The potential of comics in science communication
Visual narratives, such as comics and animations, are becoming
increasingly popular as a tool for science education and communication.
Combining the beneﬁts of visualization with powerful metaphors and
character-driven narratives, comics have the potential to make scientiﬁc
subjects more accessible and engaging for a wider audience. While many
authors have experimented with this medium, empirical research on the
effects of visual narratives in science communication remains scarce. This
review summarizes the available evidence across disciplines, highlighting
the cognitive mechanisms that may underlie the effects of visual narratives.
Public engagement with science and technology; Science communication:
theory and models; Visual communication
Introduction Science and engineering affect most aspects of our lives, making public
understanding of science a priority for any democratic society. However, factual
knowledge and reported interest in science and technology remain relatively low
amongst the public [NSF, 2016] and the internet is increasingly reported as the main
source for scientiﬁc information [NSF, 2016]. This is reﬂected by a proliferation of
online platforms dedicated to science education and communication, which often
rely on comics, animations and other visuals storytelling techniques to engage with
their audience. Despite their popularity these kind of visual narratives aimed to the
general public remain poorly studied in terms of their design and efﬁcacy.
Both narrative and visual communication have been independently studied, but it
is difﬁcult to predict how their effects combine into visual narratives. While some
scholars [McCloud, 1994; Sousanis, 2015] argued that the juxtaposition of words
and pictures in comics achieve effects larger than the sum of its parts, it is not clear
if combining storytelling and visualisation techniques is indeed more effective,
from a communication perspective. Moreover, while comics have been studied as a
tool for classroom education [Aleixo and Norris, 2010; Hosler and Boomer, 2011;
Short, Randolph-Seng and McKenny, 2013; Spiegel et al., 2013; Weitkamp and
Burnet, 2007], their application to the speciﬁc challenges of science communication
remain largely unexplored. One of the reasons behind this scarcity of research is
probably the lack of an accepted deﬁnition of what constitutes a ‘comic’. As many
authors have pointed out, while most comics share some unique recognizable
Essay Journal of Science Communication 17(01)(2018)Y01 1
features, they are also an extremely malleable medium which heavily borrow from
other forms of visual communication, making any strict deﬁnition either too
limiting or too porous [Cohn, 2013; Eisner, 1996; Groensteen, 2007; McCloud, 1994;
Varnum and Gibbons, 2007]. For the scope of this essay, we will focus exclusively
on the sub-genre of science comics, broadly deﬁned by Tatalovic as “comics which
have as one of their main aims to communicate science or to educate the reader
about some non-ﬁctional, scientiﬁc concept or theme” [Tatalovic, 2009] — although
these ‘aims’ may not always be so clearly deﬁned, as revealed by the study of
Collver and Weitkamp (in this same issue). We will review qualitative and
quantitative studies in the ﬁelds of education, psychology and cognitive science to
explore how ‘science comics’ may affect the understanding, perception and
engagement with science.
In the past decades comics have emerged as an increasingly popular form of
communication, able to engage readers of different age groups and cultural
backgrounds. Despite some early resistance [North, 1940; Wertham, 1954], the
potential of comics as an educational tool has always been recognized by teachers
and psychologists alike [Sones, 1944]. From an educational perspective learning
from comics may offer several advantages [Jee and Anggoro, 2012]. First of all,
most comics are built on the integration of text and pictures, which has been
highlighted by Mayer and colleagues as a guiding principle of textbook
illustrations [Mayer and Gallini, 1990; Mayer et al., 1995]. Moreover, the
multimodal nature of comics [Sousanis, 2015] has the potential to increase readers
engagement and facilitate learning [Eilam and Poyas, 2010]. Finally, comics often
rely on the use of characters and situation models, which provide the basis for
emotional attachment and self-reference, which can also facilitate the formation of
new memories [Symons and Johnson, 1997].
Building on these intuitions, many teachers and educators have experimented with
comics in their classroom, mostly to support students with low literacy skills
[Aleixo and Norris, 2010; Crawford, 2004; Frey and Fisher, 2008; Schwarz, 2006].
