Virpi OinonenEvery time I see somebody explaining scientific concepts in an engaging way I feel like doing a little dance. So when I came across the graphic novel Neurocomic I did a proper 70s disco dance routine. Neurocomic explains neuroscience, or brain science, through an engaging story and clever visual metaphors. I interviewed the creators Matteo Farinella and Hana Ros about the work process and asked them for tips on how to communicate complex concepts with comics.

Matteo and Hana - creators of Neurocomic

Matteo Farinella (the artist) and Hana Ros (the scientist)

Virpi: How did you end up explaining neuroscience through a graphic novel? Did you consider any other formats (animation, video, etc) and if so, why did you choose the graphic novel?

Matteo: Even if I was doing a PhD in neuroscience I have always been drawing and writing comics, so for me it was an obvious choice. However, I think comics are actually one of the best formats to explain scientific subjects. Not only because they combine words and pictures, but also because they allow you to play with the page layouts in order to visualize logical connections and other complex ideas which would be difficult to explain into words or moving images.

Hana: What I love about comics is that you can really spend as much time as you like/need on certain parts. The dwell time is up to the reader to decide, and for me, I like to hover on some images/text for longer than others, I like to pay attention to detail (for example, the fingernails on a character’s hand, the piece of grass at the bottom left hand corner, or the light from a lampshade) – which together with the ability to go backwards and forwards and that it will never escape – that is what I love about the format of comics. They are not only to be enjoyed for their narrative, but they are there to be visually savoured. Also – I did a Masters degree in film, and I have always been interested in animation, so I’m secretly hoping one day Neurocomic will become an animated film.

Virpi: Did you encounter any resistance for the project? Was it easy to get funding for it?

Matteo: To be honest I am still amazed by how much support we had for this project. A few years ago the idea of combining comics and science was little more than a dream for me and when Hana suggested to apply for a Wellcome Trust People Award I would have never expected to receive any funding. Instead the Wellcome has been incredibly generous and supportive and later also Nobrow – our publisher – invested a lot in it and they have done an amazing job at promoting and distributing the book. I think it couldn’t have been any better.

Hana: Getting funding is never ‘easy’ – writing a lengthy application for our project was challenging but it really helped to crystallise our ideas at the start, which was hugely important at that stage, so we could formulate a clear plan of what our intentions were and where we were heading. We feel very fortunate that the Wellcome Trust supported us at this early stage – having their affirmation that it was a good idea to mix neuroscience and comics was critical; I don’t think we would have achieved our goal without the Wellcome Trust, and we are extremely grateful for their continuing support. Nobrow have also been great every step of the way, helping as much as they can. Im now running out of ways of saying how we are grateful for everyone’s support – but honestly – I personally feel very lucky to have had them backing our project. (I’m glad I’m not giving a speech at the Oscars, or someone would be trying to get me off the stage now…)

Neurocomic scientist -

Virpi: How did you develop the story? Was it a collaborative process?

Matteo: I had some of the settings and characters in mind since the beginning so I wrote a short script and storyboard to discuss with Hana. Then she suggested changes and new characters and we went back and forth like this a few times, before I started drawing the originals. Some parts were relatively easy to agree and some others (especially the more scientific parts) were more of a compromise, but overall I really enjoyed the collaboration. Drawing comics can be a very solitary process and sometime it is easy to lose perspective, I think it is incredibly useful to have someone to work with, who can tell you honestly things like “this part is boring”, “this picture is not clear” or “let’s do this instead”. Finally the art director of Nobrow had only a few minor edits.

Hana: Hahaha! It’s funny to read Matteo’s answer – I never thought I was being so critical. I’d like to think that it was purely a zen-like, harmonious collaborative process. Although, Matteo knows me too well by now – that I’m a very honest person, even with my opinions (but hey, we are still friends!) I think we are actually very different and I think it helps to work together on a project like this – we bring different things to the table. Luckily for me (and everyone else), I let Matteo do all the drawing…

Virpi: How did you collaborated in practice? 

Matteo: At the time we were working in the same laboratory which made things easier, it was very much an ongoing conversation. Then of course we had a few (more or less) official meetings where we would sit down and go through the comic page by page. However, it was probably all much more informal and improvised than it sounds!

Hana: I think many of our conversations happened over a coffee, dinner or most likely – at the pub. I think an informal setting is more conducive to open and honest discussions, which are needed for a creative project like this (plus it helps being friends).

Virpi: You use visual metaphors to explain scientific concepts. Can you explain why you chose to use visual metaphors instead of more “realistic” visualisations?

Matteo: If we just wanted a narrating voice explaining scientific diagrams we could have done a documentary or a textbook and there are already many great examples of these. The real power of comics is the narrative element: the power to draw the reader into a story in which they feel actively engaged, instead of being treated as passive recipients for information. I also think that visual metaphors can be much more powerful than accurate descriptions.

Hana: I agree with what Matteo says – but just to add – it also allowed us to create a more fantastical world and a fun story, which was more personally rewarding than writing a dry descriptive book with little or no narrative.

“The real power of comics is the narrative element: the power to drawn the reader into a story in which they feel actively engaged”.

Virpi: What is your favourite visual metaphor in the book and why?

Matteo: Mine is definitely the metaphor of neurons as trees. It is not original at all, it was actually introduced by the father of neuroscience Ramon y Cajal more than 100 years ago, but I like how it shaped the scientific language itself. Also – from a very selfish perspective – it is very fun to draw, I never tired of inventing intricate neuronal forests!

