“I Just Wanna Keep Doing This”: Jay Hosler on 20 Years of YA Comics

I first interviewed Jay Hosler roughly 20 years ago - the first interview I ever did for The Comics Journal (issue #261 to be precise). At the time, I was intrigued by a pair of projects Hosler had released through Active Synapse, his self-publishing label with Daryn Guarino, one of the founders of the Laughing Ogre comic retailer: Clan Apis (first a comic book series in 1998-99, then a graphic novel in 2000), about the life of a honey bee; and The Sandwalk Adventures (comic books 2001-02, graphic novel 2003), a look at the theory of evolution via a mite that happens to be living in Charles Darwin’s eyebrow.

Here were two “educational” comics clearly aimed at an "all-ages" market that really didn’t exist in 2003, as the medium was just then starting to be recognized as something that adults could read and appreciate without funny looks from the other folks on the bus. What’s more, these books didn’t pander to their audience or smother them with dull facts recited in bullet-point fashion. They were funny, clever, and thoughtful.

Now suddenly it’s 2023, and YA and middle grade comics (as they’ve been so dubbed) dominate both the bookstore and comic book market. Cartoonists like Raina Telgemeier and Gene Luen Yang have garnered not just acclaim but actual readers–be they parents, librarians, or kids–eager to plunk down hard-earned money for the latest story.

Hosler, a biologist on the faculty of Juniata College in Pennsylvania, has kept busy during this time period. He’s released a number of other graphic novels, most recently Santiago! (Margaret Ferguson Books, 2022), which delves into the early life of Santiago Ramón y Cajal, who won a Nobel Prize for his drawings that mapped out the human nervous system (among other things).

I thought it might be a good idea to reach out to Hosler–one of the pioneers of these types of comics–not only to talk about his new work, but also to get his take on how the industry has changed over the last two decades, and how those changes have made it easier and harder for him to get his comics in front of readers. He thought it was a good idea too, even though I was catching him at a rather traumatic period, as his family had just gone through a devastating house fire.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

-Chris Mautner

CHRIS MAUTNER: I don't want to start off with gloom and doom, but you've had you had a rather horrible mishap recently. Are you able to talk about it?

JAY HOSLER: Sure. So, April 14, we had put off doing our taxes. We were about to go to H&R Block at 6 o'clock that night. And there aren't too many things that I would want to get out of more than doing taxes, but having a house fire interrupt that trip was not exactly part of my plan. I think I would rather have done the taxes than watch things go up in smoke.

It was one of those situations where it was a Friday afternoon. My oldest son, Max, was home. I was working in my office at home, and he came upstairs, and he had just had an orientation interview for his PhD program. He's going to go to the University of Kentucky for mathematics, and he was just beaming. He's a low-key kid, so you know - him to be beaming and excited was really fun. And then 15 minutes later he's calling 911 and I'm grabbing all the photos that I can and carrying them out of the house.

Do you know what caused the fire at this point?

Yeah. An awful ground rodent, a groundhog of some sort bit into an unshielded wire. So it was an old house, and I think before us there had been a hot tub that had been connected and then disconnected before we came in, and some of the wires were relatively loose. And so that little creep found it and bit right into it. My only solace is that he was probably well and truly barbecued in the process.

He's a groundhog burger at this point.

It was for somebody. Somebody ate well that night.

And then, you know, it's an interesting thing about the community I live in. It's a little town of about 9,000 when we have students here. We had about 15 fire trucks show up. We live out in the country, so there are no hydrants nearby, so they're carting water from town and bringing it in.  But there were volunteer firefighters who were students of mine that I coached in track in high school. I had one current student in my freshman biology course who was one of the volunteers. One of the maintenance folks, Brian Cook, who I work with at Juniata, was driving the front truck. So, you know, a lot of familiar faces showed up to help put the fire out.

And then Lisa [Hosler's spouse]'s colleagues are teachers and I coach track with a local police officer who's also the resource officer for the high school. And he actually came out. So we're standing around during the fire as they're putting it out with people there to support us. And it turned out, Adam, who's the guy I coach track with, said, you know, we have our old family home, which we rent out as a bed and breakfast. It's fully furnished and if you want to rent that for however long, that's great.

Oh, nice.

We got scooped up by the community. We had 30 people come out and help us clear the wreckage and store stuff away.

And so, it sucks. But man, you know, it's hard to feel bad when you live someplace, and you apparently haven't been a horrible person. So that people, you know, come out and help you. In the end, nobody was hurt and things can be replaced and we're not alone. It was traumatic, but we haven't been shuffling through life for the last several weeks.

Well, that's good. When I saw those photos [on Hosler’s Facebook account] I was worried about you because I didn’t know how bad the devastation was. The house looks like it's completely gone. I don't know if you were able to recover anything at all.

The insurance technically totaled it, but there was stuff, like wood furniture, shelving, etc., that we were more than happy to put in the elbow grease and clean up with soot sponges and vinegar. And, you know, it happened mostly on the second floor, it started between the first and second floors. Lisa, all her clothes were in the basement. She likes to keep them by the laundry. And Jack, he was out of town. He'd been out of the country in Japan, so everything that he really cared about was with him. And Max is in my room on the first floor, which didn't get hit. The only person who lost his entire wardrobe was me. We made a quick trip to T.J.Maxx that night and Walmart.

You can get some fine stuff there.

Oh, I have. The truth is I got a pair of sweatpants from Walmart, and actually, I find them comfortable. [Laughter] I don't wear them out in public, but you know.

Well, the important thing - is your comics collection completely gone or did that make it through?

So this is what's amazing - we had built shelves in a closet in my office studio, and the door was closed. And they are completely fine.


And even though they totaled most of the graphic novels, I just cleaned most of them with soot sponges.

In my sixth year [teaching at Juniata] I won a teaching award. You get a couple thousand [dollars] for that, and I used that money to buy these IKEA BILLY shelves. Because I was a pretentious pre-tenured faculty member, I purchased the glass doors for those, because why not?  And thank God, because having those doors closed meant the soot didn't get in there and so a lot of my books are just fine.

That's great.

So I feel like I lucked out in that department.

I'm glad to hear it. And I’m glad to hear everyone is safe and ok, as bad as the damage was.

Art from Santiago! Colored by Hilary Sycamore & Karina Edwards.


