Research stories - from webcomics to local bookstores

23 July 2021
Cover image of Research stories - from webcomics to local bookstores

Art has long been used as a means to communicate science. In ancient Greece, poetry was a powerful way of communicating about mathematics, astrology and the natural world. Fast forward 13 centuries, past the invention of the printing press which saw science communication flourish, to today, where artistic skills and science have come together once again - this time to explore the power of storytelling through comics.

ERCcOMICS was the result of a search by the European Research Council to find an innovative and creative way to communicate ERC funded projects. It was the brainwave of ‘La Bande Destinée’, a French communication agency specialising in illustration, comics and animation, at the Sorbonne University. Between 2016 and 2019, 18 projects were adapted into fictional or documentary webcomics. The lead researchers of ERC funded projects, science communication specialists and cartoonists worked hand in hand to bring the science projects to life through impactful images.


Visuals speak volumes


The resulting science comics have already proved to be a very successful way to make scientific topics accessible, meaningful and engaging. La Bande Destinée’s use of metaphors and character-driven visual narratives has captured the imagination of adults, youngsters, graphic novel readers, researchers and academia alike. So much so, that the comics have become increasingly popular on social media channels like Instagram. This popularity led the team to produce printed versions of the webcomics and introduce them into the discerning world of comic festivals.

Over 2,000 people flocked to the ERCcOMICS stand at the Angoulême Festival, one of the biggest in the world. Attending students were eager to speak to ERCcOMICS illustrators about using their comics in science classes. The success of the science comics led to more invitations to comic festivals and to tentative discussions with publishing houses. As a result, these compelling visual science stories are now beginning to make their way into bookshops across Europe.


Hitting the shelves near you


Earlier this year, the comic ‘Something in the water’ was the first to be released by West Indies Publishing House in Spain under the title Algo en el agua. Eight chapters of the comic have been also published in Spanish in the magazine Jot Down Kids. Illustrator Till Lukat and researcher Prof. Juan Manual Garcia-Ruiz take the reader back 4 billion years to a primordial world made up of minerals in order to shed light on the origin of life. The story depicts Juan Manuel’s research trip, as part of the ERC funded project PROMETHEUS, to a remote salt lake in Africa to find the remains of that long lost, inorganic Earth.
It is a format that appeals to all ages’ explains Juan Manuel and it is ‘proving to be a great tool to teach science and about how scientists work, changing stereotypes about scientists as serious, ‘walking brains’ through the use of humour. 'It is a format that appeals to all ages’ explains Juan Manuel and it is ‘proving to be a great tool to teach science and about how scientists work, changing stereotypes about scientists as serious, ‘walking brains’ through the use of humour. Yes, the research is important, but the comics are primarily to be enjoyed’ he adds ‘and will hopefully encourage young students into science'.

Now that the printed comic is available, Juan Manuel says the real work is showing teachers how to use the comics to get the most out of them. ‘While the popularisation of science is great in itself’ he explains, ‘we want teachers to know how to use them as part of a set of tools’. He plans to write a few articles for newspapers on the comics as part of his outreach to schools.

Juan Manuel credits a lot of the comic’s success to humour. While discussing their ideas for the comic back in Juan Manuel’s lab in Granada, he recounts how the script came alive with their sense of humour. The two are now planning another comic book with the endearing character Professor Tomas de Arce investigating giant crystals… we won’t say more to avoid a spoiler!

Reading Something in the water in the Gravite Festival. Picture by Martha Santana. Illustrations by Till Lukat

In April, ERCcOMIC ‘Expecting’ was adapted into Chez toi by Casterman, a famous graphic novel publisher in France. Comic book author and illustrator, Sandrine Martin, sensitively illustrates Italian anthropologist, Vanessa Grotti’s, ERC funded EUBorderCare project on maternity care among undocumented migrants on the EU’s peripheries. Martin herself travelled to Greece with the project to observe the midwives and doctors who take care of refugees, resulting in a moving story of uprooting and hope written with a personal and autobiographical perspective. The comic also recently became available in Italian stores following publication under the title “A casa” by the publishing house Tunué, which specializes in graphic novels for young readers and adults.

The Italian publishing house, Saldapress, followed suit by publishing Fabula soon after in May. The comic focuses on Prof. Bronstein’s ERC funded project GoodNews, which looks at building the technological capability to detect fake news in social media by using algorithms. In order to explain the science, Italian cartoonist and illustrator Francesco Guarnaccia and writer Lorenzo Ghetti created a magic kingdom in which strange stories begin to spread that challenge the legends upon which life in the kingdom was built.

Another popular ERCcOMICS story, Roots of Hatha Yoga, has just become available in Waterstones bookstores across the UK. The comic portrays ERC funded project HYP charting the history of physical yoga practice by studying texts on yoga and conducting fieldwork with yoga practitioners. Graphic novel author and illustrator, Piero Macola, skilfully does this by following Dr James Mallinson’s path from visiting India to studying Sanskrit and becoming a lecturer in Sanskrit and classical Indian studies at SOAS in London.

ERCcOMICS increasingly appearing in bookstores across Europe is testament to a growing interest in comics as a means to communicate science… an artistic expression, once only considered as a sub-genre of literature, is now making its mark in the long and deep-rooted history of science communication – with the ERC right at the forefront of the rise in science comic popularity.


In the EUBookshop


Running in parallel to the print publication of these comics across Europe, is the repackaging of each story into Ebooks for the EU’s own official bookshop. All the comics are also still available to read online, in their original digital format on the ERCcOMICS website.