Interview with Maris Wicks
It’s been a few years since I was able to attend New York Comic Con, but not only did my principal release me for the day, I got to sit on a fantastic panel about STEM Graphic Novels. There was a wonderful array of creators on the panel, including Maris Wicks, the creator of Human Body Theater, which was released in October by First Second. After spending time on the panel, I asked Wicks if she would agree to an interview for Good Comics for Kids and she graciously agreed!
What is your [professional] background? Do you have a formal art education? Have you worked in the comics industry?
I’m a little bit of a jack of all trades…I do have a formal art education; I received a BFA in Illustration from the Rhode Island School of Design in 2003. That year, I also became certified to be an EMT in the state of Massachusetts. After that, I held MANY non-art jobs: summer camp counselor, working on a farm, baking pies, teaching continuing ed classes, teaching sailing/canoeing/kayaking, and then volunteering for a year of service through Americorps at the Providence Children’s Museum. The experiences that I had there solidified my interest in pursuing science education (I was drawing comics on the side then, but only self-publishing mini comics). After the Children’s Museum, I got a job as a program educator at the New England Aquarium, and then six months later, signed the contract for Primates. Up until very recently, I worked part-time at the Aquarium and part-time on comics; I’m now full-time comics. Over the past eight years, I have written, drawn and colored comics for Adhouse Books, Tugboat Press, Spongebob Comics, Image, Marvel, and DC, as well as the New England Aquarium and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. Although I still love teaching in a classroom setting, I’ve shifted my focus to use my comics as a teaching tool, and I have my classroom time take the form of school visits.
What motivated you to write about science in comics form?
Science is what I love, and comics is how I think. As an educator at the NE Aquarium, I got to witness kids getting inspired by science first-hand; I wanted my illustration/comics work to reflect this. The medium of comics allows me to take information that is already out there and frame it in a way that is engaging. I often had a difficult time in school as a kid; I was a very visual, hands-on learner, and as I grew older, opportunities for those type of experiences in school started to wane. I naturally gravitated towards art and science, labs in particular. Years later, what frustrated me was how material that should be fun to learn was rendered inaccessible for me because of the way that it was taught, or by emphasis on product (i.e., tests) and not process. I suppose science comics are my own personal solution to the troubles that I had when it came to learning.
With STEM Education being a national push, including the push to include more women in science and technology fields, how do you feel your works help this initiative? How else would you encourage young women to enter the fields of science and technology?
Well, I am a woman, and I consider myself to be in (somewhat) of a science field, so I can only hope that students at my school visits might see me as a role model. In terms of encouraging young women to enter science and tech fields, the earlier you start with science education the better. And I don’t mean just in school: science experiments and activities at home, finding opportunities in your community (like maker spaces or science clubs/classes/events), and overall, emphasizing problem solving, critical thinking, and feeding curiosity.
There are so many areas of science to write about, what motivated you to start with the human body? [I know Primates pre-dates Human Body Theater, but that was not a solo work.]
Solidarity. We all have a body, and on the inside, we all look pretty much the same. I like to think of Human Body Theater as almost an illustrated user’s manual: how your body works, what can sometimes go wrong, and how to prevent/fix problems. Self care and awareness were a big part of my upbringing; my mom did a fantastic job of helping me to understand and be comfortable with my own body (she was a nursery school teacher for 15+ years). After my EMT training, and after working at residential summer camp (where I often had infirmary duty), I found myself interested in how we, as a species, learn about how to care for our bodies, both physically and mentally. Human Body Theater was spawned from that interest, as well as my propensity towards drawing guts (for some reason, I’ve always been fond of drawing intestines).
Somehow, the segment on constipation seemed more graphic than the portrayal of the reproductive system. How did you decide to represent the reproductive system so that it would appeal and be suitable for a broad audience?