So, Santiago! When I interviewed you way back in 2003, this was going to be your next project.

That's right.

And I remember looking at the pages you sent. I might even still have them somewhere.

There were a couple that were in the Journal article.

TOP: Circa 2004 drawing from The Comics Journal #261. BOTTOM: From the finished Santiago!

Yes! It’s a very different style. So I'm wondering, why did this project have such a long gestation period?

You know, I did the Darwin book [The Sandwalk Adventures]. And I think in even that interview I talked about the fact that Darwin had been so well biographied, and all the ideas I'd started with were just as a biography, and I needed to find a different way into the character, which, you know, wound up being those follicle mites in his left eyebrow.

I have a habit as a writer of just making the same stupid mistakes over and over again and having to remind myself. And so I was starting to write this biography-- or even because it was internally narrated, at least initially, by Santiago, an autobiography. But what was stupid is that Cajal wrote a 600-page autobiography that is frankly amazing. He didn't need me to repeat that. I'm not going to add anything to that. I'm not a historian. I don't approach storytelling... well, I do sort of approach it like an academic, but I wasn't adding anything particularly new.

And so I had to spend a lot of time thinking about what it was about this guy that I really admired. In retrospect, it should have been obvious to me, which is that line between science and art. But it actually took me reading his autobiography a couple of times before I put that together.

The other thing was that-- I was thinking about this book, and the iterations I was imagining [involved] telling a story about him as an adult. And I realized, man, as a kid I would not want to read that. [Mautner laughs] I would want a kid protagonist, right?

What was remarkable about his memoir is that 120-150 pages of it are about his youth. So he's got this voluminous description of his life, pre-science. Which is really unusual for a Victorian, late 19th-century scientist. And so as I reread it, it was clear to me that he desperately wanted to be an artist as a kid. And he was picking up these skills. And it was interesting because the skills that he was picking up to be an artist would ultimately play a major role in the type of science that he did, which is as a histologist. He worked with dyes as a kid, he figured out all these different ways to extract dyes from the materials around him because he was forbidden to do art. And the resourcefulness and those particular artistic skills wound up making him really good at staining tissue and discovering that the nervous system is essentially made of single nerve cells.

So once I sort of found that anchor, it actually went pretty quickly, but the problem was that was right around the time I went on sabbatical. And when I was on sabbatical, I was working on this beetle book--

Which is Last of the Sandwalkers, right?


So what year is that?

So I was working on Last of the Sandwalkers in 2007. Now it wouldn't be published until 2011 I think [actually 2015, by First Second], but it was, you know, 300 pages. It was the longest thing I’ve ever done.


And in the middle of that, I got a call from Zander Cannon, because Mark Schultz didn't want to do a sequel to The Stuff of Life ["A Graphic Guide to Genetics and DNA" published by Hill and Wang in 2009] or was busy.

[Cannon] wanted to do this sequel on evolution, and so I was contacted by him and Kevin Cannon. I was gonna hop at the chance to work with them, so I interrupted the beetle book, which was interrupting Santiago!, to do that. And then again, while I was on sabbatical, I got contacted by an entomologist named May Berenbaum, who's sort of a-- if you're an entomologist, she's the big deal, and she had a book through Harvard Press and wanted and wanted illustrations for her chapters. So as soon as I was done with Evolution [Hill and Wang, 2011], I slotted into that [The Earwig's Tale, published 2009].

And then from there, once Sandwalkers is done, was that when you started working on Santiago! full-time?

Yeah, so then I started working on Santiago! a little bit, but there was also The Way of the Hive [a colorized reprint of Clan Apis, published by HarperAlley, 2021].


The truth is, the chronology gets lost on me.

Yeah, I was gonna say where does Optical Allusions fit in that?

Oh my God, that's--

That's pre-Sandwalkers.

Ok, so that book was actually what I was on sabbatical doing. So I did that book. I was working a little bit on Last of the Sandwalkers. I finished that book and then I did the Evolution stuff... I did the Evolution book, I did the Earwig book with May Berenbaum, and then I came back to Last of the Sandwalkers. I finished that up, and then I think I was at SPX and had it in a binder. And Gina Gagliano [who was] at First Second at the time, came by and said, "Oh, I think we'd publish this." And they did.

What am I forgetting? 'Cause I'm forgetting something but-- so then the bee book came back.

We’re jumping around a bit here, but why bring the bee book back, and why bring it back under a new title?

I was self-publishing that, and it had moved to print-on-demand in black & white through Amazon, because the guy who I was working with as a publisher at the time decided to move it all to there.

And you know, I had always dreamed of having the book in color and, frankly, through a publisher with larger distribution. And so I managed to get an agent, Judy Hansen. She had worked with some really big names. And she's great. She found a home for it at HarperAlley. And the truth is, in terms of sales, it's been fantastic. And I enjoyed working with the editor.

Funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation, Optical Allusions was published by Active Synapse in 2008, and can now be downloaded for free.


Moving back to Santiago!, would you consider this the first biography you've done? Because usually, you've got stories that are very focused on science and scientific life. Sandwalk Adventures has Darwin as a character, but it's not really a book about Darwin per se, whereas this book is very much about its title character. This is a straightforward “how he came to be” kind of biography.


Did that bring different challenges from doing some of your past books?

You know it did. I joke about the fact that I'm not a historian. I work with great historians, and I picked their brains in terms of-- how do I figure out what a bed in Spain looked like at the time? If I'm drawing his room, how do I do that? And I had friends who would point me in the direction of antique collections at various museums that could give me a sense of these things.

Finding out what things look like, and what was appropriate. Materials, tools, transportation, clothing, all of that stuff in order for it to look sort of legit. That was an important and difficult challenge. I've never been to Spain, I've never been to Ayerbe or Huesca or any of the places that he was.

That actually was sort of a really big one for me because, you know, it had to look like Spain. I realized Spain does not look like downtown Huntington, Pennsylvania. [Laughter] I can't lift old-timey buildings, even from the U.S.

So what I did was I got on Google Maps and I got down to street level, and I essentially used Google Maps to walk around town and take pictures. I found his home. I found his school in Huesca. And I got a sense of what the architecture looked like, what it looked like in very specific places. And so I just took tons and tons and tons of photo references of buildings.

