How do you cope with your unfulfilled dreams? Do you cook or write poetry, run marathons or travel the world?
It was the spring of 2008 and Lucas Landherr was contemplating this very question. He was a doctoral student of chemical engineering at Cornell University, keenly aware that achieving his professional goal of becoming a professor was still several years away. As he recalls, “I really needed a creative outlet to distract me.”
He had written a spec script, he says, a comedy “that wasn’t going anywhere,” and reasoned that he could use some of its jokes to form the basis for a daily webcomic. “Questionable Content” had opened up his eyes to the creative possibilities of the genre, and now he wanted to try his hand at creating his own.
The result was “Surviving the World,” a slice-of-life series aimed at addressing everything from politics and sports to romance and religion. “I was just trying to maintain my sanity while waiting for the job I really wanted,” says Landherr, now associate teaching professor in Northeastern’s Department of Chemical Engineering. “What I found is that it really helped sustain me throughout my final two years of graduate school and my post-doc.”
Landherr didn’t want the scientific community to know that he was moonlighting as a webcomic artist, so he worked under the pseudonym Dr. Dante Shepherd. And he couldn’t draw, so he dabbled in photography instead. Virtually every entry in the series is a photo comprising two main elements: Landherr, clad in a white lab coat and Red Sox hat, and a chalkboard, on which a daily lesson is written in big white capital letters.
Over the past eight years, Landherr has riffed on hundreds of topics to create more than 2,800 unique comics. One focused on reality TV, another on the similarities between social networks and cars. When he’s desperate for inspiration, he’ll visit Wikipedia and click the “random article” button, but it’s rare for him to suffer from writer’s block. “So long as you’re interacting with people and experiencing life,” he says, “you can find things that are funny.”
Lesson No. 321, titled “Archrivals,” is a prime example of the series’ brand of humor, a comic in which Landherr’s left hand is placed over his chin as if to contemplate the words of wisdom emblazoned on a classroom chalkboard: “If you don’t have a nemesis,” it says, “then you’ve probably never had the pleasure of human interaction.”
Working under the guise of Dr. Shepherd, Landherr recently launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise $26,000 for the development of “Surviving the World” page-a-day calendars. “You could plaster your door or your fridge with them,” he jokes on his crowdfunding page. “You could plaster your dog with them.” The calendar, he says, will include 50 original “Surviving the World” comics as well as a rudimentary word-of-the-day. One of the words-of-the-day for his Kickstarter-backed 2014 calendar was “kiwi.” As he puts it on the crowdfunding page, “Who needs to learn new words when you’re already good at words.”
His audience is relatively large. Although he tried to keep it a secret, virtually every student in the first class that he taught at Northeastern knew that he was the person behind “Surviving the World.” And his website has amassed millions of page views, receiving an average of 10,000 visitors per day. From time to time, he’s harnessed his online voice to advocate on behalf of the LGBT community in his own quirky way. As his mother is wont to tell him and his sister, “You guys didn’t get much out of the ordinary basket.”
Landherr’s popularity in the webcomic community has led to a range of new opportunities both on and off campus. Within the past few years, he’s attended the Emerald City Comicon, delivered a stand-up comedy routine at AggieCon, and made friends with the cartoonist behind a popular webcomic series called “Girls With Slingshots.” In 2015, he received a grant from the Office of the Provost to create a series of science-based webcomics to help his students understand difficult chemical engineering concepts. One of them, which features Landherr in cartoon form, attempts to explain a concept called fugacity. “Students like them,” says Landherr, noting that professors at more than two dozen other colleges nationwide have asked to use the comics as part of their lessons. “We’ve seen an improvement in their learning as well as an improvement in their confidence.”
He is currently working to secure grants to create science-based comics for kids, a project that dovetails with his scholarship focus on the development of research-inspired STEM experiments for K-12 classrooms. “My creative outlet is mingling with my real life more than I expected it to,” he says.