Vaccines cause autism.
Fracking is safe.
Global warming and climate change aren’t real.
One graphic novel tackles all these beliefs and more – and offers hard evidence to prove them wrong.
How To Fake A Moon Landing, by British cartoonist Darryl Cunningham, is a combination of cartoons, photos and investigative reporting to examine a number of widely-held beliefs – and the basic, easily-accessed information that contradicts them.
We talked to Cunningham about his book – and have a special look at the complete title chapter, which deals with, yes, the theory that the moon landing took place on a soundstage. WARNING: This interview might ensure that you never go to a chiropractor again.
Newsrama: Darryl, what was the initial inspiration to do this book?
Darryl Cunningham: I sort-of phased into How To Fake a Moon Landing via my previous book, Psychiatric Tales, which was a collection of cartoon strips based on my experiences working on an acute psychiatric ward in England, and my own struggles with anxiety and depression.
Psychiatric Tales (out from Blank Slate in the UK and Bloomsbury in the US and Canada) looks at the most common mental illnesses, such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, depression etc, and attempts to dispel myths about them. It's a stigma-busting book that throws light into an area usually hidden.
In writing this book, I realized that I had developed an ability to boil down complex ideas into a clear narrative without losing the truth of the original idea. A good skill to have, so I began thinking about what I would follow Psychiatric Tales with.
When drawing I tend to listen to a lot of podcasts. I'm especially keen on science podcasts like Radiolab and The Skeptics Guide To The Universe. One thing I noticed when listening, especially to the skeptic podcasts, was how a small number of subjects kept cropping up time and again.
These issues seemed to be really misunderstood by the general public. I wondered if it was possible to do a book covering a few of these hot-button issues. So that's what I decided to do.
How To Fake a Moon Landing is a collection of comic strips essays on these difficult and misunderstood areas of science. The subjects basically chose themselves. Many, like climate change or gas fracking, are hardly ever out of the news.
Nrama: Why did you want to do it as a graphic novel?
Cunningham: It just so happens that I can draw as well as write. I love comics. Doing the book any other way never even occurred to me.
Nrama: Tell us about your process for creating the art/design of this. Silly question – what was the trial-and-error process of creating your illustrated alter ego?
Cunningham: The book that influenced me the most when I was writing Psychiatric Tales was Marjane Satrapi's Persopolis. An autobiographical black and white graphic novel about the author's life in Iran. It's a simply drawn tale that details a powerful subject. When I read this book I realized that I could do something similar on the issues of mental illness.
Although I moved into color with How To Fake a Moon Landing, my approach to the new book was the same. The ideas presented are complex enough as it is. I didn't want people to have to work out where people were standing in relation to each other or what was going on.
It's drawn on a three tier grid, usually just six panels a page. I wanted the strips to be so easy to read that they would go straight into people's psyches without even touching the sides.
No effort should be required to read these strips. I wanted them to be like Ernie Bushmiller's Nancy. A strip so simple, that by the time you've decided not to read them, you already have.
Nrama: What was some of the research you did, and which of the book's sections proved most challenging to research? I'm also curious about any unique experiences you had while doing this research?
Cunningham: I had to do a lot of reading to research the book. I had to really immerse myself in each subject. Thank god for the internet, which makes research so much easier these days.
The most challenging subject was climate change. It was a tough, almost painful process getting that strip down on paper. The science is really complex and I still don't feel that I covered the subject as well as I could have. The broad outlines are there, but the fine details aren't as filled in as I would like. Still, it covers the ground it needs to in order to make its point.
As a chapter was roughly finished, I would upload it onto my blog. This allowed the strips to be kind-of peer-reviewed, much like a scientific paper. Readers, who were often specialists in these areas, would point out mistakes or make suggestions on how I could clarify the strips. I generally found that I'd not made too many blunders, which was gratifying.
Nrama: What were some things that you discovered while doing this research that surprised you?
Cunningham: I had a belief that of all the alternative medical therapies, that chiropractic therapy would be the one with the most validity. It's a multi-million dollar business around the world and is especially popular in North America. I had the dim notion that it was some ancient therapy and that it was recognized as an actual science-based practice.
I couldn't have been more wrong. Chiropractic therapy was invented by a Canadian in the late 19th century by a man with no medical training, called Daniel David Palmer. Palmer believed that he'd cured a man of deafness through spinal manipulation. Old school chiropractic therapists still believe they can cure most things, including viral illnesses through spinal manipulation.
