01/17/2020

Bird Love Letters, Planetary Potatoes, And The Science Comics Of Rosemary Mosco

10:34 minutes

Have you ever wondered what a Great Blue Heron would write in a love letter to a potential mate? Or what the moons of Mars think of themselves? These are the scenes that nature cartoonist Rosemary Mosco dreams up in her comic Bird and Moon.  

“Nature is really funny. It’s never not funny,” Mosco says in SciFri’s latest SciArts video. “You can go into the woods and find 20 or 30 hilarious potential comic prompts anywhere you go.”

Viewers may come for the laughs, but they will end up learning facts, she explains. Mosco talks about her inspiration for finding the funny side of snakes, planets, and nature, and how she uses humor to communicate science. See a selection of Mosco’s comics below and more of her work at Bird and Moon

a colored comic of mars and its moons. title: meet the moons. panel one: mars says "hi! i'm mars and these are my moons." one moon says "I'm deimos." the other moon says "I'm phobos." panel 2: mars says, "so is there anything you like to tell.." and phobos says "i'm spiraling ever closer and closer to mars and eventually i'll smash into the surface or shatter into a zillion pieces and become a ring of orbiting debris." panel 3: mars and deimos look scared while phobos just smiles. panel 4: phobos says "also i look like a baked potato." mars says "yay" and deimos says "yay potatoes!"
Credit: © Rosemary Mosco, Bird and Moon Comics
a colored comic of an owl. panel 1: "feeling small and insignificant" with another bubble that reads "meet the northern pygmy-owl. it's just 6-7 inches long" pointing down to an owl. panel 2: "but it sometimes catches prey more than twice its size!" the owl stands above a dead pheasant. panel 3: "it's a brave little creature... whoa, go easy there, buddy!" the owl is now standing atop a pile of prey. panel 4: the owl now stands atop its prey AND a moose.
Credit: © Rosemary Mosco, Bird and Moon Comics

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Segment Guests

Rosemary Mosco

Rosemary Mosco is a nature cartoonist and science writer, and the creator of ‘Bird and Moon.’

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: Have you ever been out walking around a lake when you suddenly spot a great blue heron perched on a log, and you think to yourself, I wonder what kind of love letter she would write to her mate. No? What’s wrong with you? [CHUCKLING] Maybe you’ve pondered about the internal monologue of a snake right before it eats a mouse. Still no?

Well, for those of us who are not so lucky to view nature from this lens, we have Rosemary Mosco to imagine these scenes for us. She’s a nature cartoonist and science writer and creator of the Bird and Moon comics. Her cartoons are featured in our video pick this week. You can watch the video of her animated comics on our website at ScienceFriday.com/comics. Luke Groskin put her comic book into motion. Welcome to Science Friday.

ROSEMARY MOSCO: Thank you. It’s great to be here.

IRA FLATOW: Now your comics, as I was trying to make the point maybe not so well, they take a humorous take on nature. What is your inspiration for that? Is it their behavior or how we relate to nature? What about nature is so funny to you?

ROSEMARY MOSCO: You know, I think that everything about nature is really funny. I feel like as scientists or science-minded people, we’re sort of encouraged to be very serious. But there’s just so much funny stuff I mean, I have a cartoon about a beetle that pretends to be an ant’s butt and clamps on to the ant and rides around and gets a free ride. Like, how could you not think that’s hilarious?

IRA FLATOW: All right.

ROSEMARY MOSCO: I just think that’s amazing.

IRA FLATOW: We actually have a clip of that that we’re going to play now.

ROSEMARY MOSCO: Great.

SPEAKER 1: Hi. I’m a beetle. Is it OK if I climb onto your waist and ride around on you?

SPEAKER 2: What? Why?

SPEAKER 1: Well, I get a free ride, plus the food and protection of your ant colony.

SPEAKER 2: Hm. What’s in it for me?

SPEAKER 1: Um, you’ll look like you have two butts.

SPEAKER 2: [GASP] I’m in.

