Communication of Science and the Representation of Science and Scientists in Science Comics
Mico Tatalovic 11 September 2009 th
Submitted in partial fulfilment of the requirements for an MSc in Science Communication at Imperial College London
Contents Introduction................................................................................................................1 Terminology: defining comics.........................................................................2 Studies on science in comics...........................................................................5 Fiction comics and science..................................................................5 Educational comics and science..........................................................8 Review of science comics...............................................................................10 Educational science cartoons and comic strips..................................10 Science comics and graphic novels.....................................................15 Aims............................................................................................................................23 Methods......................................................................................................................24 Analysis and discussion.............................................................................................29 How is science communicated.........................................................................29 Investigating the Scientific Method with Max Axiom..........................29 Space Weather......................................................................................34 Representation of science and the scientists....................................................39 Investigating the Scientific Method with Max Axiom..........................39 Space Weather......................................................................................44 Further discussion and future research....................................................................48 Conclusions.................................................................................................................52 References...................................................................................................................53 Appendices: -Online science comics resources -Full interview transcripts -Analysed comics
Comics (sequential art) have been generally underrated as a medium and an art form, and in the Anglo-Saxon world they are frequently thought of as nothing more than a cheap pastime. They are “thrice damned” says Simon Locke (2005; p. 29): “damned as culture, being popular not ‘high’; damned as a medium, being neither art nor literature but some perverse hybrid, at best suitable only for children (and retarded adults), at worst positively harmful . . . and they are damned as a genre, being the most outlandish fantasy involving absurd characters acting in the most bizarre fashion – the very antithesis, one might think, of plausibility.” However, for many people comics are much more than this. In Understanding Comics (1994) and Reinventing Comics (2000) Scott McCloud argues for comics’ ability to communicate various messages in an artistic way. His books, together with Will Eisner’s Comics and Sequential Art (1985) and Graphic Storytelling and Visual Narrative (1996) are often used as a good starting point for thinking about the specificities of the comics medium and for considering comics in their own right, separate from other media.
One can argue against all three damnations of comics identified by Locke. First, if comics are a part of popular culture, this could be a strength as it allows them to reach many people of various backgrounds. However, not all comics are popular culture, as the work of certain artists demonstrates (e.g. Satrapi’s Persepolis and Spiegelman’s Maus). One could argue that such comics are both art and literature, and in some ways more than either one of these on its own. Moreover, there are a variety of genres of comics, not all of which include “outlandish fantasy” and “absurd characters”. Whatever view one takes
of comics though, they have played an important role in the history of media in the last couple of centuries, and are still widely available both in shops and online, with graphic novels becoming popular and earning mainstream acceptance as a literary art form (e.g. Sabin, 2009).
Comics’ status as a lowly medium for the masses and the fact that they appeal to children have perhaps been the main reasons why they were largely and somewhat unfairly ignored by academia, something most critical appraisals of comics are quick to state. Here I will focus mainly on the subset of studies on comics: those that have looked at connections between science and comics. I will briefly review such studies and their conclusions. I will then give an overview of the genre of comic books that aim to communicate science: the science comics. I will complete the introduction by outlining the gaps in current knowledge about science comics and about any role that they might play in science communication.
Terminology: defining ‘comics’ I agree with McCloud (1998) that single-frame cartoons relate to comics as photographs do to film. Comics, as sequential art are different to cartoons and to general cartoon illustrations found in many educational books aimed at children (e.g. Horrible Science series or Icon Books’ Introduction to… series). The fact that there is a sequence of related images (frames) that make up a story distinguish comics from simple illustrations which may invoke comic imagery but are at the end of the day a part of different media, be it a primarily text-based book, image-based poster, etc.
There may be some similarities between book illustrations and comics: for example, when comparing educational books about dinosaurs from 1978 with those from 1998 Buckingham and Scanlon (2003; p. 133) found that in recent books “text has effectively become a commentary on the images, whereas in the older books the bulk of the text was independent of the image.” This closer association between text and image in more recent books is reminiscent of comics where text and images work together to create an emerging medium that is neither just the text nor just the images but an emergent whole, composed of both. But as interesting as this trend of closer association between image and text in illustrated educational books, it does not necessarily warrant studying books with cartoon illustrations and comic books together, as though they were the same medium.
So, while cartoons and comics both use images associated with text, comics is a medium in its own right, defined roughly as ‘sequential art’. Failure to distinguish between sequential art and non-sequential cartoon illustrations is perhaps one of the reasons why there is so little literature dedicated specifically to examining science in comics (Alice Bell, personal communication). Comic book imagery abounds in various books, games and TV programs and unless one specifically defines comics as separate from cartoons and illustrations in other media it becomes very difficult to focus on the specificity of comics as a medium and to say anything meaningful about them. It is as if one were to discuss science films by looking at both photographs and films, instead of just focusing on the medium of moving images; one could not possibly study film in as much depth if
one also had to include photographs, because much of what is particular about film would have to be overlooked. Indeed, there are researchers who are studying non-animated science cartoons in their own right, as a medium separate from comics (Sai Pathmanathan, personal communication).
Comic strips, although more similar to comic books than cartoons in that they can also narrate a story through a short sequence of frames are still quite different from comic books; they could legitimately be studied on their own account and either be included in or excluded from a study on science comics. Schmitt (1992) likens comic strips to book illustrations rather than comic books because in strips words and images are more independent of each other than they are in comic books and are thereby read differently from comic books. I mentioned them here briefly because they are related and could legitimately be studied together with comic books; however, I focus my dissertation specifically on science comic books, which are longer than comic strips and allow a more complex narrative to develop. In the words of Douglas Wolk (2007; p. 18), I take comics to be “sustained narrative, which means comic books and graphic novels, much more than newspapers, comic strips or one-off cartoon illustrations.”
There is no definition of comics that satisfies everyone and that includes everything that people consider as ‘comics’. In the compilation of essays on comics The Language of Comics (2001; p. xvi), editors Gibbons and Varnum say that some of the contributors in their book see “...comics as a narrative form consisting of pictures arranged in sequence” while for others “...it is juxtaposition of words and pictures, not sequence, that is essential
to the comics form.” They conclude that “comic strips, comic books, graphic novels, single-panel cartoons, wordless comics, animated cartoons and various other kinds of visual texts bear family resemblances to one another” although no definition can at the same time be specific enough and encompass all those forms. I have argued here that they can conceivably be four levels or categories of related art: single-frame cartoons, short comic strips, comic books and graphic novels, in order of ascending length and level of narrative complexity. In this dissertation I will focus mainly on comic books, a term I use interchangeably with comics.
Studies on science in comics Fiction comics and science Studies about science in comics generally fall into two broad types: those that examine science in commercial fiction comics and those that examine science in educational nonfiction comics. Studies such as Locke’s (2005), which treat science in fiction comics, are interesting and really part of the body of work on science in popular culture in general.
Although some studies have emphasised that comics and animated cartoons, two of the traditionally most popular media enjoyed by young people, offer a distorted and stereotypical view of science and scientists (Vilchez-Gonzales, 2006), many common fiction comics actually contain references to accurate scientific ideas and facts (Carter, 1988). For example, a variety of valid chemistry principles, equations and processes are referred to in comics as diverse as Donald Duck and Marvel Classic Comics (Carter,
1988). Perhaps not surprisingly, then, fiction comics can be effectively used in enhancing learning about biochemistry – using excerpts from manga comics help students memorize concepts (Nagata, 1999) – and have been suggested as a possible interesting teaching aid to teach laboratory safety and ethics – by critiquing poor lab safety often depicted in comics students could be introduced to potentially dull issues in a visually entertaining way (Di Raddo, 2006). Popular, fiction comics have been used to convey environmental and laboratory safety messages (e.g. the Archie Comics: Archie and Friends Battle Toxic Household Wastes and Let’s Have a Blast), albeit with an unknown success (Szafran et al, 1994).
Comics are sometimes able to convey nuanced issues in scientific ethics: echoing Locke’s 2005 findings that comics can carry sophisticated ideas about science and its social context Weinstein (2006) finds that in Truth, the comic book about black soldiers who were used as guinea pigs in WW2, “there are no easy places to escape to in this story, no sense that science can make it all right. In this way Truth presents a more complicated vision of science and ethics than either GPZ [professional magazine] or the official texts” (Weinstein, 2006; p. 972).
