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Graphic Novel Creators Talk Power of Science Comics at Center for Astrophysics Observatory Night

Jim Ottaviani and Maris Wicks discuss science comics at a virtual event.
Jim Ottaviani and Maris Wicks discuss science comics at a virtual event. By Cara J. Chang
By Maribel Cervantes and Cara J. Chang, Contributing Writers

Writer Jim Ottaviani and writer and illustrator Maris Wicks spoke about how science comics can be a powerful tool for storytelling at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics’s final 2020 Observatory Night on Thursday.

“We use comics to tell these stories because comics make science and history accessible,” Wicks said.

Ottaviani and Wicks’s message ties in with the mission of the monthly Observatory Nights, which the Center for Astrophysics started in 1930 in an effort to make astrophysics accessible to the public, according to spokesperson Mariclaire O’Neill.

“A big thing that we try and do with our public Observatory Nights is to package the science that people are interested in and then format it in a way that it is accessible for everyone,” O’Neill said.

The Observatory Night webinar featured Ottaviani and Wicks’s latest graphic novel, “Astronauts: Women on the Final Frontier.”

Ottaviani has written comics about science since his first graphic novel in 1997. He met Wicks through a project in 2007 that became the New York Times bestseller “Primates: The Fearless Science of Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey, and Biruté Galdikas.”

“Astronauts” is the creative duo’s second project, chronicling how women fought sexism in the U.S. Space Program. It highlights the story of Mary L. Cleave, a pioneering astronaut in the early 1980s. Ottaviani and Wicks described Cleave as a perfect main character because she was an “eyewitness to and maker of history,” having started her career after the first women travelled to space but before female astronauts attained cultural acceptance.

During the webinar, Ottaviani and Wicks walked through their creative process and described how comics can effectively communicate science.

“Science and comics are really a natural fit because so much of science is visual,” Ottaviani said.

Wicks added that comics are also powerful because so much of science is about wonder, something easily conveyed in cartoons. She walked the audience though a page in “Astronauts” on which Cleave looks out at the constellation Orion and explained how the visual and personal aspects of comics draw the reader into Cleave’s experience.

The webinar concluded with a question-and-answer session, during which audience members asked Ottaviani and Wicks questions about comics and the authors’ love of science. While attendees asked questions, Wicks also began drawing a bookplate for the webinar, complete with doodles for each audience question.

“This hopefully sparks a little bit of that wonder,” Wicks said of the event. “If this pushes you to go out and learn more about the space program or even what's going on currently in space, that’s awesome.”

Sarah E. Hogan, an events manager for the Center for Astrophysics, said the webinar format has unique perks.

“I am proud that now we've been able to bring it to folks that aren't just in the Observatory's neighborhood,” she said. “The internet has given us a real opportunity to spread that.”

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