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Research as comics - Applied Comics Network

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?"

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