Comics have also been used for promoting health and the psychological means of coping with childhood diseases such as cancer and diabetes; examples include Captain Chemo comics and Omega Boy vs Dr. Diabetes (Barnes, 2006). Some of these have actually been conceived and drawn by the child patients themselves, perhaps showing their need
and inclination for such content to be delivered in a comic book medium and might represent a true engagement of non-scientists with science.
Fiction comics, especially the super-hero style comics often contain characters with powers that defy known scientific explanations, and yet their authors try to make them scientifically justified so that the characters make sense within the reality of the comic book narrative (Locke, 2005). "The stories are based in science, and in magic, legend and mythology," Locke says, "They're all thrown into the mix, but the universe that's constructed is scientifically coherent and there's an attempt to give scientific legitimacy to super powers." (cited in Wignall, 2005). As such, super-hero comics are “one cultural arena where the public meaning of science is actively worked out” says Locke (2005; p. 25). Comic book super-heroes have inspired a number of science museum exhibitions such as the ‘Marvel Superhero Science Exhibition’ at the California Science Center (Torneo, 2006); fiction comics have also been used in museums to illustrate concepts and generally enliven exhibitions (e.g. the use of a Martin Mystery comic book page at the Natural History Museum in Milan to illustrate a paleontologist’s equipment, or Dan Dare comic excerpts at the Science Museum in London) (personal observation).
Super-hero comics have also inspired teachers to use examples from the comics to teach science, The Science of Superheroes (2002) and The Physics of Superheroes (2005) being two excellent books about the science behind the superpowers and how to use those in teaching students about science. What transpires from these books is that fiction comics often get the science ‘facts’ wrong but can still be used as interesting examples of why
something is wrong and what science tells us about such phenomena (Conan, 2003). Taking a logical step further in using comics to communicate science, we arrive to nonfiction comics whose purpose is to get the science right. But in such comics the importance of the scientific message becomes paramount, opening possibility that the quality and entertainment value of the comic book suffer as a consequence.
Educational comics and science Comic books produced specifically for science communication constitute a special genre, one which is often ignored by researchers. I feel that more research should focus on these non-fiction science comics. I use the term non-fiction with caveat here, because even comics which explain real-life scientific phenomena use many fictional elements and techniques in order to do so. Indeed, the use of fiction can enhance the enjoyment of reading as well as more effectively deliver scientific content to children who readily discern fictional elements from non-fictional ones (Rota, 2003). This is why I prefer to talk about â€˜science comicsâ€™: comics which have as one of their main aims to communicate science or to educate the reader about some non-fictional, scientific concept or theme, even if this means using fictional techniques and narratives to convey the nonfictional information. For this reason, in the rest of the dissertation I focus primarily on these science comics, and not the fiction comics that may contain some reference to science but have no intention, agenda or responsibility to educate their readers in science.
Educational non-fiction comics dealt with scientific topics from 1941 in the mainstream Classics Illustrated comics and the World Around Us series, and these have now been suggested as good materials to teach the history of science as many of them focused on topics from the history of science (Carter, 1989). Single frame cartoons were used to discuss science publicly as early as the 19th century (Noakes, 2002). Wright (2002) described how cartoons and comics have been used to communicate medical science over the past two centuries and Hansen (2004) mapped in great detail highly commercially successful comics that dealt in celebratory manner with real scientists and medical doctors in the 1940s.
This special genre of educational science-themed comics may help to promote and explain science to students and the general public. There is now some evidence that educational comics and related single-frame cartoons can be useful for teaching science. This evidence suggests they can make children think about science, and help in teaching them curriculum science (Kruger & Watson, 2001; Russell & Murray, 1993, as cited in Weitkmap & Buret, 2007; Weitkmap & Buret, 2007; Rota, 2003; Olson, 2008), and can be useful in making the general public think about science (Naylor & Keogh, 1999). Children enjoy reading comics and both the visual appeal of a graphic representation and the tendency towards intriguing narrative (which can be humorous while educational) make comics an excellent vehicle for conveying scientific concepts in an interesting way (Weitkmap & Buret, 2007). In most of these studies comics are said to make learning about science in the classroom more diverse and therefore more interesting, but these studies rarely control for the novelty factor of such lessons â€“ children might be happy to
use comics and learn more just because it is something different than their normal classroom routine: the beneficial results might not have anything specific to do with the comic book medium itself. Some of the studies are conducted on very small samples sizes, and hardly any address the effects of science comics on adultsâ€™ understanding of science. These and similar considerations warrant further studies before use of comics should become fully embraced in science education and communication (c.f. Hughes, 2005).
Nevertheless, from my exploratory research of science comics, it appears that scientists and educators are becoming more aware of the appeal that comics hold for young people and are starting to use them more as a vehicle to communicate scientific ideas. Although educational comics about science are no new invention, their production appears to be blossoming in the current climate of focus on the public understanding of science and public engagement with science and technology. As a result, in the last decade or so a variety of educational science comics and cartoons have been produced, by a variety of publishers, partially reviewed here.
Review of science comics Educational science cartoons and comic strips A popular form of science communication in India, â€˜Scientoonsâ€™ are the brainchild of Indian scientist and science communicator Pradeep Srivastava. These cartoons contain a caricature accompanied by a satirical comment or dialogue, as well as some basic information about new research, ideas, data or facts (Srivastava, 2008; see Image 1).
Image 1: Two examples of Scientoons. ÂŠ Pradeep Srivastava, www.scientoon.com
Another example are single-frame “Concept Cartoons” which have been used to improve physics education and public interest in science (Keogh, 1998; Naylor & Keogh, 1999). These depict a single problem such as: “would the snowman [featured in the cartoon] melt faster, slower or at the same rate if we put a coat around it?” Offering no immediate solution, they make people think about the problem and discuss it with others (Keogh, 1998; Naylor & Keogh, 1999; see Image 2).
Image 2: An example of a Concept Cartoon, © http://www.conceptcartoons.com/index_flash.html
Like cartoons, comic strips may also have a role in communicating science. Several websites provide short online comic strips that deal with or are inspired by scientific topics. For example LabRatz is a three-frame comic strip inspired by day-to-day life in a scientific laboratory and office space, while PhD Comics draw their inspiration from lives of graduate students doing their scientific research. Newton and Copernicus follows the adventures of two lab rats and has been successfully used in science education to raise scientific literacy of students (Olson, 2008). Some online comic strips only address science occasionally, but can still make interesting observations and stimulate discussion such as the Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal Comics (see Image 4).
This brief summary illustrates that science can be communicated via single-frame cartoons and short comic strips.
Image 3: Newton and Copernicus http://www.newtonandcopernicus.com/
Image 4: Two Saturday Morning Breakfast Comic Strips. http://www.smbc-comics.com/
Science comics and graphic novels The Solar-Terrestrial Environment Laboratory of Nagaya University in Japan has produced a series of 9 colourful manga-style comics so far, each 16 pages long and dealing with a different topic: global warming, solar radiation, geomagnetism, cosmic rays, polar regions, the aurora, the upper atmosphere, ozone holes and the sun-climate relationships (in Japanese and English, but freely available for translation into other languages as well).
Jean-Pierre Petit produced a series of black-and-white “scientific comic books” called The Adventures of Archibald Higgins: they treat various scientific topics including black holes, the theory of relativity and the big bang theory (Association Savoir Sans Frontiéres website). Petit’s series has been translated into more than 30 languages so far, and is freely available online.
Capstone Press in the USA recently (2007-09) published a series of superhero-style Max Axiom comics, comprising 19 books so far. They cover a variety of topics from electromagnetism to natural selection and are aimed at students aged 8-14. The series’ eponymous super-hero is Max, a scientist who explains science through his adventures in which he can shrink down to the size of an ant, ride on a sound wave, and presumably makes science appear ‘cool’, but more on this later.
In India there is a comic book magazine, The Young Scientists, aimed at 5-13 year-olds, and in the UK, the chemistry comic book series The Chemedian is designed to teach
national curriculum chemistry to pupils aged 7-10. The makers of The Chemedian (The Chemedian has now been re-branded to Selenia) were awarded ÂŁ72,779 by the government to develop a series of ten comics (EPSRC website). The makers of The Chemedian say that their comic brings laughter to the classroom and encourages students to engage with science (Weitkmap & Buret, 2007).
