The comic art of presenting research

Svenska 2017-03-15

The internet is home to a new and unusual combination of art and research: ERC Comics. Funded by the European Research Council, the idea is to make research accessible to a new audience.

Scrolling through the cartoons of ERC comics is not like reading a normal comic strip on paper; the pictures are not always confined to boxes, some of them are animated and they can also be interactive. The comic also serves as an introduction to science, although it does not have an immediate scientific focus.

“This is an unusual way of presenting science – making it artistic”, says Professor Ulf Leonhardt, who researches the theoretical physics behind invisibility at Israel’s Weizmann Institute of Science.

Did not hesitate

His ERC-financed research project was one of the very first to be selected by ERC comics. When he was first approached, he didn’t hesitate; this was perhaps because of the visual nature of his research into invisibility, but also because he had already used comic strips in the presentation of his research.

“If you conduct research in my field and cannot explain it with an illustration, then you cannot claim to understand it yourself.”

But he believes that a professional artist adds so much more.

“A real cartoonist makes something funny out of it and creates characters with personality.”

The ERC team is based in Paris. Because he often visits Paris, Ulf Leonhardt was able to meet with both the team and the cartoonist several times. A new episode of the comic is now published every four weeks by ERC comics.

Reaches young people

Massimo Colella runs the La Bande Destinée communications agency in Paris and also writes many of ERC comics’ scripts. When the ERC announced that money had been made available for communications campaigns, La Bande Destinée applied together with Université Pierre et Marie Curie (UPMC) at the Sorbonne.

The ERC’s panel of communication experts was impressed by the idea. The panel believed that it had great potential to reach new target audiences – in particular, young people. They also considered the collaboration between artists and scientists to be an interesting aspect.

Massimo Colella describes the work of his agency:

“Pictures attract people and this increases readership. At La Bande Destinée, we specialise in producing comic strips, illustrations and animations for a variety of customers.”

Comics form part of the culture

To illustrate his point, he mentions how they have used cartoons to communicate workplace safety procedures and to talk to children about illness.

“Here in France, as in Italy and Belgium, comics are a part of the culture – they can be found everywhere.”

Even so, ERC comics is still an unusual project for Massimo Colella.

“This project is completely different to what we are used to. This project extends over several years and it involves many people. The application process alone was pretty complicated – we wouldn’t have been able to manage without UPMC.”

The project is also very time-consuming, particularly for the web comics that they make interactive.

“The working process begins with the scientist talking about their research and the cartoonist then sketches a few ideas which are sent back to the researcher. Ideas will continue to be shared back and forth, but the extent of this depends on how involved the researcher wishes to be.”

The story is key

If one is accustomed to a pedagogical structure built upon background, methods and results, then ERC comics may seem slightly frustrating. According to Marie-Christine Agopian, who is a project manager for ERC comics, the idea is not to provide a journalistic explanation but to capture the interest in research.

“Every research project is different but the objective is to present a story and to make each web comic unique. The story might be fictional, autobiographical, historical or science fiction.”

Alongside the comic, a film or text is also included which presents the research project in a more traditional manner. Each episode of the comic is also accompanied by an explanatory text: “The Science behind the Comic”.

Marie-Christine Agopian explains that each research project has its own dedicated cartoonist – sometimes two. Each year, four new research leaders are selected, as are four new cartoonists.

“When deciding which 16 comics will be made over the four years, we try to achieve as much variation as possible with regard to the fields of research and the countries represented, as well as featuring both women and men.”

Cartoons used in different ways

The web comics are the main focus of the project, but this has also led to the cartoons being used in the researchers’ presentations and exhibitions.

Ulf Leonhardt has, among other things, used them in a TedX presentation, and another experiment has involved the cartoonist drawing live before the audience on a large screen during the presentation itself. The conclusion here, however, was that the audience would have preferred to see the finished drawings.

In many ways, ERC comics is an ongoing experiment with new ways of communicating science.

“It is challenging and difficult, but this is also what makes it so good”, says Marie-Christine Agopian.

Swedish research becomes an ERC comic

Malin Parmar, a professor at Lund University, is one of four new researchers who will have an ERC comic published during 2017. Her research is concerned with the reprogramming of skin cells to become nerve cells, which can be used in the treatment of various brain conditions. She had to devote quite a lot of time to the project but she thinks it was worth it.

“As a researcher, it is important to communicate with society and, if you restrict yourself to conventional forms of communication, such as seminars and the like, you will often only reach those people who are already interested.”

So far, she has only held meetings with the cartoonist and the ERC team via the internet. Even though she will have the final veto for the content of the speech bubbles, she feels that she is entering unknown territory, not least because she does not herself read comics.

“It was quite difficult to communicate exactly what my work involved, and I did wonder what they would come up with; it was hard to relinquish control and to give the artist a free hand.”

Nevertheless, she was pleasantly surprised.

“They really understood what I’d tried to tell them and the results are great – it’s modern art!”

Ulf Leonhardt was similarly impressed by his comic, and adds:

“They are able to reach those people who feel intimidated by science but who love stories.”

Text: Anja Castensson
Photo: La Bande Destinée (illustration)