The Dark Side of Applied Comics

disney_exxon_energyOne of the very earliest comic books I ever read as a kid was an educational comic full of information. Or, perhaps I should say it was “educational” and full of “information”.

It was a comic about “Energy Conservation” starring Mickey Mouse and Goofy, and sponsored by Exxon. Yes, that’s right: Exxon, that well-known corporate advocate of energy conservation. Just how “educational” was the “information” in that comic?

Applied Comics has something of a dark history to contend with. Comics have been used in the service of some pretty dodgy “information”, and been created as tools for some fairly dubious “education”. Just as applied comics as a serious field of study and practice might need to contend with public perceptions of comics as juvenile or dumbed-down, it also might need to contend with its legacy as blatant propaganda.

How do we ensure that informational comics can be used as a legitimate tool for presenting arguments, encouraging debate and changing opinions without allowing them to slip over into something darker?

Check out a snarky review of a comic in the same series over at


Science Ruins Everything talk about comics and information has to touch on xkcd at some point. There’s no doubting the comics’s information credentials. But what’s perhaps more interesting is the way in which that information manifests.

As an archaeologist, I’m not sure I qualify as a proper scientist in xkcd’s eyes, so perhaps it’s no surprise that I don’t get some of the comics. But even the ones I don’t get I still find interesting (I admit it: I’m one of those people whose next port of call after xkcd is often a Wikipedia article).

I feel as if I’m prompted to go find out about things I don’t know not because the comic has explained it, but precisely because it hasn’t. What’s interesting about the manifestation of information in xkcd is that it’s often presented without much in the way of explanation. It feels like an entirely counter-intuitive approach, but it clearly works. But how does that work? How can comics so full of facts, detail and information leave out the explanation?

Perhaps we shouldn’t always feel as if a comic has to be the whole answer to a given question – perhaps it’s okay for it to be part of the answer. A comic can’t always replace an academic journal, an user’s manual, a detailed prose explanation, or even a Wikipedia article – and perhaps they shouldn’t try. Perhaps a better use of their accessible and engaging qualities is to point the way.

Maybe, they shouldn’t be the answer that unravels the mystery, but a way to re-phrase the mystery in order to pique curiosity.


bird_and_moon_1I know I’m not the only one out there to have discovered Bird And Moon Comics. This is information at its cutest. But don’t let the soft images distract you – these are comics full of hard fact. One of the nicest thing about Bird and Moon is the way in which style is used in the service of some serious ecological PR. Just about every comic seems to carry a message and be aimed at a very specific target: the international pet trade, plastic spoons, road-construction, invasive species, etc. – these comics are scientific agit-prop. But at the same time, these are comics which can happily adorn your wall – these comics are art.

Bird and Moon illustrates perfectly the way in which applied comics can be not just good information, but good art. In fact, Bird and Moon illustrates perfectly something we talked about at our London meet-up: the way in which applied comics should aspire to be both good information and good art.

Thoughts From our London Meet-up – 3


We’re posting thoughts from our London meet-up. Next up is John Swogger.

For me, our first Applied Comics Network meetup was a day marked by diversity. It very quickly became apparent – not just in the initial talks from the three of us, or in the round-the-room introductions, but through the comic-making, the five presentations, and continuing in the pub afterwards – that the term “Applied Comics” identifies a broad range of approaches, practices and end-uses. This struck me as both a source of potential strength and potential complication. As Lydia suggested at the pub – and I think we all agreed – the subject isn’t really in need of a manifesto as such, nor of strict definitions. Having said that, I think Ian’s first attempts at categorisation is something which is important – for me, I think, because this kind of grouping of approaches to narrative is not only useful as an analytical tool, but also as a teaching/workshopping one as well.

I was certainly very pleased to see such diversity reflected in the group who attended. It was great to see makers as well as users (educators, publishers, academics) there. I think this also reflects a source of both strength and complication for us. Strength in that we can use that diversity of interest to continue to “sell” the message of comics as a medium for communicating information, or as something with a specific intent; complication in that we will need to focus on ways of bringing makers and users closer together.

An aspect of this which came out in a number of different ways was the need to not just focus on applied comics as the outcome of approaches to “drawing” (or “image-creation” in its broadest sense), but as the outcome of approaches to “writing”. The need to make those who are interested in commissioning or using comics in an applied context realise that writing for comics – even informational or instructional comics – is different from writing for other media. To paraphrase one of Lydia’s examples, a writer cannot simply point to a PhD thesis and say: there’s the text, now make me a comic. Focusing on writing for informational comics might address one of the questions put to Selina Lock: how do you get comic artists to collaborate with academics when there’s very little money involved? Perhaps partly by involving the academic writer in learning how to write for comics effectively. I think Stephen Hodkinson’s experience is a very good example of the kind of “journey” that needs to be encouraged.

The Wikipedia comic activity addressed this brilliantly. It challenged the makers with its random-ness, but I also think it challenged the non-makers to see the process by which standard prose presentation of information becomes a comic. The activity raised some interesting specific points, for example the question of who narrates information, and why (the object of the information itself – Hannah Sackett: brilliant; a humorous interlocutor – Stephen Marchant; a predominantly visual, not textual narration – Corban Wilkin; James McKay), and what that does to an applied narrative, and how that affects the informational reading of the comic. The diversity of the group made the process of reflection on the activity really useful. Next event soon, please!