Also, in the UK, the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council funded the project of turning real life research and scientists (from PhD students to professors at the Rothamstead Research Institute in Hertfordshire) into comic stories and characters. Science Stories book came out in two issues (2002, 2006) and it is composed of short comics featuring such titles as Slugging it Out, Down in the Dirt, How to Confuse a Moth, Sulphur Power and Killer Caterpillar: each book outlines some of the research that has been going on at Rothamstead Research Institute. These comics, available freely online, are written by Emma Naper, a science research student from Southampton University, and drawn by professional illustrator Phil Elliot; as such they demonstrate a fruitful collaboration between arts and sciences to produce a piece of science communication in a comic book medium.
Interferon Force is action-packed comic book series depicting the battle between the immune systemâ€™s interferon molecules and flu viruses [Influenza Attacks! (2007)] and other factors in autoimmune diseases (Cytokine Storm! (2008)). The second issue, Cytokine Storm! was serialized and published in eight parts in the Nature Immunology journal. Readers are encouraged to engage with the comic online by voting for the next
villain to appear in the series and by an interactive gallery of characters that blends their anthropomorphic features with their known roles in immunology.
Space Weather (2000), an adventure comic about solar radiation, satellites, space climate, planetary orbits and fusion, is produced by the Big Time Attic studio and published by the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). This was followed by two more comic books featuring the same main characters: Space Junk (2005) and the Journey Along a Field Line (2000) (a story about earthâ€™s magnetic field, published by the US Geological Survey). EUâ€™s Eco Agents Special Unit (2007) has a series of online comics about ecological themes, titles include Ocean Wind and Sustain and Gain.
Generally, each issue of these comic book series deals with a single main subject per issue, has an engaging narrative which explains the science involved, and features some sort of a glossary or introduction explaining the scientific terms.
I found other, one-off science comics. These include Water Heroes (2007), a manga-style comic book about conservation of water resources produced by the Environment Canada and several comics by Jay Hossler such as Conundrum of a Corona Virus, a 2-page, detective-story style comic about SARS, originally published in Emerging Diseases: New and Old. Others are Adventures in Synthetic Biology (Endy & Deese, 2005), a story about the new interdisciplinary field of synthetic biology, originally published in Nature (see Image 5), and Cindi in Space (Urquhart & Hairston, 2005), a super-hero style comic about the ionosphere and satellites, produced by University of Texas at Dallas, and
inspired by already mentioned Space Weather (The University of Texas at Dallas website).
Image 5: A cover and an excerpt from the Adventures in Synthetic Biology comic book.
Although most science comics I came across were in English, and this dissertation is focused on the English language comics, examples in other languages also exist, these include I Ja Ĺželim Biti Kao Prelog [I Also Want To Be Like Prelog] (Macan, 2006) about chemistry Nobel Laureate Vladimir Prelog, published in Croatian, and Al Otro Lado del Telescopio: Los Descubrimientos de Galileo [On the Other Side of the Telescope: Galileoâ€™s Discoveries] (Biro, 2009) about Galileo Galilei in Spanish.
Apart from science comic books there are several longer graphic novels available. These deal with various topics in biology and physics (see Table 1). Some of these are aimed at children, such as Clan Apis, whilst others are for older audiences. Most of these are black and white, unlike the colourful shorter comic books: this reflects a larger trend in which comic books are generally in colour while most notable graphic novels are black and white (e.g. Joe Sacco’s Safe Area Goražde and Palestine, and Delisle’s Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea). But who reads these graphic novels and for what purpose? Are they read in order to learn more about science or primarily for fun? Do people who are not already interested in science ever read these novels? These are all questions awaiting future study.
Table 1. List of science graphic novels. Name of the comic (year published) Clan Apis (2000) The Sandwalk Adventures: An Adventure in Evolution Told in Five Chapters (2003) Optical Allusions (2007)
Suspended in Language (2004) Fallout (2001) Dignifying Science (2003) Two-Fisted Science (2001) Levitation (2007) Wire Mothers: Harry Harlow and the Science of Love (2007)
Charles R. Knight: Autobiography of an Artist (2005)
Bone Sharps, Cowboys, and Thunder Lizards (2005) The Stuff of Life (2009) T-minus: the Race to Moon (2009)
Topic Entomology: behaviour of bees Natural selection Eyesight Story of Niels Bohrâ€™s life and scientific discoveries Science and politics of the first atomic bombs Famous women in science Various stories from the histroy of science Physics and psychology of magic tricks Science of love
Author Jay Hossler Jay Hossler Jay Hossler
Jim Ottaviani Jim Ottaviani Jim Ottaviani Jim Ottaviani Jim Ottaviani Jim Ottaviani
Story of an artist whose paintings influenced scientific fact and th fiction of the 20 century Story of the scientists who discovered dinosaur fossils DNA Astronomy: space journey to the Moon
Zander Cannon Zander Cannon Zander Cannon
Recent production of science comics has mainly not been accompanied by critical analysis of the effects comics have in science communication and education. In fact studies that examine science comics, and even science in the comics in general are few and far between.
Instead of uncritically accepting science comics as yet another excellent way to inspire children to study science, perhaps future studies should focus on examining images of science and scientists that these comics contain. If fiction comics contain a large amount of misleading science, do science comics present an objective view of science? If scientists in popular media are usually stereotyped can they ever be presented realistically in a medium that needs and thrives on stereotypes? Will Eisner (1996; p. 12) says:
...the stereotype is a fact of life in the comics mediumâ€Ś In comics, stereotypes are drawn from commonly accepted physical characteristics associated with an occupation. These become icons and are used as part of the language in graphic storytelling. This quotation is followed by stereotypical images among which is the scientist: a short, white male, with glasses, messy hair and moustache holding a book and looking much like the familiar iconic images of Einstein. Can such a medium, then, ever not stereotype scientists? I will tackle some of these questions in the rest of this dissertation.
So, this brief review shows that there is a variety of comics about science. These vary in length, style and presentation. Individually, they have been reviewed elsewhere (e.g. Zielinska, 2007; Hughes, 2005), and a few blogs and websites provide partial overviews of a variety of science comics and graphic novels that are currently available (e.g. Schiendelman, 2008; University of Dallas website; Meier, 2007). As part of research for this dissertation I assembled a list of science comics I came across and this will be published on the Planet Science and Science in School websites, hopefully providing teachers and students with a useful resource.
Research into these comics and their audiences has been rather scarce. Existing studies highlight the potential benefits of using such comics in science education, but do not address the use of comics and graphic novels as a means of communicating science to people outside classroom settings.
Most of existing studies embrace the use of comics as an exciting way of communicating science. But what all of them assume is that science is great and worthy of being promoted via comics. None of them actually address critically the content of these comics or science itself. What image of science do these comics contain? Who decides what image of science goes into comics? How do these comics represent science and the scientists, and how might this affect the readers beside the reported excitement of children of using comics in science classes?
I aim to critically analyse recent science comics. First of all I want to describe how they go about communicating science. I then want to explore what image of science they present: for example do they present an enchanting or disenchanting view of science (as in Locke 2005)? Finally, I also want to look at how they portray scientists in a medium that is compliant with stereotyping: are the scientists in these comics the same old clichĂŠd representations often found in other popular culture and mass media? I hope that illuminating these issues will also bring us closer to understanding how science comics fit into the Public Understanding of Science (PUS) and the Public Engagement with Science and Technology (PEST) movements, and show what role they have in science communication.
After consulting several books that critically analyse comics it has become clear to me that there is no single agreed method of analysing comics. Indeed, different authors cannot even agree upon the definition of comics, and rarely specify their methods when analysing comics. Even Barker (1989), who criticises previous works on comics and ideology only offers, in my opinion, a vague description of the methodology that he himself uses. However, I do agree with Barker that in order to study comics one should consider the social climate within which they are produced, and consider the “contract” between the comics’ authors and readers: who the comic has been produced for and for what purpose. Although it is beyond the scope of this study to examine the readership of comics, I will consider the writers’ side of comics production by means of a short questionnaire.
I have selected two of the science comics which I briefly reviewed in the introduction, and use these as case studies. In light of the great variety of science comics available, produced by various publishers, I decided to analyse two comic books that, in my opinion, are representative of the science comics genre and illustrate the main ways in which such comics are published. My first case study is a comic from the hardcover Max Axiom series; this series is produced by a commercial publisher and comprises 19 titles so far. Investigating the Scientific Method with its focus on the very fundamentals of science – its elusive method, is the title in the series which is the most relevant to this study: it was a topic deemed important and difficult enough to warrant one of the series’ editors,
Donald Lemke, to step out of his editorial shoes and write the story (Lemke, personal communication).
