Last weekend (Sunday 27th November) I gave a talk at the Edinburgh Comic Art Festival 2016 on what it’s like to turn research into a comic book. We made a (low tech) recording of the talk (watch it here via MediaHopper, or embedded below/on YouTube, see also the prezi here) but I also wanted to write about this project as I wanted to share and reflect on the process of creating a comic book to communicate research.
So, how did our comic, “Crowd Power: the COBWEB Guide to Citizen Science” come to happen in the first place?
As some of you will be aware, over the last four years I have been working on an ambitious EU-FP7-funded citizen science project called COBWEB: Citizen Observatory Web. We have, of course, been communicating our work throughout the project (in fact you can read our communications plan here) but as all the final deliverables and achievements have been falling into place over the last few months, we wanted to find some new ways to share what we have done, what we have accomplished, and what the next steps will look like.
Whilst we are bringing COBWEB to a close, we are also now taking our resultant citizen science software, Fieldtrip Open, through an open source process and building new projects and sustainability plans (which also means considering suitable business models) around that. Open sourcing software isn’t just about making the software available, or giving it the right license, it is also about ensuring it has a real prospect of adoption and maintenance by a community, which means we are particularly keen to support and develop the community around FieldTrip Open. And we want to bring new people in as users and contributors to the software. So, for both dissemination and open sourcing projects we really need to inspire people to find out more about the approaches we’ve taken, the software we’ve built, and to explain where it all came from. But how could we best do that?
During the project we had developed a lot of good resources and assets, with a lot of formal reporting and public deliverables already available, and accompanying engagement with wider audiences (particularly co-design process participants) through social media and regular project newsletters. Those materials are great but we wanted something concise, focused, and tangible, and we also wanted something more immediately engaging than formal reports and technical papers. So, this summer we did some thinking and plotting… My colleague Tom Armitage joined COBWEB partners in the Netherlands to revisit our geospatial software open sourcing options with the OSGeo community; Tom and I met with the fantastic folk from the Software Sustainability Institute for some advice on going (properly and sustainably) Open Source and building the software community; and my colleague Pete O’Hare looked at the videos, demos, and footage archive we’d accumulated and suggested we make a documentary on the project. After all of that we not only had some solid ideas, but we’d also really started to think about storytelling and doing something more creative for our current target audiences.
Across all of our conversations what became clear was that real need to inspire and engage people. The project is complicated but when have shared our own enthusiasm about the work and its potential, people really take an interest and that open us longer and (sometimes) more technical or practical conversations. But we can’t get everywhere in person so we needed some cost effective ways to do that excitement-building: to explain the project quickly, clearly and entertainingly, as a starting point to trigger follow up enquiries and those crucial next step conversations. So, In August we did follow up on Pete’s suggestion, commissioning a documentary short (that’s a whole other story but click on that link to view the finished film, and huge thanks to our wonderful filmmaker Erin Maguire) to give an overview of the COBWEB project, but we also decided we’d try something we had never done before. We were going to try making a comic…
Why a comic?
Well, first lets talk terminology… And I should note that if this blog post were a graphic novel, this would be a little side note or separate frame, or me explaining a pro tip to the reader – so imagine that as our format!:
Is it a comic, or is it a graphic novel? I think a lot of people will think about “comics” as being The Dandy, The Beano, Manga titles, or one of the long running mass market series’ like The Avengers or Archie. Or maybe you’d think of a comic strip like Peanuts or Calvin & Hobbes. Similarly “graphic novel” seems to be tied to the idea of long form books which look more like literary fiction/non-fiction, with well regarded titles like Fun Home or Kiki de Montparnasse or Persepolis. The difference is hard to explain partly because when you make that sort of distinction, clearly there are a lot of boundary cases… Is it about audience (e.g. teens vs adults), or aesthetic, or page format or critical response or some other criteria? Calvin & Hobbes deals wittily with matters of philosophy, but is widely read by children who engage with its (deceptive) simplicity, charming aesthetic and warm tone and deceptively simple story telling. By contrast, the new The Story of Sex: From Apes to Robots has a lively and pretty course – even for the subject matter – aesthetic (it’s authors are French and I would put the drawing mid-way along the Asterix–Charlie Hebdo tastefulness continuum) and it is aimed at a wide audience, but it is co-written by an academic, has been well received by critics, and you’ll find it shelved in the graphic novel section. Comparing these works on any kinds of comic vs. graphic novel grounds won’t tell you anything very useful about style or quality, although it might reveal the personal preference of the reader or reviewer you are talking to…
So, Before I began this project I was pretty sure that what I read are graphic novels – yes, snobbery – but, when you actually talk to people who make these wonderful things, the term – especially for shorter works – is “comics” and that’s accepted as covering the whole continuum, with all the styles, genres, print formats, etc. that you might expect (yes, even graphic novels) included. So, taking my lead from those that write and draw them, I will be using “comic” here – and next time you are discussing, say, female self-realisation in Wonder Woman and the Nao of Brown, you can go ahead and call both of them comics too!
