We’re getting ready for our session at Comics Forum conference in Leeds this Friday 13th November 2015.  Here’s a look back to our first event in May this year: thanks Selina Lock for permission to cross-post your blog post. Originally posted at http://gradschoolreadingroom.blogspot.co.uk/2015/05/research-as-comics-applied-comics.html on Friday 15th May 2015.

Research as comics – Applied Comics Network

by Selina Lock

On Saturday 9th May I attended the first Applied Comics Network event to talk about the PhD sessions I offer on ‘Communicating your research as a comic strip’.

The event was looking at the use of comics for informational and educational purposes. Attendees included academics, PhD students, graphic facilitators and comic creators.
Applied Comics Network is run by Lydia Wysocki (Newcastle Science Comic, Applied Comics Etc), John Swogger (Archaeology in the Caribbean, Something Different About Dad), and Ian Horton (Coordinator for Contextual and Theoretical Studies, London College of Communication).

They started the event off (before & after the interruption of a fire alarm!) by looking at the different types of comics the network might cover. They had all come up with different categories but they included:

  • Instructional (instructions for using/doing things)
  • Informative (providing facts/information)
  • Educational (these might be factual or have a narrative to make them more interesting/engaging)
  • Reflective (for reflecting on your own practice/methods/research)
  • Opinion (putting forward your view/interpretation of a subject)

Next we all had a go at making a quick comic strip based on a random Wikipedia page – yes, even those of us who can only draw stick figures! Then in small groups we discussed what we’d created and any issues it raised.

Points raised from comic strip exercise:

  • Difficult to create a comic strip to the time limit – several of us wanted to do more research first, rather than stick to the basic information on the Wikipedia page.
    • I wanted to find primary sources/firsthand accounts of the incident I was focusing on to bring in a human viewpoint.
  • All the comic strips were different even if we’d picked the same bit of information to base the strip on.
  • Differences included bringing a modern socio-political outlook to some of the historical events, and deciding what was/wasn’t appropriate to depict (as some of the information was about a bombing).
  • One of the strengths of using words and images (comic strips, infographics, illustrated text) is that it gives you a wider choice when trying to convey information, context or meaning.

Then the invited speakers gave their presentations:

  • Lizzie Boyle (Cross political satire anthology, Disconnected Press) – Lizzie talked about trying to use a comic book prior to the election to engage people in politics. It worked best with those who already liked comics and were interested in politics, but some schools/organisations also used the book to try and engage with young voters.
  • Selina Lock (Research communication workshops using comics with postgrad students) – I talked about the workshop I do for PhD students and that the biggest barriers to using comic strips is lack of funding/artists and fear of disapproval from the academic world. Also that some workshop attendees found making a comic strip useful to identify the ‘story’ of their research and what they wanted to communicate, even if they didn’t use a comic as a final communication method.
  • Lydia Wysocki (Applied Comics Etc) – Lydia talked about several funded projects she is overseeing to use comics to engage with the wider public – including a comic about ‘Spineless Mini-Monsters’ to accompany a museum exhibit and comics to highlight the WW1 & Gertrude Bell archives at the University of Newcastle.
  • Ian Williams (The Bad Doctor,Graphic Medicine) – Ian is the co-founder of the Graphic website and conference, which grew out of his Masters dissertation looking at medical narratives in comics. He also talked about workshops he, and other Medical academics in the States, have done asking medical students to create comic strips to reflect on their medical practice and interactions with patients.
  • Steve Marchant and The Cartoon Museum – Steve talked about the wide-ranging experiences he’s had working with school children, teenagers and senior citizens to create comics. He either ran workshops so they could create comics themselves or created comics based on their experiences. The comics often dealt with issues such as bullying, teenage pregnancy, recycling etc.

Discussions points after the presentations included:

Visual notes by academic and comic creator Paul Davies
  •  Sources of funding to pay comic creators
    • Suggestions included –  from within existing grants if there is a wider impact focus, Arts Council (for art focused projects), Arts Council for Libraries fund, Public/Wider Engagement Funds (Specific funds within Universities, Research Funders, Lottery/Heritage Funds, Local Authorities).
  • The need to educate/provide workshops for academics/researchers on how best to communicate research using comics/graphics novels.
  • Information/workshops for comics creators on working with education, academia, businesses, and other organisations to produce comics.
  • That trying to create a comic strip can be very helpful even if the strip is not used – to reflect or examine ideas, to help focus on specific issues, to storyboard a process or to reflect on current practice or communication methods.
  • Several attendees recommended reading: Unflattened by Nick Sousanis – comic book based on Nick’s PhD thesis. “The primacy of words over images has deep roots in Western culture. But what if the two are inextricably linked, equal partners in meaning-making?”

