Feb 28

Under the Funnies: Carbon Dating

In this interview series, I speak with other comic creators to learn about their work! Here, I have a conversation with Kyle Sanders of Carbon Dating.

Travis Blair: Hi, Kyle! Thanks for agreeing to speak with me. If you don’t mind, I’m going to start by saying I’m a nosy person, who likes to question everything. But before I get to anything else, could you please summarize Carbon Dating? I’d rather people not just take my opinion on it.

Kyle Sanders: That’s good you like to question everything, it’s what I’m all about. Carbon Dating is about science, pseudoscience, and geeky relationships. It follows the budding relationship of two science geeks and their friends, all of whom cling to a favorite pseudoscience or two. For example, their barista friend is a new age self-help addict. Their athletic friend is all about “performance enhancing”. The goal is to have fun promoting science literacy, and my philosophy is that if you can get someone to laugh at their unscientific ideas then maybe they’ll take them less seriously.

Travis: I like it! Has this mission of the comic taken it anywhere? I would think the premise of Carbon Dating would be especially appealing to those within facets of the science community.

Kyle: The strip is very popular with readers of XKCD and SMBC, who really paved the way for science comics. It’s much easier to be the only cartoonist at a science convention than it is to be the only scientist at a comic convention. For this reason I think it is important for cartoonists to think hard about their niche, and why specificity in your chosen theme can work to your advantage. Look at Questionable Content, a romance comic that can always fall back on indie rock. The last thing we need is another gamer webcomic, what other passions can you tie in? My niche is the Skeptics community. Skepticism is simply applying evidence-based investigation to ridiculous claims – like alternative medicine, or ghost hunters, or bigfoot – and to educate people about how easily they can be fooled by simple gimmicks and hoaxes. I now illustrate full-page comics for Skeptic Magazine, the strip is republished in the Skeptical Inquirer, and I’ve spoken at The Amazing Meeting in Las Vegas which is one of the largest skeptics conventions hosted by the James Randi Educational Foundation. I’m excited to be talking at DragonCon’s Skeptrack this summer.

Travis: So you’re proving that you can create a comic about a topic that interests you, that can be seen as a niche, and make it work to your advantage provided you put in the effort. I like that, and as a bonus, you are also bringing an additional form of media to a subject. Your recent comics cover vaccinations. Doesn’t taking a side of any topic mean you lose some mass appeal, on top of already being about a specific topic?

Kyle: Let’s be honest, if you’re drawing a webcomic you will probably never have a huge audience, and if you do it will be because of your authenticity, not self-restraint. I think that expressing an opinion should always come before maximizing appeal, you may lose some quantity, but you’ll gain quality in your readership. Remember, 1000 true fans is all you need! As for vaccinations and most of my topics we’re talking science where personal opinions don’t matter, the evidence matters. My goal is to address these topics in a friendly way that might change someone’s mind. But if you have an opinion or cause you care about, don’t be afraid to say it with your art.

Travis: You bring up a valid point. Often I’ve heard in many forums, not just with comics, that it’s best to produce for the audience. Though I understand why, there’s a certain feeling to the entertainment with that authenticity you mention. Like, it’s been imbued with their personality. Which of your comics brought about the best discussions at the conventions you attend? I’ve seen quite a few that would be great to bring up with a friend of mine, who I would call a skeptic.

Kyle: I strongly feel you have to write what you enjoy, write what you would want to read, and those are the projects that will resonate with people. In any case, you’re the one who is going to have to draw this for years to come, if your heart isn’t in it you’ll give it up too soon. For example I also host a lot of local science outreach events, where a lot of my inspiration comes from. Of all the topics in uncontroversial science made into controversial politics that I write comics about – evolution, climate change, vaccinations, scam alternative medicines – unquestionably people get angriest over produce. Vegetables. If you say that GE crops are demonstrably safe and you might have to duck behind your wall of published studies to avoid the organic tomatoes being flung at the stage. Genetic engineering versus organic farming is the most hotly debated, fiercely emotional topic I’ve dealt with. I’ve had a woman totally lose it when I told her that organic farming uses pesticides just like everyone else, she refused to believe it. On this topic people are arguing with lots of bad information, but totally willing to come to blows at the farmers market.
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Travis: It seems with enough conviction, wrong information can spread as if truth. This can be bad, especially when it concerns peoples’ health. You are deeply involved with your interest, participating in multiple events. What are some lessons you have learned being a comic creator in the science community?

Kyle: Well first, don’t believe information you find in a blog. But second is that emotional impact really matters. Humor and sympathy can change minds faster than any well-rehearsed and properly referenced talking point. Scientists work very hard to make life better, and make discoveries to help people, only to find out that nobody notices or even believes them. It’s not their facts that have failed, but how they failed to convey their findings with good emotional arguments first. Especially now, every message you send online is a part of your personal brand. People are not just subscribing to your comic, they’re subscribing to your Facebook, and twitter, and email list, and Patreon because they enjoy what you have to say and most of all how you say it. So give a little thought to everything else that goes into your comic besides the art.

Travis: The way something is presented really makes a difference in how something is perceived, I agree. Now your comic helps present science in a humorous way, that can be shared through social networks and discussed among friends. What do you do first when you have material inspired from events and conventions, to turn them into comics? Do you choose characters? Decide how you want to debunk it? Plot how you want to present a possible opposing side?

Kyle: To be honest, writing starts with a punchline. I always carry around a tiny Moleskine to capture anything that might make for a good punchline, usually arguments that my friends are having. Otherwise, I start with a topic that has come up recently and try to figure out what is most frustrating about it. Starting with the third-panel punchline and working backwards makes for the best comics, sometimes forcing a punchline just doesn’t. At this point I’ll consider my characters, and who is most likely to be in that situation, and which character would provide the best balancing perspective. From here I fill in the context and setup of the first two panels. I’ll tweak the wording over and over in a process that improv calls “more awesome”, looking for a way to elevate the stakes or exaggerate the verbiage more. This is all in the dialogue, then at the end I’ll think of a good scene, what they’re doing, how I see them reacting and write those thoughts for my artist, Elisa. The hardest part is finding a balance between science topics, character development, and story. Story is the hardest to work in without watering down the setup in only three panels.

Travis: One would almost say that you have your method down to a “science”!

You cited a rich skeptic community, as well as an artist illustrating your storylines. Do you have a means of testing your comic “theories”? I once heard a science fiction writer tell about how a couple friends critique all of his work. Or is this one place where you prefer to stick to your beliefs?

Kyle: The comic itself is an experiment. From the outset my goal was to debunk the old “you have to draw a comic for two years before anyone notices you” trope. At the year point I had enough readers to raise $7000 on Kickstarter and hire an artist. We’re now a year and a half in, published in three national magazines in two languages, and just shot through the 2 million pageview mark. I don’t have many beliefs that I’m not willing to change if a better idea comes around, but investing in a niche community seems to be paying off so far. Now if anyone has ideas about how to make money with a webcomic, I’d be happy to test them out!

Travis: I’m glad your experiment is working in your favor. Kyle, I learned a lot speaking with you. Thanks so much for speaking with me!

Kyle: Lots of great questions. Thanks for getting to the bottom of these funnies, Travis!

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Check out Carbon Dating here!