Every February, to help celebrate Darwin Day, the Science section of AIPT cranks up the critical thinking for SKEPTICISM MONTH! Skepticism is an approach to evaluating claims that emphasizes evidence and applies the tools of science. Every day this month we’ll be highlighting skepticism in pop culture and skepticism of pop culture.
Caricature artist Celestia Ward recently spoke with psychology professor Richard Wiseman, the driving force behind Hocus Pocus: Magic, Mystery, and the Mind, an interactive comic series about the history and science of the paranormal, to talk about teaching through engaging, interactive comic artwork. You can purchase and/or download the series right here!
Celestia Ward: Tell me how you started working with comic writer Rik Worth and artist Jordan Collver.
Richard Wiseman: On Twitter, I saw they’d done a neat comic, which I loved, about [Harry] Houdini and [Sir Arthur] Conan Doyle. I contacted them and said “let’s do some illusion-based stuff,” and we produced a couple of illusions for my YouTube Channel, Quirkology, and they were great, wonderful to work with. And then I had this idea to create a magic-based comic to do with the paranormal — and we were fortunate to get some funds from an educational charity, and here we are.
Funnily enough, this time last year I was at a huge magic convention, literally, to the day, selling it, and so we must have been working on it for a year and few months now.
CW: How did you develop a comic book that performs magic tricks? Tell me the nuts and bolts of making that work.
RW: It’s basically a nightmare! So we wanted Issue 1 to be very special, because I was going to this big magic convention and there’s going to be 4,000 magicians there, all my peers and everything, and so we really worked on the interactivity. Because my background is in magic, and particularly interactivity, I sort of knew a lot of the tricks that we could use.
So when non-magician people buy the comic, there are three interactives in there, yes. But the reason it’s a nightmare, is that when magicians buy it, they get instructions for another three in there, which are secret ones.
CW: Oh, there are trap doors in this book!?
RW: HUGE! Huge, yeah! So it allows you to have it around the house, and then if a friend picks it up you can do magic with it, which are aside from the interactives that you’ve played with.
CW: So there’s two layers of Easter eggs in the book, like normal game play versus legendary game play?
RW: Yeah, so that was the nightmare. Integrating all of that with good stories and wonderful artwork, and making the whole thing not kind of like a pile of bits, but rather one coherent whole. And I think Rik and Owen and Jordan did an amazing job with that, it looks beautiful.
CW: What other little surprises are hidden in the books that we non-magician folk can look for?
RW: There’s a lot of in-jokes there if you know paranormal stuff and magic stuff. And there’s also a lot of cameos. Particularly if you know magic, each issue has probably got five or six people that’ll make you go, “Oh my goodness, that’s so-and-so!”
For example, in Issue 1, Richard Kaufman, who is a fantastic card magician and runs a magic magazine called Genii, is doing some card magic, and right next to him is a picture of a genie on the wall. And so it’s full of those sorts of things, and also full of in-jokes. It’s like a magic trick; hopefully it works on several different layers.
CW: This is reminding me of MAD Magazine’s Will Elder, who describes the little layered gags he would draw into backgrounds as “chicken fat,” because it added layers of flavor even if those gags didn’t advance the plot.
RW: I didn’t know that … MAD also did a really wonderful folding piece which made David Copperfield disappear!
CW: Ah, yes — Al Jaffee, he did the trademarked MAD fold-ins for like 65 years, and retired at age 99 just recently!
RW: Amazing! Yeah, so we were inspired by some of that with some of the folds. And then in issue 2, Rik had this amazing idea where if you have a black séance on one side of the page and then how it was all done on the other side, then by shining a light through, on the black side, you see how it’s all done … it’s like you’re an investigator in the dark shining this torch through. I was very skeptical, and then he showed it to me. It works brilliantly!
CW: You are making me sad that I can only download the first issue, as the hard copy completely sold out. But I’ll be getting the others in print. Are there any plans to reprint the first book?
RW: No, no. It’s gone. The three embedded magic tricks I’m talking about are in that first issue.
CW: Let’s say a store has a psychology section, a history section, a science section, a skepticism section, a magic section. Which section should Hocus Pocus be shelved in?
RW: All of them! There should be an issue in every single one of those sections. Ha! Of those, probably not the psychology section. Actually, it would be brilliant if there were a skepticism section. Anyway, so I would guess the magic section or paranormal section. I would think that if you’re into any of the topics you just mentioned, hopefully you’ll enjoy it.
CW: You’ve offered the books as hard copy and free download. How did you decide on that? Did you think from the start that it should be free because of the educational value?