Comics and Harassment

473Interesting article from last week’s Guardian on the use of comics as part of an anti-harassment campaign on Egypt’s metro. I know there’s a fairly strong tradition of cartoons in the Arabic world as a form of political commentary – but informational comics? A couple of years ago, at Comics Forum, there was a really interesting paper about the use of informational comics by the Royal Omani Police, but I’m not aware of any similar examples.

The anti-harassment comic is the work of artist Ahmed Nady, and supported by the Imprint Movement. What’s notable about the comic is that it’s clearly being used as a way to “start the conversation”. Comics seem to be a medium of choice for introducing difficult, complex or unfamiliar subjects to a broad audience – whether it’s science, medicine or social and cultural issues. What exactly is it that comics can do that other media can’t?

Abdel Fattah al-Sharkawy, one of the co-founders of the Imprint Movement, suggests that it’s narrative that’s important. It’s making the link between the story in the comic and the everyday experiences of its readers. The artwork in a comic is important, but as far as informational comics is concerned, getting that narrative right – making that connection to the experiences of our readers – is what’s key.

In these anti-harassment comics, Ahmed Nady’s art is an example of how great comics can create narrative through lively and dynamic visuals. Informational comics can sometimes stray too close to being just “illustrated text”. These comics remind us that images are as important as words in creating that link between reader and information.

Comics? Check!

013-pawn_levers013-pawn_leversOf course! Comics can do all sorts of things – tell all sorts of stories. But there’s one kind of story that comics excell at: stories where the visuals are as important as the text. This applies to all sorts of comics – not least comics with an informational content. Comics where the explanation is as much about showing as telling always work best. Of course.

Well, what’s something that needs explaining as much through showing as through telling? Games, of course! And here’s a cute game comic: Scott Tingley’s The Chess Comic. Partly through anthropomorphised fables, partly through comic-based diagrammatic explanations, the comic presents the basic rules and concepts of chess. To quote Scott:

My goal with the comic is to take the information I have taught in the beginner and intermediate chess camps I have taught in the past and pass that on to my readers using the comic medium. In my experience, kids and adults new to chess often forget the little things that make up the fundamentals of the game, and I thought having a visual cue for these things might come in handy.

It’s uneven in places, and the artist is clearly self-taught – but the comic is charming and accessible nonetheless. I like the way that Scott has used comics to create a very specific type of informational visual: cues. This isn’t a comic to read in the chess class – it’s a comic to read between classes. It’s not a comic about how to play chess – it’s a comic about how to remember how to play chess.

Comics not necessarily as a “teaching” tool, per se, but as a “reinforcement” tool? Hmm; that’s an interesting idea. Could comics have a powerful role to play as specifically-designed support media for other forms of instruction or informational communication?

Unfortunately, Scott appears to have stopped updating The Chess Comic about a year ago – but there’s more of Scott also does educational comics reviews at: Comics in the Classroom.

Comics & healthcare education

Here’s a guest blog post from Sarah McNicol on her work using comics with patients and families: 


I’m a researcher at Manchester Metropolitan University and I’ve recently been working on a project, funded by the Wellcome Trust, looking into the possible use of educational comics among people with health conditions and their families. This was a small scoping project (which I’m hoping to develop further in the future), but it included interviews with patients and relatives of people with a range of physical and mental conditions.

The findings of my research suggest that comics can support understanding of factual health information through providing simple explanations free from jargon and through the effective use of images. However, they have an equal, or perhaps stronger, role to play in helping patients and their families to deal with the social and psychological issues associated with illness. Through the use of narrative, humour, images and characterisation, comics can offer reassurance, empathy and companionship. They can offer patients opportunities for greater self-awareness of their own attitudes and behaviour, as well as alternative viewpoints on their condition. Among family members, comics can lead to a better understanding of the issues their relative is facing and may prompt them to reflect on the ways in which they might best offer support. The open and accessible nature of comics means they may be an effective way to open up a dialogue, both within families and potentially between patients and healthcare professionals too.

However, the research also pointed out barriers to the wider use of comics for health education or information. One challenge is that the potential of comics to convey information about serious issues is not widely understood (especially among non-comics readers). Most of the interviewees initially associated comics with Marvel superheroes or the Beano. Knowledge of, and access to, health comics is another barrier. Even people who have been actively investigating their condition for a number of years were unaware of the availability of comics. Finally, the need for comics to present an overall positive message, while avoiding lapsing into clichés, was a theme in a number of interviews. My interviewees’ responses suggest that this can be a difficult balance to get right designing health education comics.