Now buildings are not my thing. I mean, the truth is I like to draw, I like to read, and I like to write nature stuff because perspective is not as critical. [Laughter] Depth is, but maybe not hardcore cube perspective. And architectural detail. It's not something I've ever practiced a lot. And so, that visual aspect was pretty challenging. And then balancing respect for [Santiago's] own writing, respect for his story through his memoir, and constructing from that a story that I thought was useful or effective. And when I quickly came up with-- well, not quickly. One of the things I was struggling with was how all of these events that I was really interested in, the building of the cannon [a homemade cannon, which the 11-year old fired into a neighbor's gate], the extraction of the dyes, these things that all I saw as leading in, were actually separated by fair chunks of time.

From Santiago!


And I didn’t want to pretend like they all happened in one day. And so I was trying to come up with a way in which I could tell the story with those important bits, but also not skip over too much or become bloated. And I had just read-- and I cannot remember her name. There's a book called Brazen [by Pénélope Bagieu] that is a series of short stories about women that have been exceptional in their lives. It’s also from First Second. I was blown away by how much information she could—in an entertaining fashion—pack into six to eight pages for each of these women.

That's where I got the idea of saying, ok, I'm gonna have one major beat. You know, the story of how he built a cannon and went to jail. I'm going to have a story of how he extracted dyes and got in trouble. And then I'm going to have interleaving chapters that are four to six pages long that I narrate. And I essentially dole out lots of information in a very compressed time period, so you get a sense of his life and some of his experiences that I couldn't really work into the narrative of one of those focal chapters that are focusing on what I considered an influential event.

I could do that for a chapter and then take these leaps, which would give you important context for his life, his struggles, his challenges, but still give you a fair amount of time to have characterization, development of the cast around him, his family and those interactions as well. I don't know if that makes sense.

No, that made a lot of sense, and when you talk about it I see that I definitely see that in the book. You do definitely have that sectioned off very well. But also there's a build-up as his pranks get more grandiose and dangerous for him and his friends until he reaches adolescence.

As I'm talking about it, it's a little bit like the annotations I put at the end of the book. I really believe strongly-- and I think there's a slight shift in this direction, but not quite yet. Well, maybe there is, I don't know-- that science comics are best when there is not just a little narrative, but a strong narrative, like where the science isn't necessarily the sole focus of what I'm doing.


Because I'm very much about, “I'm gonna tell you a good story.” And it just so happens that a good story involves science in the same way that-- I’ve seen Stan Sakai a couple of times and I've told him this story twice now, and I think he’s probably tired of hearing it from me. But you know he has an issue of Usagi Yojimbo, in which-- I had just read this article in the Smithsonian magazine about how a samurai sword was made. And they talked about folding the metal, and for whatever reason, I couldn't imagine it. And [Sakai] had a two-page sequence in which he shows a smith building the samurai sword, and: “Oh wow, they literally fold the metal. Oh, I get it now.” He wasn't sitting down with that page and saying, “I'm going to teach people how this works,” right? It wasn't a history lesson. But because of the nature of the story and the beats of the story, it became a lesson about history, right? His research is so effective and good and the characters are so well-immersed in this world that you can't help but learn something about it as you're moving through the story.

And that has always been what I've been trying to do with these science comics, that I'm gonna have you move through the life of a honey bee and I'm actually gonna explain some things along the way. But I can't explain everything. And so I'm going to give you some annotations at the back that will go into greater detail. Because the minute it becomes too explain-y, the minute it becomes too burdened, and the minute it becomes, to a kid, starting to sound like, “This person's trying to teach me something,” is the minute I as a reader and a kid would have turned off. “No, no. You're not tricking me into learning something. No way.”

Well, I think it's very self-aware that you say that, because I think that's true in all your books. There’s always two themes going in your work. Clan Apis is an educational story about honey bees. But it's also about this main character exploring their world, and, eventually—we've talked about this before—learning to accept death. Sandwalk Adventures is about the theory of evolution. But it's also about Darwin facing old age and this eyebrow mite who has to go off on their own and learn to explore their own world. And Last of the Sandwalkers is about family as much as it is about beetles.

And here you have Santiago!, which is a story about, you know, a famous scientist and about nerve cells. But it's also about a kid finding himself, finding his true purpose and his true nature, finding a way to exist in a world that up 'till then has seen him as a threat. Is that fair to say?

Yeah. One of the things I've told people over the years is that if you want my autobiography you just have to read my books, because that secondary theme is always something I struggle with. So when I was writing the bee book, I had been paranoid about death. It was a very cathartic book for me to write. It was therapy.

When I wrote [The Sandwalk Adventures], I was this kid who was raised in the church and I was struggling with the reconciliation of evolution as a biologist. I was doing Last of the Sandwalkers, it was all about my family, right?

Santiago! is all about trying to reconcile this weird thing I do. And I still have people that say, “Oh, it's really weird, you know, science and art, weird.” And I try to make the point—and I don't know how effective I've been—but I try to make the point that I think actually it's much more human, at least at our core. Science and art are both creative endeavors. Most people will accept that about art. But no scientist walks into a lab, pulls out a lab manual, and follows steps that somebody's already mapped out for them and gets something new. You don't do that. You do go in the lab, you follow most of the steps, but you tweak something or you're creative in the way in which you design your experiment because you're trying to learn something new about the physical world. You talk to scientists and the clever things that they come up with when they try to figure out the developmental aspects of an insect or how it is exactly that kidneys function in different ways, it's very, very creative.

If you look at the caves in Lascaux, those painted caves - those caves were not inhabited. Our ancestors, those folks crawled into that cave just to paint. And when you look at what they did, what they did is art. But it was also art that was created from pigments that they had to essentially work out the chemistry of. They had to do some preparation. And when you look at those animals, you can tell what species of animals they are. It’s natural history, right?


And if you look at the way those things are depicted, there are spear-throwers and hunters, there are demonic fictional characters sitting there in a couple of places. And so it's also a story. So, story, art, and science altogether.

I honestly believe that is the core way that humans are. We are artistic, scientific, creative little creatures. Even though I teach and Lisa teaches, we both recognize the fact that you go to middle school and they say, “Ok, you're good at art, you go to that room, and you're good at science, you go to that room, and you go do math over here,” and we fragment these aspects of human creativity for the benefit of sort of the industrialized nature of public education. I'm glad we have public education, but that has been the approach that we take. And so we sort of entrain everybody to believe that these aspects of human creativity are shattered and separate and not the same. And so my hope with a story like Santiago!, is that you could see what he did as an artist ultimately served him beautifully as a scientist. Those skills, that resourcefulness, and creativity.

