Friday, November 22, 2019

Climate change in recent kids comics

Writer Ridley Pearson's comics debut Super Sons, one of the first of DC Comics' new lines of original graphic novels for younger readers, contained many rather unexpected creative choices. Among them was his decision to set the story in a near-future world facing an apocalyptic threat. That threat was that of cataclysmic climate change, in which a warming globe had severely flooded the continents, creating a refugee crisis within the borders of his version of the United States.

The first volume's sub-title, The PolarShield Project, referred to one of the ideas scientists have considered to try and save society as we know it from the climate crisis, seeding the atmosphere with material that will block the sun's rays, keeping the temperature from rising much more than it already has. That is a controversial idea, in large part because it's impossible to know with any certainty what the side-effects of such radical, sci fi-sounding geoengineering might be, and also because, as impossible as it might sometimes seem, it's still going to be easier to radically restructure our fucked-up energy system and economy to move towards zero carbon dioxide emissions and avoid apocalyptic tipping point situations from burning too much rain forest or screwing up the ocean. In Super Sons, the idea of finding an artificial way to block the sun's rays is a little less controversial, though, because that particular rapidly warming Earth has got Superboy's dad Superman to help them out.

I read the book with some interest upon its release, in part because I'm a fan of those characters, in part because I was curious about DC's emergent Zoom and Ink lines and in part to prepare for an interview with Pearson. I was pretty surprised by the climate crisis backdrop, particularly since the usual Superman and Batman milieu doesn't lend itself to environmental science subject matter as strongly as those of some other DC superheroes might, but I was kind of glad to see Pearson and DC attempting to engage young readers on what is going to be the most important challenge of their lives.

If that surprised me, though, I was still more surprised by the fact that in the following six months, I've read two more comics directed at young readers that also dealt with the climate crisis. Three examples makes a trend—if I've ever learned anything from New York Times trend pieces, and I haven't, it's that—so I thought it worth pausing a moment to look at how these various books deal with the subject.
Regarding Super Sons, climate change presents a backdrop more than anything (At least as far as the first book goes; I haven't yet read Pearson and artist Ile Gonzalez's next book in their Super Sons series, The Foxglove Mission). It's a catalyst that provides a rationale for Bruce Wayne and Superman to be absent from the lives of their sons, and one that removes Damian and Jon from their traditional Gotham City and Metropolis settings into a new one where they are on equal footing. Although Gonzalez's art has a clarity and brightness to it that makes this future seem not quite so bad, perhaps in part because the people in the world of Super Sons have started to embrace alternative energy like wind power on a greater scale, the stories do address one of the many, many little-discussed impacts of climate change: Huge numbers of refugees and internally displaced people caused by environmental degradation.

(I don't want to get too off-topic here, but arguments can and have been made that climate change has in part influenced the recent influx of migrants from the southern triangle countries seeking asylum in the U.S. and that climate change may have been a factor in the Syrian civil war and the waves of refugees it created. While studies have been published and analysis see-sawed over those assertions, as the globe heats up and the equator gets hotter, we can expect more and more people from southern climates moving northward...and that's before we even get into sea level rise displacing people on coasts and islands).

I recently heard something quite sobering, even chilling: The scariest part of the climate crisis might not be what we do to the Earth and what nature does to us as a result of its systems breaking down or transforming, but what we do to one another as we try to cope with those changes. I mean, the U.S. is handling an immigration crisis at the current scale all that well right now; one hopes that's because of the monsters currently running immigration policy, but one can also fear that it's going to get worse, not better, as the numbers increase.
An even more unexpected discussion of the climate crisis appeared in Jon Scieszka and Steven Weinberg's AstroNuts Mission One: The Plant Planet. This is a book about four super-powered mutant animals astronauts with cool names like AlphaWolf and LaserShark exploring alien planets on behalf of a super-secret space exploration organization. While the overall tone of the book is fun and funny, there's a barely sublimated, let alone disguised, darkness to it.

