'Power Lines' explores humanity's messy relationship with nature through comics

Jared Gardner and Elizabeth Hewitt curated 'Power Lines: Comics and the Environment,' a compelling exhibit now on view at OSU's Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum

Joel Oliphint
Columbus Alive
A panel from a "Calvin and Hobbes" comic strip by Bill Watterson, Nov. 27, 1995.

One of the first things visitors see when entering the “Power Lines: Comics and the Environment” exhibition at Ohio State’s Billy Ireland Cartoon Library and Museum is a display case dedicated to the work of Rachel Carson, a marine biologist and conservationist who wrote the 1962 book Silent Spring, a bombshell investigation into the chemical industry and the adverse effects of DDT and other pesticides.

“Rachel Carson and Silent Spring, along with Carson’s congressional testimony that followed in the early ’60s, took environmental activism and environmental science and made it mainstream,” said Jared Gardner, an English professor, director of Popular Culture Studies at Ohio State and a frequent collaborator with the Billy Ireland Museum. Gardner curated “Power Lines” with wife, Elizabeth Hewitt, also an Ohio State English professor. The pair planned the show prior to COVID in response to student interest in environmental issues, particularly "texts that are serious about the crisis, but also optimistic about the possibilities for change,” Gardner said. 

Hewitt and Gardner provide proof for the influence and mainstream appeal of Carson, who died in 1964, through comic strips such as Charles Schulz’s “Peanuts” and Gus Arriola’s “Gordo,” both of which paid tribute to Carson in the 1960s.  

Near the display case at the room’s entrance, a large photo of the Earth taken from space, an image often referred to as the Blue Marble, looms over the framed comics beneath it. “The first images of that big Blue Marble from the Apollo trips was the first time we realized, holy cow, this place is kind of small and has boundaries. It’s the first time we really saw the Earth as a fragile whole,” Gardner said.

Carson’s work, the NASA images and the first Earth Day in 1970 all contributed to the mainstreaming of environmentalist movements that had been building for more than 50 years.

“For the first time, people are thinking about the damage we are doing as human beings to the world we live in. That extinctions are things we're making happen. … This is something that we are doing through our actions,” Gardner said. “Part of what we wanted to focus on is the role that comics play in [presenting] often very abstract issues. Thinking about the extinction of an animal on another side of the world is hard for people to wrap their minds around, but with cartooning and its distillation of images and words and its drive towards the icon, it works really well.”

Hiroshige's “Suwa Bluff, Nippori”, No. 15 in "One Hundred Famous Views of Edo," 1856.

While the bulk of “Power Lines,” which will remain on view through May 8, 2022, comes out of that pivotal time in the 1960s and ’70s, the exhibit touches on more than a century of comic strips, comic books and graphic novels that deal with humankind’s interactions with the natural world. One woodblock print on paper by Hiroshige dates back to 1856 and comes from the “One Hundred Famous Views of Edo” series, a tribute to the influential Japanese artist’s hometown.

Elsewhere, R. Crumb’s “Short History of America” (1981) reveals a colorful time lapse that transforms a lush, green landscape into a busy street corner with cars, power lines, a convenience store and streetlights beneath a smoggy sunset. Some of the images foretell apocalyptic doom, such as David Seavey’s “Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it” (1989), which depicts a toxic trail of oil barrels leading to a smoke-spewing factory beneath a blood-red sky. Others, such as Ed Dodd’s “Mark Trail,” an educational strip familiar to anyone who grew up reading the Sunday funnies, take a cheery approach to the outside world.  

"[Dodd] is the only one of all the many cartoonists who really loves nature and wanted to teach urban kids about nature,” said Gardner, adding that after Dodd’s death in 1991, Congress honored his titular character by designating a section of the Chattahoochee National Forest section as the Mark Trail Wilderness. 

Today, Charlie La Greca and Rebecca Bratspies carry on the tradition with “Mayah’s Lot,” a comic book series from the Center for Urban Environmental Reform focusing on the relationship between social justice and environmentalism. Hewitt said the series is being used in schools to talk about the importance of environmental issues in urban areas, particularly since communities of color are disproportionately impacted by the negative effects of climate change.

Art by Peter Kuper from his graphic novel "Ruins," published by SelfMadeHero in 2015.

Well-known comic strips such as Patrick McDonnell’s “Mutts” find a place in “Power Lines,” as does Bill Watterson’s “Calvin & Hobbes,” highlighted by a 1995 panel depicting Calvin romping through the woods with Hobbes and expounding on the pricelessness of the natural world: “We seem to understand the value of oil, timber, minerals, and housing, but not the value of unspoiled beauty, wildlife, solitude, and spiritual renewal.”

More:Patrick McDonnell steps out of 'MUTTS' world to make comics-inspired abstract paintings

Others are less known, such as “Nature Boy,” a comic book character from Superman co-creator Jerry Siegel that didn’t exactly catch on like the Man of Steel. “I love the idea that he's like, ‘OK, how do I follow up Superman? I know – Nature Boy!’” Gardner said.  

Over time, major industries caught on, realizing that comics were a way to reach kids with their own message. The American Iron & Steel Institute, for instance, riffed on “Mark Trail” to create the comic book “Mark Steel Fights Pollution,” hoping to convince young readers that the steel industry is environmentally conscious.  

On the flip side, in an effort to increase interest in the National Parks in the mid-1990s, the Grand Canyon Association created the “Eco Squad” comic book, featuring a group of superheroes defending the natural wonders of the parks. (At a young age, the curators’ son latched on to the series, which served as his intro to comic books.) 

Beautiful illustrations by modern comics artists Peter Kuper, Rachel Hope Allison and Noah Van Sciver round out the fascinating show. Gardner and Hewitt also made sure to include recent examples of Native voices such as the “Deer Woman” anthology and editorial cartoons about the Dakota Access Pipeline by Marty Two Bulls, Sr.

“We're talking here primarily about white cartoonists who have come out of mainstream comics – newspapers and comic book industries that have been overwhelmingly dominated by settler-colonialist perspectives,” Gardner said. “But in recent years, especially, there's been this explosion of excitement in Native and Indigenous cartooning that's been really focused on environmental issues and alternative perspectives.”

Richard Thompson, "Ozo Perm," 2000s.