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on December 27, 2008
It is no small task to explain how atoms form into chemicals, chromosomes, and the proteins which make up 'the stuff of life'. But Mark Shultz attempts to do that in just under 150 pages. Schultz uses a graphic novel format and copious illustrations to make this sometimes daunting topic accessible to the general reader. The book uses a visual learning style, mirroring each point with an illustrations as it drives through Shultz's text, which can sometimes be as dense in information as the coiled strands of DNA the book is attempting to explain.

The premise for the book is that an intelligent race of Squinch (similar to our sea cucumbers, but intelligent) are in peril as their species lacks genetic diversity. Coming to the rescue is Chief Scientist Bloort 183 who presents a galaxy-spanning report on the nature of Earth's DNA and genetics. Bloort must explain to his Supreme Highness how the reproductive strategy used by Earth's creatures brings about species diversity and why it is a winning strategy for life.

The text is written at a level suitable for high-school and college freshmen. My seventh-grader, who is studying genetics as a part of her curriculum said most of the book was over her head. I would recommend following up this book with a more in-depth exploration provided by MIT's OpenCoursware biology 700 series of video lectures, which are the lectures MIT provides its Freshmen.

The pace is very brisk and at times the terms and concept come fast and furious. Bloort does pause to make sure that the his Highness is able to recap one or two of the key points. The book does well when it uses the illustrations to explain some of the more difficult to grasp concepts, such as those related to molecular and cellar-level genetics. And it is at its best when it slows down long enough to explain a particularly difficult concept using more than a single example to illustrate the point. For the most part the illustrations worked well to reinforce the point being discussed, but the illustrations are also used as a counterpoint, providing some light-hearted relief.

In trying to explain genetic diversity the book starts with atoms, shows how they self-assemble into DNA and RNA and explains the processes RNA uses to copy DNA or assemble amino acids and proteins. The book does an excellent job of explaining the workings of chromosomes and inheritance, illustrating how the shuffling of genes leads to dominant and recessive traits, such as eye color. Genetic mutations are explored, part of nature's arsenal for genetic diversity. The book also touches on the genetic relatedness of all Earth's species and delves into the latest efforts of the Human Genome Project to read the entire DNA code for our own species.

The book makes several brief stops to touch on topics of social interest, such as the politicization of science by the Soviet Union, cloning as it was used by vintners, and genetic counseling.

The book is not without its blemishes, such as page 44 "DNA from a Human Perspective, Part 2," which appears twice, including once where p36 should be. Part 1 seems to be missing due to an editorial or printing error. Nevertheless, this page exists to redress the wrong done to Rosalind Franklin, a female scientist and co-discover of DNA's structure, who originally went uncredited for her work in helping to discover the double helix shape of DNA. James Watson and Francis Crick received the lion's share of credit (and a Nobel Prize) for the discovery of the shape of DNA, but their work was most likely aided by access to Franklin's fine X-ray photographs of DNA's structure. Perhaps because of the male-dominated times, and partially because Franklin died of breast cancer before the Nobel prizes were awarded, she receives prominent mention in this section, returning her to a place in history posthumously.

Another minor nit occurs on page 128, which shows the split with proto-humans and chimps from a common ancestor, but would be more correct if it depicted the split as being between proto-humans and proto-chimps, since chimps, as well as humans, continued to evolve genetically during the past 5-million years.

