Superhero Stuff: How to make a science comic

A science communicator talks about the creative process behind science comics, and how the reader might approach their own project.

Superhero Stuff: How to make a science comic

I recently created a comic that explains how bioinformatics works. It’s a science comic, and while the science can get a bit murky the idea is that the comic part of the article will keep readers engaged and help them understand what’s going on.

Making it was more difficult than you might imagine. While I understood bioinformatics and how the science worked at a basic level, figuring out a way to represent such abstract ideas created a problem. By far, the art is the most challenging part. The reader should be able to complete an action, or an idea, in their mind’s eye. Otherwise, it’s no more than an infographic or picture book. So, how could I create some informative illustrations without becoming an infographic?

After I completed the comic, I was sent a link to this article about how to create a science comic. While I was only introduced to it after the fact, I found it to be a helpful guide in creating any kind of visual aid. For instance:

Rule 2: Comics should be simple

This could apply to all visual media, but in the creative process it’s always an urge one has to resist. Just because something is new and shiny doesn’t mean we should use it.  Leaving the reader with a clear and concise understanding of the message is the most important element to storytelling about science.

Complicating that rule, however, is:

Rule 8: Use your imagination

Things have to get a little shiny to draw a non-technical audience into the story. My comic is actually a GIF, and animated in certain panels to make things a little more engaging. The tricky part is finding the balance between “Distracting” and “Stale.”

I know saying, “Find a middle-ground between minimalistic and gaudy,” isn’t exactly specific, and certainly not very helpful for those trying to make comics. However, for an experimental medium like this one, the rules are few and far in between. Execution is completely up to the artist, and what kind of story they want to tell. These rules are meant to be broken.  Art Spiegelman’s graphic novel MAUS is as basic as comic illustration gets: black and white, ink fountain pen on paper, yet he won a Pulitzer Prize for it. Dave McKean, who illustrated the Sandman covers, uses mixed media to deliberately disorient and unsettle the reader, and he’s a world-renowned artist who’s directed movies for goodness’ sake. Perhaps it’s better to think of comic art as a spectrum, and finding the right place on it is what separates poor from successful comics.

For science comics, the writer should keep in mind how much jargon they use, how many people are involved in the comic, and what the purpose of the comic is. Because I wanted to explain a concept to the audience using only one character, Sid, it needed to be very short and sweet. The art needed to be clear and simple, with more complicated concepts reserved for text. The necessity for simplicity was compounded by the fact that I am not a great artist. As will all creative work: make do with what you got. A good place to read-up on the subject is Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics by exploring the YouTube channel of Strip Panel Naked to better understand how color, art, and lettering all work together.

 

For another topic, like physics, maybe more complicated drawing and introducing more characters would work better as a storytelling tool. But when it comes to things like quantum mechanics or molecular chemistry, simplicity is always something to aspire to.

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