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By Leah Poffenberger
San Diego, California—On July 18, the San Diego Convention Center threw open its doors to thousands of comic book fans hoping to take in the sights and sounds of San Diego Comic-Con International (SDCC). Over the five-day “con,” attendees milled about the 14-acre exhibit hall, hoping to catch sight of their favorite superheroes and grab some new comics. What most of them didn’t expect to find was a comic book about physics.
SDCC brings together comic book aficionados, artists, writers, and entertainment industry execs from around the world to share and show off their latest creations. Just steps from a massive display featuring DC Comics heroes like Superman and Wonder Woman, many Comic-Con visitors were greeted by a group of APS employees handing out free science comics. This team, led by Rebecca Thompson, APS Head of Outreach, made the trek to San Diego with one and a half tons of comics in tow featuring Spectra, the original laser superhero.
The Spectra comics, authored by Thompson, debuted in 2009 and follow the adventures of a middle school student with laser superpowers, while also providing sneaky physics lessons entwined with the story. Now with ten issues, the Spectra series continues to draw in new fans and delight devoted readers.
The APS outreach team celebrates the launch of the latest issue of Spectra with friends and fans.
“The entire point of outreach is to meet non-scientists on their turf to stress the importance of physics in their lives,” says James Roche, APS Outreach Programs Manager, who has been part of the delegation to comic-con for the past nine years. “I think we’ve made a really solid comic book that comic book fans enjoy. It just so happens to teach them about physics in the process.”
During the convention, visitors had their chance to snag free copies of several Spectra issues, chat with Thompson, and get quick physics lessons on light emitting diodes and magnetism. Stopping by the Spectra booth is a yearly SDCC must for some attendees eager to pick up the newest offerings from APS, among them Color Charge, a coloring book for older artists full of real physics images from the APS research journals.
“A number of people come to find us every year because they like the educational aspect, or they just like the comics,” says Thompson. “A lot of people continue to stop by just because they think what we do is cool—and some people have been stopping by for nine years.”
For other Comic-Con attendees, stumbling upon a free comic book all about science was a surprise, but nearly everyone who stopped to find out more about Spectra had someone in mind to share the comics with—kids at home, nieces and nephews, or their friends who teach science. Many who were teachers themselves were absolutely delighted to find out something like this existed that could help their students engage with science in a non-intimidating way.
Spectra comics are currently used to generate interest in physics in 20,000 classrooms around the country, says Thompson. Spectra, along with Nikola Tesla and the Electric Fair, another comic available at SDCC, are part of PhysicsQuest, an APS program that sends activity kits corresponding with the comics to middle school classrooms to promote positive experiences with physics.
Taking Spectra to Comic-Con gives many would-be science enthusiasts the chance to engage with physics: This year, the APS outreach team passed out more than 28,000 comics.
“Comic-Con is full of people smiling ear to ear, super happy in their element,” says Roche. “Probably my favorite part is seeing when that enthusiasm is attached to the latest issue of Spectra.”
All issues of Spectra are available on the APS Physics Central website, including issue ten, Spectra’s Energetic Escape, which debuted online during SDCC.
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Editor: David Voss
Staff Science Writer: Leah Poffenberger
Contributing Correspondent: Alaina G. Levine
Publication Designer and Production: Nancy Bennett-Karasik