You got me going there Chris.

Good. That's what this is all about.

From Santiago!

I was thinking about your books and I was thinking if there is a through line-- you've got these characters who are sort of pushing against the system and asking questions and testing knowledge, and they're coming up against a hard wall of resistance. “This is the way the world is and we don't cotton necessarily to different points of view.”

In a small way, it’s in Clan Apis with the main character asking all these questions. But in Sandwalk Adventures, Santiago!, and I think even in Last of the Sandwalkers, you've got these oppositional forces, whether they're real people or existential [threats]. In Sandwalkers it's very much a top hat and cloak-type villain, but in Santiago! [the protagonist is] seen as a troublemaker for basically being curious. He's destructive, and you can understand why the town and his dad are upset about this in the book, but reading the book I was like, “If only someone just steered him in a direction.” I feel like I see that a lot in your books. Do you feel that's accurate?

One of the things that I talk about when I do talks is, especially starting with the bee book, is that-- well, let me say it like this: Last of the Sandwalkers is the first time I have ever done a book in which I had a villain. I had a “bad guy.”

Yeah, absolutely.

But I've always had antagonists. I've always had individuals who just want the opposite of what [the main character wants]. So with Nyuki [the protagonist of Clan Apis / Way of the Hive]: the spider that tries to eat her, or the mantis that tries to eat her, or even Devorah, who just wants her to toe the line and not step out of line. They're antagonists because it's not what the central character wants, and what the central character wants isn't necessarily that bad, but it can be slightly unorthodox.

And so with Santiago!, the primary antagonist is clearly his father. His dad. If I'm reading his memoir correctly, and I think that I am, his dad is far more the determinant of “no art” than his mom. I think she was more permissive. He talks about how she would actually share romance novels that she had hidden away herself. But in each case—and I think actually this is true of Owen [the antagonist of Last of the Sandwalkers] too—they all think they're doing what's best. Santiago's father thought he was doing what was best. And at some level, you know, you got kids, I got kids. I want them to be employed. I want them to have insurance. I want them to be healthy. The thought of them cold in a garret eating a crusty old loaf of bread, you don't want that for your kids.

So I can actually really empathize well with Santiago's father, except for the physical abuse, of saying, “No, you're not going to do that.” Now, I wouldn't say that to my kids because I would hate that if someone said it to me. But I think I prefer to write stories with antagonists, not villains, because it actually makes the writing more interesting for me. I think writing bwah-ha-ha villains can be fun - I don't wanna say it's not challenging, 'cause I don't wanna diss on anybody else's work.

But for me, finding a way to create an antagonist that you can look at and actually empathize with, where you may feel some ambivalence: “Maybe he has a point, maybe she has a point.” That becomes, I think, far more interesting. It feels more real to me. So yeah, I've definitely had two currents, and those currents typically are pretty personal, which is why I think I can write about them. I've always thought about writing about something really morbid, or, "could I write a murder mystery?" And I just can’t. [Mautner laughs] You know what I mean? If I can't feel it in my gut, I can't write about it.

And so you can't help but get a personal thing, which is kind of a bummer, actually, when you see reviewers who say, “This is a science comic,” and you're like, no man, you did not read it. [Laughter] You did not read it.

Well, in Santiago!, you mentioned in the annotations there's this kind of this hint of parental abuse, of physical violence, and not even just from the father, but from the other townsfolk, where—I hesitate using the word threat—but the punishment for his misbehavior, for his curiosity, is often very real physical violence. You don't hit it hard in the book, I think to your credit, but it is there - you kind of elide it a little, and it's [mostly] suggested. Were you conscious [about] portraying that and how to hit it without hanging a hat on it, so to speak?

I think that, you know, as you're reading through this, one of the things I really wanted to be careful about-- because I'm not an historian, but I didn't want it to be Pollyanna, right? I didn't want to pretend like Santiago had this madcap life and he was kind of naughty and his dad was kind of angry with him. This was more than Mr. Wilson and Dennis the Menace. He described how, when he got in trouble with his father, sometimes being beaten with cudgels. I don't want to gloss over things like that any more than in the bee book I wanted to gloss over the notion that the bees die, that there's some really rugged stuff that happens to animals in nature.

So I didn't want to soft-pedal that and I didn't want to avoid it completely in Santiago! So you see him getting starved by the monks. You see the implication, at least in the text, that his father is going to lash him. And I struggled. I had images sometimes in which Santiago was cowering and the father was in the foreground, sort of in silhouette holding--  you see him. Maybe, you know, in close-up, mid-torso, with his hand holding a cudgel in silhouette. It seemed too intense for me.

And so that may have been cowardly, but the thing is that when you read Santiago's memoir - I read his writing of his father as loving his father. He was impressed by his father. He admired his father. And so I didn't want to skip over the fact that his father physically abused him as a child. But I also didn't want to paint him as-- again, I'm as I'm saying this out loud I'm starting to sound like a coward.

No, I think I understand what you're saying.

If you paint him too much like that, you lose the potential empathy for his position. Because you don't listen to him when he says, “I don't want you to be an artist 'cause I don't want you to be poor and hungry.” You automatically discount it because you think, “That guy's an abuser. I don't care what he says.” You know what I mean? And so that was sort of the line that I was walking.

Well, there's also the danger of making him a cartoon villain by emphasizing that, rather than a human being. Like turning him into a cartoon where he's just an impediment. I wonder if you would run the risk of cheapening Santiago’s story as well in doing that?

I mean, in the end, what he did was absolutely, positively unacceptable, no matter what time period you're in. So I would never make the argument of, “Oh well, it was a different time and everyone physically abused their small children.” I mean that would not be where I would want to go with that.

And so I didn't want to ignore it, but in many ways when I was working on the book, I felt as if I was sort of writing with Cajal, because I didn't access a lot of scholarly work outside of his memoir. I wanted it to be based on what he said, his story. That was my way of trying to integrate the admiration that he had for his father, what he liked about his father with what he didn't, what he found frustrating and traumatic.

From Santiago!