However, comics adoption on a larger scale has been hindered by the ‘perennial
disorganisation’ of educational comics [Rifas, 1991], which makes them extremely
difﬁcult to ﬁnd, and the lack of clear models for how comics may be integrated in
classroom practice [Lapp et al., 2011]. These issues are particularly relevant in the
ﬁeld of ‘science comics’ or ‘graphic science’. Although many comics covering
STEM subjects (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) have been
published over the years [Tatalovic, 2009] and the format has become increasingly
popular with online science communication platforms, the effects of comics on
public engagement and perception of science remain poorly understood [Jee and
Anggoro, 2012]. Most literature on science comics consists of qualitative reports,
often by teachers and educators who are also the authors of the comics themselves,
therefore providing a small and possibly biased sample [Toledo, Yangco and
Espinosa, 2014; Kaptan and ˙
Izgi, 2014; Kennepohl and Roesky, 2008; Kim et al.,
2016; Nagata, 1999; Naylor and Keogh, 1999; Rota and Izquierdo, 2003].
Some useful insights may be drawn from the ﬁeld of Graphic Medicine [Czerwiec
et al., 2015; Green and Myers, 2010] in which several empirical studies on the use of
comics have been conducted. When compared to traditional text-based material,
comics appear to signiﬁcantly improve understanding and recollection of medical
https://doi.org/10.22323/2.17010401 JCOM 17(01)(2018)Y01 2
conditions [Diamond et al., 2016; Tekle-Haimanot et al., 2016], compliance with
medical instructions [Delp and Jones, 1996; Tjiam et al., 2013], promote informed
consent [Furuno and Sasajima, 2015; Kraft et al., 2016], facilitate interactions
between patients and doctors [Anderson, Wescom and Carlos, 2016] and between
patients and their communities [McNicol, 2014; McNicol, 2017], and generally
improve community engagement with medical issues [Leung et al., 2014; Wang,
Acevedo and Sadler, 2017]. However, the health-related information presented in
these comics clearly has a different emotional value than generic scientiﬁc
knowledge. Moreover, graphic medicine often deals with personal narratives,
which better lend themselves to visualization, and are probably easier for the
readers to identify with. Therefore, the promising effects observed in Graphic
Medicine may not extend to science comics, which often deal with non-human,
Few studies so far have attempted to quantify the effects of comics on the
communication of science (see Table 1) The goals and settings of these studies were
extremely heterogeneous: Hosler and Boomer used comics in place of textbook in
evolutionary biology classes for non-majors (N=98) [Hosler and Boomer, 2011].
Spiegel and colleagues compared the effects of comics and essays in teaching
concepts of virology to high-school students (N=873) [Spiegel et al., 2013]. While
Short and colleagues, used comics as additional material in a class for business
students (N=114) [Short, Randolph-Seng and McKenny, 2013]. Keeping in mind
these important differences, it is interesting to note how all these studies have
reached somewhat similar conclusions. The effects of comics and text were
equivalent in terms of knowledge acquisition, but comics were consistently more
effective at improving students engagement and motivation. Interestingly, these
results are in line with anecdotal evidence from other studies, in which participants
‘prefer’ comic presentation, even if they do not necessarily improve their
knowledge [Aleixo and Norris, 2010; Kim et al., 2016]. While these studies provide
a promising ﬁrst step toward the understanding of comics as a tool for science
education, they all have the limitation of being conducted in classroom settings.
Some of the authors rightfully observed that the effects of comics in the classroom
may be biased by the novelty effects of comics [Hosler and Boomer, 2011], therefore
it would be important for future studies to measure comic literacy and
predispositions amongst readers [Caldwell, 2012; Tatalovic, 2009]. More
importantly, the goals and settings of science communication are often different
from those of classroom education. Therefore, more studies are required to
understand how the effects of comics may extend beyond the classroom, to
informal learning settings, with more diverse audiences (both in terms of age,
ethnicity and motivations) and with the goal of public engagement, rather than
education [Meyer, 2016]. Indeed, the effects of comics may be equivalent to text
when readers are required to memorize the material (regardless of the format) but
comics could prove to be more effective at engaging occasional readers. This seems
a particularly promising application for comics, considering that the few existing
studies revealed that students with no prior knowledge of the subject were those
who mostly beneﬁted from their use [Hosler and Boomer, 2011; Spiegel et al., 2013]
and the suggestion that comics “may enable a wider audience of non-specialists
individuals, who do not typically seek out science information, to engage with
science-related topics, thus fostering scientiﬁc literacy” [Spiegel et al., 2013].
