Squidtoons – Marine Science Comics

30 May 2019 - By: Caroline Wood

Squidtoons – Marine Science Comics

By Caroline Wood

Looking for a way to communicate the results of your latest research in a visually appealing format that the public can understand and that can be shared and reposted instantly? Comics can be the perfect answer, as Garfield Kwan, creative director of Squidtoons (www.squidtoons.com), explains.
Garfield Kwan with fellow Squidtoons contributor Yuzo Yanagitsuru
Garfield Kwan with fellow Squidtoons contributor Yuzo Yanagitsuru Photo: Garfield Kwan

Garfield’s journey into science communication was originally inspired by fr ustration. In 2013, whilst Garfield was an undergraduate studying marine biology at University of California San Diego, USA, a certain shrimp physiology study was being widely cited by the media as an example of “wasteful science funding”. Garfield felt that certain aspects, particularly an experiment analysing the energy budget of shrimps using underwater treadmills, had been taken out of context. “I wanted to address the situation in a fruitful manner and realised few existing resources bridged the gap between the scientists and the public. Some online resources were textually accurate but they weren’t reaching this generation’s visually minded audience,” he says. Inspired by online comic platforms such as The Oatmeal, Garfield realised that “comics are a great communication tool because they integrate minimal text with illustrative graphics, making them easy for the general public to digest.”

Meanwhile, Garfield was becoming increasingly fascinated by the research he encountered as an undergraduate researcher at Scripps Institution of Oceanography—a passion that eventually led to his current PhD project there studying fish physiology and the mechanisms involved in otolith calcification. Having decided to combine this interest with the need for a visually focused science communication genre, Garfield recruited several friends and launched Squidtoons, a marine science-focused comics website. Squidtoons aims to “illustrate science with farts, burps and giggles” whilst being a reliable platform for the public to learn about ongoing research. The site now boasts over 60 bold, beautiful comics and infographics covering everything from the anatomy of a Coccolithophore to the effect of stress on squid embryo development.

Whilst the Squidtoons drawings have high aesthetic appeal, this doesn’t come at the cost of accuracy nor result in oversimplification. As Garfield says, “When illustrators take too much liberty, the results can be misleading. Proper scientific communication should not only be approachable but also retain the rigour and accuracy demanded from actual scientific research.” Each comic is grounded in published research articles then edited and checked by a relevant researcher, similar to peer review for journal articles. Such is their credibility and power as educational tools, that many of these cartoons have been incorporated into a college textbook (Essentials of Oceanography, 12th edition, Pearson), a children’s book (Squidtoons: Exploring Ocean Science with Comics, Andrews McMeel Publishing), and an aquarium exhibit (Seymour Marine Discovery Center, Santa Cruz, CA, USA).

Despite this success, Squidtoons is run as a not-for-profit enterprise, with most comics produced as ‘labours of love’ without external funding. All of the drawings are freely available for non-commercial purposes, including blogs, social media posts, and as teaching tools. Nevertheless, Garfield has benefited from his position as creative director by developing a suite of skills that include drawing, web development, and leadership. Even though he ultimately aims to pursue the academic route, he intends to keep drawing comics. “I would hope to incorporate this effective communication technique within the broader impact aspect of grant proposals as well as undergraduate coursework and graduate training,” he says. He acknowledges that not every academic will be drawn to the comic genre. “Comics are time-consuming to create,

edit, and publish, plus it takes practice to make perfect,” he says. “But if you are too busy, you could always find or hire someone that can do the illustrations. It doesn’t even need to be comics—use whatever suits you, such as videos, poetry … even crochet!”

Category: Science Communication
Caroline Wood

Caroline Wood

Caroline Wood was the SEB’s 2014 science communication intern. Since then, Caroline has been a regular contributor the SEB, reporting on events and writing insightful features for our members. Caroline has an undergraduate degree from Durham University in Cell Biology and is currently a PHD student at Sheffield University studying parasitic Striga weeds that infect food crops.