The profession is gradually shedding many of the more absurd beliefs and edging towards something like physiotherapy. But this does beg the question, why not train as a physiotherapist in the first place?
Nrama: LONG QUESTION ALERT: You deal with primarily scientific accusations of hoaxes What's fascinating to me about hoaxes/conspiracies in today's world is this – people are so determined to believe what they want to believe. Donald Trump and others are still known to play the "Obama wasn't born in America" or "He's a Muslim" cards. You have "Truthers" trying to deconstruct the Newtown/Sandy Hook shootings as some sort of liberal conspiracy to take away guns and from their perspective, human rights.
The connecting fabric I see in these to the scientific hoaxes you examine is that the accusations come from a real place of anger and fear. And I see that just as often in "debunkers" of science, such as evolution, or those who still believe vaccinations cause autism, as covered in your book.
This is a long-winded way of asking -- why do you feel people hold on to such beliefs, even in light of hard fact saying otherwise? And I speak as someone who was a loyal follower of The X-Files in high school, so I'm hardly guiltless.
Cunningham: You've answered your own question really, in that anger and fear play a major part in people's resistance to factual truth. It's disturbing to have your world view shaken. None of us are exempt from anxiety when information challenges our beliefs.
Changing these long held beliefs can be a painful process that might involve having to leave the social group you belong to, or departing a profession in which you're financially invested. These are colossal changes in a person's life, so I can understand why people might cling on to a belief, long past the time when it's been discredited.
We all face these challenges as we live our lives. We have to ask ourselves, are we strong enough to change our beliefs if evidence comes along that proves them wrong? Are we going to hate the individuals who brought us this information, or are we going to accept the truth, no matter what difficulties that truth will bring into our lives?
It's not an easy process. But this is what we're faced with.
Nrama: Are there any topics you thought about covering in this book that you weren't able to get enough information about, or would like to include in a sequel volume? If so, could you tell us about them?
Cunningham: I'd like to have covered acupuncture, but that's the only subject that was left out. I didn't think of it until later on. By the time I'd finished the book, I was more than ready to move on to another area.
Apart from having to update the book, as new editions appear, I can't see myself returning to this area with a sequel. I might tackle science again, but it would be in a different format.
Nrama: Are there any hoaxes you've ever believed in, or, to bring up The X-Files again, you want to believe in?
Cunningham: As a kid, especially as a teenager, I was a True Believer in any supernatural or off-beat thing you can think of: ghosts, UFOs, all that Fortean stuff. I was desperate to believe in something beyond the dull life I was living as a disaffected teen. I was a real craving.
Gradually however, as I read more about science, I began to dispense with these beliefs in favor of what was actually observed to be true. The universe is strange and wonderful enough without having to add more.
That we exist at all is pretty amazing.
Nrama: What's been the most interesting/gratifying or negative reaction you've gotten to the book so far?
Cunningham: When the early versions of the strips appeared online, I got a lot of support from people, but naturally enough there were also plenty of negative reactions. The subjects that generated the most anger and abuse were, homeopathy, evolution, and chiropractic.
Still, by internet standards of abuse, the comments I got were almost polite. No one threatened to shoot me, beat me up, or suggest I should be gang raped. Almost a miracle these days.
Nrama: What are some other comics/creators you're currently reading/enjoying?
Cunningham: I don't read a lot of comics, mostly because I have so much research reading to do. Books I've enjoyed recently include The Carter Family: Don't Forget This Song by Frank M. Young and David Laskey. This is a biography of the first superstar group of country music that comes with a CD.
I also liked Glyn Dillon's The Nao of Brown, The Complete Hugo Tate by Nick Abadzis, and The Silver Darlings by Will Morris. I'm really looking forward to Katie Green's book on anorexia, Lighter Than My Shadow, which will be out later this year, I think.
Nrama: What's next for you?
Cunningham: I'm working on a political book for Myriad Editions about politics. This, as yet unnamed book, will look at how capitalism and the unregulated financial sector brought about the economic collapse, and how austerity measures have not only failed to end the recession in many countries, but have made the situation worse.
I'm currently 20 pages into the first chapter, which is on Ayn Rand. Rand's political and economic philosophy has underpinned much of the far right's political thinking for decades and has even given them a moral position from where they can justify attacking the poor.
It's going to be a Lefty book, but it's not anti-capitalist. It's more of an argument for restraint and a rethinking of society’s morals. I can feel the angry emails already heading my way.
Learn How To Fake a Moon Landing on April 2.