My second case study is Space Weather, the first in series which so far includes three paperback comic books featuring the same main characters: Zillian Rocket and an alien. The series is produced by the Big Time Attic studio for the US governmental scientific agencies NOAA and USGS.
Both of the case studies are comics that have been successful enough to warrant sequels, but which have been produced by different publishers with presumably different objectives: commercial sales of the comic itself (Max Axiom) and promotion of an agencyâ€™s scientific studies (Space Weather).
My main method will be close reading of the comics, paying special attention to the text and images: how they work together but also how they convey meaning on their own. Because comics are a graphic medium, images are used to convey a great deal of meaning; for this reason, I will use some principles of semiotic analysis when examining images related to the representation of science and scientists. One the other hand, word balloons are instantly associated with comics and could arguably be considered as one of their defining characteristics (although wordless comics do exist): I will therefore examine the text in the balloons on its own as well as in its relationship to the images.
I will complement my analysis of the comics with selected quotations from e-mail interviews with the respective writers of these comics: Donald Lemke and Zander Cannon. After making initial contact in which I explained that I was studying science comics for a masters dissertation, I sent the same ten questions to both authors in order to better understand their motivation for writing these comics, their intended and actual readers, to gauge their own views of science and scientists in order to see if they influenced their portrayal in the final comic books, and to examine constraints put on their writing by the publisher and the medium itself. Here are the questions I asked (full replies can be found in the appendices):
1. What motivated you to write this comic? 2. What would you say was the aim of this comic? 3. What readers did you have in mind when writing this comic? 4. Who do you think actually reads this comic? Do you have any information about this? 5. Whose view of science would you say this comic reflects? 6. Are the views of science in this comic yours? 7. What does â€˜scienceâ€™ mean to you? 8. How do you imagine a typical scientist? 9. How did you decide to go for this specific main character in the comic? 10. Did the artist or the advisors change anything that you wanted to convey in the story?
The first two questions are meant to gauge why the authors wrote these comics and with what purpose in mind: are they keen science communicators or were they simply hired to do a job?
Questions 3-4 are meant to examine the comics’ contract with the readers: did the writers know who they were writing for and did this affect their writing? Eisner (1996; p. 47) notes the importance of knowing your reader when writing a comic:
To whom are you telling the story? The answer to this question precedes the telling because it is a fundamental concern of delivery. The reader’s profile – his experience and cultural characteristics – must be reckoned with before the storyteller can meaningfully narrate the tale. Questions 5-7 and 8-9 are meant to investigate, respectively, whose views of science and whose view of scientists are reflected in the comics. It is unclear from simply looking at the finished product to know who decided what would be said about science and how, and who chose to depict the scientists in a certain way.
Question 10 looks at the constraints of the medium and the publishing process that, in all cases, involved science advisors. The constraint of the medium itself relates to the process of making a comic: Eisner (1996) pointed out that artists and writers have to work well together in order to successfully convey a story through the medium of comics. “The ideal writing process occurs where the writer and artist are the same person” he says, and yet most of the science comics I have mentioned so far have different artists and writers. Eisner (1996) maintains that in the process of translation of the script to
images, artists can distort the writerâ€™s vision and add their own elements to it. On the other hand, science advisors, presumably there to ensure accuracy of the scientific content, could easily introduce their own views of science into these comics and may act much like a censorship apparatus.
Analysis and discussion
How is science communicated? Investigating the Scientific Method with Max Axiom (henceforth abbreviated as MA) The mayor of a city asks scientist Max to find the best local material for building a levee to prevent the city from flooding. Max first heads to the library; then, he visits a fellow scientist, an aquanaut at Aquarius, the worldâ€™s only underwater laboratory. Max goes on to conduct experiments with scaled down models of levees. Finally, he analyses the data and hurries to give his report to the city officials. The story ends with another call for help from the mayor: this time the problem seems to be an invasion by giant frogs. The style is reminiscent of a superhero genre and Lemke says the book is aimed at elementary and middle school children (ages 6-14) in the US.
A fair amount of science is delivered outside the space of the actual story, through the paratext. The cover page serves as both a teaser before reading and a potential revision aid after: Max sits at the large computer screen displaying the seven steps of the scientific method in individual yet connected frames (echoing the comics medium), each featuring images that appear in the story. At the back, there is a page and a half of more information about the topic, a glossary page and a list of resources (books and websites) for further reading. The back cover invites the reader to â€œcheck outâ€? other titles in the series. There are also separate frames, indicated by red outlines, within the text that act much like a side bar in a book: these provide more information about some issues encountered in the text (they are not always fully para-textual as they sometimes carry
words “Access Granted: Max Axiom” and an image of a fingerprint being scanned, implying that Max is accessing this information on a computer).
Within the text itself, most science content is didactically narrated by Max. As early as the second page of the story (p. 5), Max addresses the readers directly through a monologue that forms the majority of the spoken text. Max’s speech is only interrupted when he meets other people, but even then, in the case of the librarian and the aquanaut, those characters continue where Max left off – they corroborate his words and form part of the same lecture that Max is giving the readers (e.g. p. 8-9 and 15). Although major’s words initiate the plot (p. 4), they take a back seat plot-wise while used for Max’s lecturing.
Images are used in three main ways here: while narrative is abstract and going nowhere plot-wise, images are used to drive the plot (p. 5-7); they also provide visual examples of ideas mentioned in the narration; finally, they serve to liven up the narrative by making it funny (e.g. p. 27). Most of the spoken narration appears to be there not to drive and elaborate the story but to illustrate ideas about the scientific method, and many of the images simply illustrate this narration. So both words and images are there primarily to convey ideas about science while the uneventful plot becomes secondary.
This might have a negative effect on readers’ attention: if reader’s motivation is to discover an entertaining plot, then there is little need to read the words in these pages,
since Max’s words explaining the scientific method have only a tenuous connection to the action.
“A major element in the reader-storyteller contract is the struggle to maintain reader interest” says Eisner (1996; p 50). Since readers can easily skip pages, or indeed skip straight to the end, grabbing them with “provocative and attractive imagery” is as important as using words to maintain their interest (Eisner, 1996; p. 50). Max’s rather dry narration does a good job of explaining the scientific concepts, but it is didactic and mainly unrelated to the plot, which jeopardises readers’ attention. This is where images become crucial: they are action packed, from speeding along on a motorbike, through flying in a helicopter to scuba diving; and occasionally images are also used in tandem with words to enhance meaning: in the opening sequence the use of a darkened room and close ups of characters’ faces conveys the seriousness of the situation, in which catastrophe looms (p. 4). These images grab the reader, making the dry narration more fun and plot more immersive.
The use of humour also helps in maintaining reader’s attention. Most of humour here stems from ironic contrast, a play between literal and figurative understanding. For example, Max says “...scientists dig into the next step of the scientific method...” as he digs into the soil, and “...should be no sweat” while he uses a tissue to wipe his sweat (p. 10). Verbally he is using the figurative meaning of the words (digging in, and no sweat) as he refers to intellectual processes scientists engage in. Pictorially he literally digs into the ground and works up a sweat, but images are not gratuitous illustrations of his words:
in fact, they are the steps that he needs to take to complete his experiment (digging up soil, clay and rocks) required by the story. It is these images required by the plot that determine the words he chooses to explain the scientific method, rather than the other way around, as in some other parts where images just illustrate the words (e.g. “maze” p. 8), while Max is lecturing the reader. Words alone could convey a non-humorous information about scientific method, images alone could carry the plot: it’s only when the two combine that humour emerges, adding an extra layer of meaning.