The very premise of the book is couched in how much danger we've put the world in. Our heroes were only awakened from their cryogenic slumber and sent on their mission because humanity crossed "the BIG RED LINE" of putting more than 440 parts per million of carbon dioxide into the planet's atmosphere, setting off the current cascade of catastrophic events we're currently dealing with. See, our heroes in this series are scouting for a new planet that humanity can inhabit, since we may have rendered this one uninhabitable (for humanity as we know it, and most of the animals that are currently living on it, that is).

AstroNuts is extremely direct about all of this. In fact, the book begins with a big countdown to blastoff, at which point the narrator, Earth itself, comes in to provide some real talk:
Yes, blastoff. How exciting.

Usually. But not this time.

This time, blastoff was scary and awful. Because this blastoff was a deadly emergency.
The AstoNuts' first scouting mission takes them to the so-called Plant Planet, where they find an environment also out-of-whack, but in a different way. Amid all of the jokes and action and tidbits of real science, there's a refreshingly direct passage where the Earth stops telling its story of the AstroNuts to explain the climate crisis to the readers...and the Earth does it in such a simple way that it should be easy enough to share with any skeptical relatives you may have sitting around your Thanksgiving table (particularly if you are related to any Republican lawmakers and/or fossil fuel industry lobbyists).

I normally wouldn't want to excerpt so many pages in a row from a work, but I didn't think I could summarize in a way that would do it justice. That's how simple and direct the explanation is; it can't really be broken down any further without ruining the elegance of its presentation:

That last page above, in which Earth presents us with the two options of how to deal with the problem, reveals that while this story is premised on actualizing Plan B, finding another planet exactly like Earth and then transporting all 7.7 billion people there, that plan is no more realistic than AlphaWolf and his crew of super-powered mutant animal astronauts astronuts exploring the known universe in a rocket ship that was hidden in plain sight on Mount Rushmore as Thomas Jefferson's nose.

That really only leaves Plan A: Burn less fossil fuels.
Finally, one of the most recent kids comics I've read was cartoonist Abby Howard's Mammal Takeover, the third (and final) book in her Earth Before Us series. The first two books, Dinosaur Empire and Ocean Renegades, covered the Mesozoic and the Paleozoic Eras, while Mammal Takeover has 10-year-old Ronnie and her mentor Miss Lernin use the power of science magic to time-travel throughout the Cenozoic Era.

In all three books, the pair tour time and space to meet an encyclopedia's worth of animals and plants, learning about other concepts like geology, evolution, taxonomy and so along the way. These books are all a blast, for anyone interested in the amazing animals of the past of any age, and this one is in some ways the most compelling.

It's not just that it covers the bizarre and fascinating mammals of prehistory, animals that I've been particularly intrigued with since childhood on account of the fact that I learned of most of them so long after having been familiarized with dinosaurs. Glyptodons, short-faced bears, Megatherium and Paraceratherium had the mystique of "secret dinosaurs" to me, and, later, as an adult, I kept learning about "newer" and crazier animals from these epochs, like chalicotheres and gigantopithecus and various terror birds and all the crazy animals of prehistoric Australia. That the existence of so many of these now-extinct animals overlapped with human history made them all the more appealing, particularly as I've always been interested in stories of monsters and cryptozoology, and many of the megafauna that crossed paths with the earliest humans seemed to persist in at least folkloric form right up until today, when it's not entirely impossible to think there might be at least one species of giant ground sloth yet to be discovered in the Amazon, or that we might some day find a tiny population of relict gigantopithecus in Asia or that some species of mammoth or mastodon lingered on in Siberia or Alaska until about the time that the last auroch died or the last Stellar's sea cow was eaten.