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John Swogger is an archaeological illustrator who creates archaeological comics for clients such as CADW, The Princes Regeneration Trust and the Museum of London. He has recently published an article in the journal Advances in Archaeological Practice on the use of comics in archaeology – as a comic. More on archaeology and comics at his blog.

Thoughts from our London Meet-up – 2


We’re continuing to gather thoughts from our meet-up in London. Next is Ian Horton:

The day started with our introduction to the topic of Applied Comics as organisers of the event. We had not conferred in advance and on these introductions an there were many similarities but also some key differences in emphasis. John started with an overview of the different combinations of sequential narrative, illustration and text in his own practice highlighting the relationship to traditional illustration and information design practices. Lydia told us that comics are awesume focused on the activity of making and process with a focus on participation as a key aspect of the field in terms of her own practice. She also noted the role of individual voices in the conveying of information. I tried to categorize some of the different sub-genres such as instructional, public relations and political/journalistic providing examples of each area.

This was followed by introductions by the attendees which show the great range of expertise in the room including undergraduate and postgraduate students, educators, facilitators, artists and writers all working in the field. There was then an applied comic making activity where the group selected a random Wikipedia entry (for Drake Ward in Plymouth) and individually made an info-comic based on the information. We then discussed the process and results in small groups and this raised many issues such as authorship and identity; audience engagement, the problem of selective histories, image versus text led solutions etc. etc.

We then had a series of talks by invited practitioners. Lizzie Boyle showed us her work with Disconnected Press and the newly released Cross about current political debates. Selina Lock gave an account of the role of applied comics in the PhD process both as research tool and form of presentation. Lydia presented her work with Applied Comics etc., the use of workshops and the importance of audience engagement. In these talks we learnt much about the forces driving the creators of these applied comics, whatever form they take or subject they tackle, and the discussions that followed allowed us to examine issues such as funding, self-publishing and the payment (hopefully) of artists for commissioned work. Ian William presented his latest work in the field of Graphic Medicine which included a more reflective section on the value of this work for the practitioners themselves and ideas of therapy. Steve Marchant from the Cartoon Museum showed us a wide range of projects he has worked on, mainly with children, and emphasised the role of humour within applied comics.

Overall many new connections were made and old ones reaffirmed. There is clearly scope for a network of this sort to share good practice, enable collaboration and to stimulate debate on the key themes emerging in this area. Future events are a priority as it the production of a newsletter to promote the network.

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Dr. Ian Horton is Coordinator for Contextual and Theoretical Studies at London College of Communication. His research interests include text-based public art, information design, and – of course – comics. He regularly presents at conferences on the history of British comics and British informational comics.

Thoughts From our London Meet-up

blankWe’ve been gathering thoughts from our first Applied Comics Network meet-up. First up is Lydia Wysocki:

Well, I enjoyed that.

The three separate introductions to what we think ‘applied comics’ is worked well.  They seemed to go in the right order too – John’s tour of examples from his own practice, Ian’s examples of different people’s practice, and my thoughts on principles (1: comics with specific purposes, a purpose akin to applied mathematics/applied linguistics, and 2: broader than non-fiction comics, facts are complicated) and all very exploratory at this stage – which I think is a very helpful start.

The Wikipedia roulette activity achieved multiple aims.  It got people making comics, so we had something specific to discuss and all with a shared point of reference – it’s a medium not a genre, you know, which makes it even harder when comics colleagues are discussing a title/series/creator I’ve never heard of.  None of us knew about Drake electoral ward in Plymouth, but that’s what Wikipedia roulette decided we’d make comics about (after a series of entries on American football players, one-line entries, and disambiguation pages it was a pretty darn appealing article).  It got self-professed non-comics-makers and non-artists making comics, to focus on the decisions they made when making comics as much as the finished artwork itself.  It had enough rules to get comics made and enough flexibility that art choices, reading beyond the Wikipedia page, and how closely to stick to the facts all became part of the small group discussion that followed. Splitting from a group of 24 into 4 groups of 6 worked well to make sure everyone had a chance to talk, then it was good to feed back to the whole group and see which points recurred in different small groups’ discussions.

The short presentations about specific projects were interesting both in themselves and to prompt further discussions. Including discussions we ran out of time for, but continued in the pub and hope to continue at future events. Selina Lock’s blog post does a great job of summarising the main points from presentations and discussions. I had a brief chat with John and with Hannah Sackett about whether there are particular art and writing styles that do or don’t work for particular information – can some information only be portrayed in a cute art style? or only in photorealistic art style? Whilst we think the only rule is that there are no rules (any information in any art style), I’d be interested to follow up any examples of style-and-content pairings that seem particularly surprising.

Most of all, the day reinforced my (and John’s and Ian’s) conviction that there’s interest in (and space and need for) a comics event that focusses on the making of comics. Most conference presentations I’ve seen are about the study of comics made by other people, and there was something in this presentations-then-discussions format that for me was more engaging than panel discussions.  The table of showing and swapping comics was good, and an element of a comics convention that seemed to fit well for this event. The day after feeling of ‘that was awesome, and now everyone’s gone back to the rest of their lives’ was similar to comics conventions too.  But we’ve already started planning the next event, so that helps.

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Lydia Wysocki is one of the co-organisers of the Applied Comics Network. She edited the Newcastle Science Comic, Asteroid Belter for the British Festival of Science in 2013, makes comics, and runs Applied Comics Etc., “making awesome comics about specific information”. For more visit: Applied Comics Etc.