Thus in MA, both textual and para-textual elements are used to communicate science. Words and images are like dance partners, each taking the lead at different times as McCloud (1994) puts it; the only problem here is that sometimes it seems like each is dancing to its own rhythm. For most of the comic Max’s narration is very didactic and disengaged from the plot, and images are often used simply to illustrate words rather than to enhance them. Donald Lemke, the writer of the comics, somewhat justifies this:
First and foremost, the comic aims to teach kids the scientific method... to teach kids to ‘learn to read and read to learn’. I think The Scientific Method book — and all educational graphic novels — successfully fulfil both parts of that mission. The format draws the reader in, but the content will keep them interested and keep them learning. Lemke says:
Educators have distinguished two types of challenged readers — struggling readers and reluctant readers — and these were definitely my intended audience. Reluctant readers have the capabilities required for strong literacy skills, such as visualization, pronunciation, and vocabulary, but lack the simple motivation to pick up a book. Often, this literacy refusal stems from
peer pressure, or the age-old perception that books are ‘geeky’ or ‘uncool’. The simple rebellious nature of the [comic book] medium alone motivates young boys to read. Comics may be perceived as cool, but it is difficult to see why such boys would continue to read them once they encounter a narrative that is as didactic as a text book, or why girls would read it at all (male superhero comics are traditionally predominantly boys’ genre). Wolk (2007) says that superhero comics “are, above all else, entertainment, and entertainment is useless if it isn’t engaging” (p. 100) and indeed if we judge MA as primarily entertainment it is pretty useless, but if we see it as primarily education, as its writer sees it, then it may play an important role in making science available to people who struggle to make sense of text-only media. Lemke says:
Unlike reluctant readers, motivation alone will not yield significant improvements for struggling readers. These students are incapable of visualizing images in their minds by decoding words on the page. Often, after failing to succeed with text-heavy chapter books, these students eventually give up on reading and become reluctant readers themselves. Studies have shown that struggling readers greatly benefit from reader supports, such as pictures or illustrations (like those in graphic novels!) that directly support the text. This use of comics to help struggling readers might go as far as helping illiterate people to ‘read’ comics. Jean-Pierre Petit, author of the Adventures of Archibald Higgins series, has chosen as his next project to create online comics with spoken word balloons for illiterate people (Association Savoir Sans Frontiéres website). Clicking on the balloons would prompt an audio version of the balloon allowing illiterate people to watch and listen to educational comics and at the same time aid their reading skills as they follow the text.
Space Weather (SW) Zillian Rocket’s TV is not working. Suspecting that this is caused by bad space weather she heads to space in her rocket to try and figure out what is happening. She repairs a TV feed satellite and on her return to the rocket discovers a little green alien whom she befriends. They head towards the Sun, go half-way through the Sun’s core and then return to Earth. The style is one of an adventure comic, and Cannon says it is aimed at young teenagers.
As in MA, there is science communication in the paratext: the inner front cover illustrates the objects between the Earth and the Sun and the distances among them, which is relevant to the journey which takes place in the main text; the inner back cover features a glossary of technical terms encountered in the main text; the outer back cover carries textual information about NOAA and its research. There is also one side-bar frame with cartoon images and text about Copernicus and Kepler.
Again like MA, within the main text science is communicated through the narration of a main character who is a scientist. Although Zillian Rocket addresses the reader directly from page one saying “Welcome to my laboratory, fellow scientists!”, from page five onwards when the alien enters the story, she abandons the monologue to the reader for a dialogue with the alien. This has an effect of making the communicated science feel more like a part of the story and more relevant to the plot. Instead of the visuals acting as a background illustration to the facts that readers are being given, a conversation takes place in the story space between two characters who talk about facts directly related to
the journey that they are making. In this way the teaching becomes part of the story world in this comic, as the narrator teaches the alien and not just the readers.
Unlike characters in MA, the alien actually has a distinct voice of his own, and often questions or disagrees with the main character. Whereas in MA the reader is presumably intended to identify with Max, in this comic book, it is the alien and not the scientist who represents the reader.
The alien is depicted as smart, but also lazy and mischievous. The first time we see the alien it is asleep, while Zillian is delivering her monologue about science. By this time (p. 4), readers themselves may be close to falling asleep: apart from a warm welcome and a single near-crash into a satellite, like most of MA the comic has until this point been little more than a lecture about science. The alien subverts this lecture by reflecting what the reader may feel.
This discourse of a lazy, mischievous student versus a keen teacher continues throughout the rest of the comic. The alien is different from Zillian, both in smaller size and, according to Zillian, exhibiting “weird behaviour” (although it is debatable who is in fact the weirder of the two: whereas the alien’s strange behaviour is limited to taking a long nap, it is Zillian who decides to go on a space mission alone and has trouble finding her space suit!). The alien is naughty and is reprimanded by Zillian (p. 5, 9). It mocks Zillian both to her face (p. 9) and behind her back (p. 10), and leans on a window marked “Do not lean” (p. 11). However, the alien is also potentially a good student: it listens
throughout, asks lots of questions, likes to show off its knowledge when prompted (p. 5) and is keen to take an active role in learning (p. 7). It also uses words children might use: “Cool!” (p. 8), “Bummer.” (p. 9) and “Wow!” (p. 11), and is represented very schematically as a unisex figure that anyone (boy or girl) could identify with. All this suggests alien is there as a representative for a student who might read this book, someone a bit rebellious but deep down intelligent and interested. The alien thus allows readers to engage more actively in the comic as they identify with it as a their representative.
Indeed, Cannon says that the reader he had in mind when writing the comic was “a kid who liked science for the mystery and drama and wonder of it, but perhaps was not too keen on the tiniest details”; this corresponds well to the notion of the alien representing a student.
Another difference between SW and MA is in the relation between the story and the reader. In MA, reader is invited to believe that everything in the story-world is possible and no-one ever questions whether the story-world is in fact real (even when giant frogs attack!). In SW, by contrast, there is an element of self-reflexivity: the fictional elements of the story are actually questioned and mocked by the characters within that fictional diegesis. It is openly acknowledged that there are unrealistic elements that do not exist independently of this imaginary journey.
For example, when Zillian discovers what is wrong with the satellite she says “...we’ll just replace this fried circuit board with this NEW one I just so happened to bring along” [emphasis mine] and winks at readers to acknowledge the absurdity of the situation (p. 4). When they head to the Sun, Zillian explains that they will not burn because of an even more unlikely “heat negating outer shield” on the rocket (p. 8). She then continues her lecture about science by saying that it would be possible to power the US for 9 million years from energy emitted by the Sun in a single second. Alien questions these spoken words alongside the visually depicted state of affairs: the fact that both characters stand upright in the rocket although there should be no gravity in it. In reference to the fact about the sun’s energy, the alien says “And you could get an ENERGY COLLECTING MACHINE that could DO that at the same store you got this HEAT NEGATING SHIELD, right? And the MAGIC GRAVITY MACHINE that keeps us from floating around this rocket, too, right?” (p. 9). When a coronal mass ejection scares them, and Zillian says “There is nothing to worry about”, the alien giggles behind her back saying “Not in our magic ship anyway.” (p. 10)
These examples represent self-reflexivity but also illustrate how well words and images relevant to the comic’s didactic purpose are embedded in the story-world and play an important part of the plot. In fact, when Zillian says “We’ve got plenty to COVER so let’s MOVE” (p. 6) there is again a self-conscious double meaning in play: there’s plenty to cover in the comic’s fictional journey, but also, presumably, in the National Curriculum on this topic. By going on this journey, the characters are covering distance as well as the material prescribed for teaching in schools. Thus this comic book is honest
about its intentions and methods, but invites the readers to engage in the comic’s fictional adventure nevertheless.
Cannon admits that this was precisely his intention:
“I wanted to make a comic that kids could feel was interesting and fun but didn't gloss over the big ideas in the story. That is, it didn't try to hide that it was an educational science comic, but rather embraced it, and made it as fun as possible within that framework.” Unlike MA where images are the main source of humour, here humour stems from selfreflexivity and through better characterization of the main protagonists. Narrative and images are better integrated: here they dance to the same rhythm and produce a more readable comic with a more engaging plot. Although as in MA, the plot is rather simple, the majority of what does happen is entertaining and, in contrast to MA, arises from a lively and playful interaction between the characters.
SW is thus a story with three layers: a plot that is openly mocked by both characters for its unrealistic elements; Zillian’s mission to teach readers science by inviting readers to suspend their disbelief; and a subversion of this mission by the alien who playfully exposes the other two layers of the story. Ironically, it is the disruptive alien that keeps readers engaged in the story thus leading them to learn science by reading the comic to the end.
Representation of Science and the Scientists
Investigating the Scientific Method with Max Axiom In this comic, there is a clear message that society needs science. On the very first page Max receives a call from the mayor asking him to save the day: “The people need your help, Max Axiom. The city is counting on you.” When he completes his study and shares his findings with the officials, his work is praised by the mayor: “Well done. With these findings, the safety of the city can be restored” (p. 24).