What were your artistic influences on Santiago!? I do get a very strong Peanuts sense, for example, from Santiago’s round Charlie Brown head.

Yeah, I think probably you're looking at a lot of Charles Schulz and Bill Watterson there. I didn't really get into comics 'till a little bit later, but man I was so into Peanuts, so into that style of storytelling that he did. The deadpan-- or just everything was the same camera shot, almost like a Wes Anderson, right?


It was all from the side, there was a single horizon line, and the characters were on top of it. Obviously, it was more complicated than that.

But yeah, Charlie Brown was a was a really, really, really big influence on how I thought about storytelling. How I thought about the fact that so much of comedy and humor is based in pain, is based in [those] little bits of internal suffering that that we have. And how we cope with that suffering is oftentimes through humor. And so for me, in terms of writing it and thinking about the visuals [for Santiago!], Schulz was a big influence since I wasn't drawing insects. When I'm drawing insects, I don't think about Schulz really much at all. Or Watterson at all. But when I was doing humans, he was definitely at the forefront of my thinking in terms of design.


What's the reaction to the book been so far? How's it been doing? Did it come out last fall? Or was it winter?

There were supply chain delays. The hardback came out in late November and then the paperback came out in January.

Well, I'll tell you - sales, I'm not rocking everybody's world. [Laughter]

But that's not a lament, because I think that we'll get there, it’s just going to take some hustling. You know, it's funny, because for years Lisa’s like, “You know, Jay, your sales aren't great. You know, you're not a comic superstar because your books are about insects [and] no one wants to read about insects.” I mean, she doesn't say it quite like that, but she's like, “You write books about insects or you write books about evolution, and that's gonna cut off a big chunk of your market.” And so I really thought, Chris, I really thought, “Man, ok, I'm gonna do a story about a human, a little human boy. And it's gonna be my coming out party. Ta-dah!” My debutante ball. Reviews have been—when there are reviews—really strong. I mean, look, after 25 years, I'm gonna say something and I'll sound like I'm bragging. I don't get bad reviews.

I mean, I do, but by and large, if someone reads my book, they like it. But the problem is getting them to read it, and I’m no marketing genius. But what I'm always struck by is that when I do books, marketing says, “It's a science book,” and I'm thinking, “Ok, you just took the big circle of all our potential YA readers, and you just made it a little dot.” [Hosler laughs] Because the whole point of stealth science is that you don't know the science is in there. Because of how you market the book-- now, your readers may easily read this as “Jay has spent long nights thinking of excuses for why things aren't selling.” [Laughter] But I honestly believe that if you put that front and foremost, then you automatically cut out a group of people who just—again because we've fragmented our thinking—who say, “I don't do science. I don't do math.” And so, boom - suddenly those folks, it's not even an option that they pick it up.

Especially because I think kids can be a tougher crowd to woo than adults.

Right. And here's the other thing, too. I'm not gonna put it all on marketing.

You can. [Laughter]

Well, I think the other thing too, and I don't wanna skip ahead to what may have been another question, but it's really tough to get oxygen now. It's really tough in the YA market, I think.

Well, when I interviewed in 2003, you were self-publishing, there was no YA  market to speak of.


I think manga had just started to break. And Jimmy Corrigan had come out. But the onslaught of, you know… Smile hadn't come out. Twenty years later, the market is so different, and the types of books that sell now are so different. You already hinted at the answer, but do you find it's easier to get your work published, to get the attention of publishers, of booksellers. Do you [sometimes think], “I wish I was self-publishing again?”

I don't wish I was self-publishing, because I actually have gotten a royalty check. From the bee book. And those advances that you get, they're really nice for putting windows in your house and stuff like that.

So in that respect, it's great. And I actually really enjoy working with the editors. They make me see aspects of my story in ways that I hadn't thought. They helped me. They have helped me amplify certain elements, and change certain elements to make them better. I mean, what I'm struck by is that you go into Barnes and Noble-- and it used to be when I was in Columbus, as a post-doc, I could go into the Laughing Ogre and I had a sense of all the middle grade comics and books that were coming out. I had a sense of all of them. And I probably read a lot of them just because I was curious about various people's approaches. I went to Barnes and Noble the other night, because we were in the big city of Altoona, PA, and there were just rows and rows and rows of books that I have never heard of. Books that aren't really going through the traditional comic market. They're popping right out from major publishers directly into bookstores, etc. And you look at them and you go, “My God, these are amazing.” And so, to the extent that I really want kids reading comics, it is a great time for kids.

I used to joke that the headline used to be after Dark Knight Returns and stuff like that, “Comics are for adults too.” And there was a period of time when I thought the headline should be “Comics can also be for kids.” Let's not forget the kids, because there's nothing out there. So it's fantastic to see the children of my colleagues or my kids’ peers walk around with Raina Telgemeier’s Smile, clutching it to their chest as they're walking between classes like it's a Bible. I love seeing that, because it's such a powerful way to tell stories. And there is so much talent out there.

So I would say because a lot of these bigger publishers have quarterly slates that they have to fill, it's been easier for me, especially with Judy, because she knows everybody. So Judy works with Raina and she works with Gene Yang, two of my big heroes. She knows where to go and where to get books. So I think it's been relatively easy for me, but it's on the backside when you're out there with all of these books. And, you know, I don't do series. I can't imagine myself doing a series, but I think that folks that do series set themselves up for continued success, because you do one book and it’s really good and the kids want to come back and come back and come back. I take full responsibility for my tendency to want to do done-in-one stories. That are weird.

Well, I kind of feel the same way you do. There was a time when I could have a sense of-- even if I didn't read it or not, I could have a sense of everything that was on the market. And then I could see, when I was blogging for Comic Book Resources around 2011, 2012, that it was slipping away from me. That might have been also burnout, too.

From The Way of the Hive, colored by Hilary Sycamore. Formerly published in b&w as Clan Apis.

But yeah, I go into a store and there's tons of books I don't recognize. And a lot of it is aimed at the young adult or junior high school crowd. I'll be honest: what kind of depresses me is that a lot of these books seem very cookie-cutter. Cookie-cutter in art style, aping whatever is the most popular current thing on Cartoon Network. I find this is especially true with nonfiction comics for kids, where I can look at a book and I can say, “Oh the publisher said we need a biography on-- I’ll say David Bowie, just because I see five to eight David Bowie books a year. And you can tell that they've got someone who's fresh out, who hasn't maybe developed their style yet. And this is me editorializing, but I get a little disheartened because I don't see as many people with a unique voice or a unique point of view writing for young adults, whether it's fiction or history or science, but especially when it's history or science. I should say: this is all [based on a cursory] look. I can't keep track of it all. This is me being in the store and flipping through these books and being like, “Who is this for? What is this?”