This volume also covers the emergence of humanity in the Pleistocene, as Ronnie walks into a camp of Homo sapiens and a Neanderthal or two and shouts, "Oh my gosh, they're us!" Miss Lernin breaks down the origin of humanity, from Homo ercectus in Africa to three different species of humanity: Homo sapiens, Neanderthals and "the mysterious Denisovans," as well as "other, stranger species of humans that we may or may not have encountered, like the short species Homo naledi... ...and the much shorter Homo floresiensis."

That six-page history of human evolution leads to a triumphant two-page spread of "the mammals of the Holocene," which contains Howards drawings of "all the incredible creatures we share the world with, which are just as amazing and strange as those that came before them!" These animals are grouped into the various types Ronnie (and readers) learned throughout, from monotremes to marsupials, to primates, to afrotheria and so on (If you follow Howard on Twitter, you likely recognize her cat, Spoons; look for Spoons among the carnivora crowd).

And then, of course, there's the reason I'm talking about this book here on my blog, in this particular post, instead of elsewhere. After hundreds of pages on the rise and fall of various species of animal life throughout Earth's history, Howard ties the concept of mass extinction into our current moment.

Miss Lernin reminds Ronnie that such eras usually end with big extinction events, "like the K-T extinction that wiped out most of the dinosaurs... or the Permian-Triassic extinction, which was the largest mass extinction that ever happened."

Ronnie then provides a pretty perfect set-up:
I remember talking about those.

They were big bummers! Glad we don't have to talk about anything like that now that we've caught up with modern day.
While Ronnie immediately thinks of the causes of those two previous mass extinctions, Miss Lernin shrugs, "Nah, this ones on us," and explains how humans are the cause of the sixth mass extinction.

In the pages that follow, Miss Lernin explains that much of modern human society is driven by power made from teh burning of feuls like coal and gas, which creates carbon dioxide and other gasses that trap heat in the atmosphere. While AstroNuts' Earth talked about having a fever that must run its course, Howard draws an anthropomorphic Earth sleeping blissfully under a big comforter, right next to a worried and sweating globe, fitfully tucked into a gigantic, over-stuffed comforter. "This makes it harder for creatures to survive, because they haven't evolved to deal with this climate, and evolution is much slower than the rate that the climate is changing."

She details the effects and sources of methane, particularly animal agriculture, as well as deforestation and tackles the "But it still snows" argument head on. (In the background of a snowy panel, a small, bundled-up figure laughs, "Sure could use some of that 'climate change' right about now, ha ha!", while Miss Lernin explains how a warming Earth will mean more precipitation, including snow, and the obvious fact that just because it still snows, that doesn't mean the world's climate isn't warming; "It snowed in the Cretaceous, too, and that was a much warmer time than ours," she shrugs.) (Despite my earlier swipe at the New York Times, their weekly Climate Fwd newsletter is a pretty solid resource. This week, in preparation for Thanksgiving table arguments, they shared links to sources featuring arguments employed by climate deniers—or the simply skeptical—and counter-arguments. Click here and here and here, if you don't subscribe to Cimate Fwd or don't want to deal with the paper's dumb paywall thing).

And she tells Ronnie about the extinctions modern humans have caused more or less on purpose, like that of the thylacine, the passenger pigeon and Stellar's sea cow, before circling back to the climate crisis:
If it makes you feel any better, these days humans have mostly stopped wiping out animals just because they feel like it.
Now most extinctions are caused by the fact that the environment is quickly becoming unsuitable for many animals that are used to a certain climate...
All the bad news really gets to Ronnie, who is alternately scared, sad, angry, defensive and, of course, feeling helpless.
Miss Lernin relates: "Even for me, a grown-up, it's scary stuff, and I sometimes feel like there's not much I can do!" She tells Ronnie of all the little things she and the grown-ups in her family can do to try to help, from changing to more efficient light-bulbs to driving less to recycling to trying to eat less meat to trying to support politicians and leaders "who want to help the environment by using clean energy and making corporations quit doing bad stuff." (Lernin doesn't say so, of course, but what Howard likely means here is Democrats; I mean, it would be great if Republicans also started giving a shit, but the last few decades of American history have shown that they don't, and, at this crisis point, it may actually be more effective to ignore Republicans and try to fix the world as a Democrats-and-independents-only coalition, hoping the GOP comes around at some point in the future, without planning on their doing so.)
I like the bit above, where Miss Lernin addresses Ronnie's understandable sense of hopelessness that her doing something small like planting a tree can't possibly make up for wide-scale deforestation.