https://doi.org/10.22323/2.17010401 JCOM 17(01)(2018)Y01 3
Only two recent studies appear to have explicitly addressed the role of comics in
science communication to the wider public. Amaral and colleagues collected
feedback from 206 participants (age from 14 to 85 years old, 54.9% female) as part
of a Portuguese governmental initiative aimed at improving public understanding
of stem cell research [Amaral et al., 2015]. Unfortunately, the participation to the
study was purely voluntary, therefore the sample was biased, and it involved
exposure to a mixed repertoire of materials (including comics but also illustrated
texts, newspaper articles and posters). Although it is difﬁcult to draw any ﬁrm
conclusions from such studies, it is interesting to note that comics were rated as the
most effective material by 46% of participants (followed by illustrated texts 21.5%).
Another empirical study was conduced by Lin and colleagues on 194 participants
in the Taiwan region (age from 20 to 65 years old, 45% female), which investigated
the effects of a comic book on knowledge and attitudes toward nanotechnologies
[Lin et al., 2015]. The study found that comics were not signiﬁcantly more effective
than text at improving understanding and attitude (although they were just as
effective as text) but “more comic readers (83%) were interested in using their
assigned media to learn more about nanotechnology than the text readers (71%)”.
Once again, the study seems to conﬁrm the potential of comics for promoting
public engagement with science. However, it is important to note that the comic
used was 109-pages long, while the text booklet was only 10-pages, and the
information contained was reported to be similar but not identical. In fact, the
authors explicitly state that the comic was designed with the goal to
“contextualize” the scientiﬁc information with real-life scenarios, and they
speculate that the effect of the comic may be linked to emotional factors such as
interest and enjoyment, which have been previously highlighted as key factors in
science learning [Falk, Storksdieck and Dierking, 2007; Lin, Hong and Huang,
2012]. Therefore, while these pioneering studies provide encouraging results, more
rigorous experimental designs are required to establish the true effects of
Another important aspect that most of these studies failed to address is the extreme
variability of styles and formats within comics. As previously mentioned, the term
‘comics’ has been used as an umbrella term to refer to a wide range of different
formats, spanning from newspaper strips to long-form graphic novels. The advent
of web comics, which incorporate motion, sound and interactive elements,
complicates the matter even further, blurring the boundaries with animations and
videogames [McCloud, 2000]. Given this heterogeneity it would be a mistake to
draw general conclusions from the existing studies. In fact, most of the initial
research in educational comics focused on short strips or single panel cartoons
[Toledo, Yangco and Espinosa, 2014; Kaptan and ˙
Izgi, 2014; Kim et al., 2016;
Nagata, 1999; Naylor and Keogh, 1999] and their results may be ascribed to the
general effects of visualisation, rather than comics per se. On the other end of the
spectrum, the results of studies comparing graphic novels with textbooks or essays
[Spiegel et al., 2013; Hosler and Boomer, 2011; Lin et al., 2015; Short,
Randolph-Seng and McKenny, 2013] could be attributed to the narrative
component of the graphic novel, compared to the expository structure of the
textbook. Indeed, Hosler and Boomer express this concern when discussing their
results: “Would embedding content in a prose story be as effective or is there
something inherently motivating about comics that engage students?” [Hosler and
Boomer, 2011]. In this regard, science comics may have more in common with other
forms of visual narratives, such as animations and videogames, than single panel
https://doi.org/10.22323/2.17010401 JCOM 17(01)(2018)Y01 4
cartoons and comic strips (which even when concerning scientiﬁc subjects often
have the main goal of humour, rather than education or communication).