Right, back to the topic at hand…
One of the reasons that a COBWEB comic seemed like it might be a good idea is that I really enjoy reading comics, and I particularly love non-fiction comics as a form because they can be so powerful and immediate, bringing complex ideas to life in unexpected ways, but which also leaves you the space to think and reflect. Comics are primarily a visual form and that enables you to explain specialist technologies or sophisticated concepts, or take people on flights of fancy offering creative metaphors that allow you to explain but also re-explain and re-interpret an idea lightly and engagingly. Your audience still need to think and imagine but in a great comic the combination of text and visuals brings something special to the experience. Comics can be more playful, colourful and bright than a formal report, and also much less constrained by physical reality, budget and location than a video or an event. And whether in digital or print form comics feel really pleasingly tangible and polished; they are designed, story-boarded, they feel like a special and finished product. From the non-fiction comics I’d read I could see that comics would work well for talking about technology and research, so they could be a good fit for our project if we could be confident that our target audience and our type of research would be a good fit for the possibilities and restrictions of the form.
For the COBWEB project we wanted to reach out to researchers, developers, and future project partners which are likely to include software and digital companies, NGOs, SMEs, as well as non-professional researchers (community groups etc), and others interested in working with – and hopefully interested (in some cases) in contributing to our codebase – for our open source software. This is defined set of audiences but each audience (and individual) holds highly varied interests and expertise: COBWEB is a complex project, with lots of different components, which means our audiences might be new to all of the concepts we are presenting or they may, say, know a great deal about coding but not environmental projects, or all about the environment but not about using mobile technologies… But we do know these audiences – we already work with developers and researchers, we’ve been working with potential users and contributors throughout the project so we have some idea of interests, aesthetics, etc. We felt pretty confident that many of those we want to reach do read and engage with comics of various types, from web comics like xkcd to beautifully published books like The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage. That overlap and interest helped us feel confident that a comic would be a good fit for our audience, and a really great fit for telling our story.
Finding a comic artist to work with
We now had the bare bones of the idea, and we had a solid idea of our target audience. But we weren’t totally sure about which aspects of our story to draw out, what parts of the COBWEB story we wanted to tell, although we knew it had to inspire, entertain, and be accessible. We also really didn’t know what we wanted our comic to look like. As I started to think about possible collaborators (we knew we needed others to work with/commission) I remembered that very many years ago I’d seen a flyer – in the form of a comic book – for Glasgow Comic Con in a hotel. I did some searching around and found BHP (Black Hearted Press) Comics, an independent comics publisher based in Glasgow that creates their own comic books, but had also recently completed a project with the University of Glasgow’s Hunterian Art Gallery and Museum. Looking around their site I also found The Mighty Women of Science, another book where the subject and aesthetic suggested a good fit with COBWEB (and it was. Spoiler: Mighty Women author Clare Forrest illustrated Chapter 2 of our book). I had no idea what to expect in response but there wasn’t a way to find out if this idea was viable without getting some advice, so I fired off a quick email to BHP Comics…
I had a really swift reply from Sha Nazir from BHP. Sha was interested to talk more about the idea so we set up a meeting and, ahead of that, I trawled through my favourite comics to find some examples of the kind of idea I had in mind. On the day I brought in a few books that I thought did this sort of storytelling well, including: The Influencing Machine, Brooke Gladstone and Josh Neufeld’s overview of the (US) media ecology and culture; The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage – a fictionalised steam punk re-telling of the lives of Charles Babbage and Ada Lovelace, with great technology descriptions and lots of (factual and referenced) footnotes; Filmish – the book of Edward Ross’ critiques and explorations of cinema and film making (in the mould of Scott McCloud’s classic Understanding Comics). I also brought in a copy of Taylor & Francis’ Cartoon Abstracts – scientific papers which have been turned into 1 page cartoons – which is one of the very few examples I have seen of scientific and technological research being adapted into comics.
