Most comic book fans see Free Comic Book Day as a time to score some free loot, and also a great opportunity to jump into a series they may not have read previously. But Jeremy Whitley, writer of UNSTOPPABLE WASP, and chemical and bio-molecular engineer Tamara Robertson took it up a notch. At Jeremy’s signing at Ultimate Comics in Raleigh, North Carolina, Tamara presented science demonstrations that recreated the powers of various Marvel characters. You can read more about the event here.
We followed up with Jeremy and Tamara to hear a little about how the event played out—and let’s just say, we wish we could have gone!
Marvel.com: Can you tell us about the general reaction from the audience? Did they seem engaged?
Tamara Robertson: The audience was full of energy and very excited about [Free Comic Book Day]. The tent was literally buzzing all day.
As far as my “Marvel at Science” [Super Hero] Science display, I was at a great place so the science display was in direct eye line for the audience, which drew everyone in and towards the table. There wasn’t anyone that came to the event that didn’t stop by to check out the experiments; I even had our security staff stopping by during their breaks to determine what I was up to—a few jokingly asking if I was doing “Breaking Bad” science for the kids!
Jeremy Whitley: Absolutely! We had lots of people excited about UNSTOPPABLE WASP, but I think the real star of the Free Comic Book Day show was Tamara and her experiments based around heroes of the Marvel Universe. Kids loved getting to play with the experiments and getting a chance to learn some science while they were at it.
Marvel.com: The goal of the event was to engage families—tell us a little about interacting with the kids.
Tamara Robertson: There was a large number of children at the [store], which was one of the best parts! So many parents were getting the chance to introduce their children to their favorite comics and characters from when they were young, as well as discover new characters! The kids brought great energy and a few were even in awesome costumes! They were definitely having fun.
As far as my display—the time flew as I would go through all four displays with each child and they seemed to love all of them, lots of laughter and large smiles! My favorite part was that while I was able to draw them in with my Venom Magnetic Slime engulfing my rare Earth magnet, they were excited the whole time and always ended strong—literally—with my She-Hulk demonstration. Getting to see little girls and boys out Hulk their fathers and bigger friends utilizing science was not only exciting for me but was by far the biggest crowd pleaser of all! It also enabled me to end with the slogan “Science always wins.”
Jeremy Whitley: This is one respect where I consider myself really fortunate as a comic creator. Between my work with Marvel and my creator-owned work with my all-ages series Princeless, I get to interact with a lot of young readers. Kids are always the most excited about meeting the people who make the comics, and they always have the most interesting questions. I’ve had a couple of kids approach my table with notebooks and pens to ask important questions and take notes. They’re the sharpest fans we’ve got. They inspire me to get back to work making comics!
Marvel.com: What did you enjoy most about the event?
Tamara Robertson: My favorite part was that, when I would hear little girls asking where the girl comic books were, I was able to point them straight to Jeremy and all of his incredible comics. So many of the little girls would get excited when they would see all the different types of series he was offering and the older girls especially loved the UNSTOPPABLE WASP comics with not only strong girl leads but also all the great science! We had a bit of a boomerang system going on where I would send them to him for fun girl comics and he’d shoot them back for fun science.
My favorite part of my display was sharing with the kids that their favorite Marvel comic book heroes were scientists too! Most of them didn’t realize that they had STEM [Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics] role models already in the form of their favorite comic book heroes. It was truly awesome to get to not only share a science homage to four awesome super heroes but to also elevate the role of STEM in their lives in a way that helped kids see that science is cool.
Jeremy Whitley: I loved getting to see young minds at work. We had boys and girls picking up books and reading them right there, but on top of that, they’re never happy to just sit back and have the science side of things explained to them. You can see them thinking about it, hypothesizing about how and why things work. Some of these kids could be Agents of G.I.R.L. any day!
Marvel.com: You mentioned previously that you think stories like UNSTOPPABLE WASP can help to get girls—and kids in general—interested in pursuing science. Did that seem true for the kids in attendance?
