The Curie Society, a 164 page graphic novel released earlier this year by MIT Press, tells the story of four young inductees to a secret society of science-loving, tech-savvy, butt-kicking women that has operated for centuries just under humanity’s radar. Writer Janet Harvey and artist Sonia Liao have reimagined a team akin to the League of Extraordinary Gentleman, just retold with young, brilliant female college students instead of old guys with various superhuman powers.
Educational comics have a spotty history, though educators have been trying to capitalize on the intersection of words and images to get students interested in material for decades. Professor of the Public Understanding of Psychology Richard Wiseman, who masterminded the recent Hocus Pocus series, has touted comics as a way to break through to students, as well as to capitalize on the mind’s ability to recall images more readily than rote facts.
That said, there have been a lot of lackluster infotainment comics produced by various educational organizations. I’ve winced at so many minor publications over the years brought to print with no budget, little understanding of sequential storytelling, and held together with the hope that amateur comic art will somehow get through to lesson-resistant middle-schoolers. One of the better examples, Spectra, launched in 2009 by the American Physical Society, had a nice run and taught many physics principles, but as a comic it was light on storytelling, art, and even lettering (I give them props on their pun game though: characters like Miss Alignment, General Relativity, and the Quantum Mechanic get a gold star for effort).
The Curie Society is absolutely a step up from these types of comics. This is likely because it doesn’t come from a stripped-down public school initiative or an artistically inclined PTA mom volunteering her time — no, this book was produced by an academic stronghold.
The writing attempts to weave a complicated pattern, introducing the four principal characters, a current plot as well as a flashback plot, all while wedging in science facts and some science futurism — not always easy to do without pulling readers out of the story with the cold, sad awareness that they’re reading something purposefully educational.
At first, I took issue with the way real science seemed mixed with sci-fi here, but the writers do a solid job delineating fact from fiction at the end of the book, in what’s termed a glossary but is really four pages of information versus what’s simply hopeful based on current science trajectories. We’re told, for instance, about the appearance of gastric brooding frogs and passenger pigeons, and that “de-extinction has not yet been used to resurrect either species (as of the printing of this book).” The authors don’t mention the thylacine that also appears in the story and, unfortunately, miss a great spot to include a quick note on the successes and failures of the Lazarus Project in Australia.
Any youngster who reads this will undoubtedly come away with some science knowledge they did not have before. They’ll also be introduced to some social justice and guerilla art terms like “projection bombing” and gain a sense of how female scientists throughout history have helped humanity with their discoveries.
Things get a little murky, though, if you think too hard about them. Knowing that academic presses typically have a years-long process of acquisition, development, editing, and printing, this book’s journey likely began before the COVID-19 pandemic. Since then, it’s become apparent how harmful the view of science as a “secret society” can be. Sure, it’s the stuff of comic books, but it evoked that same anachronistic feeling as watching movies with crowd scenes set in 2020 (but produced in 2019 or earlier): you think, “No, you fools! Put on your masks!” Or, in this case, I thought, “No, you fools! Don’t give fuel to the conspiracy-minded notion that science is done behind closed doors, by renegade, secretive organizations!”
Add to this unease the fact that, like Thanos, the “villain” in The Curie Society also views herself as doing the right thing for humanity, ecology, and the betterment of the world, which leads us to doubt the legitimacy of the group itself, and whether our narrators are being completely honest as to why they pursue patents and other money-making initiatives.
But, these are questions we can hope are answered in the next book. Also, I’m hoping the team gets some time in space, because despite the zero-G shenanigans depicted on the gorgeously-colored cover, most of the action in this volume of The Curie Society took place in an escape-room type initiation, followed by a thoroughly on-planet heist mystery.
The characters aren’t drawn child-like or butch, but rather non-sexualized. The male gaze is not only absent from the layout, it’s consciously countered. The full-body, loose outfits these young, female recruits are given resemble work uniforms one might find at an airport or factory. Every character, from the more feminine-dressing math whiz to the (possibly nonbinary) techie DJ and their older, wiser leader-with-a-past, just seems to dress comfortably. And the most physical of the team is also drawn with clear extra weight — not obese, but certainly not a size 2.
Inclusivity is also a star of the show, with females of diverse ethnic backgrounds in the leads, as well as supporting roles. No character seemed like a tokenized effort, either, though I did want for some deeper character development than could be mustered in the limited pages available. The Curie Society was published with some support from the MIT Press Fund for Diverse Voices, which aims to increase publication of books by or about “women and underrepresented groups from across the arts, humanities, and sciences.”
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