That initial conversation with Sha was a long and honest chat about the kind of idea we had in mind. Sha had brought his own selection of books – copies of The Mighty Women of Science, Comic Invention, an issue of Rok of the Reds, and Plagued: The Miranda Chronicles – to give me a sense of what BHP work on, the kind of writers and illustrators they work with, the sorts of formats, sizes and print styles we might want to consider. We talked about timelines: ours were really tight. Sha and I met in August and we needed to have a digital copy available and all work invoiced by the end of October (the print copy could follow). The comics could then be used to extend our dissemination and sustainability work, helping us share what we’d accomplished and support keeping that work and code a going concern. That timeline we requested was ridiculous and I am eternally grateful that Sha even considered taking it on (he was optimistic in our meeting but very wisely went away to think about it before we finalised anything). However, to make that timeline work he was clear from the outset that someone (me) would need to be available to check in regularly, to feed into and look over the script, the storyboards, the draft versions – Sha and his colleagues at BHP would take on the work but we also really had to commit to it to. I was up for that although I had a three and a half week holiday to the US scheduled for September so, with the caveat that we’d have to work around time zones, it all looked doable and we started scheduling some check ins.
So, what else did we need to discuss to get this started? Well, I needed to actually describe and give some background to COBWEB. I told Sha about the project in our meeting – and followed up by sending him some of the key project technical documents and reports that summarised our work. Sha was entirely new to the project – like many of those we want the comic to reach – so asked lots of really useful questions that really did highlight the complexity of describing COBWEB. To give you a sense of that: COBWEB has been a 4-year, €8.5 million project with 13 partners in 5 countries; we’ve had 9 workpackages and many more deliverables, we’ve worked with over 1000 volunteers and 7 co-design projects as we developed our software – for which there are 6 separate GitHub libraries. There is a lot there. And there are important unique aspects to the work: the compliance with EU and international standards, including INSPIRE compliant metadata; our focus on UNESCO Biosphere areas; the access management controls in our software; the involvement of policy makers as project partners; the contribution to empowering of citizens in Europe. At the same time our comic didn’t need to be encyclopedia, it just needed to have enough focus on what was important to give a broad picture and to excite people!
On which note… We talked about the audience, who they were, and what messages they should take from the comic. We were very clear from the outset that we were using comics as an engaging medium, but that we expected our audience to have some fairly serious interest in the project, which meant that although nothing should be inappropriate for children, our target audiences were adults and mainly quite technically literate adults. We wanted to explain the work of the project and assumed not prior knowledge of COBWEB, but some (useful) complexity and detail was going to ok where it felt appropriate. And we felt we could assume that readers of the comic may follow up by reading one of the more traditional publications if they then had a specific technical or policy interest to follow up.
At that initial meeting we also talked a bit about artists and art work. With our (crazy) timeline Sha recommended we break the the comic into a small number of chapters and that, once a script was written, these would be illustrated by different artists meaning that we’d get a really lovely variance of styles across the comic (something you’ll see in a growing number of comics, including Kiki de Montparnasse where drawing styles change when “Kiki” works with different artists). Using several different artists was also practical, as it meant that those chapters could be illustrated in parallel by different people – shortening those restrictive publication times.
We also talked about formats. The weekly comic book style of Rok of the Reds was going to be cheap to print and it would be easy to hand out – it could almost fit in a pocket – but it didn’t look quite as polished as we wanted. But The Mighty Women of Science had a great format – substantial and beautifully finished thick/card cover and binding, with matt finish pages, in A4 format (useful since all of our display stands, envelopes, etc. are designed for A4 reports/promotional items). It looked like a book, a thin but high quality finish book and, better yet, it was a budget-friendly format for a small print run.
And, as the ideas took shape, Sha and I discussed cost, and an initial estimate of the work to do the digital comic, plus a price for a print run of 1000 A4 copies. A quick sketch of costs came out of that meeting, which allowed me to talk to my COBWEB colleagues and to check that our budget could accommodate the project. I don’t think it is appropriate to share that price here but it was very reasonable for this much work and, particularly given the timelines we were working with, was enormously good value. Why tell you this? Well, if you are thinking of doing your own comic then I highly recommend talking to some comic artists or publishers before you (potentially) rule it out over costs, since (for us at least) those costs were very fair but were also dependent on things like number of pages and chapters, print formats, etc. so were also (somewhat) within our control.