I think I agree, because I'm fairly picky, but I would also say it's not surprising because the same is true of novels. The same is true of science writing. I think that we cannot be too surprised that graphic novels have big chunks of work that ape certain styles. In my mind, there's only one Terry Pratchett. But I've heard reviews and I've read snippets from people who are clearly trying to be Terry Pratchett. And there's only one Neil Gaiman. But I've read things where I think the person is really, really trying to be Neil Gaiman. And so I think that it's not unusual that a particular medium is going to have aping. Because, ultimately, publishers wanna make money. The difference between maybe self-publishing, is that when I self-published I never had any illusion about making money. I didn’t. And you know what? I didn't make any money. [Laugher] So how about that? Almost prophetic.

And I think that when you have folks that work at a publisher, and their job depends upon making money, then there are gonna be times in which they're going to opt for stuff-- I mean, it has to be the case because that's how it gets on to the shelves. And it must be successful, to a certain extent, because those books must be getting purchased at some level. I don't know. And it is disappointing when uh, unique voices aren't heard. But you know what? Maybe I'm getting old - 25 years of making science-related comics, I really just feel lucky that I can do this. And I know that there's a timer going. I'm 56 and I think, “Am I gonna be able to be writing and drawing when I'm 70?” Let's say no. Ok, that means I have 14 years left.


On a timer where I'm not gonna be as funny. My humor is going to wane. My artistic skills are gonna get simpler. At some point, I'm just really happy that I can get books out there and that I do hear from students. I do hear from kids that say "I really loved this," that "this meant a lot to me." That has to be-- it is enough, right? It is enough.

But I do worry sometimes that there are some really, really super-creative people out there, and you want them to have a voice. And sometimes I worry with the history and the science stuff that I have picked up every once in a while-- and some of it's great. But some of it I look at and go, “Ok, this is produced for a parent to buy, not for a kid.”

That's a better way of putting it than I did, actually.

This is something that the publisher says, “The parent will buy this. The teacher will buy this.” Because they'll say, “Oh, this is one of the good graphic novels.” It's not bad, it's a good one. “I'll get this and I'll give it to my kid.” And the kid may enjoy it. They may not, but the sale has been made.

So that's another part, I think, of the equation, as you're calculating what types of books to put out there, is that kids aren't usually-- maybe it's like this. [As a child,] I could walk into Hook’s Drug Store and pick up a comic. I could go in and buy my own comics. I could go in and look at the spinner rack and I could say, “Ok, I'm gonna get that Amazing Spider-Man and I'm gonna get that Fantastic Four.” And I was the gatekeeper. But when it comes to graphic novels, I think that in some cases, the kids are picking them up. But I think in other cases, it's with parental consent. You know, “Dad, will you get me this?” I could be wrong about that too. I have a lot of hare-brained schemes that I think of when I'm tossing and turning at night trying to think about how to increase sales, [laughs] and so that may be one of them, but I do think that floppy comics had a more direct line to kids than, say, graphic novels.

And so, when you're counting on teachers or parents or librarians—'cause librarians are huge—then that that's a very different gatekeeper.

I would think that librarians and teachers would be very positive towards your work.

They are, and actually one of the great saving graces is that when I do hear from kids, it's usually because a librarian handed them something. I do a fair number of Zoom classroom visits all over the country, because the librarian has introduced a kid [to my work], and I get these really sweet notes from kids. That has been really valuable. Librarians and teachers, librarians especially, are some of the biggest supporters of the stuff that I do, in terms of where I see sales going and being promoted.

One of the questions I was initially going to ask is how you've kind of jumped from publisher to publisher to publisher. And you kind of explained it a little initially, earlier in our talk, but one of the things I was wondering is if that's just due to the vagaries of publishing, and if that was a struggle to try and find [publishers for] the books. But it sounds like that's one aspect where this new landscape actually makes it a little simpler for you. Certainly having an agent isn't something that you would ever have in comics 20 years ago.

Right, right. You gotta find editors that look at what you do and see it. I've shown things, Judy has shown things to people, and they don't really see what I'm trying to do. It's confusing to them because it doesn't fit into the traditional slotting for YA books. I say things like that and-- God, people reading this are gonna think, “This guy really thinks just a hell of a lot about his own writing.” [Laughter] And everyone, please, if you're reading this, know that I am as neurotic and self-loathing as the next cartoonist. [Laughter]

I really do feel like you gotta find an editor who says, “Oh, I get it. This is about science, but there's more going on. There's a richness to it, or he's at least aiming for a richness to the story that's beyond simply dispensing information with cutesy little mascot characters. He's trying to find a way to structure this so that the person can make some sort of emotional connection.”

From Last of the Sandwalkers.


What's your work schedule like? 'Cause you have a full-time job on top of doing this. Comics is-- I hate the phrase, but it's your side hustle.

It is.

So you're doing this on the sly, especially in addition to being a family man. How has the struggle to find time to make comics evolved over the last 20 years?

So, right before I took this job, I was stung by a honey bee. At the end of Clan Apis, there’s a story called “Killer Bee” where I almost go into anaphylaxis. And I'd tried to work with [bees] for the first three or four years I was [in Pennsylvania]. And the truth is, even though I'd been desensitized, I was terrified. And Lisa, at one point... [she] said, “You know ,when you go to work, I feel like I'm married to a firefighter. I don't know if you're going to be coming home.”

This was when the boys were four and two. And I thought, “Wow, that is scary to think about.” And it just so happened that the department I'm in fully embraced the idea of science communication as my professional development, and actually the institution as a whole. When I submitted my tenure package and put in the books that I've done in that first seven years, they looked at it and said, “Oh, this is terrific, this is teaching, but it's also professional. It's liberal art-sy.” In my department, I'm one of 10 and I just finished my six years as chair. And I have done everything I can to promote storytelling in our introductory sequence, and everybody bought into it. So our introductory sequence now is really, really good. I do everything I can to promote student research, even though I don't do student research, because I know it's a great way to learn to do science. And the department has accepted the fact that I do this as my professional development. Which brings me to the answer to your actual question, which is I get to do some of this at work.


