Comic genius: from research to cartoons

A hub of artists translating academic research into comics could become a reality at the University of Auckland.

Sequence from a weed management cartoon series by Associate Professor Margaret Stanley (Faculty of Science) and artist Pepper Raccoon.

The idea to connect academics – from science to sociology – keen to have their research encapsulated in a fresh, engaging way with graphic artists came to comics expert Neal Curtis as a response to the current state of the world.

“I wanted to move away from critiquing to doing, given the state of things, with all the disinformation, fake news, ‘post truth’, attacks on science experts, etc, and comics are such a brilliant medium of communication.”

An associate professor in media and screen studies in the Faculty of Arts, Dr Curtis has had a lifelong personal and research interest in comics and graphic novels, as well as having taught in the subject for the past ten years, and believes they are closer to our natural mode of communication.

“They are what we refer to as ‘multi-modal’, in that not only do they use text and images but also sound, gestures, facial expressions and spacial relations such as body position and proximity; they are such a rich, sophisticated medium.”

Within comics studies there are four main ‘sub fields’, graphic medicine, graphic science, graphic justice and graphic journalism, and Dr Curtis says comics are becoming increasingly popular as a way to communicate important and often complicated ideas in these sorts of areas.

This weed management cartoon by Associate Professor Margaret Stanley and artist Pepper Raccoon was created after they formed a collaboration at 'Drawing Science', a workshop offered by the Science Media Centre to connect academics and illustrators.

“An example people might be familiar with is the series of cartoons and comics by The Spinoff’s Toby Morris, alongside microbiologist Dr Siouxsie Wiles from our University, that really clarified important, scientifically reliable information about Covid [‘flatten the curve’] at a time when there was a lot of misinformation out there.”

Dr Curtis has already had an overwhelmingly positive response to his idea with a number of academics from across the University wanting to get involved and nationally known cartoonists like Emma Cook and Chris Slane expressing interest, as well as artists from the UK and Turkey.

However, he says there is still a wider resistance to the idea of taking comics as a genre seriously.

“You have to get over the deeply ingrained attitude that they are ‘only for children’ or somehow dumbing down information or not worth people’s attention. Nothing could be further from the truth.”

To fund the first stage of a much larger plan, Dr Curtis is hoping to use an initial grant from the University’s Transdisciplinary Ideation Fund, set up to support research projects that require expertise from the breadth of the University.

His next step is to apply for a Marsden grant and if this is successful, he’ll be able to involve a colleague in the faculty, medical anthropologist Dr Pauline Herbst, who will document the process of ‘translating’ research into comics as a blueprint for others wanting to do the same.

The ultimate plan, he says, is to establish a ‘Comics Lab’, a virtual space which will involve a semi-permanent community of creators and a revolving set of academics, and eventually be able to take on outside work from other stakeholders wanting to get important ideas and information put into comic form.

“I want to be able to pay these talented creators properly and hopefully offer a regular source of work and at the same time, serve the purpose of combatting false or otherwise misleading information by making it clear, accurate and accessible in this brilliant medium,” says Dr Curtis.


Media contact

Julianne Evans | Media adviser
M: 027 562 5868