I wanted to give each system an equal amount of time and attention, and I found that when I started to tackle the reproductive system, I was overwhelmed with how much information I could include, and what I should include. I paid attention to the age rage for the book, in addition to what is being taught in both science and health between grades 4-8 (I referred to the Massachusetts science standards). Human Body Theater focuses on each system, and the key players for each system, and I could definitely do that for the reproductive system. I didn’t touch on sexual intercourse, not because I didn’t want to, but because I was trying to make a large effort to be all-inclusive. For reproduction, you need a sperm and an egg, but they don’t always meet the same way (for example, in vitro fertilization). Similarly, when I talk about developing feelings and attraction towards others, I was very careful to not imply specific genders. These things are subtle, but to me, they were very important in keeping the content as inclusive as possible.
What medium do you use for your artwork?
Pencil and ink on Bristol board (9” x 12”), scanned to a computer, and colored and lettered in Photoshop (CS4). And, you know, blood, sweat, and tears.
Did you encounter any difficulties during the course of this project?
Not in particular. Part of me always feels like I’m “cheating” with science comics, because I’m taking information that already exists and putting it in comics form (I know I’m simplifying the process, and there’s much more work that goes into it…). If I had to pick one thing though, it’d probably be fitting everything in there. There were lots of things that got cut, just as a result of space (I made the book as long as my publisher would let me). I would’ve loved to spend more time on topics like immunization (and how we’ve wiped out some pretty nasty diseases as a result of immunization), various hereditary traits, diabetes, heart disease, and cancer, but I guess I’ll have to save those for another book!
Can you describe the research you had to do for this project? How is it the same or different than the research you completed for your other projects?
My training as an EMT was the foundation for the book (as well as a Human Anatomy and Physiology class I took in college). Beyond that, I read any book on the human body that I could find (for both kids and adults). I read and read, took lots of notes, doodled (I’ve always been a doodler). I visited some museums as well: The Museum of Science in Boston has a great human body exhibit, as did the Providence Children’s Museum where I did my year of Americorps service. There were also some fantastic online resources, like kidshealth.org.
What’s on your comics/graphic novels reading shelf right now?
So…I’m in the midst of reading mostly non-fiction/fiction (non-comic) books right now, but both Freud (Corinne Maier and Anne Simon) and Beautiful Darkness (Fabien Vehlmann and Kerascoët) are on my to-read comics shelf (both are not kid-friendly, I believe). My go-to books for non-fiction science comics are The Stuff of Life (Mark Shultz, Zander Cannon, and Kevin Cannon), Evolution (Jay Hosler, Kevin Cannon, and Zander Cannon), and How To Fake A Moon Landing (Darryl Cunningham). Non-comics books for right now include: Conceptual Physics (old textbook), Nature Guide to Rocks and Minerals, Bonk (Mary Roach), The Twenty-One Balloons (William Pène du Bois), Shark Trouble (Peter Benchley), and Contact (Carl Sagan).
What projects are you working on?
Over the summer, I finished Coral Reefs: Cities of the Ocean, which is part of First Second’s new “Science Comics” series, and that’ll be out May 2016. The research for that book was SUPER fun, because I got scuba-certified and spent some time diving in the Caribbean with the New England Aquarium. I’m also working on some short-form science comics for both Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and the New England Aquarium. And… I’m currently working on a longer project that I can’t talk about. Sorry! More about that in the future, I promise.
About Esther Keller
Esther Keller is the librarian at JHS 278, Marine Park in Brooklyn, NY. There she started the library's first graphic novel collection and strongly advocated for using comics in the classroom. She also curates the Graphic Novel collection for the NYC DOE Citywide Digital Library. She started her career at the Brooklyn Public Library and later jumped ship to the school system so she could have summer vacation and a job that would align with a growing family's schedule. On the side, she is a mother of 4 and regularly reviews for SLJ and School Library Connection (formerly LMC). In her past life, she served on the Great Graphic Novels for Teens Committee where she solidified her love and dedication to comics.
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