Born November 21, 1966 (Huntington, Indiana)
American author, artist
"I have never understood the divorce that we seem to have instituted between fun and learning. I look at them as one and the same."
At first glance, the writing of biology professor/cartoonist Jay Hosler may appear less adventurous than most graphic novels. His first book, Clan Apis (2000), explores the life cycle of honey bees; his second, The Sandwalk Adventures (2003), recounts a series of conversations about evolution between follicle mites and nineteenth-century scientist Charles Darwin (1809–1882). But Hosler makes the topics fun, filling his graphic novels with a combination of goofy humor, keen scientific observation, and profound insight into the human longing for meaning. Clan Apis won a Xeric Award and was named one of the 25 Best Graphic Novels of 2002 by the Young Adult Library Services Association, and Hosler has been nominated for the prestigious Eisner Award six times. Hosler is one of a handful of author/artists who have tackled nonfiction topics and managed to create compelling graphic novels.
Cartoons from an early age
Hosler was born on November 21, 1966, in Huntington, Indiana, a small town in the north central part of the state. His father, Scott Hosler, was a sixth-grade teacher, and later a junior high school counselor who also coached basketball. His mother, Madonna Hosler, was a social worker who later went to work in the public school system. "My parents were sort of my heroes," Hosler told Graphic Novelists (GN). "They knew everyone in town, and I was always proud of the positive influence they had on so many kids." The impact that his parents had on the community was part of what drove Hosler to become a teacher. His parents, and his younger sister Heidi, still live in Huntington.
From a very early age, Hosler loved to draw. "In elementary school, I was known as the kid who drew dinosaurs," he told GN. In fact, as a second grader he was asked to give a talk about dinosaurs to a class of fifth graders. "The fact that they didn't beat me up shows what a nice town Huntington is" he joked. Like many kids who grew up in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Hosler was a fan of the Peanuts comic strip drawn by Charles M. Schulz (1922–2000), and especially the main character, Charlie Brown. "I connected with him because like most kids growing up we feel alone and unliked. Charlie Brown was a hero to me because he endured. He got frustrated, but he usually bore the indignities of life with an intellectual stoicism that reflected a wisdom I aspired to," Hosler explained on the SciScoop: Science News Forum Web site. Later, Hosler admired Peter Parker, the high school science geek who was transformed into Spider-Man by a spider bite. In fact, one of his first books as a kid was a Spider-Man comic. "My parents liked to say 'there's always money for books,"' Hosler told GN. "So I tested their theory: I asked them to buy this comic book, Marvel Teamup #19: Spider-Man in Savage Land, where Spider-Man fights a dinosaur."
Clan Apis (2000).
The Sandwalk Adventures (2003).
By the time he got to junior high school, Hosler had been turned away from his early love for art. "I had a teacher who turned art into a competition," he lamented to GN, "and I actually got a C on an assignment because this teacher didn't like my skin shading. It's sad that I quit taking art classes, because it has really limited my skills. I'd love to have some skill with a brush." Hosler was still a success in school: he played French horn in the school band; he played basketball and was an all-state hurdler on the track team; and he graduated from Huntington North High School in 1985 as the class valedictorian.
After graduating from high school, Hosler attended DePauw University in Greencastle, Indiana, a small town west of Indianapolis. Most of his friends attended the state's bigger schools, Indiana University and Purdue University, but Hosler liked the small school and the chance to break free from who he had been in high school. It was while in college that Hosler discovered both of his future loves: science and drawing comics. He graduated with honors in biological sciences in 1989 and traveled north to pursue graduate studies at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana. In 1995, he received his doctorate in biological sciences. While at DePauw, he also began to draw cartoons. He did a daily strip for his undergraduate school newspaper, and in graduate school he wrote and drew a daily strip called "Spelunker" for the school paper and another weekly strip called "Cow-Boy" for the Comic Buyers Guide. "None of the strips were all that satisfying for me," he told Marcia Allass in an interview on the Sequential Tart Web site. "I wanted to draw and write but I hadn't found anything that someone else didn't already do much, much better." Still, creating comics became a pleasant diversion from his main focus on science—and has remained so ever since.