Max is clearly a part of a society that needs him: we see him in front of his suburban house (p. 5) and he knows people in the wider community (the other characters). When the mayor contacts Max again at the end of story she says “Looks like we have another problem on our hands.” [emphasis mine] implying that Max is part of the society and that society’s problems are also Max’s problems.
But there are also elements that suggest that Max is the stereotypical scientist in an ivory tower, separated from the society affected by his work. Like Batman’s hideout in a secluded cave with high-tech equipment, Max’s laboratory is a solitary and technologyheavy place. In order to reach the city and its people, he has to travel across a bridge, which symbolises separation.
In addition to this slight ambivalence about science’s connection with society, there is also tension about the nature of science as an enterprise. On the one hand, science is
portrayed as being done in a pristinely clean and neat lab filled with what is presumably very expensive high-tech equipment. Max’s life seems inordinately glamorous and luxurious: though he is just one young scientist working on his own, he has at his disposal not only his lab but a motorbike and a helicopter with a pilot conveniently at the ready. At the same time, Max talks about science being constrained by time and money (p. 7) and, in order to save time and money, he performs his experiments with scaled down models of the sort that school-age readers could easily make themselves (pp. 1617).
Max talks about scientists repeating experiments thousands of times before accepting their conclusion (pp. 24-25): in saying this he implicitly justifies science’s claim to authority, and evokes Popper’s falsificationist view of science where scientists repeatedly perform experiments in an attempt to falsify a hypothesis. However, the financial and time constraints which Max mentioned earlier mean that Popper’s approach is not always the norm, nor was it used in some of the crucial experiments in the history of science (e.g. see Collins & Pinch, 1998 or Kuhn, 1962). Max himself is conspicuously quick to present his findings without even double-checking that they are correct (p 21). This offers an escape route for socially irresponsible science: if scientists do not have enough time, it seems reasonable that they should base their conclusions on limited experiments, even though if they are wrong it could result, in this case, in the flooding of a whole city (a similar real life example might be the race to develop a safe and effective vaccine against the H1N1 swine flu virus before the fall 2009 epidemic).
The scientific method to which the comic’s title refers is something which many philosophers of science would argue does not exist as a single entity: yet it is presented as the Scientific Method, with capital letters emphasising its importance. The steps of this method appear on high-tech display screens (cover page, p. 5) and holographic projections (p. 24) which serve to glorify them and give the steps of the method further claim to authority, as they are associated with impersonal, highly advanced technology. The scientific method is said to be used for “solving questions about the world,” perhaps implying any question that might be asked: this implies a scientistic ideology. This ideology makes the scientific method appear sacred and casts the scientist, Max, as a saviour who reveals truth to the world (p. 24). Yet even here there is a discrepancy between the connotations of the images and the words that Max uses to describe the steps of the method: he says that these steps are not strict rules, just “a guide” (p 26.).
So the general view of science is of an ongoing enterprise (pp. 14, 24-25) that solves questions about the world. There is ambivalence about how exactly it does this and what its relationship to society is, but there is implied necessity of science for the society’s wellbeing.
Lemke says that the view of science here is:
...a synthesis the scientific community’s consensus. As a writer, I’m not always an expert in the field, but I rely on experts and a wide variety of research to craft the text. In the graphic novel process, both the text and the illustrations must be accurate.
Perhaps the main message of the didactic narration is this consensus Lemke is talking about, but somewhere along the line between the writer, editors and their “expert consultants” and the illustrator all these other layers of meaning are created with different available readings and even conflict of messages within the text.
The main character is an athletic-looking, young black scientist, with no facial hair at all (!) who conforms to the common scientist stereotype in that he is male, wears a lab coat and posses, uses and is surrounded by the symbols of research, knowledge and technology (c.f. Rahm & Charbonneau, 1997). He is a superhero but uses technology to achieve what some other superheroes achieve by other means, such as magic. For example, he flies, but in a helicopter (e.g. p. 11 Max is portrayed in a pose as if he is about to take off like Superman), and dives to an underwater world, using scuba-diving equipment (echoing Aquaman diving to Atlantis). But again, ambivalence creeps in as he became a superhero partly due to strike of a lightning that gave him a “newfound energy”, which is magical, and only partly by studying (p. 29). “He traveled the globe earning degrees in every aspect of the [scientific] field.” so he is an erudite type who knows all sciences, and acquiring these degrees somehow changed his identity (p. 29).
This scientist as a superhero image is partly writer’s own, as Lemke says: I think scientists are probably the closest we get to super heroes on Earth. If it wasn’t for them, we wouldn’t have the powers of technology, medicine, etc. that we all take for granted.
MA embraces ethnic diversity: Max is black, Aquanaut is Indian and the librarian is Mexican. Considering it is aimed at people with problems with reading is this specifically aimed at ethnic minorities and is this based on assumptions about these groups or some existing data? Sexual diversity is not embraced as much as all scientists are still presented as a male, but perhaps this was designed specifically for boys as Lemke suggests, and hence boy readers are supposed to identify with and read this comic, not girls.
Interestingly, although MA is designed for teaching children about science it still fails at some aspects. Max wears no goggles or gloves in his laboratory, neglecting lab safety procedures and giving a misleading image of lab work; he also spills some water on the desk which would in real life be potentially dangerous. In this respect it could be used as an example of how not to do things in the lab, as suggested for fiction comics by Di Raddo (2006). Other unrealistic issues include Max wearing the same clothes in field, in lab and in public places; he has his own “high-tech lab” but no colleagues – he is a single man solving world’s solutions like a superhero, rather than like a scientist from real world working collaboratively with others.
Space Weather SP presents similar ambivalent image of science. On one hand Zillian addresses readers as “fellow scientists” (p. 1) and “friends” (p. 5) implying that we are all friends of science. She also goes on a potentially dangerous mission to space to fix the TV feed satellite that will benefit lots of people – affecting their everyday lives. She, representing the scientists, is reprimanded by the alien, representing the readers, the public, when she admits scientists still do not know why Sun’s corona is much hotter than its surface alien exclaims “Well, get working on that already!” (p. 10). This exclamation suggests science is socially controlled: scientists can be told what science to pursue, and the public is interested in results. Zillian’s response is that she has not had the time to address that questions yet (there may be an implicit critique of the requirement of scientists to have to spend lots of time teaching – as Zillian does, that they have less time to do the ‘important work’!). This is similar to Max’s words saying that science is often time constrained.
On the other hand, Zillian is again a single scientist working in a secluded mansion/observatory on the top of the hill overlooking the neighbourhoods where normal people, the public, live. She inhabits the ivory tower surrounded by darkness and mystery as represented in the very first frame. We never see her interact with the public and the only representative of the public is the alien, implying perhaps that science and the everyday live are two different worlds: science is ‘out of this world’. But it is the science that makes the first contact –visits the alien world, the alien gets tagged along by accident. At least through this comic they find a common language and perhaps show that similarities the two worlds can get along fine.
Cannon says that the vies of science in this comics is: NOAA's. And by that I mean, simple fact. I don't really think this comic takes a particular viewpoint of the facts, except in that it is supportive of all of the study that NOAA does, and the technology it employs to that end. Once again, although the didactic narration, the message as presumably intended by NOOA to be transmitted via this comic in the old ‘dominant view’ style of science popularization may indeed be NOAA’s “facts”
the very choice of characters and
storyline adds more layers and allows for ambivalence to enter the comic allowing for more diverse readings then perhaps initially planned by NOAA. For example, Cander’s own views of science as exciting pursuit of knowledge were embedded within the plot, he admits that his views come through “maximizing the thrilling parts of the pursuit of scientific knowledge.”
So how does SP represent scientists? Unlike the often cited stereotypical image of scientists being male, Zillian is a woman, although in some frames it is difficult to tell her sex because her lean shape and short hair could be male or female, and her black bow tie further evokes masculinity. She is a woman, but an eccentric one. She lives in a secluded, hill-top observatory with its own rocket launch pad station. She wears a lab coat although she does not do any experiments that would require the coat. She also has a pair of goggles on her head, and only puts them on her eyes when she is wearing the spacesuit. She also wears a bow tie, like some eccentric Oxbridge professor.