This slender volume packs in a good deal of information, and is a fine way to gain a better understanding of the subject of life and how it works under the covers. The graphic novel format draws readers in and I found myself rooting for Bloort as he makes his case for understanding the science behind our genetic success.
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on March 16, 2009
I bought this book because I am always looking for new ways to teach things to my high school students. After reading it, I went to my department head and (after he looked at the book) had little trouble convincing him to buy a classroom set to use to teach the basics of genetics. My class is now about half-way through the book and the students all seem to enjoy taking some time out to read (no mean feat in and of itself), and some have even said that seeing the pictures in the book has helped them with topics they were having trouble with.
One word of warning is that some of the words used that are unrelated to science are a bit advanced (a great opportunity to teach more vocabulary), but the terms related to genetics are well explained and there is even a glossary to help students still having trouble.
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VINE VOICEon January 26, 2009
Great framing device, great artwork, wonderful idea. There is simply no way to make the "basics" of genetics easy. With this book, a limit has been reached for how basic the explanation can be made without fatally sacrificing accuracy and specific, vital information. Having the visuals is essential in this effort, because no amount of description could do the job of these graphical representations accompanying the narrative. For the patient, intelligent, curious person of at least junior high age, this is a wonderful introduction to the topic. As one of the characters in the book says, the difficult genetic science has been "front-loaded" in the earlier chapters so that later chapters can focus on the more startling and fascinating implications of that science.

One specific great thing, and one unfortunate thing: Kudos for giving Rosalind Franklin her due. Her work was essential to the "discovery" of DNA structure credited to Crick and Watson, and with a couple of well-chosen sentences, her rightful status is acknowledged.

And unfortunately, the copy that I purchased was victim of some strange printing accident that put some pages in the wrong order and repeated a section. The material is challenging enough...I really needed to have the book put together in perfect order.
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on April 9, 2011
This wonderful book uses the power of extensive, inventive graphics paired with well-chosen text to illustrate and explain many important aspects of genetics and DNA. It introduces concepts at a level basic enough for the general reader, but also includes material detailed and deep enough to interest an expert. The graphic style and panel layout are reminiscent of a comic book only in the best sense -- they make the reading experience rapid and effortless.

For entertainment value the factual content is woven into a story involving hyperintelligent invertebrates which inhabit the planet Glargal and vaguely resemble sea cucumbers. The Glargalians are plagued by a heritable disorder which threatens their existence, and they have launched an extensive study of Earth creatures in an effort to understand and perhaps cure their own genetic affliction. The narrator of the book is the interplanetary biologist Bloort 183, who is reporting on his findings to the Glargalian leadership council. The obsequious behavior of Bloort toward the supreme leader provides comic relief, but the background story is wisely kept exactly that -- it interferes not at all with with the book's main objective, which is to transmit Bloort 183's copiously illustrated report directly to the reader.

The story begins with a brief reprise of our planet's origin, the appearance of lightning-induced chemical compounds, their extension into self-reproducing molecules, and self-assembly of the first unicellular bacteria. More detail is added as the narrative progresses to multicellular organisms, prehistoric flora and fauna, and eventually hominids. The remaining 90 percent of the book explains and illustrates in considerable depth the reproductive and genetic characteristics of modern animals and humans, both at the cellular level and as expressed in the resulting variety among individuals.

A primary source of the book's ability to sustain reader interest is the highly successful integration of text and graphics. An excellent script by Mark Schultz is ingeniously (and often humorously) rendered in a pictorial style that continuously illustrates why the bromide "a picture is worth a thousand words" has proved so durable. Mr. Schultz's job was to create a concise but comprehensive textual frame which allows the graphics to amplify the message with maximum impact and efficiency. In this he succeeds remarkably well, with interesting and significant points appearing on practically every page as the scientific framework of genetics and heredity unfolds logically (technical content was vetted for accuracy by David C. Bates).

Helpful coverage is given to historical context, including the personalities and scientific discoveries underlying molecular biology. A series of ten special "perspective pages," distributed throughout the book, covers relevant background topics such as personalities related to DNA, the structure of chromosomes, the mechanics of inheritance, the politics of genetics, and common misunderstandings about mutants. An illustrated glossary helps with many of the technical terms which inevitably arise in texts reaching explanatory levels beyond the trivial.

The artwork by Zander and Kevin Cannon (who are, incidentally, not related) is central to the ease with which the book clarifies difficult biological concepts. The clever graphical metaphors shamelessly anthropomorphize things like genes and proteins, but in such a broad and amusing way that no reader will be misled. Examples of outstanding graphical creativity abound, and one of the best is a portrait of the DNA molecule on page 26. I have seen many illustrative DNA schematics before, but this full-page portrait in extremely strong perspective, with well-chosen comments tucked in along the sides, is a virtuoso performance in vivid scientific communication. The base pair rungs and sugar-phosphate side chains stand out clearly without compromising the unavoidably complex spatial relationships enforced by the twisting dual helices.