So, we now had some solid ideas and a plan. We exchanged emails to work out the details, check costs (and check budgets), and get both informal and informal agreements to proceed (which we did quickly because, again, timelines were really tight). A standard contract was prepared and work began immediately at BHP, with me sending over information, background documents and diagrams etc. so that Sha and his colleague Kirsty Hunter could begin to get a script worked out – and could ask any questions as they arose. And, at this point I am going to embed my Prezi from my ECAF16 talk, which covers the production process stage by stage:
Throughout September Sha and Kirsty worked on the script, sending me drafts to comment on, tweak, correct, etc. We arranged several calls from a range of unusually exotic locations – a check in from Seattle, from Davis (California), and then – as I headed off to AoIR – from Berlin. We agreed focal areas early on, with the script starting as a skeleton in four sections:
- An introduction to COBWEB and the core concept of citizen science – ensuring all readers share some background knowledge but also making the comic a useful resource to those curious about crowd sourcing and citizen science in general.
- Highlights from the co-design work including several real world examples of people and projects who have shaped and been part of the COBWEB community. Much of this came from our co-design project reports, highlighting real challenges and feedback (good and bad) from our volunteer community.
- Our “under the bonnet” chapter, on the more chewy technical aspects of the project and including a very cleverly conceived double page spread on quality assurance processes.
- What happens next with COBWEB and our software now that the project is over and the open sourcing takes shape, but also where technology is going and how citizen science may fit in to e.g. smart cities.
Those sections were broken into pages and the script rapidly took shape. As the sections and pages were agreed, text for each page was drafted and tweaked. And storyboarding began in earnest…
By mid September I had started to receive initial visual ideas and sketches (a delightful treat in a Monday morning inbox!), and, in parallel, the wording and detail of the script was getting finalised. By the end of the month the script and initial drawings were ready enough to share with COBWEB colleagues for their checking and feedback – they did a brilliant job helping me ensure we were using the right types of terminology, not missing anything important, and also catching the less exciting but very important spelling issues, corrections etc. (having many eyes to check a script at several stages was very useful indeed and definitely recommended).
Once the wording was (pretty much) finalised and the storyboards ready, the comic went into the illustration process – seeing those storyboards turn from sketches to fully fledged characters (including a few fun references/”Easter eggs”), then those characters started to gain colour, backgrounds. Drafts were shared and commented on, and finally the final started to take shape. This part of the process followed a different sort of process: it required less input from me at first – a few checks of the pages and visuals – as the work went out to different illustrators for completion. However, once lettering was done there were a few crucial tasks to do: checking all of the text for content, spelling, etc. (which is surprisingly tricky when you’ve been seeing drafts for weeks, you have to adopt a whole different proof-reading level of engagement); building a glossary page for some of the technical terminology (in retrospect this is something I should have done right after that first meeting when the unknown words and acronyms were most obvious); and, because somehow we just hadn’t gotten to it yet, we actually had to think of a title…
What the heck do we call this thing?
In late October, several weeks after beginning work on the comic, we still didn’t have a title. Sha asked me to think about some ideas, and I sketched a few out but also started asking colleagues… We played with variants on the key aspects of citizen science, crowd sourcing, empowerment, etc… We wanted to get COBWEB mentioned, to give a sense of the content, but also to have a title that had a more catchy ring to it. After lots of chats and several lists of possibilities pitching back and forth, “Crowd Power: the COBWEB Guide to Citizen Science” emerged as a winner.
We then had to think about covers. Sha sent through several ideas but one of the most appealing – bringing together an image of a protest march with an image inspired by the Shepard Fairey “Hope” poster for Barack Obama – started to look less than ideal in a post-Brexit context, and with Trump newly elected president. Protests as a shorthand for people power are great, but at a time of genuine political complexity, polarisation, and a high likelihood of real protest movements, we decided that this was an image for the book and promotion, but not for the cover. Some other ideas looked good, but didn’t seem to bring forward the idea of real people, and environmental research as successfully. In the end we settled on an image that is, essentially, a cut scene from the comic, featuring a group of friends using COBWEB out in the wilds, as seen by our (nameless but brilliant) narrator:
One of the things I was asked early in the process had been “do you want the narrator or main characters to be human? Or can they be animals? Or giant floaty heads?”… I said that anything was fine, as long as it made sense – so a duck or a seal or some sort of animal that would appear in our actual co-design projects were fine, but not a penguin or dragon (or anything that wouldn’t make sense in that context). One of the things I loved about Sha, Kirsty and Clare’s illustrations was that they responded to that flexibility by building in diversity, quirkiness, and little in-jokes (indeed there are several “Easter eggs” in Crowd Power).You’ll notice from the cover that our narrator (throughout) is female. Sha and I had talked about women being well represented in the comic but I was also delighted, when the more finished version of the illustrations came through, to see a range of racial and ethnic diversity quietly represented in our book. The project was diverse in many ways, and we also want to be entirely welcoming to anyone who would like to be part of the COBWEB and FieldTrip Open community. The range of people in the comic subtly reflects that desire to include and engage and is, I think, one of the reasons that comics can be so powerful for messaging values, beliefs, and intentions as part of and alongside the core narrative.