For all these reasons, instead of treating comics as a separate well-deﬁned genre, it
may be more productive for future studies to ask what strategies do comics and
other visual narrative have in common? How can we use these tools more
effectively in the ﬁeld of science communication? Following this approach, the
study of science comics could beneﬁt from research in the ﬁeld of education,
cognitive psychology, information design and literary studies, which already
explored some of the fundamental elements of visual narratives.
Table 1. Empirical studies on science comics and relevant details.
Illustrations have always played an important role in scientiﬁc writing and
communication. Over the centuries, early decorative illustrations evolved into
highly formalized diagrams and data visualizations. These ‘visual explanations’
[Tufte, 1997] evolved an elaborate vocabulary of marks and symbols [Tversky,
2011] which reﬂect basic cognitive principles, such as space and events
segmentation [Zacks, Tversky and Iyer, 2001]. Indeed, carefully designed scientiﬁc
visualizations have been shown to improve both knowledge acquisition and
problem solving skills [Carney and Levin, 2002; Kools et al., 2006; Levie and Lentz,
1982; Mayer and Gallini, 1990; Pastore, 2009]. However, when it comes to science
communication, these visuals may not be particularly useful, as they often require
high degrees of expertise in order to decipher the information contained. Visual
narratives, such as comics, may offer a way to bridge this gap. Just like diagrams,
info-graphics, and other forms of science visualizations, comics use words and
pictures to convey information, however they also divide the information into
panels [McCloud, 1994] which can facilitate the reading experience and highlight
important information, such as parts and processes [Mayer and Gallini, 1990].
Furthermore, comics not only break down the information into more digestible
units but can also reassemble them into meaningful compositions, through the
process that Thierry Groensteen deﬁned as ‘braiding (tressage)’ [Groensteen, 2007].
Indeed, the content of each panel acquires its meaning not only from its text and
visual content but also from the trans-linear relationships with the surrounding
panels and the overall page composition. Therefore, just like diagrams, comics can
be used to “combine assorted images of real objects into concocted universes,
showing all at once what has never been together” [Tufte, 1997]. As summarized
by comic scholar and educator Nick Sousanis: “the spatial interplay of sequential
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and simultaneous, imbues comics with a dual nature — both tree-like, hierarchical
and rhizomatic, interwoven in a single form” [Sousanis, 2015]. In other words,
comics can be read linearly, panel by panel, but also lend themselves to non-linear
explanations, encouraging the reader to constantly reassess earlier panels in the
light of new information. Similarly, science often requires readers to make
connections between multiple scales and domains of knowledge, not necessarily
arranged in a hierarchical, linear order. In conclusion, while comics are often
perceived as an easy and playful format, they may be exquisitely suited at
presenting complex information in a rigorous yet accessible way. In this regard, it
would be interesting to explore the application of comics patterns to data
visualizations and other types of scientiﬁc visualization [Bach et al., 2016; Bach
et al., 2017].
However, besides the design of the individual panel or page, comics are often
deﬁned by the sequential relationship between panels, so much that after long
deliberations Scott McCloud embraced Eisner’s deﬁnition of ‘sequential art’ for the
medium [Eisner, 1996; McCloud, 1994]. The storytelling component is what mostly
distinguishes comics from other forms of science visualization, and their use
should be informed by the extensive research in narrative communication.