You can download copies of the full report at http://www.esri.mmu.ac.uk/resprojects/reports/report157.pdf or my contacting me at s.mcnicol@mmu.ac.uk

Blues Lives

snakesmComics and biography go particularly well together. There’s something about the narrative of a life-story that seems to “click” with the particular sequential approach of comics. The event-by-event sequential approach of a biographical photographic essay is fine – but the way in which comics layout can be manipulated to expand, contract, compress and emphasise particular elements or motifs can really add shape and form to a biography.

I’m not a blues fan per se, but I love the biographical comics of well-known (and not-so-well-known) blues musicians, drawn (and mostly written) by Gary Dumm [American Spendor, Students For A Democratic Society, etc. ] and featured on the Music Maker Relief Foundation site, and originally in the Music Maker’s Rag newsletter. Dumm’s panels demonstrate how informational comics can seamlessly skate between “infographic”, “illustrated-text”, “cartoon” and “comic”. Looking at a collection of individual biographies, an overarching sequence becomes apparent: a comic made up of comics.

The question: when is a comic not a comic? – which I think people studying informational comics and graphics often ask – seems here to be pretty much irrelevant. It’s the underlying understanding of a “comics approach” to not just the individual biographies, but to the overall project that seems important – not whether or not a specific work has a requisite number of panels, or features speech-bubbles, or whatever.

Lydia often describes “Applied Comics” as comics that have a job to do. How a creator gets that job done – how they manipulate the comics tradition, how they adapt, expand, contract, compress and emphasise particular techniques or elements of comics’ visual language is what adds true shape and form to a comic. As in Dumm’s blues biographies, successful elision infographic, illustrated-text and panel-by-panel sequence is what helps bring the informational content of applied comics alive.


tiny_adventure_1Here’s an interesting example of a comic travelogue: Tiny Adventure Journal. It’s the work of artist Shing Yin Khor, a sculptor, an illustrator and a comics artist from Los Angeles. The comic is her artists’ journal, following her in her travels, between various residencies and commissions, across the US and Canada. Along the way she records her visits to weird and wonderful museums, botanic gardens, comics conventions and colleges.

Shing Yin Khor makes a lot of imaginative comics – but it’s interesting to find someone who uses the comics form not just as a great creative medium, but as an effective documentary one as well. Read Tiny Adventure Journal and The Center for Otherworld Science and you’ll find a nice sense of synergy between the fiction-storytelling and the record-keeping, informational side of the craft.

I think we all already know that good storytelling is good storytelling, and it doesn’t matter if you’re writing about aliens, flying whales and other dimensions – or insects, fossils and ancient Rome. Comics is a fluid practice, and creators can jump happily between genres: from fiction to fact, creative to applied, science to science-fiction. What would Tiny Adventure Journal be like without The Center for Otherworld Science in its DNA?

Patricia Cornflake: comics and feminist art theory

cartoon1Guest post by Suzanne van Rossenberg

My very first cartoon made in 2007 (image above; click for larger version) has become emblematic of the research I started last year. Back then Patricia Cornflake’s Lesbian Lifestyle was a response to my jobless situation in the arts, in which I had been trained, and my growing interest in LGBTI activism and advocacy. After ten years of working in the arts and activism in the Netherlands, I obtained a scholarship to research the relationships between the two and moved to London.

In my fifteen-year practice of writing, drawing and painting and project management, making comics was a marginal, incidental activity with mainly my friends as an audience. You can see a selection of them here. Some of them have been published in an online queer journal and showcased in art exhibitions.

Recently, cartoons have become more important in my work. I’ve included them in presentations about my research at academic conferences and used the format to review and critique feminist literature. Five cartoons will be published in a forthcoming book about feminist art (theory). Because the context of my comics is so specific, I understand not everybody will find them funny. Often they are not meant to be (only) funny.

It was only a few weeks ago that I found out about the Applied Comics Network through my brother (an archaeologist who also uses academia as a platform for his creativity), when I told him I was working on transforming one of my short stories into a graphic novel. The concentration of drawing relaxes me after hours of reading and writing. There is also another link between comics and my research: fiction can be an invaluable tool for addressing sexism and racism in the arts, academia and other norm-setting areas.

Therefore, I hope to learn more about applied comics and comics scholarship in the near future. Through the Applied Comics Network I hope to get in touch with more artists I can relate to and learn from. I am sorry to have missed the meet-up in May, but I’m definitely attending the Leeds conference. Please get in touch via Twitter @PCornflake or email: SV384[at]live.mdx.ac.uk. Would love to hear from you!