Tamara Robertson: Comics actually have always done a great job of utilizing STEM in their stories but the issue is that most of the time it’s not elevated to a point that children realize the connection. For instance, most super heroes start out as everyday scientists, technicians, engineers or mathematicians and then something alters them genetically and enhances their overall abilities. This statement in itself is riddled with science, which is why comics have always been so awesome and why most STEM professionals are also big comic fans. In the cases where normal men become super heroes, [like] Tony Stark, their gadgets are engineered to enable similar enhanced abilities. Often times the stories themselves don’t concentrate directly on this amazing tech or these genetically altering origin stories but they’re definitely there to talk about. That’s one of the incredible things about stories like UNSTOPPABLE WASP: the science is in the forefront of the story.
I think that it’s important for children—and even adults—to be aware of the awesome STEM connections to their favorite comic book heroes, which is what I hoped to accomplish with my Marvel at Science – Super Hero Science display and what Jeremy accomplishes through UNSTOPPABLE WASP each issue. If we continue to help associate STEM with heroes and help people to see it as “cool,” we’re likely to inspire more children to pursue it and experiment with the world around them.
Jeremy Whitley: Absolutely! A lot of young WASP fans were excited to pick up the book, but just as much to dive into science. For every question about writing, girls had five times as many for Tamara about what she does and about the experiments she brought with her.
Marvel.com: Would you like to do similar events again in the future?
Tamara Robertson: This was my first opportunity to do STEM outreach at a comic book show and my first debut of Super Hero Science and I loved it! The crowd was so excited and engaged that the day flew by, and when I reflect back on the day through photos and stories, I get to relive the excitement as the children started connecting super hero powers with real life science! I think that this type of connection will help overcome the historical stereotype of scientists and inspire more children to STEM-related fields.
Jeremy Whitley: I would love to! I never get tired of getting to interact with comics’ youngest fans. If we had Free Comic Book Day several times a year, I’d be at every one.
Marvel.com: Did you pick up any free comics yourself? If so, which ones?
Tamara Robertson: The comic book store was awesome and had a set for me to take home, which I was excited to share with the kids in my family. Sadly I wasn’t able to get to share them with them myself but I know their parents are excited to do so and I can’t wait to hear which characters they liked the most. I stayed impartial since it will be their first exposure to comics.
Jeremy Whitley: Well, I picked up the new GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY, of course. My daughter snagged every comic she could find with a girl on the cover, as well as using her own money to buy a few books from fellow guest and comics writer extraordinaire Tini Howard.
Marvel.com: Which super powers did you find the most fun, interesting, or challenging to recreate? Which ones seemed to get the most involvement from the audience?
Tamara Robertson: When I created the Marvel at Science Super Hero Science display, I wanted to make an homage to some of my favorite super heroes. While I knew I couldn’t replicate directly their superpowers I wanted to showcase a scientific theory that would have a similar imagery so that kids would be able to connect the idea behind the science with a super power they knew.
For instance, Venom is obviously not a magnetic being—he’s an alien symbiotic creature—but watching an Iron Oxide embedded slime overtake a rare Earth magnet—albeit slowly—brings to mind Venom taking over Spider-Man. Kids quickly associated the takeover with Venom and were quite excited to learn more about how the slime was able to do what it did. So while the power itself wasn’t directly the same, it opened the door to talking to the audience about cohesion, adhesion, polymer development, and magnets overall. They especially loved the slime components.
I actually found myself explaining to every set of parents the ease of making the slime because most of them were trying to sneak off with it! Going into the day, I wasn’t sure if the kids would be interested in waiting as the slime overtook the magnet, but all of them were excited to watch and were amazed! I even had a set of boys that had theories on ways to make it move faster, and so during a slow moment we started testing out their hypotheses, which was super cool! They even utilized my “polymer chain” of paperclips to start testing the magnets power. Overall, they had a lot of fun learning!
