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Friday Review: Clan Apis

You might have gleamed it from the title, but Clan Apis is a comic all about bees. It’s an educational story written and drawn by Jay Hosler, who has a Ph.D. and has worked with bees for many years, so the guy knows what he’s talking about. Now, you might say to yourself, “Jordan, why are you reading a comic all about bees?” And my response to that is “BECAUSE I CAN!” I dig deep for these book reviews, and this is the direction in which I dig.

In fact, I’d say this is one of the more unique comics that I’ve reviewed on this site. That’s because while it is a nonfiction, all of the information we learn is presented through a fictional story itself. When I picked up this book, I expected it to be full of captions explaining everything there is to know about the bee. Instead, we are taken through the story and presented with information as the characters learn. It works like this:

The story takes place during the lifetime of one bee, Nyuki (which I learned means bee in Swahili). Nyuki begins as a larva, and continues to grow throughout the comic. All along the way, she is presented with information about how bees function, what they do, and how they live and die. She is a blank slate. Thus, she is us, the reader. We learn along with her. The other characters in the story function as the author. But instead of overloading us with facts, he presents them naturally as they come up in the life of Nyuki. It’s an interesting method of conveying information, that I certainly found useful. I mean, I know next to nothing about bees other than they sting you and pollinate flowers, but I felt I learned a lot.

I think that, over all, this was the greatest strength of this story. If you were to try to sell a story about bees, a science comic book about bees, to a reader, it could be tough. They might want a little more explosion filled action. However, once you start to read it, you realize that this is not a stuffy educational text. The presentation of information happens in a very natural way. When something happens to Nyuki that she doesn’t understand, some older, wiser bee explains it to her. So, when you’re reading, it doesn’t come fact after fact, which could potentially make the text somewhat dry. As I said, I expected to open this book up and be flooded with captions explaining the biology of bees. But, when you put in fictional elements, such as Nyuki being lost from the hive and meeting other bugs, it functions in a way that doesn’t make learning feel like work. When she meets Sisyphus, the cleverly named dung beetle rolling his dung, we learn about ecology, and the laws of nature. It’s quite interesting really. Hosler is able to put things into a certain focus that captures even the layman like myself. I can see this being a very helpful text in the classroom. In fact, the end notes of the book mention contact information if you wish to do so.

From Clan Apis, 2000

Now, the other thing that Hosler does to make this story flow is injects it with emotion. I wasn’t sure what the actual bees would be like, if anything at all. But he punctuates the story with both humor and sadness. The humor, admittedly, is a little hit or miss. But Nyuki is supposed to be one of those people who can’t help but make terrible jokes, so that’s OK. She works with a lot of puns. But it was the sadness that really hits you, probably because it’s not as common as the humor. But the scenes meant to illicit these feelings really got me. Hosler did a good job investing us in certain elements of the story, even though we already knew that the lifespan of insects isn’t that long. He was able to personify the bees and various insects in a way that, while they were still bugs, made them relatable to the reader. This, to me, is a strong move when making a comic aimed at teaching. As I say (working with kids at the library) often times kids learn best when they don’t realize they’re learning.

Now that I’ve written about the story for a very long time, I’m going to, without segue, jump into the art. That is, after all, the other half of this whole comic thing, right? I’m sorry that I’m so bad at this.

While reading this book, Hosler’s art bounced back and forth for me, reminding me at times of Bone, and then Usagi Yojimbo. This is not to say the man doesn’t have his own style, just an observation I made. His art is more realistic than many of the cartoonists I’ve read in the past. Which makes sense, because he is depicting nature and teaching us. I did find myself studying the drawings he made of nature, and how he distinguished flowers, grass, trees, the backgrounds, etc. Because, as you know if you’ve drawn comics, you have to pay attention to those backgrounds! This is also another book in black and white (sorry, it just works out that way! I’ll…try and find some color next week), and I often times found myself stopping to admire the black and white balance of a page. There were big sections of black in the background (a mountain, for example), with white sections in the front (like a tree), that guided the eye wonderfully and, for me, were just fun to look at and study.

Clan-Apis-hero1

You can tell the man knows his stuff, not only through the story, but through the depictions of the wild and the different bugs throughout. The bees are drawn most realistically, I think. I mean, they are the main focus. And with drawing so many of them all the time, I really have to tip my hat to Jay Hosler. The man likes his bees. Most of the time, there was kind of a lot going on in the panels, but you never feel lost, because there’s always an anchor point. And, as I said, panels are constructed in a way that flow, so I never wondered what was going on. This is a key point for me because clarity, above all, is the goal of visual story telling.

This was an interesting book. A science comic, the first one I can ever recall reading. As you can tell, I found it worth reading. I mean, I know a lot about bees now that I never would have other wise. This is the sort of comic I would also recommend to educators. It makes information digestible, and students could benefit from this type of story telling. I think the things I learned will stick with me more so than had I read them in a textbook. I’m interested to see what other works Jay Hosler has, and what other comics I can find like this one. So finally I can prove once and for all the value of sequential story telling to those hold outs! There’s something to buzz about. Oh, God, sorry about that.

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