Which means, you know, when you’re watching a movie or when you’re watching an animated television series, the rate of information flow is actually determined by the creator of the content. It’s not determined by the viewer. You know, you could slow it down, you can go slow-mo but it’s not the same experience.

Comics on the other hand, with comics the rate of information flow is firmly in the control of the reader. And for certain students and certain kinds of information, that aspect of comics, that control makes for a very powerful educational tool.

In an Algebra II class that I taught whenever I was absent I would create these comics lessons for my students. And that was some of the feedback that I got from them is that, you know, with these comics lessons it was visual, unlike their math textbooks. But then on top of that the students themselves could control how quickly or slowly they read through that lecture. Unlike when I was lecturing in person, right? When I’m lecturing in person I decide how fast or slow I speak. But when they’re reading it in the form of a comic, if they didn’t understand a passage within that comic they could reread it as quickly or as slowly as they needed to.

In the past I think parents and teachers had almost a hierarchy of reading. They saw picture books as almost the lower form of reading than pure prose novels. And comic books, which is my area of expertise, were either left out of the equation altogether or they were seen as like this middle point, this stepping stone between picture books and prose books. And if you were a good enough student you wouldn’t need that stepping stone. Things are changing now and I think more and more parents and teachers are realizing that pictures can be a very sophisticated way of communicating information. Just as sophisticated as text. Back in the olden days, if you look at comics often the picture was there to basically present what the words were already conveying. So you would have a caption that says “Superman punches Lex Luthor.” And then in the picture it would just show you Superman punching Lex Luthor, right? And I think that contributed to this idea that comics were meant for the “mentally deficient.” If you weren’t smart enough to get the meaning of those words then you could at least read the picture. Nowadays though I think if you look at the top comic book writers, the top comic book creators, the relationship between the words and the pictures is much more complex. Often they will pass narrative responsibility back and forth; so in certain parts of a comic or graphic novel the words will convey what the most important information is in that story, and then in the next passage it would get passed to the pictures. And in the hands of a skilled creator each of those forms, each of those forms of communication, the picture and the words, will be leveraged for what they’re best at. There are other comics where the words and the pictures are actually contradicting each other. They might even be telling two different stories, describing two different realities, and they ask you as the reader to decide which one is true.

I really think that to engage today’s audience – today’s audience has grown up on stories. Every single one of us has probably consumed thousands and thousands and thousands of stories within our lifetime. In order to engage in audiences sophisticated as that, you need to have a sophisticated dynamic between words and pictures.

Can comic books make you smarter? It seems too good to be true, but as graphic novelist Gene Luen Yang explains, they've come a long, long way. Imagine this: in the early days of comics, a caption would read: "Superman punches Lex Luthor," and it would be accompanied by a drawing of—drumroll!—Superman punching Lex Luthor. Basic, right? "That contributed to this idea that comics were meant for the mentally deficient. If you weren't smart enough to understand those words, then you could at least read the picture," says Luen Yang. Since then, graphic novelists have shaken things up, and the relationship between the words and pictures is more complex, with narrative responsibility going back and forth and occasionally shooting off into ambiguity. So why does Luen Yang think modern comics have a place in every classroom? Because our brains are not computers: "The human mind is a story processor, not a logic processor," as social psychologist Jonathan Haidt wrote. We depend on narratives to help make sense of our world—whether that's algebra, history, or chemistry. Educational comics are turning out to be powerful tools that help kids learn at their own pace. Gene Luen Yang's most recent book is Paths & Portals.

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Image source: NASA/Big Think
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If most stars form in binary pairs, what about our Sun? A new paper presents a model supporting the theory that the Sun may have started out as one member of a temporary binary system. There's a certain elegance to the idea — if it's true, this origin story could resolve some vexing solar-system puzzles, among them the genesis of the Oort Cloud, and the presence of massive captured objects like a Planet Nine.

The paper is published in Astrophysical Journal Letters.

The Oort cloud

Oort Cloud graphic

Image source: NASA

Scientist believe that surrounding the generally flat solar system is a spherical shell comprised of more than a trillion icy objects more than a mile wide. This is the Oort cloud, and it's likely the source of our solar system's long-term comets — objects that take 200 years or more to orbit the Sun. Inside that shell and surrounding the planets is the Kuiper Belt, a flat disk of scattered objects considered the source of shorter-term comets.

Long-term comets come at us from all directions and astronomers at first suspected their origins to be random. However, it turns out their likely trajectories lead back to a shared aphelion between 2,000 astronomical units (AU) from the Sun to about 100,000 AU, with their different points of origin revealing the shell shape of the Oort cloud along that common aphelion. (An astronomical unit is the distance from the Sun to the Earth.)

No object in the Oort cloud has been directly observed, though Voyager 1 and 2, New Horizons, and Pioneer 10 and 11 are all en route. (The cloud is so far away that all five of the craft will be dead by the time they get there.) To derive a clearer view of the Oort cloud absent actually imagery, scientists utilize computer models based on planetary orbits, solar-system formation simulations, and comet trajectories.

It's generally assumed that the Oort cloud is comprised of debris from the formation of the solar system and neighboring systems, stuff from other systems that we somehow captured. However, says paper co-author Amir Siraj of Harvard, "previous models have had difficulty producing the expected ratio between scattered disk objects and outer Oort cloud objects." As an answer to that, he says, "the binary capture model offers significant improvement and refinement, which is seemingly obvious in retrospect: most sun-like stars are born with binary companions."

"Binary systems are far more efficient at capturing objects than are single stars," co-author Ari Loeb, also of Harvard, explains. "If the Oort cloud formed as [indirectly] observed, it would imply that the sun did in fact have a companion of similar mass that was lost before the sun left its birth cluster."

Working out the source of the objects in the Oort cloud is more than just an interesting astronomical riddle, says Siraj. "Objects in the outer Oort Cloud may have played important roles in Earth's history, such as possibly delivering water to Earth and causing the extinction of the dinosaurs. Understanding their origins is important."

Planet 9

rendering of a planet in space

Image source: Caltech/R. Hurt (IPAC)/NASA

The gravitational pull resulting from a binary companion to the Sun may also help explain another intriguing phenomenon: the warping of orbital paths either by something big beyond Pluto — a Planet 9, perhaps — or smaller trans-Neptunian objects closer in, at the outer edges of the Kuiper Belt.

"The puzzle is not only regarding the Oort clouds, but also extreme trans-Neptunian objects, like the potential Planet Nine," Loeb says. "It is unclear where they came from, and our new model predicts that there should be more objects with a similar orbital orientation to [a] Planet Nine."

The authors are looking forward to the upcoming Vera C. Rubin Observatory (VRO) , a Large Synoptic Survey Telescope expected to capture its first light from the cosmos in 2021. It's expected that the VRO will definitively confirm or dismiss the existence of Planet 9. Siraj says, "If the VRO verifies the existence of Planet Nine, and a captured origin, and also finds a population of similarly captured dwarf planets, then the binary model will be favored over the lone stellar history that has been long-assumed."

Missing in action

Lord and Siraj consider it unsurprising that we see no clear sign of the Sun's former companion at this point. Says Loeb, "Passing stars in the birth cluster would have removed the companion from the sun through their gravitational influence. He adds that, "Before the loss of the binary, however, the solar system already would have captured its outer envelope of objects, namely the Oort cloud and the Planet Nine population."

So, where'd it go? Siraj answers, "The sun's long-lost companion could now be anywhere in the Milky Way."

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