Narratives and characters
Storytelling is a universal form of communication which has been studied from
several different perspectives [Chatman, 1980; Fisher, 1985; Gerrig, 1999; Oatley,
1999; Toolan, 1988]. Beyond the ﬁeld of literary studies, in cognitive psychology
narratives have been considered as a fundamental structure of knowledge [Bruner,
1986; Schank and Abelson, 1977], a model for memory acquisition [Zacks et al.,
2007], a simulation of social experience [Mar and Oatley, 2008] and a powerful tool
of persuasion [Green and Brock, 2000]. In contrast to traditional persuasion models,
which require active cognitive elaboration [Petty and Cacioppo, 1986], narrative
communication seems to rely on emotional mechanisms such as ‘transportation’
into ﬁctional worlds [Gerrig, 1999; Green, 2004] and identiﬁcation with characters
[Slater, 1997]. Therefore, narratives have been proposed as a useful tool to address
sensitive subjects, which may otherwise resist cognitive elaboration because of
conﬂicting beliefs and/or lack of interest amongst the audience [Avraamidou and
Osborne, 2009; Mazzocco et al., 2010; Slater and Rouner, 2002]. Moreover, because
their cause-effect structure, narratives are intrinsically easier to remember than
expository arguments [Dahlstrom, 2014; Graesser, Olde and Klettke, 2002] and the
changes of beliefs induced by narratives appear to increase over time, the so-called
‘sleeper effect’ [Appel and Richter, 2007]. Finally, several studies show that these
effects are resistant to various forms of manipulation [Appel and Richter, 2007;
Green, 2004; Green and Brock, 2000]: unless the persuasive intent of a narrative is
made explicit [Moyer-Gusé, 2008] or the message is subjected to an active scrutiny
[Marsh, Meade and Roediger, 2003], narratives seem to be largely assimilated as
‘facts’ even when explicitly labelled as ‘ﬁction’ [Gerrig and Prentice, 1991; Gilbert,
1991; Green and Brock, 2000; Marsh, Meade and Roediger, 2003], and the message
they carry can have long-lasting effects on the beliefs and behaviours of the reader.
Despite this mounting evidence, narratives are still rarely employed in scientiﬁc
communication, which usually prefers to adopt an impersonal
https://doi.org/10.22323/2.17010401 JCOM 17(01)(2018)Y01 6
expository/argumentative structure [Bruner, 1986; Norris et al., 2005; Wellington
and Osborne, 2001]. This is due to social traditions [Ziman, 2002] as well as ethical
considerations, since the persuasive power of narratives can also lead to the spread
of misinformation, with potentially harmful consequences [Dahlstrom and Ho,
2012]. Nonetheless, narrative explanations may be extremely valuable when it
comes to communicating science to the general public [Negrete and Lartigue, 2004].
For example, when discussing issues of science policy or health communication,
where personal and cultural values often prevent other forms of engagement
[Dahlstrom, 2014]. Narratives may offer a way to overcome these barriers, by
engaging readers on both a cognitive and affective level [Green and Brock, 2000;
Hinyard and Kreuter, 2007]. Empirical research in this ﬁeld remains scarce and the
effects of narratives on health-related decision appear inconsistent [Winterbottom
et al., 2008], but these discrepancies may be partially accounted by the variability in
the format and the structure of narratives [Dahlstrom, 2015; Nan et al., 2015].
Once again, comics may be able to build upon this evidence, combining the effects
of text narratives with those of scientiﬁc visualization. In this context it is important
to distinguish between science comics that still rely heavily on the
expository/argumentative structure of traditional scientiﬁc texts [Cunningham,
2013; Gonick, 1991; Hosler, 2011; Wicks, 2016], and others which include more
dynamic, character-driven narratives [Farinella and Roš, 2013; Hosler, 2000;
Weitkamp and Burnet, 2007]. In light of existing research, it would be interesting
for future studies to compare these different approaches and investigate how the
beneﬁts of narrative communication may extend to visual narratives. In particular,
given the central role that characters play in literary narratives, the potential of
comics to create relatable characters should be carefully considered. In
Understanding Comics McCloud highlights how some of the most popular comic
characters are extremely simpliﬁed (i.e. ‘cartoony’) and to some extremes
anthropomorphic animals or objects [McCloud, 1994]. McCloud argues that one of
the reasons behind the popularity of these characters is that they exploit our innate
pareidolia and allow a broader audience to identify with their stories, possibly
increasing narrative transportation [Green and Brock, 2000], regardless of gender,
age or ethnicity. This theory remains yet untested, but if conﬁrmed could have
important implications for the way we choose to visualize scientiﬁc information.
The use of cartoon characters may enable readers to engage with subjects which are
otherwise perceived as too abstract and detached from everyday life. This
approach seems particularly promising in the light of ﬁndings [Hosler and Boomer,
2011; Spiegel et al., 2013] which suggested that comics are more effective at
engaging readers that do not perceive themselves as having a ‘science identity’.
