Research Headlines – Science comics: drawing people into research

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Cutting-edge science can be difficult for the general public to understand, so an EU-funded project has turned to the power of visual storytelling to develop an innovative form of science communication.

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© durantelallera #212880046, source: stock.adobe.com 2019

The European Research Council (ERC) funds thousands of diverse projects, but the insights its scientists come up with are not always easy to communicate to the general public. This means that important breakthroughs risk remaining in the lab.

The EU-funded ERCCOMICS project has found a new way of drawing people in and informing them about frontier research – using the popular medium of comics. Their work will help engage different audiences and inform the wider public about the achievements of ERC-supported research.

‘We want to communicate science in a brand new, high-risk, high-gain manner, just like ERC research. We want to innovate the way European science is communicated,’ says Fiammetta Ghedini, editorial coordinator of the project.

Matching artist and researchers

The project pairs artists with researchers and helps them develop stories, avoiding a conventional science biography approach or explaining science as it is presented in school textbooks. Instead, they focus on memorable and inspiring stories that match the images, characters and storytelling style to the science. The aim is to enable close collaborations between artists and researchers, to create real artworks that people want to read and to propose a unique navigation experience through the semi-animated webcomics.

ERCCOMICS, a unique collaboration between Sorbonne University in Paris and communication agency La Bande Destinée, has produced 16 webcomics in different formats over four years to explain and promote the achievements of diverse ERC projects. The last season was launched in May 2019 with four new comics. ERCcOMICS are now compatible on smartphone and tablet formats and see an increasing success on social media channels such as Instagram.

‘The idea was born with the ERC-funded Flow Machines project, which produced the first AI-composed song,’ says Ghedini. ‘At the time, we promoted that project through a comic. Afterwards, we thought it was something that we could apply to a lot of other projects.’

The partners then selected other ERC-funded projects based on their narrative potential and impact on society. The targeted audience is wide, including adults and youngsters, graphic novel readers, researchers and academia. ERCcoMICS is also entering the world of comic festivals. A printed version of its first two seasons was presented this year in those of Bologna, Angoulême and Naples.

Inspiring and experimental

‘The idea was to create stories inspired by the research. It could be any type of story and was really experimental,’ says Massimo Colella, founder of La Bande Destinée. ‘The main thing is to create an interesting narration to captivate the reader.’

For example, ‘Expecting’ is a webcomic about pregnant immigrant women, drawing on the work of ethnographer Vanessa Grotti and the EU Border Care project. ‘She observes the lives of these women in Spain, Italy and Greece,’ explains Ghedini. ‘We matched her with French artist Sandrine Martin who has a special sensitivity to women’s stories. This comic is now being adapted with more content for release by a famous publisher of graphic novels in France.’

Other subjects covered include astrophysics, neuroscience, tropical forests, the Internet of Things and the sociology of beauty and, in the latest season, fake news, the European elections, the origin of life and rethinking disability.

The project team is excited by the productive working relationships that have emerged between the paired artists and scientists. ‘Researchers are often not so good at communicating their research. The first thing we do is to ask them to explain their work so it is accessible to anyone, no matter how complex the research is,’ says Colella.

‘Collaborating with us and the artists, they find a way to explain their research in an inspiring and visual way. They can look differently at aspects of their research, so I think it is enriching for them, and they use parts of the comics in their own scientific presentations.’

Similarly, the artists are inspired by the researchers, which can have a positive influence on their work.

Project details

  • Project acronym: ERCCOMICS
  • Participants: France (Coordinator)
  • Project N°: 672466
  • Total costs: € 791 146
  • EU contribution: € 791 146
  • Duration: November 2015 to October 2019

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