[23 May 2013]
Publishers regularly draw on comic books for new ways to engage readers. The lives of Anne Frank to Darwin have been penned and paneled, though not always to good effect. Investigative journalism, however, hasn’t crossed the pen-and-ink chasm much, until now. With How to Fake a Moon Landing, author and illustrator Darryl Cunningham takes on the science deniers in an entertaining, fact-filled book that…that I don’t know what.
Here’s the problem. For those who already trust science, the book offers little new insight. It makes the same arguments that scientists vigorously put forth at conferences, interviews and on programs like NPR’s Science Friday. What’s different here is the format of the argument. Graphic novels are meant to make ideas more accessible, more revealed, more visceral. The problem is that stalwart science deniers won’t get past the cover before they viscerally react to what they will see as condescension. And if they do get past the cover, they will likely slam the book shut when they find Cunningham’s exposes on the Koch brothers, big oil and climate change.
Those for whom How to Fake a Moon Landing was intended as education are, sadly, likely not to buy it, and if they do, it will be to bash it or burn it, not to read it with an open mind.
And then there is the issue of degrees of science denial. Cunningham doesn’t just take on moon landings, evolution and climate change, the first ridiculous issue is simply based on the inability of human beings to keep secrets, and the last, so complex that even if you believe the evidence and the cause, you can’t understand all of the variables or the time scales. Evolution remains the most entrenched of disbelieved sciences; proof (ironically) that evidence doesn’t always sway belief. Cunningham also takes on homeopathy, chiropractic treatments, the MMR vaccination scandal, fracking and science denial itself.
The problem is that you might well find a climate change advocate who uses homeopathy to treat his or her ills, or occasionally visits a chiropractor for a little adjustment. Otherwise liberal thinkers might find those chapters difficult to swallow (but probably not more so than a small dose of Belladonna). Those who practice homeopathy and seek chiropractic treatment will see those as personal choice, not big intellectual debates that require moral indignation. By placing those very personal items, and I would include the MMR Vaccination Scandal in that mix, they force rational people to confront their own irrationality.
Homeopathy and chiropractic may (or may not) not be based on science, but they don’t seem to cause harm, and even if only the placebo effect provides relief, then the treatment is worth something. As for Measles, Mumps and Rubella vaccine causing autism and inflammatory bowel disease, it may be a case of people seeking simple answers to complex problems. And who better to seek simple answers from than celebrities who believe the claims of a thoroughly discredited physician?
Cunningham’s most interesting chapter focuses on fracking. Rather than the denial of science that is so rampant on climate change, the same lobbies that cast doubt in that issue have learned to get ahead of the debate and obfuscate the science before it takes place. We’ve been taking weather readings for so long, and deployed so many public instruments to examine the Earth, that we would gather evidence about climate change now even if we didn’t invest another dime in technology. Fracking, however, is relatively new and the instrumentation required to monitor it is new, if it exists at all. Here Cunningham makes the argument that fracking is more like smoking than climate change. The energy industry may know things it isn’t sharing, and its creating “science” to make the point it wants to make, not to reveal the truth. And because of the form, he makes that argument for a frugal 26 pages with sparse, but pointed prose.
As for the drawings, Cunningham sticks to basic images and just enough color to create emphasis. No one will mistake How to Fake a Moon Landing for an art book that will outlive its message. Cunningham is no Jack Kirby, Frank Miller or John Romita Jr., but he is a good writer who understands graphic storytelling and the balance between words and images.
As much as I like How to Fake a Moon Landing, I’m skeptical the book will find a wide audience. It may well be purchased by the choir it so clearly preaches to, deployed as a good guide for older children seeking more details about their parent’s positions (the final chapter on science denial itself is a good lesson in reasonable thought and self-examination). In the more conservative camps, it will likely prove just another representation of facts that will bounce off walls built with uninformed certitude and mortared with indifference.
But like any book that tackles controversial topics in a new way, it presents an opportunity to re-examine attitudes and beliefs in the forum of public opinion where such ideas find or lose their footing. If the partnership between author/illustrator Cunningham and publisher Abrams does nothing more than drive civil discourse, then the pen-and-ink, the lettering and the story writing, will help the next generation of young people realize that it isn’t the form, but the substance, that matters.