Fictional characters who do not conform with the current stereotype of scientists
portrayed in ﬁlms and other mediums [Kirby, 2011] may allow comics to reach
broader and more diverse audiences, who do not necessarily engage with other
forms of science communication.
One ﬁnal aspect, common to many visual narratives, is the frequent use of
metaphors. Far from being a mere literary device, metaphors have been recognized
as an important cognitive tool, that allows us understand and interact with the
world around us [Lakoff and Johnson, 1980; Gentner, 1983; Giora, 1999; Bowdle
https://doi.org/10.22323/2.17010401 JCOM 17(01)(2018)Y01 7
and Gentner, 2005]. As such, metaphors have been shown to be central in guiding
scientiﬁc research [Brown, 2003; Hoffman, 1980; Leatherdale, 1974] and shaping the
way scientists think and manipulate their object of study [Keller, 2009; Gentner and
Grudin, 1985]. Metaphorical thinking can also play an important role in scientiﬁc
education and communication [Collins and Gentner, 1983; Gentner and Gentner,
1982], providing mental models for invisible entities (e.g. the ﬂow of electricity as
the ﬂow of water). Therefore, when writing about science for a general audience,
metaphors can be useful to establish a common ground and allow readers to use
their own domains of knowledge to approach new abstract concepts. However, the
improper use of metaphors can also have counterproductive effects on our
attitudes and behaviours toward science. For example, in health communication
the choice of metaphors can have repercussions on the way we think of diseases
[Sontag, 2001] and engage with preventive behaviour [Hauser and Schwarz, 2014].
Similarly, metaphoric framing has been shown to affect attitudes toward climate
change [Flusberg, Matlock and Thibodeau, 2017].
This line of research could be particularly fruitful for comics, which have been
described as an intrinsically metaphoric medium [Wolk, 2007]. Because everything
is ﬁltered through the eyes of the artist, comics and animations constantly require
the reader to actively interpret their content. Even in more ‘realistic’ comics
nothing is meant literally. Starting with the balloon, which has to be interpreted as
speech, everything in a comic is essentially a metaphor or a symbol for real world
entities [McCloud, 1994; Sousanis, 2015]. For this reason, comics and other visual
narratives are able to seamlessly blend metaphors and explanations, without
interrupting the ﬂow of narration, which risks to disrupt transportation [Green and
Brock, 2000]. Therefore, one of the main beneﬁts of comics in science
communication could be the mapping of abstract scientiﬁc concepts on to everyday
objects and experiences, helping the public to engage with the material at a more
personal level. At the same time, it is also important to consider the potential
downsides of metaphoric framing [Hauser and Schwarz, 2014] and the risk of
metaphors overextension [Baake, 2003; Leydesdorff and Hellsten, 2005].
Conclusions The research reviewed here strongly suggests that comics have great potential for
engaging wide and diverse audiences with STEM subjects. However, carefully
designed empirical studies are required to understand the full effects of comics on
learning, engagement and attitude toward science. Until now the creation and
study of science comics has been driven by the intuition of few individual
scientists, artists and educators (see Collver and Weitkamp, in this same issue),
who often also use the material in their own practice. These pioneering efforts are
commendable but their quality is extremely variable and the analysis of the results
may lack objectivity. Moreover, existing studies have focused excessively on
stereotypical perceptions of comics, such as their ‘humorous’ nature and their
appeal to children (partly because many studies were conducted in the classroom).
