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Cartoon Science

The rising popularity of comic strips in science and research communication

Biology is a recurring theme in Níquel Náusea, by cartoonist Fernando Gonsales

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Armed with ballpoint pens and gouache ink, North American illustrator Karen Romano Young embarked for Antarctica aboard the Laurence M. Gould research vessel in March. In one of the ship’s labs, she began drawing the first designs for a comic journal she called the Antarctic Log, describing the scientific expedition conducted by researchers from the Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences, USA. The trip was funded by the US National Science Foundation (NSF), the country’s leading research funding agency, which offers specific grants to encourage writers, photographers, and artists to visit the continent. The objective is to raise awareness of projects conducted as part of the US Antarctic Program. For two months, Young lived and worked alongside scientists at the Palmer Station. She recorded their daily lives in an illustrated log book that aims to take readers behind the scenes of a study on microbial communities found in cold waters.

One of the comics in the series explains how the equipment used to pump seawater and analyze phytoplankton and bacteria samples works. Another sees two elephant seals discussing the consequences of climate change. “Comic strip stories provide a quicker understanding of scientific themes by exploring visuals as well as text, making content more attractive,” says Young, who has also written children’s books. She does not believe that her nonscientific background was an obstacle. There were always researchers available who she could talk to and she was invited to participate in field surveys, fish dissections, and microscope observations. The Antarctic Log is available online and has been used by teachers in the classroom.

Reproduction Published online, the Antarctic Log comic was produced during a scientific expedition to AntarcticaReproduction

By integrating image and text in a natural and engaging way, comics are often used to translate complex research results for the general public, especially young people. The European Research Council (ERC)—which supports renowned research groups and funded 17% of the €77-billion Horizon 2020 project, the biggest scientific program in the EU—also offers a specific grant to support the production of scientific comics. The ERCcOMICS program funds webcomics inspired by ERC research projects, including Brain Trippers, which chronicles the activities of a group of small aliens who come to Earth and invade a human brain with the mission of understanding how the human mind works.

The creator of the story is Clayton Junior, a Brazilian illustrator who has been living in London, UK, for over 10 years. After successfully applying to the ERCcOMICS program, he worked in partnership with physicist Mickaël Tanter, a researcher at the Langevin Institute in France who developed an ultrasound-based neuroimaging technique. “In order to create the text and the drawings, I had to immerse myself in Tanter’s work,” said Junior, who consulted neuroscience books and exchanged weekly emails with the researcher. The Brazilian also visited Tanter at his lab in Paris. “I’ve learned that labs can be a good source of inspiration for artists,” says Junior.

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In Brazil, similar initiatives are starting to take shape. In May, the Research, Innovation and Dissemination Center for Neuromathematics (NeuroMat), one of the Research, Innovation, and Dissemination Centers (RIDC) funded by FAPESP, launched Os Braços de Nildo e Rony (The arms of Nildo and Rony), a comic strip designed to help patients who have suffered serious injuries to the brachial plexus, a set of nerves responsible for communication between the brain and upper limbs. The story recounts the meeting of a motorcycle courier called Nildo, who has had a serious motorcycle accident, and a doctor called Rony, who has been shot in an armed robbery. Both have damaged their brachial plexus and lost movement in their arms. “The aim is to inform patients and their families about the injury, which has long-lasting effects, even after surgery,” explains mathematician Antonio Galves, a coordinator at NeuroMat and a writer for the comic. “We are researching this health issue because it serves as an interesting model for studying the plasticity of the brain.”

A thousand copies have been printed and will be distributed at health centers and motorcycle courier unions—80% of these types of injury are caused by motorcycle accidents. “We could have produced an informative booklet instead of a comic book, but it would have been a bit of a cold and boring way to approach a human drama,” says Galves. “With comic strips, the readers empathize with the characters, who are not presented as pitiful or disabled, but as real heroes.” Speaking of heroes, illustrator João Magara’s drawings are inspired by Batman’s Gotham City, a dangerous fictional city full of towering skyscrapers.

Reproduction Created in 1997 by American engineer Jorge Cham, PhD Comics takes a light-hearted look at the difficulties of life as a researcherReproduction

Even world-renowned scientific journals use comics. In 2015, the journal Science published a comic strip guide to general relativity to commemorate the centenary of Albert Einstein’s (1879–1955) theory. In the same year, Nature began publishing The Fragile Framework, a comic strip that chronicles the 25-year quest for an international climate treaty. “Visual aids help the public to better understand science,” says mathematician and cartoonist Nick Sousanis, author of The Fragile Framework and a researcher at San Francisco State University, USA. In 2014, Sousanis presented a PhD thesis in the form of a comic at Columbia University in New York. His paper, which examines the separation between verbal and visual expression and questions the primacy of the written word in the construction of knowledge, was later published as a graphic novel called Unflattening. “Combining text with images should be seen as a legitimate and valuable way to learn,” argues Sousanis.

