Thinking about evolution through comic books

Thinking about evolution through comic books or How I avoided becoming a mad scientist

When I was six, I became obsessed with the ninja turtles. I loved the cartoon show, the movies and the figures. But the comics were the most amazing thing. I started drawing the ninja turtles and from then on, other comic book characters. I also became fascinated with the transformative properties of biology. Could we really get humanoid turtles with the power of genetics?

I guess the ninja turtles were a formative influence. Up until two and a half years ago I was doing science, the real kind. I spent six years working towards a doctoral degree in molecular biology, studying genetic processes that are related to cancer. And then, I decided to make and study comics.

What motivates someone to abandon a highly specialized field of science for a highly specialized field of art? To be honest, this is not a question over which I’ve lost much sleep over. It is certainly a combination of finding a personal affinity with comics and a wish to develop ideas that go beyond the parameters of scientific knowledge. Because even though I could conceivably come up with many mutants in the laboratory, neither them nor the ideas that sprang from them could ever mutate wildly enough. In comics, I can be reckless and capricious; after all, it’s just drawings on paper.

I know that these are unfair judgments. Ultimately, my decision was based on my personal relationship with comics and biology and not any sort of general property of either. However, I do feel that they fill complementary spaces in that one is mostly concerned with how things work and the other is more concerned with how things could work (but which one is which?).

In any case, this decision came with a problem attached that was immediately apparent: What could I bring from my 10 years of specialized training in the biological sciences that would be profitable to comics? And why would anyone care? Naturally, biology has trained me to have a particular outlook on the world, including not only ways of looking into the world, but also of showing it. This outlook might be less obvious, for example, to an artist with a more canonical education. Not that I am completely self-taught in the arts, but please indulge me with this self-legitimizing narrative.

As it turns out, biology has very specialized ways of ‘showing’, that is, of communicating visually. These ways of showing may sometimes resemble comics (at least, superficially), but they also may radically deviate from what we expect from a comic book. You don’t expect comics to tell stories through charts and graphs, like a science book does. This was a good starting point to build a bridge between both my practices. Would it be possible to use or translate these ‘scientific’ ways of showing into a comic book? Would it be engaging? Would it say anything about what can or cannot be done in comics or what sorts of stories can be told?

These questions invite an experimental approach to comics. In this sense, I don’t conceive my artistic practice to be any less of a form of research than what I did in the laboratory, as what I’m doing is thinking through and exploring questions from the perspective that comics offer. Comics are a model that I can probe, dissect, alter, hybridize and destroy until I get a product that delivers me some answers—even if those answers are not as clear cut as what we may get from a chart showing numbers and percentages. This description seems cold and mechanical, but the results are not products of engineering: like the organisms that biology studies, comics (and the artists that make them) are unwieldy and not totally predictable. They always deliver surprises. Are these strained analogies working out for you?

To summarize, the point of departure for my scientific or artistic projects has always been the formulation of questions. This has been useful for me, as I am able to associate practice with theory. Once again, this model of research is similar to the one I know from biology, where experiments are developed based on previous information and theory. This is certainly an evident procedure for someone who has had a traditional education in the arts, but once again, I am reporting from the point of view of a scientist-turned-artist who had to process his new responsibilities through his previous experiences.

Thinking about this idea of comics as devices for thinking and researching, I came upon the direction that I’m currently pursuing at the Saari Residence. What if I made a comic book about those transformative properties of biology, that led the reader through specific arguments? A mixture of showing and telling that connected concrete observations with poetic considerations. An essay in comic book form.

As I researched comics and looked into other forms of popular culture, I realized how much scientific ideas became transformed once they jumped out of the laboratory. A concept like biological evolution became so much else, as it speaks about our origins and force us to reconsider our notions of identity. It seeped into politics, changed our self-image and our image of others. Evolution might still be a wonderful and terrifying realization. What does being human mean, after coming to terms with the fact that the human species is just a fragment of a much larger story?

From the point of view of comics culture, evolution has given us the X-Men, super-beings with glowing eyes and telepathic powers. This is how we imagine evolution: a creator of freaks, gods and freakish gods, who has also created us. My comic book essay tries to understand this dialogue with evolution, and offers some new questions in return. Thinking about evolution not through science, but through comic books.


Hugo Almeida

Hugo Almeida is a comics artist and researcher with a previous background in the biological sciences, and a member of the art and research collective Clube do Inferno.