Wednesday, October 14, 2009

The Stuff of Life: A Graphic Guide to Genetics and DNA (graphic novel) by Mark Schultz, illustrated by Zander Cannon and Kevin Cannon

When our Acquisitions Librarian asked all librarians and staff to recommend books to buy (we had a lot of money left over and not much time left to spend it all), I got to ask for books by a few authors I read for pleasure, but I resisted giving her any manga titles. There's lots of reasons for that: many manga series are long and therefore costly, manga volumes aren't exactly sturdy, I have no idea if anyone at our university besides me would actually want to read them, etc.

So, why am I writing about manga when what I should be writing about is a graphic novel about genetics and DNA? A while back, I read the Otaku Librarian's post on The Manga Guide to Statistics, and I had a happy thought. I couldn't really justify asking our Acquisitions Librarian to get something like, say, Chobits, but what about educational manga and graphic novels? No Starch Press, which is publishing these The Manga Guide to titles, has finally published The Manga Guide to Molecular Biology, so you can bet I'll be looking into that one soon. And it's cheap! Oh, happy day!

Anyway, until I found out about those books, it had never occurred to me to think in terms of educational stuff. So, I started keeping my eyes peeled for biology-related graphic novels and manga, which is how I stumbled upon The Stuff of Life. I didn't want to ask our Acquisitions Librarian to buy it sight unseen (plus, I wanted her to see it too, so that she could give me a reality check and tell me if I was being too geeky for my own good), so I requested it through ILL. I also wanted to check on some worrisome stuff I had read in customer reviews on Amazon.com about a missing page and a duplicate page. There is indeed one page missing (page 36) and one page duplicated (page 44). I'm not sure what page 36 was supposed to look like, but it looks like it might have just been "DNA from a Human Perspective, Part 1" (page 44 is "DNA from a Human Perspective, Part 2) - while I wish the page weren't missing, it could have been worse.

Synopsis:

His Supreme Highness Floorsh 727, his family (its family?), and various others on his planet are suffering from some unnamed and vaguely-referred-to genetic disorder. Floorsh and his people, the Squinch (Squinches?), are invertebrates that reproduce by sprouting genetically identical buds that eventually develop into separate lifeforms - basically, they clone themselves. This has worked well for quite some time, but it does mean that they evolve slowly, so they'll need to try something new if they want to beat their genetic disorder.

Bloort 183 of the Glargal Royal Science Academy has recently returned from observing lifeforms on the planet Earth. Bloort 183 reports all the things it has learned about genetics and DNA from watching humans, who have done a great deal of research on both subjects. Bloort 183 covers a lot of information. It explains the molecules involved in DNA and RNA, how DNA is replicated, and how proteins are made. It explains how mitosis and meiosis work, how inheritance works (of course, Mendel gets several pages, but a few examples more complex than Mendel's pea plants are also mentioned).

Remember, Bloort 183 did all of this research in order to come up with ideas for ways its people can deal with their genetic disorder, so Bloort 183 also talks about ways that humans have applied their knowledge of genetics. It talks about pedigrees, genetic counselors, the various modes of inheritance, the Human Genome Project, the Cancer Genome Atlas, mutations, recombinant DNA technology, gene therapy, transgenic crops and animals, and cloning. Bloort 183 also talks about how humans have used what they've learned about DNA and genetics to uncover information about their past (humankind's origins, etc.). I probably missed a few topics in my list, but this gives you an idea of the huge variety of subjects covered in this 142-page graphic novel.

Anyway, Floorsh declares that Squinch scientists will begin researching Squinch genetic history in order to develop therapies that will allow them to beat the genetic disorder. Bloort 183 is at first upset to hear that it is being sent back to Earth to do more observing, but it brightens up at the thought of how interesting its job is.

Commentary:

As you can probably tell, the plot was very basic, little more than excuse for the giant infodump that is the actual story. Still, it's interesting and a little cute. I love Floorsh's expressions of disgust whenever genetic mixing is mentioned - he (or it) thinks the idea of sex and genetic mixing is gross. Not too surprising, since the Squinch have no experience with sexual reproduction.

The info itself seemed pretty good to me (keep in mind that most of the stuff I know about biology I learned in high school and a couple college courses). However, there is a lot of information to cover. At times, the book flies through topics so quickly that I had trouble following along. For that reason, I really appreciated that the author set things up so that Floorsh would occasionally interject and sum up what Bloort 183 just said in an succinct and clear way. It's kind of like the "Summary" sections of textbooks, only a lot more interesting.

The information is presented in a pretty balanced way (if you disagree, please give me an example!). Bloort 183 mentions a lot of controversial topics like cloning, gene therapy, etc., but it doesn't talk about them as though they were 100% good or bad. It advocates caution. Unfortunately, it doesn't sound like Floorsh is advocating caution in its final proclamation, so one can only hope that the Squinch take care as they explore their genetic history.

The end of the book has a "suggested reading" list (I considered listing some of those titles in my read-alikes list, but I resisted and persevered) - periodicals, books, and websites. There's also a glossary. I really wish that the glossary were either completely illustrated (for example, all phases of meiosis and mitosis accompanied by illustrations of those phases) or included page numbers pointing to the part of the text that discussed those topics. There is no index, unfortunately. Personally, I think indexes should be required in non-fiction works (or non-fiction-y works, as this one might be called), even short ones.

Overall, this is a nice introduction to genetics and DNA. I wouldn't recommend it as a sole source of information, but it might convince someone who's a bit reluctant about those topics to try them out. I'm hoping our undergrads will like it.

Read-alikes:
  • The Manga Guide to Molecular Biology (manga) by Masaharu Takemura, Sakura, and Becom Co., Ltd. - Rin and Ami have been skipping their molecular biology class all semester, and Professor Moro has had enough. Rin and Ami must now attend summer school on his private island. With Dr. Moro's virtual reality machine, they're able to travel inside the human body and get an interesting look at molecular biology. Those who'd like another educational graphic novel covering biology topics might want to try this. It sounds like it might be even quirkier than The Stuff of Life.
  • The Cartoon Guide to Genetics (graphic novel) by Larry Gonick and Mark Wheelis - Those who'd like to try another fun and interesting take on some of the same topics covered in The Stuff of Life might want to try this. I've only seen a few sample pages, but it looks like calling this a graphic novel might be a bit of a stretch - it seems to be composed of short and not necessarily related cartoons - so, unlike The Stuff of Life, no plot. Still, the short comics look amusing and may appeal to those who liked the humor in The Stuff of Life.
  • Genetics for Dummies (non-fiction book) by Tara Rodden Robinson - Those who liked that The Stuff of Life is less intimidating than textbooks on similar topics but would like more information might want to try this.

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