While interesting, this approach ignores the rich and diverse tradition of comics of
the past 30 years, which have adopted a wide variety of registers and styles and
successfully engaged audiences of all ages. Therefore, one of the main appeals of
science comics is the potential to engage audiences who are currently underserved
by other channels of science communication. With these considerations in mind,
instead of treating comics as a uniﬁed genre, future research should aim to distil
https://doi.org/10.22323/2.17010401 JCOM 17(01)(2018)Y01 8
the fundamental components of visual narratives, and explore how each of them
can beneﬁt the communication of science. Three lines of investigation seem
Visual research. The comic page offers almost endless design possibilities, and
many authors have praised the ability of comics to organise information in
innovative ways [McCloud, 2000; Sousanis, 2015]. At the same time, a rich
tradition of visual design already exists in the ﬁeld of scientiﬁc visualization
and illustration [Tufte, 1997; Tversky, 2014]. In order to facilitate the adoption
of comics as a tool for science visualization, it is important to draw
connections between these two ﬁelds. How can comics incorporate and
elaborate the marks and symbols of scientiﬁc visualizations? Which strategies
are unique to comics and how can they be beneﬁt the communication of
Narrative research. Few of the existing studies explicitly address the role of
storytelling in science comics, which has been often highlighted as a deﬁning
feature of the medium [McCloud, 1994; Wolk, 2007]. Given that narratives are
also powerful tools of engagement and persuasion [Green and Brock, 2000]
future studies on educational comics should compare the effects of comic
books and graphic novels with equivalent text narratives, and explore the
differences between visual narratives and visual explanations. On a related
note, it is important to consider the role of ﬁctional characters and the use of
anthropomorphism in comics, which may facilitate readers engagement with
scientiﬁc subjects but also potentially promote a false sense of understanding
[Epley, Waytz and Cacioppo, 2007].
Metaphoric research. Comics make extensive use of symbols and metaphors
[Wolk, 2007] especially in character design [McCloud, 1994]. At the same
time, metaphors also play a major role in scientiﬁc research and
communication [Brown, 2003], especially when dealing with abstract
concepts outside of our sensory experience [Lakoff and Johnson, 1980].
Despite the potential downsides, such as distortion, simpliﬁcation and
overextension, the role of visual metaphors in making abstract scientiﬁc
concepts more relatable to the wider public deserves further consideration
[Baake, 2003]. What are the advantages/disadvantages of visual metaphors
in science comics? What constitutes a ‘useful’ visual metaphor in science
Finally, it would be interesting to compare different types of visual narratives. In
particular, comics and animations are often associated in popular culture but they
probably rely on different cognitive mechanisms. Animations are a passive
medium, in which the ﬂow of information is not controlled by the receiver and this
may be a disadvantage from an educational perspective [Tversky, Morrison and
Betrancourt, 2002; Yang, 2008]. Only a recent study directly compared comics and
animation as medical informational aids, ﬁnding that animated videos (or
slideshows with voice-over narration) are more effective than comics in explaining
medical practices, although both were more effective than text alone [Kraft et al.,
2016]. More studies of this kind will be required in order to determine which visual
strategies are more effective, on which topics and for which audiences. Integrating
https://doi.org/10.22323/2.17010401 JCOM 17(01)(2018)Y01 9
this kind of empirical evidence with the insights of visual communicators,
educators and cognitive scientists will facilitate the creation and adoption of comics
for science communication, allowing the emerging ﬁeld of ‘graphic science’ to
reach its full potential.
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Author Matteo Farinella is a neuroscientist, cartoonist and illustrator. After completing a
Ph.D. in neuroscience at University College London in 2013, Matteo has been
creating comics and illustrations to make science accessible to a wider audience. He
is the author of Neurocomic (Nobrow, 2013) a scientiﬁc graphic novel published
with the support of the Wellcome Trust, and he has collaborated with universities
and educational institutions to visualize academic research. As a Presidential
Scholar in Society and Neuroscience, Matteo will investigate the role of ‘visual
narratives’ in science communication. Working with science journalists, educators
and cognitive neuroscientists, his project aims to understand how these tools may
affect the public perception of science and increase scientiﬁc literacy.
Farinella, M. (2018). ‘The potential of comics in science communication’.How to cite
JCOM 17 (01), Y01. https://doi.org/10.22323/2.17010401.
The Author(s). This article is licensed under the terms of the Creative Commons
Attribution — NonCommercial — NoDerivativeWorks 4.0 License.
ISSN 1824-2049. Published by SISSA Medialab. jcom.sissa.it
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