RW: I went to a comic convention very early on in this process and decided it was very, very hard to make money by creating comics. That just seemed to me a tricksy thing to do as an independent. So we did get the grant, and that funds the comic. And what’s fantastic about the web is that anyone anywhere can download it for free. It’s proved very, very popular, with about 2,000 downloads so far. I know teachers are using it as a free resource.
And then it just seemed to us that there’s enough people in magic, and in comics, that would want a hard copy. Because it looks so beautiful, the weight of the cardboard and so on. So we printed I think a couple of hundred issues of the later books, and 700-800 of the first issue, which has kind of turned them into collector’s items, which is quite nice.
CW: So readers should order their hard copies right away?
RW: We are very unlikely to reprint so yes, once they’re gone, they’re gone.
CW: You’ve covered mind reading, séance, and ghosts in the first three issues, and the fourth is going to be prophecy. Can you tell us what will fifth and final book be? My money is on ESP or telekinesis.
RW: Telekinesis is remarkably close to where we’re going; it’s the one area of the paranormal we haven’t covered. So yes … sort of mind over matter. It’s probably the most challenging in some ways, but the one I’m looking forward to most. Each one is an astonishing amount of work. Rik, Jordan, and [colorist] Owen [Watts] are a wonderful team to work with.
CW: What is the timetable for the last two issues?
RW: Numbers 4 and 5 will be out towards the end of the summer.
CW: Your professorship is specifically for the public understanding of psychology. So what hopes do you have for the educational part of this? Do you have plans to integrate some of the stories into lesson plans for teachers?
RW: Yes. For issue 1, that lesson plan is already on the website, so people can download it as extra information. I’m a huge fan of self-learning, to be honest. That’s where people do their best in terms of learning. We’ve already carried out big experiments with the comic, where we had about 400 people look at the comic versus just text versus with or without a magic trick. And we know the comic is far more engaging, far more entertaining, and particularly if you’re into comics, this is a very good way of getting information; it’s a good format for that.
So my hope is there are people of all ages out there that are driven by the graphical elements, that will go, “This looks beautiful, I won’t read 20 pages about a mind reader, but when it’s put like this I will.” And that each story has enough factual content to kind of really get them curious. The J. B. Rhine one in the first issue has a lot of information on how not to do an ESP experiment and so on. Then people can go online and dig deeper.
CW: On that note, you know of Scott McCloud’s work on the use of comics as tools for understanding things. Do you agree with much of what he says, on the value of comics for education?
RW: Yes, a lot of that’s covered in the paper we’ll release about Hocus Pocus reasonably soon. It’s going through peer reviewing now, so it’s been accepted. It’s lovely to do an experiment on your own work and find out that it’s effective!
So, weirdly, I’ve written I think 13 popular books now, and I’m not a fan of words. As a kid I struggled to read. I’m a very visual thinker. So I loved comics, I collect old magic comics. I have a big stack of them in the next room from the 1950s onwards, with Blackstone and so on. And it seems to me, it’s the perfect way to say, “This is the really important stuff, and here’s a way of making it really jump off the page if text isn’t your favorite medium.”
And we know that visual memory is way better than textual memory. In fact I’ve done studies where people will remember 10,000 images in a week with no problem at all. Try doing that with 10,000 chunks of text and see where you get.
CW: So I should start drawing my grocery list?
RW: Yes, exactly! We’re not built for text. Our brains are built for imagery. As you look around, all the time you’re being bombarded with visual imagery, and we don’t find it at all difficult. We navigate through rooms and remember where we’ve been. So my guess is that people will remember those sort of key images much, much longer than if they just read them in text. So I agree with all of that work, I think it’s a great way of getting science education, and education in general, out there.
CW: How did you choose the stories you wanted to tell? Are there any figures you wish you could have incorporated?
RW: We decided them pretty much in the same way as I decide content for my books, which is we read around a lot, we had a meeting, and we gave ourselves about an hour to decide all of the content. Because I know otherwise what happens is you start to “ummm” and “uhhhh” and you start to question your own judgment. So I just think the answer is to read around, and then go, “Right, there’s the task, boom boom boom, let’s do it and get on with it.”
And occasionally we’ve had some road bumps, where a story didn’t quite work for us and so we dropped it. But I think pretty much 90% of the content we decided in that hour has ended up in the comics, which has always been my experience with books as well. You sort of know it, you might as well blurt it all out and get on with it. The only one we’re missing because he didn’t fit in anywhere is Gef the talking mongoose. Gef deserves a comic of his own, and he’s a hard story to tell … If we do a Hocus Pocus series two, hopefully he’ll take over by the end of the series.
CW: So then, what are the chances of Hocus Pocus series two?
RW: Rik and Jordan are working on a few ideas that will play on the same themes, but it won’t be Hocus Pocus as you know it.
AIPT Science is co-presented by AIPT and the New York City Skeptics.
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