SPEAKER 1: Wow. Amazing.

SPEAKER 2: So many butts.

IRA FLATOW: That was our video producer extraordinaire Luke Groskin taking your cartoon and turning it into an animated video with voices that people might recognize on our staff. That was wonderful, Rosemary.

ROSEMARY MOSCO: Thank you. Yeah, that voiceover experience, I sometimes do little voices when I’m doing my comics, but having your team do the voices was just about the coolest thing I’ve ever experienced. It’s so neat.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, it’s our video pick of the week by Luke Groskin. How do you come up with the idea? How did you come up with that one, for example, for ant butts and all the other ideas you come up with?

ROSEMARY MOSCO: Oh, so the anti butts came from an entomology club lecture that I went to, where I met Dr. Daniel Kronauer, whose team discovered the ant butt ant– or the ant butt beetle. And it’s actually named after him, which I think is the absolute greatest honor that could be bestowed upon any scientist. I feel like humor is really hard to just sort of concentrate and have happen, so I just try to go to as many lectures as I can, pretty much.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah. Well, I have to say, one of my favorites of your cartoons is the one where a snake and other predators are discussing venomous versus poisonous. And while they’re discussing it, the lunch gets away. The snake had come across an animal to have for lunch, and while they were discussing it, he runs away. So it was kind of funny. Yeah. Did you actually see that happen in your head some point when you were watching a snake and a prey?

ROSEMARY MOSCO: I owned a pet snake for a little while, and a lot of people are really afraid of snakes because they think they’re sort of clever and these vicious predators. But snakes are– they’re mostly just looking for something to eat and something warm to sit on. And that’s kind of the extent. So they’re a lot more chill than we think. But for that one, I was more thinking about how we all sort of really focus on terminology, and sometimes if we spend too much time focusing on it, we lose sight of the big picture, which would be snapping up our lunch before it runs away.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, that’s true. You’re a fellow science writer. I’d like to know how you decided to go to the root of comics because I think things are funny. I haven’t gotten that direction yet. The more I try on the radio, it doesn’t help.

ROSEMARY MOSCO: Well, you should. Comics are something that anyone can do. You don’t have to be able to draw. You can use photos. But I always– I grew up reading the funny pages, which I know is dating myself. But I really liked Bloom County and Calvin and Hobbes and stuff. So it was just kind of natural to make cartoons about the things I was looking at. And then I also happened to be this big nature nerd, so that’s what I made cartoons about.

IRA FLATOW: When Luke Groskin animated them for you and for us, did you see something in them that maybe you hadn’t seen before? Did you get a different view on your work? Was there value added there?

ROSEMARY MOSCO: Yeah, no, there really was. It was cool to have all the different characters have their own unique voices. Making cartoons is a really solitary quiet experience, so it was really neat to have him come and visit me and be able to kind of have someone talk me through my work. And then yeah, now I want to write, like, animal plays or something. It’s so cool to have people voice that stuff.

IRA FLATOW: Well, we’ll team up.

ROSEMARY MOSCO: Yay.

IRA FLATOW: You also draw comics about space. Is your inspiration for space different, of course, than your animal comics?

ROSEMARY MOSCO: I did one cartoon about Mars’ moons, and then I did a graphic novel about the solar system. And that was more– that was a job that I got. And I’m really not as knowledgeable about space as I am about animals and plants and stuff. But one cool thing about being a science writer and communicator, as I’m sure you know, is that you can get excited about anything once you start reading about it and then just dive into it.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, you can teach yourself this stuff that you don’t know or have the smartest people in the world teach it to you.

ROSEMARY MOSCO: Yeah, that part is key.

IRA FLATOW: That is great, yes. Usually I’m the dumbest person in the room, and I’ll prove it every week. You’re listening to Science Friday from WNYC Studios. I’m Ira Flatow, talking with Rosemary Mosco, who is a nature cartoonist and science writer, creator Bird and Moon and– Bird and Moon comics. How long have you been writing those?

