The Strangest Pictures I Have Seen #3

Posted by on June 11th, 2010 at 5:38 PM

I didn’t get into comic books until my teens. When I say that I grew up reading comics, this week’s entry is the kind of comic I’m talking about. I was nerdy, painfully earnest, and born in the 1970s, and that all adds up to FREE-TO-BE-YOU-AND-ME-STYLE MATH COMICS.

The I Hate Mathematics! Book
By Marilyn Burns and Martha Weston

Growing up, I owned both The I Hate Mathematics! Book and its sequel, Math for Smarty Pants. Martha Weston’s art gets considerably more polished between the two books, but both are chockablock with math puzzles, games and cartoons, presented through a mix of comics and illustrated text.

A few days ago, my cowriter Jeff and I used the number 28 in a Skin Horse strip, just at random, and somebody in the comments wrote, “28 is a very good number. 28 is a perfect number.” And I was like, YES. Twenty-eight (1+2+4+7+14) is the second smallest perfect number, after six (1+2+3), my favorite number of all time! Thank you, Brown Paper School math books! In third grade, I was so inspired by the section on perfect numbers in Math for Smarty Pants that I wrote a poem to the number six. This was one of many reasons I never got invited to anyone’s birthday party.

That, and if I had been invited I would almost certainly have broken out some of the many math-based magic tricks I’d learned about in the books. I was also really into magic.

I was not, however, any good at math, and I continued to be not very good at math despite the relentless efforts of Marilyn Burns and Martha Weston and their peppy, sepia-toned “Up with People” vibe. Instead of becoming a structural engineer like my dad, I just grew up with a fixation on educational comic books, from Metal Men to Action Philosophers to The Cartoon History of the Universe. I may not be able to do calculus, but I can tell you which metal is liquid at room temperature. And which, I ask you, is more useful in the average person’s day-to-day life?

That’s right. Neither. Also, comics rot your brain.

That said, the Brown math books still rank among my favorite nonfiction comics. The math lessons are both engaging and reasonably clear, the characters are cute (especially in Math for Smarty Pants, which has an established cast and, for some reason, these horrible fat little goblin people), and the whole production bears the unmistakable stamp of people trying gosh-darn hard to make the world a better place, a place where our children can solve dinner-table seating puzzles and fold cubes in their heads. Don’t we still dream of such a world?

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2 Responses to “The Strangest Pictures I Have Seen #3”

  1. JRBrown says:

    I had that book too! Good times. Nerdy 70’s children of hippie parents unite! :)

  2. eb_oesch says:

    I notice that the writer had no clue what “combination” and “permutation” actually mean. (C(3,2) = 3; P(3,2) = 6.)