So I can teach classes. And after 20 years of teaching classes, the prep beforehand decreases. So most of the work is [on the] back end, grading, etc., etc. So what I'll do is I make it a point to go to work at 8:00. I leave work at 5:00. I sit in my office and I do whatever drawing I can, and the [students] can come in and they'll interrupt me. Some will say, “You can keep drawing [while we're talking].” Some I know won’t like that, so I turn around and we're talking. But my drawing board is right there, so I can just literally spin my chair 90 degrees and I'm Professor Hosler. And as soon as they walk out the door—I'm not hoping that they leave as soon as possible, I'm not hoping that—but as soon as they do, I rotate back and I get to be a cartoonist again.

What's been fun is that as we've done this storytelling structure in our introductory sequence, I've gotten to illustrate a ton of the slides, so I’m in charge of creating these slides that are used across five sections. It used to be when I came here, we taught Gen. Bio. in a room full of 200 kids. In the last six years, this new program has atomized that to seven sections over or eight sections over two semesters, and class sizes are about 24, sometimes a lot less. And then all the content is sort of embedded in various overarching, phenomenological stories.

What's cool about this is that one of the reasons we did this was to increase accessibility and to help close the grade gap between white students and BIPOC students, because there is a disparity there, and we don't want it to be there. So what we've seen is-- this new approach, everybody's grades have gone up. There's still a gap, but we don't have people failing like we used to. It's not a weed-out course, and now we've sort of lifted kids up, and once they get through that first semester then they get their feet underneath them, and they're much better students.

I have had students that come to me and say that the fact that the information was in a story, in a context that we stuck to, really made it a lot easier for them to remember. It wasn't a list of facts anymore. And so I think that I've had this amazing opportunity at this amazing little school that no one has ever heard of to do both, right? This is another reason I find Cajal interesting. I get to teach science and I get to do art. I get to do both of those things, and it's really, really rewarding.

It sounds like one is kind of always feeding the other too, which is rare.

Right. I mean, I long for the summer. I long for the sabbatical, so I can just do this and not have to worry about teaching. But by the end of the summer, or by the end of the sabbatical, I realized I have to have the teaching. I have to have something that forces me to read and explore-- you know, weird things, because that's what forces me to encounter the things that ultimately inspire me. I can be kind of lazy. I can be like, “Well, I could read that National Geographic, but oh man, this game of Angry Birds is so fun,” you know? And so having the teaching puts me in a position where I have no choice but to do that.

Did you see recently the #ComicsBrokeMe thing on Twitter?

Oh yeah. Oh, that's so true and heartbreaking.

Yes, yes.

Heartbreaking because of the story and heartbreaking because, you know, it's just true. I mean, the truth is, as a white male professor who's got it pretty ok, I'm not gonna hashtag “comics broke me,” because I'm not suffering, but I am emotionally. It's hard. It's really hard.

It was brutal. The stories of exploitation and bad contracts and people just giving their all in the hope that they would just make enough to pay their bills. I think the thing I walked away with from that is that comics-- as more mainstream as they've become, from the Marvel movies on down to seeing them in bookstores, and librarians handing them out to students, it is still-- you do it for the love of the game, and it's gonna be your side job. My takeaway is that unless you are lucky enough, unless it falls in your lap, unless you hit that zeitgeist or you're like Dan Clowes and you plug away and you plug away and you're able to find a certain zeitgeist or niche that resonates with people, it's always going to be the thing you do on the side. There's no money in it. There just isn't.

So I am an enormous chicken shit. [Mautner laughs] Because part of the reason I could write Santiago's father is I totally get the notion of security.

Yeah, I hear you.

I get it. I absolutely get it.

Yeah, me too.

I did not have the courage to be a sole cartoonist. I did not have the courage or frankly-- and I think this is an important thing, and the thing I admire about the people who do freelance work, who are doing this all the time, is that you're constantly putting yourself out there, and you're constantly being rejected, and you're constantly taking jobs that might kill a little piece of your soul. But it keeps you going, right?


I did not have the courage or the energy to do that, so I'm gonna state that upfront. I just didn't. And I admire those that do.

What I take away from it is that it's still Jack Kirby and Stan Lee. It’s still you got one guy doing a lot of the work and other people publishing it. And oftentimes, the folks doing all the work and doing a lot of the generating of the idea, that raw creative power is mined and is oftentimes discarded. I listen to some of the art students that we have, and they'll come up to me and are like, “I've been offered this gig. It's not paying but they say the exposure is great,” and I'm like, look, that's bullshit. [Mautner laughs] You're gonna do that, and it's not gonna change where you are on the scene. I thought when I got a starred review in Kirkus, that was it. That was late in my career. I thought, “Oh, this is gonna be it. This is the big hit.” And, eh. [Shrugs] It was a great thing, but the notion that “If I do this for free, the exposure I get is gonna lead to more gigs,” I don't think it's true, but I can absolutely see how you can get sucked into thinking that because you just want to work.

From Last of the Sandwalkers.

Are you frustrated by where you are in the comics community? You were saying the new edition of Clan Apis is doing well, but that Santiago! has had moderate success or struggled to get noticed. After doing this for 20 years, does that frustrate you? Or is the work itself invigorating enough to be worth it?

That would depend on which day of the week you asked me that question. [Mautner laughs] I mean, the question of: you know what you want. That's the question of how you want the story to go. Do I want to be famous? Not really. Do I want lots of people to read my books? Absolutely.

I'm not looking for fame. The truth is, I'm not even looking for money, although would be nice.... But I really just want people to read my book. Because if they read my book, then that creates more opportunities at a publisher, right? Publishers are gonna look at how your sales were on your last book and ask, "Is it worth it?" And I just wanna keep doing this.

Everybody who creates believes they have something to say. Believes they have something that's worth telling people. Believes that they've got some insight that could be valuable to somebody. And I'm no different. Which is why I put those very personal human layers on my book, because I feel like, “Ok guys, this is something I figured out. And I'm gonna put it in the context of honey bees.” Or I'm gonna funnel it through the life of a Spanish scientist as a kid. Or I'm gonna do this with a foursome of beetles and their found family. Obviously, I believe I have something that I want people to hear, and when no one’s picking up the book or when you're not being read too exclusively, then what does that mean? That means you're not being heard. And no one likes not being heard.