From there I got to talk to them about Spider-Man and his awesome web. The way this came about was that prior to the show I visited Kyle Hill at Nerdist—he was our fearless leader on “MythBusters the Search”—and I told him about my Venom slime idea, to which he conjectured perhaps a slime embedded with Kevlar would be more Spidey web-like. This got my cogs going, and since I had the raw materials available, I figured I would try to see what would happen. At a first pass, it made the slime stronger but was limited by the shear tearing that occurs with the slime where the fibers weren’t prevalent. While at first I thought to hold off showing this idea, I realized that science is all about trying and sometimes not quite getting it right. The coolest part about this was, by sharing this story of ideation and development and inability for full practical application, I got to start this brainstorming session with children. They were all so excited about this idea of the same material the guards were wearing in their vests being in this slime and it maybe becoming strong enough to hold Spider-Man that they wanted to see this idea succeed. They offered up tons of alternatives and additions and were all engaged in what will hopefully become a second revision of the Spidey slime that I’m sure Kyle will be able to explain beautifully on “Because Science.” Overall, this was my favorite display because it enabled me to really drive home that there’s no failing in science but instead sometimes a bit more discovery than originally planned.
My sublimation demonstration was one that brought in a lot of viewers and left a lot of grown-ups giggling in nostalgia as they revisited their youthful days playing with dry ice and water bottles. While my demonstration wasn’t explosive, it was one which let the fog banks roll and even enabled the kids to take part in creation of clouds! The initial idea was to make full form dry ice bubbles, but due to the wind on the day of the exhibit, the surface tension on the bubbles resulted in immediate popping of the large ones. But the kids didn’t seem to mind as they enjoyed the smaller bubbles and the rolling clouds.
Perhaps the most surprising to me was that the most simplistic and honestly cheapest—at a whopping $0 in equipment gear—science demonstration was the one the kids loved the most! I knew that they would be excited to get to overpower their parents by utilizing horizontal force over vertical force, but it was the amazement in their parents’ eyes that really drove the “cool” factor up for the kids. Each group would get excited about the idea of who was the strongest and testing it and then would be in awe as they were suddenly outdone by the science of She-Hulk power. Even the parents and kids that were only sort of listening would start paying attention at this point which to me was quite fun.
Marvel.com: How did you decide what powers to try and recreate? How did you come up with the demos?
Tamara Robertson: Honestly, the demos were from fun science GIFs I had seen online over the last couple years that had made me think, “Hmm that reminds me of—insert super hero.” I’ve actually compiled a folder of them over the years, so when I got invited to do a STEM demo I thought, “this is perfect,” and I went through to find ones that I could do in a tent setting. Obviously, all the flame and explosion ideas were out, but there were still some pretty cool ones that would lend themselves to shock and awe. Since I enjoy working with kids in my outreach, I thought these homages would be good demos to connect their favorite super heroes with STEM while being simple enough that they could do them at home if they wanted. In fact, I had a large number of teachers come up to my displays to talk to me about how they work with the slimes in their class but would love to bring in some of the other displays and hadn’t thought to connect it with super heroes. To me, that was really cool; not just inspiring kids but helping those that work with them every day to get ideas for inspiration as well.
Marvel.com: Would you like to mention anything else?
Tamara Robertson: STEM inspiration is everywhere; it may not be in the forefront of every part of life but if you take the time to explore the world around you, it’s definitely there. Helping kids to make those connections is one of the easiest ways to start inspiring them to STEM; it doesn’t take a camp or an expensive toy—in fact sometimes it just takes going into your own backyard. Explore with your kids; learning doesn’t end with the school year and it doesn’t start with the bell. Every day is a chance to inspire them. Learning is living and the world is getting smaller and smaller—why not go discover it!
Jeremy Whitley: If anybody is interested in learning more about Tamara and what she does, we interviewed her in UNSTOPPABLE WASP #5, which came out the first week in May. And for people that got caught up on UNSTOPPABLE WASP at Free Comic Book Day and want more Nadia right now, I co-wrote issue #7 of AVENGERS with Mark Waid, which prominently features Nadia and Victor Von Doom and is available right now!