When Hosler began his graduate studies at Notre Dame, he studied frogs. Then he transferred his studies to a different lab, where he began to study electrical currents generated by the movement of insect muscles. "This was really my cup of tea because I was watching real electrical events in real time," he related to Allass. Among his favorite objects of study were honey bees. "As I was familiarizing myself with the intricacies of honey bee natural history," he told Allass, "the story that would be Clan Apis started to take root and grow." Following graduate school, Hosler worked from 1996 to 2000 as a postdoctoral research fellow at the Ohio State University Rothenbuhler Honey Bee Research Laboratory. (This is where he discovered that he was allergic to bee stings, as he relates in the story "Killer Bee," which is available for viewing at the cartoonist side of Hosler's Web site, www.jayhosler.com.) Then, in 2000, he took a job as assistant professor in the Department of Biology at Juniata College in Huntington, Pennsylvania, where he still teaches. He lives in Huntington with his wife, Lisa, and their two sons, Max and Jack.
Clan Apis is, in simplest terms, the story of the life cycle of a honey bee. It begins with a honey bee named Nyuki being sealed into her larval cell, going through metamorphosis (the process through which some life forms transform from one physical state to another, usually before birth or hatching), emerging as a bee, learning how to be a good hive member from her mentor, Dvorah, and finally dying beneath her favorite flower. But Nyuki is no ordinary honey bee: she is wisecracking, full of questions, and eager to avoid danger. When mentor Dvorah pushes Nyuki down into her larval cell so that she can begin her transformation from larva to bee, Nyuki cries out "Help! Heeeeelp! I'm being buried alive!" Later, when she realizes there are predators outside the hive, Nyuki refuses to go outside, proclaiming "Nothing is getting me out of this hive, Dvorah, and that is final!" These inter-changes—between Nyuki, Dvorah, other hive members, a hungry praying mantis, and a helpful dung beetle—and the growth that Nyuki goes through over the course of the story bring humor, warmth, and compassion to this tale of honey bees, ultimately making it a compelling narrative that just happens to impart a great deal of accurate scientific information along the way.
Part of what makes Clan Apis so successful is that it works on several different levels. Very young readers enjoy the rowdy antics of Nyuki as she learns how to fly and explores the outside world. In one especially hilarious encounter, Nyuki and Sisyphus, the dung beetle, debate which is more disgusting, making honey from bee vomit or feeding off a ball of cow poop. Older readers more interested in facts about bee development will also learn a great deal. Over the course of the narrative, Hosler offers precise descriptions of the roles of various types of bees, including the drones and the queen, and of the important life functions of the hive. In the back of the book, he offers more detailed information on bees as well as a bibliography. Finally, Clan Apis also packs an emotional wallop, as Nyuki comes to terms with the role that death plays in rejuvenating the hive. As her wings inevitably wear down, Nyuki herself peacefully seeks a place to die. Humorous to the end, Nyuki makes one final observation: "It's funny. Looking back on my life, I only have one major complaint. The ending stinks." Hosler told SciScoop that "All of the stories I write need to have layers for me to find them interesting. With Clan Apis there is the straightforward coming of age story, but layered on top of that is the biology of honey bees, my own feeling/fears of change and mortality as well as what it means to have a purpose and where that sense of purpose comes from."
Clan Apis first appeared as a series of five short comic books, and funding for the initial chapter came from an award from the Xeric Foundation, a nonprofit organization formed by Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle creator Peter A. Laird to help people self-publish their comics. The first installment, published in 1998, sold out its first printing, and subsequent chapters sold just as briskly. Once the series began to gain attention and won several Eisner Award nominations, Hosler and his publishing partner in Active Synapse, Daryn Guarino, decided to issue the series as a graphic novel. The book has sold more than five thousand copies—a large number for a small publisher—and received numerous favorable reviews. Commented Mike Lavin in Capper's magazine: "What I liked about [Clan Apis] was that it did such a great job of teaching science but not being obvious about it. The science was just an underlying part of an otherwise interesting story." Perhaps most pleasing to Hosler, who is keenly interested in the educational value of his work, the book was used in high school and college biology classes. Ohio State University biology professor John W. Wenzel told Capper's that his students "learn more from Jay's comic books than from reading scientific textbooks."