Overall, I found reading "The Stuff of Life" a delightful and enlightening experience.
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on April 22, 2012
Shultz, aided by his illustrators, is a very good tutor. Far from trivializing, the book gives a substantial introduction to the complex topic. However, the easy reading can be deceptive as it still takes work to understand this complicated subject. A good memory is still a requirement as I found reviewing and use of the glossary to be essential. Contributions of Mendel, Darwin, Morgan, Watson, Crick and others are well detailed, as well as biology of cells, mechanics of reproduction, and the role of DNA in heredity and maintenance of life. Ethics of cloning and GMOs is covered with little bias. History of human evolution and projection for the future is examined with just a bit of speculation. The rest of the book is totally factual. This is the best I've seen for a comic book form tutorial on any subject.
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on September 29, 2009
It makes all the sense in the world to convey such complicated scientific information visually in a format that's friendly and not at all intimidating. In fact, this thoroughly comprehensive guide to genetics and DNA somehow manages to be downright whimsical and entertaining throughout.

This isn't really surprising given the chops of award-winning author and sequential artist Mark Schultz and outstanding illustrators Zander and Kevin Cannon.

The only hitch I have is that the silhouetted girl on the front cover uneasily reminds me of those reclining women on mud flaps.

All in all, however, this text is a brilliant idea brilliantly executed!
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on November 24, 2009
Those of us who didn't exactly fly through our science courses (there's a reason some of us turned to English) will appreciate The Stuff of Life. I imagine most everyone would, even the scientists and science enthusiasts who managed to grasp difficult theories and concepts early on. The Stuff of Life is incredibly thorough and, best of all, wonderfully accessible for experts and laymen alike.

The book has already been tagged with high praise and awards (a Great Graphic Novels for Teens nominee from YALSA, a Scientific American Book Club Alternate Selection, a feature in Wired magazine). It's a bit difficult to decide where to place the book: It's scientifically accurate, a point it rightfully prides itself on, but it's also a quite fictional account of an asexual alien race attempting to learn more about our planet. So, fiction it is, but keep in mind that the data is sound here. In fact, the book is the first in a planned series devoted to teaching real and accurate science through graphic novels.

Writer Mark Schultz and artists Zander and Kevin Cannon deserve praise for taking such potentially dry topic material and making it not only understandable but also fresh. It's not childish (although it does have touches of that) and it's not so irreverent that it misses its own point. The Stuff of Life has a daunting task: Walk the fine line between education and entertainment without veering too far off into either direction.

It succeeds in that way because it doesn't take itself too seriously. Science, on the other hand, is a different matter entirely. That it definitely takes seriously. The entire scope of genetics gets its due throughout the book, spanning some five million years of human existence and incorporating the vast and wonderful array of life on the planet. The book has a distinct sense of wonder about the entire thing, and it's hard not to get swept up in it. It's just so exciting to think about, so awe-inspiring and incredible. It turns out there was a lot we all should have been paying attention to in science class. Luckily, it's not too late.

-- John Hogan
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on January 31, 2013
She's learning about DNA from it. Really a good book, and I'm hoping Mark can come up with some third book so I can find out if the aliens can ever get rid of their inherited disorder. I like those guys, despite their Lovecraftian appearence.
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on March 21, 2015
My first impression of this book, when I realized that it was in comic book format, was "what a waste of money". My last impression, after reading and re-reading the book (because it was so good) was "what a most excellent book". I loved the good explanations coupled with the illustrations of every concept.
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on July 21, 2012
This book is excellent for a comprehensice introduction to DNA and genes. Presented in a cmic book form that even my grandchildren (ages 12 & 15) can use to supplement school instruction.
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