Comics were first created in the late nineteenth century and have since become known for addressing humor, science fiction, and superheroes. The relationship between comics and science only began to develop after World War II (1939–1945). Before then, comics were seen by many educators and religious leaders as a bad influence on children and young people. In an effort to change public opinion, publishers started printing illustrated science booklets and comic book adaptations of literary classics. One pioneer in this endeavor was New Yorker Max Gaines (1894–1947), who in 1944 founded Educational Comics, a company that published scientific comics. “Those kinds of initiatives helped highlight the educational potential of comic books,” says Waldomiro de Castro Santos Vergueiro, a researcher at the Comic Book Observatory of the School of Communications and Arts at the University of São Paulo (ECA-USP).

Reproduction Humor and science are the main ingredients in the Cientirinhas comics, started in 2016 by illustrator Marco MerlinReproduction

Comics can stimulate learning and engage readers. Chemist and illustrator Adriana Yumi Iwata, a PhD student at the Federal University of São Carlos (UFSCAR), certainly believes so—she holds chemistry comic workshops for high-school students from public and private schools in São Carlos, in the state of São Paulo. “Students do not need to know how to draw. The quality of the drawing isn’t important, it’s about the way the script utilizes chemistry concepts learned at school,” says Iwata, who is the author of the chemistry comic Sigma Pi, drawn in the Japanese manga style. She also produces the Glass Comics as one of the scientific dissemination strategies implemented by the Center for Research, Education, and Innovation in Vitreous Materials (CeRTEV), another FAPESP RIDC (see interview).

Experts, however, argue that comics should not only be seen as a trick for attracting children and young people into the world of science. Anthropomorphic characters and visual metaphors also have the power to win over the wider public. “The true value of comics may be engaging those readers who are less likely to seek other forms of science communication,” wrote neuroscientist Matteo Farinella, a researcher at Columbia University, in an article published in the journal American Scientist in June.

Reproduction Excerpts from Fragile Framework, a comic published in 2015 by the journal NatureReproduction

“Although it is difficult to measure the influence comics have on the public, my experience suggests that science comics have similar educational results as classroom teaching,” said Farinella in an interview with Pesquisa FAPESP. Farinella is not just a researcher, he is also an illustrator and coauthor of Neurocomic, a graphic novel that has just been launched in Brazil and aims to reveal the key functions of the human brain and how they work. The comic is full of visual metaphors: on one page, the brain is portrayed as a telephone exchange that receives calls from various parts of the body. “The challenge is to swap words for illustrations. Whenever possible, I prefer to show instead of tell.”

Reproduction From Brazilian manga comic Sigma Pi, which addresses the world of chemistryReproduction

Writing scientific comics with humor is not an easy task. If the field is very specialized—quantum physics, for example—authors have to avoid making “inside jokes” that are only understood by people with knowledge of the subject. But there are comics that cater to a narrower audience. PhD Comics, created in 1997 by engineer and cartoonist Jorge Cham, a researcher at the California Institute of Technology, is aimed at an audience familiar with the difficulties of academic life, such as the challenges of publishing a scientific article, the complex relationship between students and supervisors, and the perpetual search for free food at scientific conferences. The challenge differs when the purpose is to reach an audience with no scientific background. Cartoonist Fernando Gonsales, creator of comic strip Níquel Nausea, named after its main character, occasionally addresses biology and genetic evolution in his comics as a sarcastic way of discussing themes such as creationism. “I try to use scientific knowledge to make jokes. For me, science is more a source of inspiration; disseminating scientific knowledge is not my main goal,” says Gonsales, who graduated in veterinary medicine and biology.

Illustrator Marco Merlin, author of the Cientirinhas comic, which has been published on the Dragões de Garagem website since 2016, believes humor helps to engage readers with serious scientific topics. Although it is important to remain scientifically accurate, he says, a certain amount of poetic license is at times unavoidable, which can displease some of the more demanding readers. “I once wrote a comic strip joking that the biggest fear for a capuchin monkey (known in Brazil as “nail monkeys”) is the hammerhead shark. One reader complained that my monkey illustration was not true to the real animal,” says Merlin.

Reproduction Cover of the comic created by the NeuroMat research center to help patients with serious nerve injuriesReproduction

Columbia University’s Matteo Farinella argues that prejudices against humor within the scientific community still hinder the emergence of new science comics. “Comic strips are still seen only as a tool for making science more fun and accessible to children,” he says. For him, they can be used to address complex subjects without necessarily resorting to simplification. “My dream is to see professional science cartoonists who understand the subject and are able to reinterpret it in a unique way. There are some who can do that already, but they are the exceptions,” says Farinella, who created a website to monitor the production of scientific comics around the world. Cartoon Science is a kind of repository that brings together about 85 science comics.

But what do researchers interested in writing a comic need to know before they start out? In September 2017, biologist Carly Melissa Tribull, a researcher at the University of Houston in Texas, USA, published a guide in the Annals of the Entomological Society of America with recommendations for scientists thinking of creating their own comic. “The quality that separates comics from textbooks or articles is that they primarily rely on a specific order of images to relay a story. Knowing what information a comic is going to present is the first step to successfully drafting one,” suggests Tribull. She also recommends that scientists who cannot draw hire professional illustrators, although this is not a requirement. “Exceptional imagery is not necessarily a requirement for a successful scientific communication comic. There are comics on the internet illustrated entirely with stick figures and simple line drawings,” she adds.

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