With the title and cover art completed, and a further final proof read. Make that two. Make that three… And a few very last minute corrections… the COBWEB comic went off to the printers and the digital copy immediately went live on the COBWEB project website. Now, to get the comic out to our audience…
Finding our audience
As soon as the digital copy of the Comic went live we tweeted and shared it with project partners and those interested in the project.
The feedback within the project team was excellent, with some of the team keen to use pages from the comic in their own presentations as an introduction or overview of their work. For the team I think the comic – and the documentary that went live shortly afterwards – provided some sense of stepping back and reflecting on what had been done. At the end of a four year project it can be much easier to know what wasn’t completed, or didn’t go to plan, or didn’t develop as you’d expect. Looking over the story of the project, what had been achieved, how much work had taken place is very rewarding and reminds you of all the excitement and accomplishments of that project.
Feedback from our wider contacts and social media communities was excited and interested. We have shared the comic openly on the website and explicitly state that it can be downloaded, circulated, kept, used elsewhere… We are keen that it is seen and read and used by whoever wants to do that. If I have one regret it is that in all of our conversations we didn’t agree to make the book available under a Creative Commons license – more by omission than because of any particular issue with doing that. Sha has been great about us using images of work in progress – you’ll see a series of sketches, etc. in that Prezi – and shares our keenness that the book is seen and accessible. We commissioned it to be free to access – whether download or print – but it would have been wise to agree licensing terms more directly to avoid any possible doubts.
Then, the week of the Edinburgh Comic Art Festival 13 boxes of comics appeared at the EDINA offices in Argyle House and they looked absolutely glorious! The print copies triggered a ripple of excitement through the office and also generated lots of interest at ECAF – which seemed like a great place to see how our comic fared with a mixed but interested audience.
— Rachel E. Bartlett (@peachy_skies) November 27, 2016
As the year comes to a close we will be circulating copies to our COBWEB project partners but also that core target audience as we go out and about developing the FieldTrip Open community, sharing copies with developers, researchers, etc.
So, what do you think?
If you would like a (print or digital) copy, and/or would like to talk to us about how we can support your citizen science project, please do get in touch. I would also love to hear your feedback on the comic and any suggestions you may have about communities that may like to work with us in turning FieldTrip Open into a really vibrant open source project in the future. Do leave a comment here or email me.
Some important acknowledgements
Enormous thanks to Sha Nazir and Kirsty Hunter, who created the fantastic Crowd Power comic with Clare Forrest, Jack Lothian and Kirk Kristofferson. Sha and Kirsty explicitly gave me their permission to share images of works in progress for this post and my ECAF talk this weekend, which I hugely appreciated. It has been an absolute delight to work with all at BHP Comics and I would recommend contacting them if you are considering embarking upon/commissioning a similar piece of work.
— BHP Comics (@BHP_Comics) November 18, 2016
Some useful links are provided here so that you can quickly access our materials, the comic, or any of the COBWEB project website or code:
- Read our comic, Crowd Power: the COBWEB Guide to Citizen Science: https://cobwebproject.eu/news/promotional-materials
- Watch the video of my talk: Untangling a COBWEB – What’s it like to turn research into comics: https://media.ed.ac.uk/media/Untangling+a+COBWEB+-+What%27s+it+like+to+turn+research+into+comics/1_v0bbs7me
- Slides from the Untangling a COBWEB… talk: https://prezi.com/g1dssvbiltaq/ecaf-untangling-a-cobweb-whats-it-like-to-turn-research/
- Find out more about COBWEB: https://cobwebproject.eu/
- Watch our documentary on COBWEB: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gTMGOpcvNHs
- Access the Fieldtrip Open code: http://fieldtrip.edina.ac.uk/
Update: Video now available via YouTube