From Semiotics to Eating Insects: How Science Comics (Can) Work

Science Meets Comics. Proceedings of the Symposium on Communicating and Designing the Future of Food in the Anthropocene reviewed by Christina Maria Koch

A companion piece to the scientific comic Eating Anthropocene that grew out of a 2015 Berlin symposium explores two issues: First, how is science (best) communicated in comics, and (how) can comics be a method of research? Second, what is the future of food in the Anthropocene?

I can hardly imagine a collection whose title and subtitle differ so much in breadth and specificity as Science and Comics: Proceedings of the Symposium on Communicating and Designing the Future of Food in the Anthropocene. This is not a liability as long as readers know that they are, indeed, getting both. The book is split into two dissimilar sections – »comics meet science«, followed by »science meets comics«, reflecting the two days of a 2015 symposium at HU Berlin. The first section will appeal to a broad academic audience interested in theoretically informed approaches to what informational / factual / educational / science comics can do and how they work. I hope this publication venue justifies that I have chosen to portray the first of the equally strong sections in more depth. The second section, in which there is much science but no comics (yet), will be of interest primarily to the many STEM and social science fields linked to global environmentalist concerns and agriculture/food in particular. The book has a sleek layout, contains many excellently reproduced illustrations and excerpts of comics, and is carefully edited save for a few typos and errors. all All of this makes it a pleasure to read and behold.

Within themselves, the contributions of both sections work very well together. In fact, the first section offers such different takes on such similar questions that I would have enjoyed reading a response piece or sectional preface interweaving the different strands. The editors’ short introduction has the difficult task of presenting the research cluster Image Knowledge Gestaltung and its publication activities, as well as the symposium and its proceedings. Sadly, there is little room for more general thoughts on science and comics, especially on the academic politics of the appeal of such cross-disciplinary endeavors.
The opener is a piece by Nick Sousanis, a concise and enjoyable introduction to his theoretical contributions to visual thinking and the comics form.  He identifies how informational comics often work – talking heads rattling off a script and illustrative images in service of the text – and asks us to instead imagine »a different kind of thinking altogether, one necessarily immersed in the visual from the ground up« (15). This is »spatialized thinking« (15), enabling multiple perspectives visually and conceptually, and with aesthetics as diverse as possible. Sousanis extends this understanding of what comics can do from the didactic to knowledge production itself, and is adamant about not »dumbing the work down« but rather taking on the challenge »of making the concepts real, tangible, meaningful, and relatable« (19).

Stephan Packardʼs lucid essay, rich in theory and exemplary readings, picks up the question of the role of the image in »factual comics«. He convincingly argues that »the historical specificity of [comics’] aesthetics seems to introduce a non-binding but plausible drift of the art form, ultimately pulling away from reality and towards fiction« (21). Comics can be factual, but due to shared cultural conventions, this comes as a surprise (23) – a »parasitic imaginar[y]« (24) in the sense of Michel Serres that comic artists can employ to their benefit or ignore, in which case »the subversive potential of the comic can turn against a factual intent through unmanaged fictional drift« (29). Packard presents the cartoon figure, which suggests generalized iconicity and yet points at a singular reference, as an example for how subversive »third spaces« of signification (25) emerge. In the brevity of the essay, it is difficult for me to see how Serres' concept of the parasite as »interruption« adds to Packard's argument about interpretative »drift«. I would be interested to see if another term such as ›interference‹ could better grasp the productive potential of the historic ›noise‹ central to comics’ signification practices.

Lukas Plank extendsthe question of »comics and truth« from comics and media theory to journalism. In his normative intervention, it seems like he is not so much taking issue with comics journalism being »a fundamentally subjective form of expression« (31) but with the conscious fictionalizations being employed by artists for aesthetic reasons. Photography journalism and reporting also operate within highly codified frameworks of ›objectivity‹, but I agree with Plank in that they are not ›tainted‹ in the way comics are. Many of the rules he proposes make sense as translations of journalist ethics standards to comics, and he makes a good point about the exhaustiveness of drawn images that usually require much more selection choices than written journalism (setting, weather, clothing, angles etc.) (38). As for broader underlying questions about visual narration and factuality in comics, the neighboring contributions provide ample inspiration.

Jaqueline Berndt begins her essay saying that »the perception of comics is shaped as much by textual features and paratextual elements which may invite, for example, educational readings, as by readers’ experience within a specific mediascape which may defer narrow educational intentions« (43). She provides rich insight into manga cultures, highlighting how important genre conventions within manga are to educational readings. Ultimately, Berndt persuasively calls for an investigation into »comics as method«, a project that would transcend a simplistic view of comics »as a ›container‹, i.e. a medium without agency, expected to serve the higher purpose« (59).

Veronika Mischitzʼ short comic rounds off the section, reminding us of the power of storytelling »both within and outside the science world« (63) and giving us much food for thought: does the use of comics actually »trigger intuitive understanding« and always help prevent the reader to feel »patronized« (64) as Mischitz argues, or might comics’ cultural baggage have unintended effects? What are the premises behind readers illuminating or fishing for knowledge on the ocean floor beneath the waves of images and words in Mischitz’ beautifully constructed splash page (65)?

The second section takes us to the science of food in the Anthropocene. Toni Meier presents the concept of Planetary Boundaries, a term which indicates how much damage the Earth can take (my layperson’s understanding), and calculates agriculture- and food-related shares of impact for eight indicators. This yields a comics-unrelated diagram combining both affective powers of traffic lights and nuclear warning signs to tell us that we are, indeed, already on red alert. Arnold van Huis follows up with a very readable expert introduction into using insects as a not-so-new food source with a much smaller ecological footprint – equally difficult information to communicate to producers and consumers. Anne-Kathrin Kuhlemann offers a nuanced yet comprehensible account of agricultural technology used to sustainably maximize harvests and minimize space, specifically focusing on »aquaterraponics«, a cycle between fish and plant production that utilizes water and soil. Finally, Teresia K. Teaiwa interviews her sister Katerina Teaiwa about the making of her historical ethnographic study of colonialist exploitative phosphate mining on the small island of Banaba. The extracted phosphate played a key role in developing Australian and New Zealand agriculture, and is one example of how local histories are connected to current unsustainable global food chains.

Readers will have to look at »the scientific comic Eating Anthropocene« (111), published 2016 with Springer, to see the assembly of the proceeding’s two disparate parts in action. Somewhat confusingly but helpfully, its preface is included as the present collection’s epilogue. We learn that its artists used the symposium as a laboratory for imagining the future of food in Eating Anthropocene’s final chapter. The present collection makes most sense as a companion piece. Yet, with its theoretical contemplations of fictionality/factuality in graphic narrative and comics as method as well as its introduction to debates around global food resources, it will be instructive to wider audiences.


Science Meets Comics
Proceedings of the Symposium on Communicating and Designing the Future of Food in the Anthropocene
Reinhold Leinfelder, Alexandra Hamann, Jens Kirstein, Marc Schleunitz (Eds.)
Berlin: Ch. A. Bachmann Verlag, 2017
116 S., 19,90 EUR
ISBN 978-3-941030-92-3