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Science in comics: When researchers speak in speech bubbles

Science in comics: When researchers speak in speech bubbles

Status: 10/06/2023 3:38 PM

Whether it’s nuclear energy or climate change – the comic artist scene has explored these topics for itself. She is currently meeting at the Munich Comedy Festival. Researchers also use the medium to explain their content.

It’s not about Gyro Gearloose, the busy inventor from Duckburg, or Tony Stark, the explorer from the Marvel Universe better known as Iron Man. And Professor Bienlein, the absent-minded professor from Tintin does not play a role here either. It’s about serious science, about communicating new knowledge, about getting important topics out to a wider audience – in and with the help of comics.

When American Scott McCloud published his “Understanding Comics” comic book 30 years ago, it was quite a surprise. A meta comedian so to speak – a comic who explains how to read comics properly. As a result, McCloud published more comics that were dedicated to comics subject matter at the annotation level. Thus he opened up the possibility of not only enjoying comics, but also imparting solid analytical information—using comics as an example.

Scott McCloud’s “Understanding Comics” is considered a milestone in the history of science comics.

From Meta Comic to Science Comic

“In the field of comics research, ‘Understanding Comics’ is perhaps the most relevant example of what is known as science comics,” says Veronique Senna, a film and media scientist at Goethe University Frankfurt am Main. “As a treatise on how the medium works, the book is designed consistently in comic form.”

McCloud was later called the “McLuhan of Comics”—a reference to Canadian philosopher and media scholar Marshall McClouhan, best known for his central thesis “The Medium is the Message”.

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Collaboration between comic artists and Scientists

Storyboard artists are now increasingly working directly with scholars – for example in the research project ‘Narrative Art and Visual Storytelling in the Holocaust and Human Rights Education’ led by Charlotte Challe at the University of Victoria in Canada. The book “But I Survive. Four Children Surviving the Holocaust” was the result of this project.

In it, three internationally renowned artists, including Munich-based Barbara Yellen, put into practice children’s memories of the time of National Socialism. They describe experiences from concentration camps, while on the run or from hiding in the Netherlands. Scientific texts on the historical background complement the book.

The volume “But I Live” deals with the Holocaust.

Change of subject: from history to computer science

In September 2022, the Ruhr University Bochum publishes its first comic book dealing with IT security issues. Annika Gödde of the Excellence Group CASA (Cyber ​​Security in the Age of Large-scale Adversaries) explains: “Our research should not be conducted in an ivory tower. IT security is a very important topic socially – especially at the moment when we look at hacker attacks on companies or hospitals – It’s becoming more and more relevant.”

However, it is often seen as a very complicated and complex topic and has reservations about it, says Gödde. “Comics offer a creative and playful opportunity to gain insight into IT security and our research.”

the comedy itself – Available online It – Bochum scholars put it together by the Berlin Agency in close consultation. Explains the world of cryptography. A hungry little fox follows the scent of freshly baked cookies (cookies!) at the end of the cold winter. On his way to the food, he has to follow different paths and slide through the back doors. IT security is conveyed here in a very simple graphical way.

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“The comics show the range of challenges our scientists are looking at,” says Gödde. “However, since we have a limited number of pages, we are giving our readers the opportunity to become more involved with scientific papers.”

Comic artists accompany the conventions

The interest in comics is so great that booklets had to be reprinted. And this is despite the fact that comics are also available as downloads and gifs on the site and are highly clicked.

Comedy is growing in popularity, says Frankfurt media scientist Sina. So it seems logical to increase the use of this media model for the transmission of scientific content.

“I see an increasing collaboration between research and artistic practice,” says Senna. For example, in the field of so-called graphic recordings, comic artists are invited to scientific conferences or workshops in order to visually accompany the event and to process the scientific results presented in the form of comics and at the same time for archiving.

“Endless World” comes from France, which is dealing with the climate crisis.

Explain climate change

The topic of climate change is currently particularly popular in comics. Famous French artist Christophe Plein published his comic “Endless World” with climate expert Jean-Marc Jankovici. In it, they describe the causes of climate change and point to possibilities that could slow global warming.

Arild Midthun of Norway, known for his cartoons Donald Duck, has also devoted himself to the topic of climate change. In his latest comic “Eva – Climate in Crisis”, he uses influencer persona Eva to address global warming. Together with climate researcher Bjorn Samst, he wants to convey the possible future scenarios identified by the United Nations, especially to younger readers.

scientific Transfer messages

“Comics are the perfect medium because the text and images support each other and because you can tell stories,” says Arild Midthun. “Bjorn and I show our heroine Eva the consequences of her lifestyle and we want her to understand who the victims of climate change are.”

The two tell the theme through a fictional story set in a terrifying version of Ragnarök (the Norse apocalypse). “People tend to imagine reality in terms of visions of good versus evil, hero versus villain, rather than complex systems of macroeconomic movements and shifting geopolitical strategies,” Midthun explains.

In the appendix, the authors show the consequences of global warming by two, three and four degrees – a particularly important topic for artist Midthun: “The comedy about Eva’s decisions regarding our possible futures is my small contribution, Climate change brings people closer.” Midthun would like to deal with the important topic. Thus his comic ends with the sentence: “Everything else is in your hands.”