The New York Comic Con is three days of tightly packed comics action, a quick but enormous event in Gotham City. Sifting through the content, we ask some of our favorite comics creators questions on their craft in The A.V. Club’s Comics Questionnaire.
Despite her longtime fascination with math, science, and education, Maris Wicks ultimately chose to study art and pursue a career in cartooning. In Human Body Theater, making its debut at New York Comic Con, Wicks combined all of her interests, along with a flare for theatricality, into a graphic novel that is just as educational as it is adorable. The book presents human biology lessons as a stage revue, with the narrator being built piece-by-piece as each anthropomorphic part of the body is introduced and explained.
If an alien species discovered Human Body Theater as the only remnant of human civilization, what would they learn about us?
Maris Wicks: They’d probably just assume that we were a bunch of dismembered parts that had separate eyes and mouths. The liberty I take with giving faces to organic objects that are separate from the whole—there’s a lot of that. I don’t know if aliens know about puns or wordplay—that might confuse them because puns and wordplay don’t translate very well into other languages. When you get a pun in another language, that’s when you have learned that other language. It might not be the best handbook about our species. [Laughs.] I’m hoping that it’s a good handbook to give to our species to help them out.
The A.V. Club: It’s almost two steps removed from “To Serve Man.”
MW: Yeah! There’s no cannibalism in the comic, I promise! There are some very good meaty diagrams. I think that even the parts [of the book] that are weird and abstract would help. There’s a subway diagram of the arteries, veins, and capillaries with the capitol city being the heart. I think it would be an okay handbook, it depends. With aliens, it’s all comparative anatomy. “Oh, where do my parts go there?” I assume the aliens are going to be silicone-based because I know that’s a trope in, like, all of sci-fi.
AVC: Perhaps if we found a book like this about Martians, it would help us understand their anatomy and life functions.
MW: Yeah, maybe that’s my next book. I don’t really do fiction. Maybe it wouldn’t be fiction! Send me to space! That would be awesome.
If my résumé included a whole summer spent reading Human Body Theater, how could I spin that into valuable work experience?
MW: I guess it depends on what job you’re looking for. In terms of just pure content, I hope that it gives you the ability to share or inform people about basic human body stuff. When I say “simple and basic,” it’s actually not that simple and basic. I try to distill a lot of sometimes-complicated information into an accessible and digestible format—excuse the pun. If it’s not the content you’re interested in, I really think of these as gateway drugs for people to read comics. I’ve given my comics to adults who don’t read comics and don’t watch cartoons and they like them. I think there’s still a stigma of being like, “Oh, it’s cartoons! I can’t handle it, they’re too abstracted!” In reality, we respond really well to abstraction. Our whole society is based on symbols and that’s partially how we can visually communicate in really effective ways. I feel like it’s an awesome book to be like, “Oh, you can use comics as a vehicle to explain lots of things that we don’t normally think about explaining.”
AVC: Maybe cut down on paperwork in the office and focus on pictograms?
MW: Oh yeah, definitely. Everything comics. Everything. This is all information that every human being has been exposed to if they went to public school or private school. It’s stuff that you learn.
AVC: You might be overestimating the effectiveness of the American public school system.
MW: Well, maybe not necessarily some parts, but most second-graders learn the circulatory system and the respiratory system and the skeleton and stuff. We can get political about the reproductive system later. For me, a lot of that content, when I read it in a book that was just text with diagrams, I would glaze over a bit. My hope is that, by marrying those things together, having the diagram and fleshing it out—another pun, I do that a lot—it’s a new way to frame old information. That’s my challenge for myself, engaging you in a different way, even if you know the information.
If copyright law were no concern, what character from another game, comic, movie, etc. would you like to see crossover into Human Body Theater?
MW: There was this sculptural artist who did awesome anatomy of fictional characters. I want to see what Yoshi [from Super Mario Bros.] looks like on the inside! How does he poop out those giant eggs? Clearly he’s got a cloaca, because… eggs!