Her tie and black gloves both evoke an elderly professor, but her appearance is of a young woman. This theme of old-fashion is also seen in her laboratory: instead of Max’s high-tech lab with modern gadgets and flat screen displays, Zillian’s lab is in an ornate old-fashioned building with period decorations and furniture. Instead of the digital era of Max’s lab, Zillian’s lab seems to belong to the mechanical era: we can see metal frames and containers with pins holding things together, and all the pipework and wires are on display, outside her gadgets (p 1). Indeed, even her rocket is has wooden floors and doors; and within her closet there are many now archaic objects: a wind-up clock, rotary telephone, roller-skates and a large, non-digital photo-camera... These would be of little use in a rocket, but might all be reminiscent of things ordinary children find in their closest, or attics, and their imagination can take them on a trip to space even while they are still in their living room with wooden floors and doors. This perhaps acts to familiarise readers with the potentially alienating environment of science and space, bringing these to their living room. They also fit in with the writer’s intention to present this as an imaginary voyage where things do not all have to make sense. But with their old-age feel they might also be sending a message of science as something old people do, a thing of the past for old eccentrics.
Whilst Max uses PDAs, flat screen videos and 3D holographic displays, Zillian uses old school boards with printed images (p. 9) and small, unimpressive models of planets (p. 5) of the sort we might find in any average school in the western world. But even with all this archaic equipment she is able to do outstanding things, which sends the message to
the reader that event with seemingly simple, inexpensive equipment and teaching aids, they can achieve amazing things with science.
Her name is Zillian Rocket evoking the ‘rocket scientist’ connotations of a really smart person. But it is unclear what type of scientists she is: she welcomes us to her “laboratory” (p. 1) but the only recognizable objects there are TV and a sofa. She knows a lot about atmosphere and space, and is also an astronaut; indeed she appears as much an erudite as Max Axiom.
Cander says the typical scientists “are probably not much like the character I portray in the comic...” explaining that: I felt that a strong but interesting scientist personality was called for, and I made her a woman to contrast with what I feel is expected in these sorts of things. I also wanted to maximize how colorful she and her world are, so I took special care to add rockets, space suits, and a fantastical observatory to the setting, so that her descriptions of pure scientific fact didn't seem so dry.
This demonstrates the power the writer has to convey meaning about science in comics through choice of characters and the settings for the story. Unlike in MA, writer here also says that some of his lines were taken out for inaccuracy, highlighting the fine line these comics walk between fact and fiction, but also the role of scientific institutions to control such comics’ output.
Further discussion and future research
Most comics mentioned, and both of the analysed comics here could have a role in oneway science communication under the “dominant view” model of science communication (Hilgartner, 1990). They use the comic book medium to explain science to the public – an audience that is assumed to lack such knowledge. A more recent model of science communication aims to involve the public in a two-way dialogue with science. This model, PEST, might also offer opportunities for using science comics. For example, the Battle for Planet Science (Ekeval, 2009) is a comic that features characters designed by school children as part of a competition for the best super-hero character design and best superpower design, based on scientific principles encountered in class. As the children’s input makes a visible difference to the final product, such a comic arguably engages children more actively with science than the other types of science comics discussed. Planet Science comics are therefore more likely to establish a successful “contract” with the readers as suggested by Barker (1989; pp. 256-257): they offer “a kind of relationship to [their] readers” which is similar in its conception to Barker’s example of Scream Inn comics, in which readers suggested characters which would appear in each new episode of the comic.
Another example of comics that involve the readers more directly than the traditional comic books is the EU’s Eco Agents Special Unit series. Although many of the other science comics discussed are available online, the Eco Agents Special Unit series innovatively uses the web platform to its full advantage. Readers have to register in order
to access the comics, and as part of registration process they design an avatar which then features in the comic as one of the characters. This presumably enhances identification with the character and helps immerse the reader into the story. As the reader flips through the comic (which has the feel of a book, as the turning of pages is graphically simulated), there are many clickable frames that either provide extra information related to the story, or open up new frames which feature a film, a game or other interactive content (e.g. a quiz).
These comics’ plots revolve around secret agents’ missions to prevent various ecological incidents. Reading the comic and engaging with its interactive content, the reader collects points with which they then compete for the rank of ‘top agent’ on the main website, hopefully learning a lot about eco-science along the way. There are also eco-tips featured on the main web site (to which readers can contribute): this makes clear the site’s intention that readers should not only engage actively in stories with real-life relevance on the web site, but that they should extend this active ecological engagement into their everyday life (thus thinking of themselves as secret agents with a mission in real life as well as through their avatars). The avatars are also quite ‘cool’: fashionably dressed and appealing in their design and colour, encouraging readers’ to identify with them.
The Battle for Planet Science and Eco Agents Special Unit series are good first steps towards a more advanced way of popularizing science via online comics, using the medium to engage in a two-way dialogue with the audience.
Although comics can be used for communicating science to the public, there may be opportunities for using comics for communication between scientists as well (they are already occasionally published in scientific journals for entertainment, e.g. Adventures in Synthetic Biology in Nature and Interferon Force: Cytokine Storm in Nature Immunology). Comics have been used for various instruction manuals. A recent example is Scott McCloud’s comic book manual for the Google Chrome web browser. Will Eisner (1985; p. 139-147) says that the performance of technical tasks that such comics address is sequential in nature, just as comics are, and the success of comics as teaching tools “lies in the fact that the reader can easily relate to the experience demonstrated.” A recently started video journal, JOVE (Journal of Visualized Experiments) states that:
Visualization greatly facilitates the understanding and efficient reproduction of both basic and complex experimental techniques, thereby addressing two of the biggest challenges faced by today’s life science research community: i) low transparency and poor reproducibility of biological experiments and ii) the time and labor-intensive nature of learning new experimental techniques. (JOVE website) It would be interesting to see if instructional comics could do just as good a job in describing visually the experimental procedures in sciences as the video can. Could we ever have a Comic Book Journal of Visualized Experiments? Comics would be at an advantage to videos in that a reader can instantly see steps prior and after the one he is currently looking at.
Both of the comics analysed here were designed for children, and some have even suggested replacing text books with comics (see Ulaby, 2005). But as this study shows, when the text in comics is overly didactic it easily loses connection with the story that is being told resulting in a less interesting read. Another concern in using comics instead of textbooks is that noone has yet looked at whether comics are still preferred medium by children once its novelty factor has been worn out. Future studies could address this, examining childrenâ€™s response to using comics as text books.
Given that science comics seem to be produced with science advisors and scientists themselves are free to present their view of science in these comics, an interesting question arises: can there ever be a relationship between these comics and a nonscientific readers, a â€œcontractâ€? with readers as Barker (1989) calls it, in which comics cater for some social need of the readers, or will the readers in fact resent institutional messages embedded in such communication attempts? Can such comics ever have any readership outside the classroom?
I found that science is communicated in a variety of ways, textually and paratextually. Both images and words contribute to conveying the science and immersing the reader in the plot; but the effectiveness of this differs for different comics and overly didactic narration may sometimes distract from following the plot and perhaps dissuade the reader.
Comics present ambivalent images of science, words and images often sending out conflicting meanings, for example science is portrayed as both enchanting and disenchanting; so instead of presenting a fixed view of science, educational science comics are an arena where public meaning of science is actively being worked out, as in other comics (c.f. Locke, 2005). Whereas scientists are portrayed as people in lab coats and glasses, using tools of technology and knowledge, they are also portrayed as young, black and female, hence maintaining some stereotypes whilst dispelling others.
