The comic book “The Invisible War: A Tale on Two Scales” tells stories of the macroscopic (nurses) and microscopic (bacteriophage) heroes fighting dysentery at the Western Front of World War I.

Interweaving Views of Tales, Scales, and Heroes

The Invisible War: A Tale of Two Scales” works its magic, interweaving the stories of two rarely discussed topics – dysentery and bacteriophage – and two rarely intertwined fields of study – science and history. The resulting story is a rich tapestry full of action and information at both the macroscopic and microscopic levels. “The Invisible War” tells about Annie, a nurse at a field hospital at the Western Front of World War I. In her nursing experience, Annie has learned the symptoms and consequences of dysentery, at a time when the cause wasn’t well understood and no reliable cure was known. After she comes down with dysentery and is sent to the nurse’s hospital for care, the setting of the book moves from the macroscopic world with Annie’s human interactions and experiences as the focus, to the microscopic world inside the ill nurse. Quickly, we are caught up in a new battle. The invasion of the “Shiga Gang” – a species of the bacterium Shigella flexneri, into Annie’s digestive system. The book chronicles the journey of the bacteria through Annie’s digestive system, encounters with Anne’s resident microbes (bacteria and phage), the Shiga gang’s colonization, and the final battle – with creative, microscopic heroes and all.

Bacteriophage in The Invisible War
Deep within Annie’s gut’s mucus strands lurk bacteriophage viruses waiting to prey on pathogenic bacteria.

A Book is More Than Its Style

At first glance, “The Invisible War” is a comic book. In reality, it is much more. “The Invisible War” is an excellent example of narrative non-fiction or informational picture storybooks. Such books spellbind readers with an engaging and interesting story dropping contextual clues to teach science, history, or in this case both subjects somewhat surreptitiously. Similar to mystery novels, narrative non-fiction books magically transport a reader to different times, places, or even size. Information emerges from the story, not from definitions and stilted dialog. For grade school kids, examples of narrative non-fiction books are The Magic School Bus series for science and the Magic Tree House series for history. Great narrative non-fiction books spark curiosity and inspire additional investigation by the reader.

  • Why does the Shiga gang complain about cold when the bloody rags are thrown in the trash?
  • Why does the nurse pray she doesn’t have blood in her stool?
  • Why are the nurses cared for at a different location than the soldiers?
  • Why is the doctor annoyed at the nurse for sending samples for further testing?
  • What is Bully Beef?

To answer these questions, “The Invisible War” supplements a reader’s curiosity, with reference pages indicated by a kind of footnote discretely inserted within the comic frames. The one-page reference topics are also engaging and informative with further links to reputable web sites. In the digital version, it’s easy to flip back and forth between the two.

Aimed at the high school level, the comic “The Invisible War” would be an excellent addition to any science or history classroom. I could also see it being used in undergraduate microbiology, general biology, or even ecology courses. To further support classrooms, educational material for science and history teachers accompanies the PDF link for Australian teachers. The material is tied to Australian educational standards, but could be easily adapted for classrooms around the world.

The Many Layers of Life

“The Invisible War” is a book about nested layers of interactions. The nurse and soldier in World War I at the battle front, but also the nurse’s human and microbial immune systems and the different niches in the digestive system.  The hero here is the smallest microbe – the bacteriophages. There is another unsung hero. Escherichia coli, close relatives of Shigella, which are sacrificed  to provide the bacteriophages the opportunity mutate and find the right “key” for Shiga’s lock. The focus on mutation of the phage mechanism for infecting and killing its hosts, is ripe for discussion of evolution, selection pressures, and more. Like the layers of sacrifice, destruction, and many unsung heroes of human war, this rendering of microbial warfare between pathogens and mutualists is complicated. Science is finally beginning to realize that not all microbes are harmful. The importance of targeted warfare and the benefits of a healthy community of beneficial microbes are becoming understood. However, we have much further to go. Phage therapy (bacteriophage therapy) is being considered as a potential form of targeted warfare. However, we need to better understand that weapon before unleashing it.

To create such a multi-layer book requires a great deal of mutualism itself. This book was a collaboration between scientists, historians, artists, and educators. “The Invisible War” was developed and written using funds from several Australian educational programs. It is the third book of the “Small Friends” series written and published by Scale Free Network, which celebrates “Stories of Partnership and Collaboration in Nature”. Ironically, this book is set during wartime and has many battles, gore, and hardship, yet it is also a celebration of the often overlooked, beneficial microscopic partners that are an essential part of our survival.

The only issues I had with “The Invisible War” was that as a reader from the U.S.A. it took me a bit to understand what conscription was, even after reading the guide in the back. Perhaps adding the phrase, “conscription, mandatory military service”, would help non-Australian readers. I also defer to de Bary’s original definition of symbiosis as “the living together of unlike things” without implying benefit or harm. I greatly enjoyed the links out to other resources in the back pages. Links out to the academic literature (scientific and historical) would allow for this comic book to be used for undergraduate classrooms or advanced high school. Additionally, I’m rather weak of stomach, so the level of gore was much for me, excluding that would allow the book to be accessible to a younger crowd. I hate that I have to wait a good 6 years at least before letting my oldest daughter read this book. She so loves the other two books by Scale Free Network! Finally, the diversity of topics, from size and classification comparisons to building models of the digestive system and writing pretend news reports, is great in the science teaching exercises. Students from K-12 could use these exercises; however, I wish more of the exercises were inquiry-based exercises. given the comic’s contents, I would be surprised for teachers of younger students to use this comic. The Invisible War Cover

Build Your Bookshelf

Scale Free Network has done it again with their third book in the “Small Friends” series. They are giving voice to dysentery, a disease still causing problems today, the humans, and their microbial allies trying to keep the pathogens in check. These three books are some of the very few accurate, engaging, and narrative non-fiction books published that feature beneficial microbes. Great care is taken with each book to ensure the scientific accuracy, while also making an amazing piece of art and literature. I am looking forward to their next fantastic story.

For your copy of “The Invisible War” and the other books in the “Small Friends” series, check out Scale Free Network’s website and store as well as their Pozible funding page.

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