A graphic education

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October 10, 2011
By: Jeremy Zoss
Jeremy Zoss
Creating comics that are good for your brain

Kevin Cannon and Zander Cannon need to inform you that they are not brothers. It’s easy to make that assumption, as they’re both professional comic book creators who attended Grinnell College in Iowa and now reside in Minneapolis.

As the two halves of illustration studio Big Time Attic in the Thorpe Building in Northeast, they share more than a last name. They share a mission. That’s why it’s important to know the facts. They might make comics, but Kevin and Zander are here to educate you.

The two Cannons met because of the assumed relationship. While attending Grinnell, Kevin was often asked if he was related to Zander, who had already graduated and found work in the comic book field. Kevin started as an intern and later became a partner when the pair formed the illustration studio Big Time Attic with fellow creative Shad Petosky, who headed up the studio’s online and interactive efforts. The studio’s earliest projects included the paleontology adventure “Bone Sharps, Cowboys, and Thunder Lizards” with acclaimed educational writer Jim Ottaviani and “Journey Along A Field Line,” the first comic book classified by the United States Geological Survey as a scientific paper.

Their reputation for thoughtful material established early in its existence, Big Time Attic continued to attract educational comic projects. Petosky left the studio, spinning off the interactive side of the business into celebrated local design company Puny Entertainment. The two Cannons continued on, reteaming with Ottaviani for an illustrated history of space exploration in “T-Minus: The Race to the Moon.” The book has earned accolades from publications as varied Physics World and Entertainment Weekly.

Hitting store shelves a few months before “T-Minus” was “The Stuff of Life: A Graphic Guide to Genetics and DNA.” This widely praised graphic novel has been adopted by high school teachers around the country as a part of their biology curriculum, and the sequel, “Evolution: The Story of Life on Earth” was released in early 2011. Up next is the duo’s first project designed specifically for the classroom, an illustrated textbook on rhetoric. After that is an illustrated guide to philosophy, which Big Time Attic will write as well as draw.

While Kevin has read his fair share of philosophy books, neither Cannon considers himself an expert on the topic. But that’s OK. The book’s publisher will provide the core information they need, and both view their outsider perspective as a plus rather than a minus. “We can come at any topic from an outside perspective,” says Kevin. Zander agrees. “We come into it as interested amateurs,” he says. “I’m going to make the textbook that I want to read, and Kevin feels the same way.”

“It’s all about the foundation,” adds Kevin. “All the books we’ve worked on are the perfect books for the first week of class. I wish a graphic novel introduction to philosophy had existed back when I first got interested in it.”

“It’s not going to be a primary text,” says Zander. “You’d have it off to the side as reference.”

As busy as their educational comics keep them, both Kevin and Zander produce more traditional comic books as well. Kevin recently finished the sequel to his acclaimed graphic novel “Far Arden,” which was nominated for the comic book industry’s highest honor, the Eisner Award. A collected version of Zander’s web comic “Heck” will be released in early 2013, and he’s recently signed a deal to write an ongoing sci-fi/comedy series as well a short story for The Simpsons’ “Treehouse of Horror” comic. The pair also has a constant stream of miscellaneous projects, such as creating the graphics for the new Messy Giuseppe food truck.

However, educational comic books are still the heart of Big Time Attic’s work, and both Zander and Kevin enjoy working in the relatively new field. “It’s refreshing to use comics that do one of the things that comics are really good at, which is conveying information,” says Zander. “You can have words, pictures, diagrams and maps all together. You can’t do that all together in any other medium.”

Educators around the country seem to agree. Kevin once received an email from a high school principal in a rough neighborhood who was inspired by educational comics to start offering a graphic novels course in his school. “I’m excited that people are just giving comics a chance,” says Kevin. “Ten years ago if you said kids were going to be reading comics in class, parents would roll their eyes. Now schools are getting rid of the ‘there’s only one way to teach’ mentality.”

Even Zander and Kevin have learned a lot from their experiences. “The scripts tell us most of what we need to know,” says Zander. “But we need to do a lot of research and reading to make sure we really understand the material. It’s not enough to know what DNA replicating looks like, you need to be able to draw it in a way that makes sense to the average reader but is still scientifically accurate.”

If even the creators are learning from these comics, imagine how much the rest of us have to learn.

Reach Jeremy Zoss at jzoss@mnpubs.com.