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Appendix 1: Available Online Resources and Links to the Science Comics mentioned in the article
Available Freely: Cartoons and short comics trips : Newton and Copernicus short comic strips: http://www.newtonandcopernicus.com/ with an in depth description of how to use these: http://www.csun.edu/~jco69120/coursework/697/projects/OlsonActionResearchFinal.pdf Scientoons: http://www.scientoon.com/index.htm
Comic books: Adventures in Synthetic Biology (English and Spanish versions): http://openwetware.org/wiki/Adventures Cindi in Space (available in English and Spanish): http://cindispace.utdallas.edu/education/cindi_comic.html EUâ€™s Eco Agents interactive online comics (ecology, sustainable energies): http://ecoagents.eea.europa.eu/
Manga science comic series about atmosphere and the environment (available in English, Japanese and for translation in other languages): http://www.stelab.nagoya-u.ac.jp/stewww1/doce/outreach.html#anc_booklets Ozzy Ozone comics (environment, climate, atmosphere): http://www.ozzyozone.org/ozzy_en/ozzycontenu.html Planet Scienceâ€™s superhero science and the Battle for the Planet Science comic (conatins a teaching pack for science teachers): http://www.planetscience.com/randomise/index.html?page=/psp/home.html&page=/psp/index.html Selenia comics (chemistry): http://www.sciencecomics.uwe.ac.uk/ The Adventures of Archibald Higgins science comics (available in many languages) http://www.savoir-sans-frontieres.com/JPP/telechargeables/free_downloads.htm#francais
The Interferon Force comic book series about Immune system (flu virus, multiple sclerosis): http://www.interferonforce.com/ Vladimir Prelog chemistry comic (in Croatian): http://prelog.fkit.hr/program/popularizacija/Prelog_strip.pdf Water Heroes: http://www.on.ec.gc.ca/greatlakeskids/water-heroes-e.html
For pay (many of these contain some free content online):
Zander Cannon’s comics and graphic novels: http://www.bigtimeattic.com/ Concept cartoons: http://www.conceptcartoons.com/index_flash.html Jay Hossler’s comics and graphic novels: http://www.jayhosler.com/ Jim Ottaviani’s comics and graphic novels: http://www.gt-labs.com/ Max Axiom comic book series: http://www.capstonepress.com/aspx/pDetail.aspx?EntityGUID=8bd6f56b-a478-44aaba47-93b69dce0b27 The Young Scientist comic: http://www.theyoungscientists.in/products.html
Appendix 2: Full interview with Donald Lemke, writer of Investigating the Scientific Method with Max Axiom Super Scientist 1. What motivated you to write this comic? At the time of publication, I was working as an editor at Capstone Press, a publisher of high-interest nonfiction books for struggling readers in Mankato, Minnesota. We had already developed a series of nonfiction graphic novels about famous people and events (Titanic, Pearl Harbor, The Great Chicago Fire, etc.), and we’d seen how well struggling and reluctant readers were responding to the format. Continuing the series with science topics seemed like a no-brainer, so my team developed Max Axiom — the world’s greatest scientific super hero — as the main character and narrator. Once the character was established, our product planning department developed a title list based on core curriculum science topics (electricity, photosynthesis, etc.) and by the end of the third season, the scientific method seemed like a great fit. Being a rather dry topic, I decided to step out of the editor’s role and take a crack at bringing this scientific process to life. 2. What would you say was the aim of this comic? Well, first and foremost, the comic aims to teach kids the scientific method — an essential process for scientists. But also, part of our mission at Capstone Press was to teach kids how to “learn to read and read to learn.” I think The Scientific Method book — and all educational graphic novels — successfully fulfil both parts of that mission. The format draws the reader in, but the content will keep them interested and keep them learning. 3. What readers did you have in mind when writing this comic? Educators have distinguished two types of challenged readers — struggling readers and reluctant readers — and these were definitely my intended audience. Reluctant readers have the capabilities required for strong literacy skills, such as visualization, pronunciation, and vocabulary, but lack the simple motivation to pick up a book. Often, this literacy refusal stems from peer pressure, or the age-old perception that books are “geeky” or “uncool.” The simple rebellious nature of the medium alone motivates young boys to read. Unlike reluctant readers, motivation alone will not yield significant improvements for struggling readers. These students are incapable of visualizing images in their minds by decoding words on the page. Often, after failing to succeed with textheavy chapter books, these students eventually give up on reading and become reluctant readers themselves. Studies have shown that struggling readers greatly benefit from reader supports, such as pictures or illustrations (like those in graphic novels!) that directly support the text. 4. Who do you think actually reads this comic? Do you have any information about this? I believe the intended audience (see above) is reading this comic, possibly at the instruction of their librarian or teacher. Capstone Press publishes mainly toward the school-library market, so the book is available in elementary and middle school libraries 62
across the nation. I don’t have any specific numbers, but I’ve been told that this particular title has sold fairly well. 5. Whose view of science would you say this comic reflects? I would say it’s a synthesis the scientific community’s consensus. As a writer, I’m not always an expert in the field, but I rely on experts and a wide variety of research to craft the text. In the graphic novel process, both the text and the illustrations must be accurate. At Capstone Press, all of our writers document and cite their resources, and the editors work with expert consultants (as you’ll see on the title page of The Scientific Method) to verify the accuracy of the script. The editor and the author must then provide the illustrator with detailed scene descriptions, photo references, etc., so the illustrations within the book are accurate as well. 6. Are the views of science in this comic yours? I think all writers, even the best reporters, insert a bit of subjectivity into their works. I guess you could say the information is interpreted through my lens, but I do try to stay as objective as possible and simply report the facts. In this graphic novel, however, I constructed a narrative — which was my own creation — but the facts were still extensively researched and cited. 7. What does ‘science’ mean to you? Like I said, I’m not a scientist, but I think writers have the same innate curiosity. To me, that’s what science is about — questioning something and then seeking the answer. The scientific method is simply the process of completing this task. 8. How do you imagine a typical scientist? Like Max Axiom…superpowered, time travellers. Seriously, though, I think scientists are probably the closest we get to super heroes on Earth. If it wasn’t for them, we wouldn’t have the powers of technology, medicine, etc. that we all take for granted. 9. How did you decide to go for this specific main character in the comic? See number one. 10. Did the artist or the advisors change anything that you wanted to convey in the story? Nope. Since I was part of the editorial and creative team, all of the decisions were collaborative.
Appendix 3: Full interview with Zander Cannon, writer of Space Weather 1. What motivated you to write this comic? I was in contact with some people at NOAA, specifically Barbara Poppe, who were interested in doing some outreach toward young teenagers about science. The format, characters, and style came out of a sense for what I always wanted to see in an educational comic, which was a simple story, engaging characters, a non-condescending tone, and colorful illustrations that took a little of the mystery out of the subject. I also wanted the book to look different from a regular comic, but have the same exciting kidlike feel of a single issue that tells a whole story. 2. What would you say was the aim of this comic? I wanted to make a comic that kids could feel was interesting and fun but didn't gloss over the big ideas in the story. That is, it didn't try to hide that it was an educational science comic, but rather embraced it, and made it as fun as possible within that framework. To that end, I tried to do a lot of things like have the characters speak directly to the readers--break the fourth wall so that we could feel like the story was moving along at a good clip, and not bothering to come up with an elaborate rationale for the things they are doing; rather, they are going to the sun to teach us about it. 3. What readers did you have in mind when writing this comic? I had in mind my middle-school self, a kid who liked science for the mystery and drama and wonder of it, but perhaps was not too keen on the tiniest details. 4. Who do you think actually reads this comic? Do you have any information about this? I don't have any information on this, but it seems to me that the children of very hip, forward-thinking parents are generally the ones that find it in their hands. 5. Whose view of science would you say this comic reflects? NOAA's. And by that I mean, simple fact. I don't really think this comic takes a particular viewpoint of the facts, except in that it is supportive of all of the study that NOAA does, and the technology it employs to that end. 6. Are the views of science in this comic yours? I'm sure my particular feelings toward science come through, but again, that seems to be more about maximizing the thrilling parts of the pursuit of scientific knowledge. 7. What does â€˜scienceâ€™ mean to you? The study of the natural world to figure out the systems that manage it, and the process of using that knowledge to predict what nature will do, harness the energy it produces, or affect its impact on the world.
8. How do you imagine a typical scientist? Well, I think they are probably not much like the character I portray in the comic, but rather someone who has a endless thirst for accuracy and knowledge within increasingly narrow parameters; as the scope of human scientific knowledge broadens, the range that one person can discover becomes a far tinier percentage of the whole. 9. How did you decide to go for this specific main character in the comic? I felt that a strong but interesting scientist personality was called for, and I made her a woman to contrast with what I feel is expected in these sorts of things. I also wanted to maximize how colorful she and her world are, so I took special care to add rockets, space suits, and a fantastical observatory to the setting, so that her descriptions of pure scientific fact didn't seem so dry. 10. Did the artist or the advisors change anything that you wanted to convey in the story? Not anything significant. There were a few lines that I wrote that were dynamic and had a great deal of impact, but were slightly inaccurate. Their suggested rephrasing took a little bit of the pizazz out of the line, but it was ultimately to the betterment of the comic.
My MSc thesis about science comic books.