So, if I have a frustration, that's it. And I think that it's hard for me to disentangle what are my own internal neuroses. 'Cause I'm lucky that I get to have this job where I get to do science and comics. But it comes with a price, which is-- it's not easy for me to go to cons, for example. It's not easy for me to go to conventions because oftentimes the summer is the only time I have to work. And the summer is also the time when I'm with my kids and with my family, and frankly, they don't wanna go to cons, and I don't blame them.

Why not? They're such fun.

I know! Isn’t that weird?

And so, I have not done a very good job of cultivating my membership in the community of comics. And I have friends and people who are really supportive and kind. And if I get back to Columbus or SPX, it's always really nice. But there's a part of me that knows that I'm getting the science right, and I really would like to be viewed as an artist and a writer as well. You know what I mean?


That my books have something more to contribute than just, you know, a pedagogical experience where you learn about something. That there's something human about them that is useful to somebody. There have been times with certain people—and this has happened a couple of times with certain individuals at SPX—where I get the side eye like I'm not really a cartoonist. I had someone go, “Oh, you're the science cartoonist.” I'm like, [adopts snooty voice] “Yes, that's who I am.” [Laughter] It's always surprised me that the people who demand the most not to be judged are so quick to do that. They're so quick to put you in that pigeonhole.

Wow, that was quite a lament on my part.

That's all right.

Poor white male in America. [Makes mock crying noise]

I was goading you into the lamentations, but let's flip it then. On a positive note, what, especially compared to 20 years ago, invigorates you and encourages you about the state of comics, whether it's the industry or the work being produced? What excites you about the comic landscape today?

Well, as much as we talked about the cookie-cutter nature of some of those graphic novels, the richness of talent that is coming out-- now, it is difficult for me to keep pace. I'm reading a whole bunch of different websites, etc., etc., in order to try to keep up with things. But I just discovered Ben Sears. I don't know if you know Ben.

I do. I like his work a lot.

Oh my goodness, I had no idea. And the only reason I found out about him was 'cause Zander Cannon posted something about loving Ben Sears’ work, and so I'm like, “Oh, I'm gonna go check out Ben Sears’ work if Zander Cannon likes it.” And I do. And now I'm a Ben Sears acolyte. Or apostle. I'm not sure what the appropriate analogy is. But that work that's being produced out there, there's a lot of it. And that's the nice thing about having a massive-- so let me think about like a biologist, right? Twenty years ago, you and I, the population of YA graphic novels, was a pretty small population. Now it's enormous. And when a population gets enormous, they're more likely to have some really interesting mutations. [Mautner laughs] And so, because there's such an enormous pool of potential books, there's now a much bigger pool, in my opinion, of really, really creative voices that are getting some oxygen through various publishers. Some of them are big publishers and some of them are smaller publishers, but they're out there. And I do believe that eventually those voices are gonna get-- especially the younger ones that have got the energy and the steam power to really promote themselves. I think that's going to change the way we start thinking about comics and how we should treat them.


Because I think right now-- not the editors I work with, but it looks like in some cases, editors of some of these books don't have full respect for how intelligent kids are. And I think a lot of these voices that are coming out, like Ben Sears, these are people who write books like I would want to write books. Like I try to write books, which is, I would like a grown adult to read this and enjoy it and I would also like their 6-year old kid [to enjoy it].

Someone on Twitter-- I posted a cartoon about photosynthesis, a two-page spread from a longer comic, and they said, “Oh, I'm gonna show this to my precocious 6-year old,” and then they immediately followed that comment with, “I'm sorry, I didn't mean to insult your work by suggesting that it's for 6-year olds.” And I wrote back, “Look, I watched Looney Tunes with my dad, and he laughed at certain things and I laughed at certain things, and we laughed at shared things.” I said, “To know that a parent and their child are reading my book together? Oh man, that's the highest praise possible.” And so, I think that this expanding market is gonna give us more mutations, and I'm hoping that a lot of those take hold and sort of change the landscape. I mean, in the end, any human endeavor, any human creative endeavor, there's gonna be a lot of not-great stuff, but the bigger that population gets, the more really, really good stuff there's gonna be, and I think that people find those things.

From Clan Apis. Later colorized as The Way of the Hive.


What are you working on now? Or are you just taking time to time out to recover [from the fire]?

So I have a book called Ant Story that will be coming out from HarperAlley. And it is the story of a cartoon ant named Ruby. I do these insect cartoons on Instagram. They’ve got a round head and a little thorax and stick legs. I've made them intentionally super, super simple. [Ruby] is a cartoon ant who has been born into a colony of real leafcutter ants.

One of the ideas I had when I was doing Way of the Hive was that I wanted it, in most places, to look like if you took the words away, it was just a bunch of bees acting like a bunch of bees, right? Well, I've taken that to an extreme. Those bees could all talk to each other. Ruby is born into this world, and none of the other ants talk, so she has to tell herself stories about her life to entertain herself, which also works out to explain certain things. Now she's eventually going to meet [another] ant that can talk, but that ant has a secret.

No spoilers.

The book really becomes about ideas of friendship, what it means to be a friend, what means to be a good friend, what it means to accept somebody, how important your perspective is in life, whether you consider someone a hero or a villain, good or bad, and that maybe those concepts don't apply in nature. As we're thinking about the natural world.

So that's the next thing up. I'm not sure when the release date is, but the colorist, Hilary Jenkins, just finished the first pass and the colors will make you goggle. She's just really done a beautiful job. Hilary Sycamore did a really nice job with the last two books too.

Very cool.

Yeah. So that's the next thing up. Talking cartoon ant in the real world. [Hosler laughs] I'm sure it will be a big hit, Chris. You can just imagine it right now.

I don't know if I've seen those cartoons on your Instagram, but I think I've seen some of those cartoons on your Twitter and on your website.


I had forgotten about those until you mentioned it. I have seen those online.

Right now I'm working on my website. I put up free comics for teachers to download. I have two characters, Wilbur and Aunt Edna. It's a fly and an ant. And they have various adventures. So there's a photosynthesis one and an ATP one and a cellular respiration one. And I'm working on one on the nervous system right now. So that's what I'm doing this summer.