Speech Bubbles, Ink and Clay Offer Powerful Ways to Communicate Science

Courtney Mattison, an artist and ocean advocate, is the creator of a 1,500-pound handbuilt sculpture called "Our Changing Seas" on display in the AAAS Art Gallery. Mattison uses art to celebrate the beauty of coral reefs and highlight the threats they face. | Neil Orman/AAAS

The journey of a great white shark, the adventures of “science sleuths” and the inner workings of our genes are just a few of the stories told in comic strips and books, tapping into a rich medium for communicating science and presenting an effective way to use such art forms to teach readers about science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

This was on full display at the “S.T.E.A.M. Within the Panels: Science Storytelling through Comic Books, Comic Strips and Graphic Books” exhibition now open through Sept. 15 at the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s Art Gallery in its Washington headquarters.

“Comic books and science are very intertwined,” said Maria Sosa at the exhibit’s May 25 opening. Sosa is a AAAS senior project director and a member of the AAAS Art Committee, which curated the exhibit.

Science has long been a running subtext in comic strips and books that depict scientists both as heroes and villains particularly in early superhero comics, Sosa said. “S.T.E.A.M. (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) Within the Panels” includes a gallery of reimagined and modernized versions of some of the classic superheroes whose powers were bolstered by scientific discoveries. Among the updated superheroes are The Invisible Man, a character originating in the 1897 science fiction classic by H.G. Wells, and The Phantom Lady, whose mysterious abilities are given a scientific foundation in an updated design by James Harvey and Stanley Von Medvey.

The Invisible Man gets an update (right) from artist Sean Von Gorman. | Andrea Korte/AAAS

The works of the more than 20 artists, illustrators and writers included in the exhibit present selections from comic books, graphic novels and web comics in a multitude of artistic styles, ranging from dramatic to realistic to whimsical. The artists tackle an array of scientific subjects ranging from the animal world, to human physiology and psychology, to the history of science and science policy with the latter including the perception and politics of climate change.  

The exhibit seeks to spark conversations about science, society and its representation in comics rather than make pronouncements, Sosa said.

In combining images and text, comics can take on complex subjects and break them down into easily understandable parts, said Matt Dembicki at exhibition’s opening.  The writer and illustrator of “Xoc: The Journey of a Great White Shark” added that comics do not “dumb down” material; rather, they stand alongside other forms of art or journalism in telling the stories of science. Yet, he added, they reach new audiences, including both adults and children.

Storytelling – especially when readers see themselves in the story – helps people feel more invested and connected to the story’s subject, said Kata Kane, a comic book artist who updated the character of The Butterfly, a 1970s-era crime-fighting cabaret singer, in the style of Japanese manga for the AAAS exhibit. 

Comics also can inspire readers’ interests in multiple areas including science, illustration, art or all of the above, speakers said.

Science fiction comics, while rooted in what is known about science, can spur the imagination. “I hope comics can be a great gateway to science,” Kane said.

Importantly, comics can elevate the attraction of science and scientific research by making the discipline more accessible to children. They can get children to create their own stories and characters, added Eric Suggs of Art Way Alliance, an organization that teaches children to create their own comics, manga and animations.

Art has always been recognized by AAAS as an important avenue for communication, Sosa noted. Since 2011, for instance, the AAAS Art Gallery has displayed sculptor Courtney Mattison’s “Our Changing Seas: A Coral Reef Story,” a 15-foot-high, 1,500-pound hand-cast clay rendition of a coral reef. Mattison uses sculpture to inspire coral reef stewardship and prompt policies to protect them.

“There are so many ways to employ visual media to communicate and translate scientific concepts into more emotionally compelling forms,” said Mattison, who spoke at a May 12 conference on water diplomacy hosted by the AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellowships.

Mattison encouraged fellow artists to use their work to communicate scientific concepts to viewers, saying this can elicit real results. She called upon scientists to collaborate with artists as they communicate to the public. “You can create a really powerful tool to get people to care,” she said.