Guest post: Of parasitology and comics
Can you explain science in comic book form? Artist Edward Ross explains how.
The strange, audacious idea was enough to sign me on.
Amidst the colourful, celebratory floats and costumes of the Glasgow West End Festival parade, my friend Jamie Hall would present a monster (albeit one 500,000 times its actual size).
That monster is a seven metre long trypanosome made in the style of a Chinese dragon. But its true monstrousness lies in the disease it causes: trypanosomiasis, commonly known as sleeping sickness.
To explain this, and its unlikely addition to the Festival, Jamie suggested that I create a comic to detail the work being done by he and his colleagues at the Wellcome Trust Centre for Molecular Parasitology, investigating these deadly parasites.
A comic might not seem at first to be the most likely of ways to engage the public with complex scientific issues. For many people comics are more associated with scientific implausibility than accuracy. But comics are as capable as any other medium of engaging the reader with difficult, nuanced subjects. For the last year I have been creating comic book essays on film theory for my series Filmish, so I already know the potential of the medium to inject new life into academic subjects.
Jamie has always been a keen advocate of science to his friends. He has a way with his subject that draws people in, a knack of explaining complex issues with language and rich metaphors that anyone can appreciate. I think that’s why he proposed comics as a way to explore these parasites. Comics offer such capacity for discussing subjects through metaphoric visuals, drawing people in with their disarming, engaging nature, and opening them up to new experiences and ways of thinking.
We began work on the comic about six weeks ago. From the start we were careful to ensure that our writing was clear to a new audience, without sacrificing too much scientific ‘truth’ in the process. I think this is where Jamie and I worked best as a team. At times Jamie would have to reel me in when I wanted to say something sensational but verging on misleading, and at others I would reel him back in as we became swamped in the complexities and grey areas of the subject.
With subjects like these, it’s always a temptation to anthropomorphise your faceless beasties. Such tactics are easy and engaging to be sure, but I feel they sacrifice so much integrity in the process, risking a condescending tone to your work. What we didn’t want to do was suggest any kind of malevolence or freewill in these single-celled organisms. To do so would be to mislead our audience and hide what I think makes these creatures (as well as nature as a whole) so fascinating.
As I write this, it’s only a few days until we get the comics back from the printers and see the float in action. Time will tell how the public responds to the event and to the comic. I have, however, been overwhelmed by the response that the idea has had within the Wellcome Trust Centre and among those who have heard about it.
From an initial small, daring idea this has become something much bigger. Our initial suggestion to print 500 copies has exploded into a request for 5000, a dream for a small-press comic artist like me. My hope is that this is just the start of something even bigger. There is so much left to explore in comic book form.