"It can feel a little hopeless sometimes, but think about it this way," she starts.
They were going to tear down those trees anyway, whether you planted yours or not. 
So you've still made a difference. There's one more tree than there would have been in the world.

An if more people are doing the same, then there are many, many more trees than there would have been.
Just because there are a lot of people out there doing bad things doesn't mean that small good things don't matter.

Together, we could plant a forest.
Throughout this entire sequence, which accounts for the last 12 or 13 pages of the book (depending on how you want to count the last page, which mostly sets up a weird but effective call-back to one of this volume's running gags), Howard communicates complex information in a pretty simple, straightforward way, her panels sometimes serving as something between an illustration and a diagram. As serious as the subject matter gets—and the only thing more serious than extinction of so many animal species is the threat of the extinction of our own species—the comic remains funny, with Howard's gags serving as much-needed pressure valves.

While discussing how carbon dioxide and greenhouse gases affect the world, for example, Miss Lernin turns our attention to the sea, and Howard has various sea animals talking to one another about how badly things are going for them. In one panel, a polar bear says to himself, "Dang, where's all the ice? I need that stuff so I can hunt for seals," while a seal just off the coast sticks its head out of the water and laughs, "Heh heh!" In the next panel, though, the seal finds itself in a discussion of how climate change affects the ocean, and changes its tune: "Wait, I'm affected by this, too?!"

Throughout the discussion, humans and animals appear to offer their own two cents, or dramatize various arguments.

So a business man wearing a monocle might clench his fists and shout, "Curse you, hippies! I'm too old and rich to change my ways!" in a panel about how we already possess clean energy technology, we just need the political will to change to its wide-scale usage.

Or in a panel in which Miss Lernin mentions the virtues of recycling, we see a deer staring somewhat creepily through the kitchen window of a woman who is placing a can in a green recycling bin rather than the garbage can, and the deer says aloud, "Yo, thanks I appreciate that."
The penultimate page, above, gives the book a hopeful note to end on, and one that also happens to capture the amusingly seemingly-insane enthusiasm that Miss Lernin radiates throughout the trilogy. Oddly enough, the sequence echoes that of the Earth's brief climate crisis interlude in AstroNuts, in which Earth points out that it will be fine, it's a planet; it's just humanity or, perhaps, humanity enjoying life-as-we-now-know-it, that is in danger.

It's...not really that comforting, but then, trying to find the balance between getting everyone the proper amount of freaked-out about climate change, you know, freaked-out enough to actually do something about it, but not so freaked-out that they become paralyzed with fear and anxiety and hopelessness, well, that's not an easy balance to strike. I think Howard, like Scieszka and Weinberg, finds it though.

I'm glad these comics exist, and I'm glad that they are so good at achieving their primary objectives of providing entertaining, educational content to kids of all ages, while still finding room to so effectively explain the problem of the climate crisis and suggest solutions.

It's the kids in the target audience for these books, after all, who are going to inherit a world ravaged by the problems we failed to slow, curb or solve. And it's up to us grown-ups to do as much as we can to try and care for that inheritance. Who knows, maybe Miss Lernin is right, and we smart apes really will learn how not to destroy the world.

Personally, I think we already know how, and it's more a matter of enough people in enough positions of power to find the will to not destroy the world.

We'll see.


My interview with Ridley Pearson on Super Sons Book One: The PolarShield Project

My review of Jon Scieszka and Steven Weinberg's AstroNuts Mission One: The Plant Planet

My interview with Abby Howard on Mammal Takeover and her Earth Before Us series

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