AVC: It goes from digestive system to reproductive system. What’s happening in the middle?
MW: The internet’s not always a great place. I’ve seen message board threads about whether or not Mario has “junk.” I don’t know why I ended up on those message boards! I’m going to blame Google. There’s a “Singin’ In The Rain” shoutout for the excretory system that’s basically the narrator swinging from a pole with an umbrella. I like that they [publisher First Second] let me get away with it because potentially it’s raining pee in that image, even though the rain drops are not yellow.
AVC: You don’t want kids knowing about golden showers at such an early age.
MW: I was going to make that joke, so thank you for making it for me. This makes me look a little less dirty. My dream is that some elementary school or middle school would adapt this into a play. It would be great if there were “Singin’ In The Rain” Gene Kelly-style dance numbers with ears and colons. I guess in terms of that kind of copyright infringement, I would love to see it danced or sang. That would bring me much joy.
AVC: That transitions perfectly into another one of our questions:
Let’s say Human Body Theater has been adapted into a Broadway musical. Describe the big show-stopping musical number.
MW: That’s my dream! Well, there’s already a chorus line of infectious organisms in there. Bacteria and fungi and viruses with sexy fishnet stockings doing the cancan—which I was also glad they let me get away with, I thought it was really funny. I picture in my head the ensemble number where all the body parts at the end are coming out, and they can’t really form a whole human because there’s some scale issues—the ear, theoretically, is the same size as a red blood cell. The face stuff could team up to form a kind of weird freakish face. I know it’s a musical, but I love when the camera pulls out to reveal the whole stage and they’re all happy, doing the same dance moves.
I’m really a big fan of the end of the musical when there’s reprises within the song so it shouts out to previous songs. If there was a musical number about pooping, it would be so great! And not just pooping, but the whole rigmarole. That’s kind of my favorite system. I would hope that it’s safer than the Spider-Man musical—I don’t want any of the body parts getting hurt, although there could be an opportunity for that with the immune system talking about clotting and things like that. Oh God, I want it to be a musical so bad. I also think there’s potential for some really funny Monty Python-esque sketches that are a little absurdist as well. I was born and raised on Monty Python. I feel like maybe Human Body Theater is not as classy as Monty Python, but I can hope.
AVC: Monty Python had some highbrow moments, but they also had some especially lowbrow moments.
MW: Is it The Meaning Of Life where they’re like, “This man is about to die.” And in my head he’s chased by topless women roller-skating, is that right?
AVC: Didn’t Meaning Of Life end with a man eating himself to explosion?
MW: “Oh no, sir! It’s wafer-thin!” He’s trying to give him an after-dinner mint. “No, I can’t! I can’t!” That was some Human Body Theater inspiration.
If Human Body Theater we’re the main course of a meal, what would be the appetizer and what would be the dessert?
MW: I really like cooking and baking. I’ve made a lot of thematic cakes. Most recently, there was this fantastic brain cake that was highlighted on Boing Boing and you’re giving me an excuse to make this brain cake instead of it being theoretical. Obviously dessert would be the brain cake. After you’ve read a book, why not treat yourself a little bit? I really like giving presentations about this book, and I really like being stupid in front of a large audience, so I feel like the appetizer would be me elaborating on the content. I took anatomy and physiology courses in college, but since I went to art school it was hilarious. They were like, “We’re going to do a lab! You’re going to learn how to take your own blood pressure!” And they made us run up and down the stairs and do resting heart rate—and when I had to lay down and get up, that’s when I figured out that my body is not so good at adjusting its blood pressure.
I really like doing in-person outreach about this book and about human body stuff in general. So you’d sit down to dinner with me and we’d nerd out a whole bunch and then you can read the book. I don’t have to be looking at you for two hours because that would be uncomfortable. While those two hours were happening, I’d be off making a fantastic brain cake. I’d have to make a pretty big brain cake depending on the audience, but that’s okay, I could do it. Everybody gets a slice. “It’s wafer-thin!”