ROSEMARY MOSCO: The website Bird and Moon I started in 2004 with a long form comic about a lonely bird who meets the moon, which is why it’s called Bird and Moon. People always assume there’s someone named Bird and someone named Moon, and there’s two of us, which would be great. I would love to have an assistant. But I don’t have one. But I was making comics long before that. I had a cartoon in my high school newspaper, the criticized school policy, which I feel like a lot of cartoonists have, so a long time.

IRA FLATOW: You must have a philosophy about what you’re doing.

ROSEMARY MOSCO: Uh, yeah. There’s a lot of pieces to it. I think maybe the most important thing for me is that if you add a joke to pretty much any fact about the world people will share it, regardless of sort of the content of the fact. So adding humor really helps spread science, I think, and I think that’s really important. That’s kind of my goal.

IRA FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Do you have any cartooning role model, any famous cartoonists or humorists?

ROSEMARY MOSCO: Oh my goodness, so many. Man, I mean this could take hours, but–

IRA FLATOW: Just give me the top 25 or 30.

ROSEMARY MOSCO: [CHUCKLES] How long do you have? OK, well, I think a major influence for me is some of the other science web cartoonists. So there’s Zach Wienersmith, who does Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal. There’s Beatrice the Biologist, which is more on microbiology. There’s Black Mudpuppy. There’s so many. There’s not– we’re a small club, but we all know each other. And yeah, and we all kind of support each other. So that’s really nice.

IRA FLATOW: How about the classics like the classic Harris cartoons?

ROSEMARY MOSCO: Classic Harris cartoons, oh, I don’t know those.

IRA FLATOW: Oh, I have to send you a book of these science cartoons.

ROSEMARY MOSCO: Ooh.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, I mean–

ROSEMARY MOSCO: Oh my goodness. Yeah, I mean, I grew up with, like, The Far Side and this incredible book called [INAUDIBLE]. I knew a bunch of that stuff, but yeah, I could always use more.

IRA FLATOW: So you’re mentioning things that you read. Well, what do you watch or read that inspires you to go in some direction?

ROSEMARY MOSCO: Oh, well, like I said, coming up with jokes is challenging, at least for me. So I pretty much just try to get as much info in front of my face as I can. I have a whole bookshelf that’s all field guides. And I’m an absolute field guide addict. Like anytime there’s a new one, no matter how obscure, I buy it.

So I have one about bark. I have one about the bumblebees of the Eastern United States. I have all these really obscure guides. The ants of New England is one of my favorite ones. And I just kind of go through those until something pops out that’s funny, which with animals, especially bugs, is not very long.

IRA FLATOW: Well, in the video, in Luke Groskin’s video, we chose a set– you out in the wilderness. Is this in your own backyard, or do you go to parks and places?

ROSEMARY MOSCO: Oh, gosh. Yeah, I go hiking as much as I can, all over the place. I’m also really interested in urban nature, so I go out and hike around the city and stuff. But yeah, I get out on long hikes as much as I can. And then I see things that are really funny.

IRA FLATOW: That’s great. That’s great.

ROSEMARY MOSCO: Yeah.

IRA FLATOW: I’m envious of your job, Rosemary. And thank you for taking time to be with us today. Rosemary Mosco is a nature cartoonist and science writer and creator of the Bird and Moon comics. You can watch the video of her animated comics on our website at ScienceFriday.com/comics. Thank you, Rosemary.

ROSEMARY MOSCO: Thank you so much, Ira.

IRA FLATOW: Maybe we have a start of a wonderful relationship in video comic books.

ROSEMARY MOSCO: Yes, please. Join us. Yeah.

IRA FLATOW: OK. We’ll be there.

ROSEMARY MOSCO: Definitely.

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Alexa Lim is a producer for Science Friday. Her favorite stories involve space, sound, and strange animal discoveries.

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Ira Flatow is the host and executive producer of Science FridayHis green thumb has revived many an office plant at death’s door.

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