By Annam Raza
A variant cover of “Aquaman #31”, drawn by Mike Allred, is covered by pastel otherworldly creatures surrounding Aquaman in the black depths. These grotesque animals seem unreal, but although characters in comic books can easily be drawn entirely from the imagination, the medium of cartoons is far more receptive to science fiction than any other, these aliens are all actual living creatures (even if slightly altered in scale). There are eighteen in total, featuring unusual denizens of the deep such as the frilled shark and the fangtooth. The cover did not go unnoticed: popular marine science blog Southern Fried Science deconstructed and analyzed each animal in a six-part blog series. The original comic cover for this issue has Aquaman, the eponymous hero, pitted against Swamp Thing as his enemy, a character he has more in common with than he realizes: alongside other DC icons such as Poison Ivy, they are all environmentalists, and as fictional characters, have managed to quietly make contributions to conservation. Poison Ivy, with her iconic red hair and green vines, may be a villain but her cause is not quite a bad one: she wants to save plants, she just happens to go about it the wrong way. Swamp Thing was originally botanist Alec Holland, who created a formula to grow plants in deserts, instantly turning them into forests. His rivals, in an attempt to steal his invention, bomb him to try and kill him, but the burning chemicals react with the swamp he falls into, turning him into a humanoid mass of vegetable matter. Yet, he still fights to protect his swamp home, and the environment on a larger scale, and once he is inducted into Justice League Dark, humanity itself from supernatural or terrorist threats.
But they’re fictional characters, created for kids (and nerds)! What difference could they make to conservation efforts? That may be the response you have initially, but comics create more impact than most people realize. On a commercial front, comic books, and especially their movie adaptations, comprise a multi-billion dollar industry, but they are even more than that. Marvel’s recent decision to make Thor a woman made waves across the internet, with some deriding it as foolish while others saw it as a great step forward in a male-dominated genre. These characters are iconic, and people follow their storylines avidly. They are simultaneously art and literature, and the people that buy and read them are devoting their precious free time to them. Much like the video games mentioned in my most recent article, comics are a form of voluntary learning, albeit one that is far less pervasive. To reiterate Professor Resnick’s quote, “many of [sic] people’s best learning experiences come when they are engaged in activities that they enjoy and care about… [one is] likely to learn the most, and enjoy the most, if [one is] engaged as an active participant, not a passive recipient.”
Comic books fit this bill perfectly, and it was exactly this idea that resulted in the creation of a conservation comic book in Madagascar. Created by Malagasy artist Ramafa and distributed by Madagascar Wildlife Conservation, the comic is named AROVY FA HARENA, which means “protect/preserve because [of] it’s richness”. It is an eight volume series, illustrating the adventures of a village boy named Fidy and three of his friends (all between the ages of 6 and 11). They represent the villagers, and the spokespeople for the forests are his companions, the gentle lemur Malala (sweet), the kingfisher Haja (respect) and the Meller’s duck Solofo (generation). Eight classrooms were chosen to be part of an experiment. The comic was distributed to four of these classrooms, which the students read alongside their standard education, and the other four classrooms served as a control group, with traditional education. The episodes in the series included stories about hunting lemurs as pets, and the consequence of fires. The conservation focus of the comics was centered on the lemurs, as the featured gentle lemur is one of the most endangered species on the planet, and it is endemic to this area. At the end of four months, a questionnaire was given to all the students to test their retention of the knowledge provided in the comics. The comic book class scored significantly higher than the control group. Teachers reported that the children enjoyed discussing the content of the comic books with their friends, and liked the stories, confirming what scientists already suspected.
This method of conservation is incredibly specific to Madagascar. Although a similar model can be implemented locally in areas with endemic endangered species, a generalized curriculum could not possibly cover each individual animal, and it would be unfair to prioritize one over another. However, graphic novels that discuss the importance of conservation as a whole could just as easily be intergrated into schools, and in areas other than biology. Nick Hayes recently reworked a literary classic into a doomsday tale about our earth – Coleridge’s “The Rime of The Ancient Mariner.” The original was about a wizened old mariner who shoots down an albatross, bringing a terrible curse upon himself and his shipmates. Until he learns to love and respect all living creatures, the albatross’ carcass hangs about his neck while he is stranded on the ocean. Hayes’ modern adaptation is a beautifully drawn graphic novel, and his albatross was not the victim of a crossbow, but strangled by the nylon gauze of a fishing net. Instead of being stranded on a supernatural ocean, this mariner is marooned in the North Pacific Gyre: a real-world cesspool of swirling pollution and waste. This version does not end quite as optimistically as the original: the recipient of his tale, a divorced office worker, tosses him a coin and obliviously walks past a shopfront, ignoring the ‘closing down’ sign in the window of ‘Humanity’ (the name of the store). The mariner, in turn, wonders at mankind’s blithe disregard for the planet, and our unwillingness to change our habits, in a poetically haunting manner that pays fitting tribute to Coleridge’s poem. It could easily be taught alongside the original, and the modern day implications are not hard to decode.
Stories, whether in the form of traditional literature such as poems, or less academic forms such as comics, mold our minds more than we realize. And when, as an adult, someone chooses to dress up as Spiderman, it is because the stories from your childhood are filled with characters you love forever, a fact easily visibly in late July, when the streets of downtown San Diego teem with people — Batman mingles with zombies, Doctor Who rubs shoulders with companions of all shapes and sizes, and even less dedicated costumes still allude to comic books. Perhaps you will spot a Superman cape tossed over one’s shoulders, or a dress with R2-D2 printed on it. San Diego’s Comic-Con is a world famous event, as most of us, as honorary (or permanent) residents of this wonderful city can already attest. But comic books are often seen as frivolous, the indulgences of young boys who hold onto their childhood for as long as possible. People easily overlook the impact they can have on a child’s psyche, with the messages interwoven in them integrated into their mind. Anyone that can still sing the theme song from Captain Planet knows this.
Image by Bob Comics