The Sandwalk Adventures
If Hosler's first project grew out of his fascination with honey bees, his next one grew in part out of his frustration at the way biological theories of evolution were being distorted in schools and in American public life. The teaching of evolution—in short, the theory that changes in life forms occur gradually over time due to natural selection—has long been controversial in American schools, despite the fact that a vast majority of scientists support its explanatory power. By the late 1990s and early 2000s, backers of a non-scientific theory of biological development called intelligent design (which proposes that natural forces alone could not explain the sophistication of higher life forms) found some success in placing limits on the teaching of evolution. For Hosler, this questioning of science was an outrage. "Can you imagine the response of parents if some group wanted to stop the teaching of gravity?" he asked in his SciScoop interview. "We would howl at the absurdity! But, it is the same science, the same method that elucidated and explained both ideas. We can't pick and choose what we believe from science just because some ideas make us uncomfortable."
The Sandwalk Adventures is Hosler's response to attempts to discredit the theory of evolution—but, as in Clan Apis, it is also a humorous story that offers profound insights into human nature. The Sandwalk Adventures begins with a preposterous creation story told to a family of follicle mites (tiny invertebrates that live on human hair) living in the left eyebrow of famous British scientist Charles Darwin. Darwin hears the mites, and begins a series of conversations with two of the young mites in which he tries sets them straight about their creation: he isn't God, Darwin explains, and he didn't create Earth and sky. What Darwin offers instead is a recounting of the slow process through which species change and adapt into new species. Luckily for the reader, the mites aren't about to take Darwin's story at face value. If they are going to give up everything they've ever believed, they want evidence. Darwin provides it.
Jay Hosler didn't invent the idea of using comics to address the controversy over evolution. In fact, supporters of creationism—the idea that a supernatural god created life on Earth in its present forms—and intelligent design—the idea that evolutionary theory does not account adequately for the complexity of life forms, so that an intelligent creator must have existed at some point—have also published comic books and graphic novels over the years.
Jack Chick (1924–) is a Christian evangelist noted for producing a string of comic books, called Chick Tracts, that promote his religious views. In Big Daddy? (1972) and Primal Man? (1976), Chick argues against evolution. He points to a variety of "evidence," most of it debunked as false, to show that scientific claims about the age of Earth and variations in human development could not be true. He also presents scientists as evil schemers out to ruin America's children with their lies. Reviewers such as Robert Ito in Los Angeles Magazine took note of Chick's work only to point out his distortions and to protest his anti-Catholic, anti-Jewish, and racist ideas.
What's Darwin Got to Do with It?: A Friendly Conversation about Evolution, (2000) created by John L. Wiester, Jonathan Moneymaker, and Janet Moneymaker, also attempts to refute evolution, though without the angry edge of Chick's work. This attractively packaged graphic novel offers a debate between a young, attractive proponent of intelligent design and a combative and easily fooled professor who supports evolution. The conclusion comes down strongly on the side of intelligent design, though the arguments for intelligent design are not based on science.
These books and Hosler's The Sandwalk Adventures offer distinctly different opinions on one of the most controversial issues in American education.
Like Clan Apis, The Sandwalk Adventures functions on multiple levels. There is no lack of humor, from Darwin's reluctance to accept the absurd notion that he is debating evolution with follicle mites—it's so crazy that he'll only talk to them while walking on his favorite path, the sandwalk, away from his family—to the wild misunderstandings of evolution that the mites try to pass on to their kin. The book provides glimpses into Darwin's personal story, with insights into his personal struggle to embrace the full implications of his discoveries and his relationship with his wife and children. On a more subtle level, the book is a meditation on the human need for stories. "So much about what we believe and how we interpret the world around us depends on the types of stories we tell," Hosler told the CBR Web site, and his book balances the complexity of evolution's stories against the simplicity and drama of creationist accounts. First and foremost, of course, the book provides an accurate explanation of the building blocks of evolutionary theory that Darwin proposed, and that have since become such an important foundation for modern science.