Hana: Ah.. Matteo stole my answer… I like the trees too – I spend most of my days in the lab looking at neurons with a microscope and when I take my dogs out for a walk I still find myself looking at trees and thinking they look just like neurons. It never fails to amaze me.

Virpi: Matteo, you mention in the intro video that you used “little lies to tell bigger truths, to make the bigger concept clearer”. Subjecting scientific concepts for a visual storytelling treatment means that you need to make some compromises. Do you have any advice on how to avoid simplifying too much?

Matteo: Yes, mostly you need to leave out a lot of details. Basically for any statement you can make there are some exception or even an alternative theory, especially in a complex subject like neuroscience. You simply cannot include everything when you are trying to tell a story that flows, the reader would get completely lost with a “but” in every page. We considered adding some notes but we decided to not break the spell of the story in the end. For me a partial solution was to represent the scientists as very human and somehow unreliable characters. Some people tend to think of science as a linear faultless path to knowledge but it is important to remember that it is made my by people with their own interests and personal opinions. We should always think critically about what we read and look for more independent information.

Hana: It’s a fine balance to have the story flow and to convey information. There are clear compromises, but I think its unrealistic for people to assume we would be able to explain neuroscience in its entirety in a comic book. Its more like a taster – to get people interested in the subject matter, and if they want to explore neuroscience further, then there is plenty of information out there. Making neuroscience accessible to everyone was key for us, and giving people a way into it (a sort of foot in the door) that isn’t daunting (and is approachable) is more important to us than just relaying pure information.

“You simply cannot include everything when you are trying to tell a story that flows”.

Virpi: What did you enjoy most about the project?

Matteo: For me it was a very important project, it made me realize that my drawings are not just a funny hobby but they can actually be combined with my passion for science and maybe create something useful.

Hana: As cheesy as it sounds – I think seeing people’s enjoyment of it – that feeling is so rewarding, and completely unexpected.

Virpi: What were the biggest challenges and how did you overcome them?

Matteo: I think the biggest challenge was probably to conclude the project. When dealing with such huge topic like the brain it is very difficult to say “OK, this is enough, we can stop here”. There is always more than you can add and parts that you think you can remake better. Luckily we had some external deadlines with the Wellcome Trust and with Nobrow so we had to move on. Some people said the book is a bit too short but I can live with that, the most important for me is to be happy with what is there.

Hana: I skipped this question, and had to come back to it, it’s a tough one, but after some soul-searching, I finally have an answer: I think working with another person (on anything) is always challenging. In a collaboration, you cannot just make decisions alone, and everything needs to be jointly approved. Sometimes there is a fine line in compromise, and that can be difficult at times. The way to overcome it is to have good communication, honesty and trust, which I have learned during this project. It’s tricky, but ultimately the rewards are greater too. I have definitely preferred doing this project with Matteo than doing it alone. But it does need discipline and respect for one another – as it’s often too easy to find things to disagree on. Luckily we are still cool with each other (I hope I haven’t jinxed it now…)

Virpi: Do you think science, and complex topics in general, require that the illustrator/comics artist understands and is interested in the topic?

Matteo: I think ‘pure’ collaborations between artists and scientists are possible but they definitely require a lot of work and understanding on both sides. Not only for the illustrator in the subject she/he is trying to represent but also understanding of the creative process by the scientist. I think we should really make an effort to find good metaphors and ways to communicate their knowledge outside academia, otherwise scientific knowledge is essentially lost, locked in a language that not many people can understand.

Hana: Some level of understanding obviously helps, but I think the main ingredient that is needed is passion/interest in the topic.

“I think we should really make an effort to find good metaphors and ways to communicate their knowledge outside academia, otherwise scientific knowledge is essentially lost”.

Virpi: Have you read any other comics on scientific topics? Do you think the genre of the science comic is on the rise?

Matteo: Yes, now that I start to pay more attention I am discovering many cartoonists working on scientific subjects. There is even an international conference called Graphic Medicine which I attended last year. Some books like Psychiatric Tales by Darryl Cunningham and Economix: How and Why Our Economy Works (and Doesn’t Work), in Words and Pictures by Goodwin and Burr are also selling quite well so I really hope the genre is on the rise.

Hana: I only came across them after we had already finished Neurocomic, so it was interesting to see a different style (for example, Cunningham uses photographs in his book). I love comics more than other books so I hope the genre is on the rise – I would personally like to read a comic about physics to help me understand the likes of string theory and quantum mechanics, so if anyone is reading this who has the knowledge to do one, please get in touch!

“I would personally like to read a comic about physics to help me understand the likes of string theory and quantum mechanics”.

Virpi: What advice would you give to scientists and others who want to communicate complex concepts with comics?

Matteo: I am not sure if I feel in the position to give anyone advice since I am just starting myself… I would just express them all my support. I know it is hard work and very easily criticised by our colleagues, but I also think it is extremely important and could be very rewarding at times. Someone should just go ahead and try, always being faithful to the facts but without worrying too much either.

Hana: Go for it! There is no right or wrong way of doing it, we are all working it out as we go along. But the main thing to have is passion for the subject and the medium/format you choose, otherwise if you don’t enjoy ‘the making of it’ then it will show. I think having fun and doing a project you love is the most important thing; as with many things in life, doing something for yourself (and staying true to yourself) is the path to happiness.

You can follow Matteo and Hana on Twitter.

– Virpi