One of my favorite sessions this year at Science Online was the session moderated by Maki Naro (@sciencecomic) and Kate McKissick (@beatricebiology) on Distilling Ideas: Communicating Science With Comics. The discussion ranged from creative issues to copyright scandals to suggstions of work to check out. And in true Science Online fashion, the entire room became involved in the discussion, offering suggestions and commentary.
In a conference that focused a lot on words, it was a change of pace to talk about how a limited word count can actually help get an idea across. Tom Swanson, who did physics cartoons when he was in grad school, pointed out that this is something he often needs to explain when people pitch him ideas. After all, if it takes someone a full two minutes to explain an idea, it's going to be too complex to work in a short comic. However, when the just right words are paired with a specific image, science comics can be an efficient, powerful way to deal with hot button issues such as climate change.
Videomaker Henry Reich from Minute Physics said that he loves getting suggestions for things to explain, but not how to explain them. He said, “My job is figuring out the how part.”
And that's where the fun comes in. The majority of science comics tend to fall into two distinct categories: inside jokes for those scientists and those that educate or explain scientific concepts or ideas to the general public. Naro said that he gets inspired by everything from Neil DeGrasse Tyson tweets to articles to social issues, although most of his comics end up being about biology and space because that’s what he’s interested in.
At a time when it takes just a second to copy something and post it, all the artists in the room expressed the importance of getting permission to use their work and proper crediting. McKissick has a very clear policy posted on her blog about people using her work:
Can I use your stupid drawings and say they're mine?No, you can't do that. However, you can share my stupid drawings as long as you credit me and this website.
Wait, why do you say your drawings are stupid?
Either I'm a connoisseur of self-deprecating humor, or I'm horribly insecure. I'll let you know when I figure it out.
However, she recently found that her “Amoeba Hug” comic had been posted elsewhere, and someone else had been given credit for it. She got in touch with the site and asked that it share her original piece and properly credit it. Because someone at the site had essentially redrawn her comic, they did not have the same view of copyright and at first refused to remove it. Eventually, they took down the erroneously credited piece, but not without a lot of effort on McKissick's part.
Here's the first panel of McKissick's original:
And here's the "original" posted by the site without permission and with erroneous crediting. As you can see, it's pretty clear it's a copy of McKissick's work.
Reich has had similar experiences with people downloading his YouTube videos, and then re-uploading them onto their own channels so that they could make money off of the advertising placed in the videos. One extreme example includes someone in Germany actually redoing his drawings and the voiceover in German with zero attribution.
Something else that became clear as we all were furiously scribbling down suggestions of work to take a look at was that there’s a need for some sort of science comic aggregator. There are certainly lists and blogrolls, but these aren’t really an efficient way to discover and browse science comics; a more robust database that the public can contribute to and that can be sorted by topic would be ideal. Any volunteers out there? Anyone need a challenge for a hackathon?
If you’re interested in checking out more science comics and comic-oriented publications, here are some of the suggestions that came up during the session. If you want to search for more nuggets from the session on Twitter, look for #sciencecomics.
-Lauren Redniss’s graphic biography Radioactive: Marie & Pierre Curie: A Tale of Love and Fallout. From The New York Times review:
The electricity in “Radioactive,” however, derives from the friction between Ms. Redniss’s text and her ambitious and spooky art. Her text runs across and over these freewheeling pages, the boundaries between word and image constantly blurring. Her drawings are both vivid and ethereal. Her people have elongated faces and pale forms; they’re etiolated Modiglianis. They populate a Paris that’s become a dream city.
This exceptional graphic novel recounts the spiritual odyssey of philosopher Bertrand Russell. In his agonized search for absolute truth, Russell crosses paths with legendary thinkers like Gottlob Frege, David Hilbert, and Kurt Gödel, and finds a passionate student in the great Ludwig Wittgenstein. But his most ambitious goal—to establish unshakable logical foundations of mathematics—continues to loom before him. Through love and hate, peace and war, Russell persists in the dogged mission that threatens to claim both his career and his personal happiness, finally driving him to the brink of insanity.
-odd todd's animations for an NPR story about carbon and climate change.