The Sandwalk Adventures brought new levels of media attention to the professor who combined science with comics. He was interviewed by National Public Radio and his book was featured in the New York Times and the Chronicle of Higher Education, among other national publications. Reviewers noted that the young mites, with their wide-eyed and innocent questions, served as perfect stand-ins for students who themselves struggle to understand evolution. Skeptical Enquirer reviewer Jerry Kurlandski noted that "as a reader, you sense that [Hosler's] had to introduce the theory to students many times, and, in so doing, he's figured out how to present it in an interesting manner without sacrificing accuracy." Glenn Branch, writing about Hosler in the journal Bio-Science, observed: "The Sandwalk Adventures serves as a rebuke to creationism, but it is sympathetic to the feelings behind it, the social and emotional significance of the creation myths by which people live."
Hosler has plans for future combinations of science and comics, though his busy life as a professor and father makes it difficult to put out books quickly. He told SciScoop in 2004 that he was working on a story about Santiago Ramon y Cajal (1852–1934), "Spain's greatest scientist and the father of modern neurobiology," that would explore the ways that Cajal balanced his love of science and art. In 2006, he will begin a year as "writer in residence" (an honorary position that provides the writer with time to write in exchange for him or her interacting with the college community, often including teaching a course) at his alma mater, DePauw University, which should allow him to finish that work. He was also hard at work on his "beetle epic," The Age of Elytra. The story is "an epic adventure journey for a group of beetle scientists," he told GN, who attempt to figure out evolution for themselves, but are blocked by a beetle villain named Owen, the head of the ministry of science who is also the leader of a secret order that fights against science. The story allows Hosler to continue to work out his frustration with the intelligent design movement, which Hosler insists is anti-scientific: "You can say that God directed evolution if you want," he told GN, "but don't say there's any evidence for it, because there's not."
"I would love to make a zillion dollars (for my family and [publishing partner] Daryn [Guarino]'s family), have my work widely known and preach the wonders of biology to the world," Hosler told SciScoop. "That is our hope when a project is completed and sent out into the world. However, that isn't really my goal in the creative process. In fact, I am sure I would be making these books even if we hadn't had success. This stuff is inside and I gotta let it out!"
For More Information
Biemiller, Lawrence. "Darwin's Talking Mite." Chronicle of Higher Education (June 13, 2003): A48.
Branch, Glenn. "Flycatcher Explains It All." BioScience (October 2004): 963.
Eakin, Emily. "Pow! Splat! Take That, You Darwin Disparagers!" New York Times (November 30, 2002): B11.
Ito, Robert. "Fear Factor." Los Angeles Magazine (May 2003).
Kurlandski, Jerry. "Darwin as Comic Book Super-Hero." Skeptical Inquirer (May 1, 2004): 57–58.
Lavin, Mike. Capper's (September 14, 2004): 16.
Mautner, Chris. "Interview: Jay Hosler." Comics Journal no. 261 (July 2004).
Allass, Marcia. "Mites and Bees: Jay Hosler." Sequential Tart. http://www.sequentialtart.com/archive/oct01/hosler.shtml (accessed on May 3, 2006).
Allass, Marcia. "To Bee or Not to Bee: Jay Hosler." Sequential Tart. http://www.sequentialtart.com/archive/jan01/hosler.shtml (accessed on May 3, 2006).
"Interview: Cartoonist/Scientist Jay Hosler Answers." SciScoop: Science News Forum. http://www.sciscoop.com/story/2004/2/28/73554/0027 (accessed on May 3, 2006).
Jay Hosler: Biologist, Cartoonist. http://www.jayhosler.com (accessed on May 3, 2006).
McElhatton, Greg. "Sandwalk Adventures #1." iComics.com. http://www.icomics.com/rev_121801_sandwalk.shtml (accessed on May 3, 2006).
Ulaby, Neda. "Holy Evolution, Darwin! Comics Take on Science" (with link to audio file of radio interview). NPR. http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=4495248 (accessed on May 3, 2006).
Weiland, Jonah. "'The Origin of Species,' Comic Style with Jay Hosler." CBR. http://www.comicbookresources.com/news/newsitem.cgi?id=796 (accessed on May 3, 2006).
Additional information for this profile was gathered from an interview with Jay Hosler on October 5, 2005.