#FEMSmicroBlog: Microbiology going comic


We live in a time in which science and education go far beyond schools and universities. Only 50 years ago, microbiology was to be found only in thick textbooks full of biochemical details and Latin nomenclature. But by now it has transformed into and adopted unexpected forms. Georgy Kurakin explains the recent burst of microbiology-related comics for the #FEMSmicroBlog. #MicrobiologyInArt


Science education taking on new and illustrative forms

Microbes fly into space, chatter with people and plot against them — just like usual heroes and their antiheroes in popular fiction comics. Educational comics have almost become routine in recent years with educational manga already being widespread.

For example, several microbe-themed educational comics have been published for children, like “Plagues” by Falynn Koch from “Science Comics” series. And even though, we’re still missing a Manga Guide to Microbiology, Moyasimon: Tales of Agriculture highlighted by Cell is a splendid example of an educational manga.

However, microbiology stands distinctive — the world of microbiology comics goes far beyond educational series for schoolchildren and students. This is because microbes hold a special place in popular culture — we are afraid of new and old viruses and engross ourselves in books and films about the Black Death.

Microbes comic by Sergio Martínez.

But what made microbiology comics so popular in recent years?


Microbiology comics and the pandemic

The burst of microbiology comics came with the COVID-19 pandemic. This was the moment when viral players intruded into our daily routine, asking for new science communication practices.

The simple rules of staying at home, testing, vaccinating, social distancing and wearing face masks were easy to communicate through compact posters or texts. But as these rules were only the tip of the iceberg, stories about the high workload of healthcare workers and the severe clinical consequences of COVID-19 infection also needed to be told.

Together, pandemic narratives found comics to be the most effective way to tell illustrative, artistic and scientifically correct stories. The COVID-19 Chronicles project by the National University of Singapore is the largest collection of pandemic comics.

But pandemic, post-pandemic and meta-pandemic narratives in comics go far beyond coronavirus biology. In a ranking by the CBR, the central news portal about the comics industry, flu-related comics occupy the first two places. These include a historical comic dedicated to the Spanish flu and an educational comic about the pandemic flu in general.

The other eight positions have been given to fiction comics, but all of them contain some grain of real historical or scientific information about pandemics. These stories are familiar to anybody who was in touch with the timeline of the spread of COVID-19 disease and who faced lockdowns.


Serious science goes comic

While 30 years ago, science comics were mainly the work of large publishing houses, the situation in microbiology comics now appears differently. Sparkling microbiology comics are drawn and written by enthusiasts while one can find the most interesting examples on private websites, blogs and social media timelines. These “blogosphere-born” microbiology comics sometimes cover pressing microbiological issues breaking them down for non-scientific audiences.

Resist NOW! artistically highlights the problem of multiple drug-resistant bacteria, called “superbugs”. As this problem is widely discussed in science journals, this comic represents one of the more serious science communication creations. It can even be considered “scientist-for-scientist” communication.

Section of Resist NOW! comic by Noémie Matthey.

Another Internet-based comic — Bacterias: La historia más pequeña jamás contada — shows a similar degree of scientific complexity. It is rather a guide for microbiology — one of very good quality.

Other blog-born comic books about bacteria aim to reach younger audiences. For example, the book “Coloured Bacteria from A to Z” introduces 26 bacteria, one for each letter, with thoughtful and engaging illustrations to colour and engaging descriptions to learn about bacteria.

Microbiology comics book "Coloured Bacteria from A to Z".
Coloured Bacteria from A to Z” by Sarah Wettstadt and Noémie Matthey.


Microbiology comics as creative outlets for scientists

Why is the comic format so popular among microbiology communicators, even with limited funding and no institutional support in the form of a publishing house? First, illustration and design are experiencing a resurrection due to new computer graphic techniques.

This coincided with the wave of communication enthusiasts leaving academia. Many creative minds were searching for new ways of self-expression and science dissemination. Together with the newly acquired time during the pandemic, this was the perfect breeding ground for creating engaging microbiology comics.

Second, we live in a social reality in which more and more people entering the active age show traits of kidults — adults with “child-like” interests in media consumption. Scientists, science communicators and their audiences are no exceptions.

In our modern highly visual reality, comics turn out to be the optimal way to tell new discoveries —  from children to the general public and our scientific peers. I hope that also the scientific publishing houses understand this artistic format soon enough. Maybe they will even start requiring a comic abstract along with the graphical and text abstract. Let’s see…


About the author

Georgy Kurakin is a biologist, science communicator, Member of the Royal Society of Biology (MRSB) and Member of the Interregional Russian Microbiological Society. His primary areas of expertise are the evolution of multicellularity in microbes and cell-to-cell signalling in opportunistic pathogenicity. He has peer-reviewed publications in biochemistry and the evolution of bacteria as well as magazine-format publications on the same topics.

About this blog section

The section #MicrobiologyInArt will present examples of microbiology in literature, cinema, comic books, songs, graphic art, modern/contemporary art, video(games), photography, dance, and others. A particular focus is on what could people learn from those examples, or how they can raise awareness on microbiology topics, issues, and potentials.

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