Pass the comics -- No, the science ones

Traditionally fodder for young boys and Sunday papers, comics become a tool for communicating the cartoonish side of science

By | August 10, 2007

"In the body...In the lungs...A dendritic cell awaits the inevitable..." A blond woman in a snug red top and blue shorts opens her eyes. "Intruder alert!" Her hands grabs a green reptilian creature, and she promptly fells him with a SMACK and witty one-liner. Two men with white beards rush to her side. "Beta, what's happening?" one asks. "We've got visitors, Alpha-1," she replies.
The woman is interferon beta, who was joined by alphas 1 and 13. They are the army that protects the body from outside invaders, this time a tentacled, green influenza viral peptide. The drama is captured on the pages of a new comic book called "Interferon Force," published by PBL Interferon Source, a Piscataway, NJ- based biotech that sells - not surprisingly -interferon products. It's a strange scene to play out on the pages of a comic book, to say the least. Jaleel Shujath, who edited the comic and manages marketing for the company, says he got the idea through working with the writer/artist science-cartoon duo, Ed Dunphy and Max Velati. Ed Dunphy and Max Velati. Dunphy and Velati have never met in person (Velati resides in Brazil and Dunphy in Wisconsin), but every week they create a new cartoon strip called Lab Bratz.
Lab Bratz draws on Dunphy's 12 year experience as a lab manager to create characters that are caricatures of research scientists he's encountered - he's been told his models were "very excited" by the cartoon versions of themselves. One character, "the mutated undergraduate," represents how Dunphy felt when he had to work with radioactivity and mutagens. Shujath approached Dunphy at an American Association for Cancer Research meeting, and asked him to create a custom cartoon that incorporated the company's products. But Shujath soon realized he wanted to create more than an advertisement. "We wanted something that was serious looking -- in the graphic novel concept," which attract an adult audience. Shujath says PBL intends the comic to be used for educational purposes, to show how interferons fight invaders. The story line of the comic does not include any products, but all of the characters represent interferons that can be purchased on the company's Web site. The last page contains an advertisement and description of the company.
Shujath and Dunphy worked out the story line and the science, and Dunphy was free to insert humor - in true comic book style. For example "an alarm system tolls out a warning," and "B-cells, your path is clear. I hope you've got something specific in mind." (Get it? "toll" for toll-like receptor, and "specific" for specific immunity...) The company plans to distribute the comic at trade shows, and by request. Howard Young, a researcher at the National Cancer Institute in Frederick, Md, distributed it to his class of summer students and got a very enthusiastic response. "I didn't have enough to go around." He says he'll probably ask the company for some more copies for his students.
"This is not really a money making venture for us," says Shujath. The company is distributing the comics for free (even though the cover says it sells for $1), but Shujath admits that there is a branding element to their approach. He declined to disclose the production cost. For small companies like PBL, "it's hard to you get your name out there," says Rob Walker, a columnist for the New York Times Magazine who writes about consumer behavior, and is an active blogger. "It looks like a kind of novelty marketing," he says, in which companies try is to put their name on something new to catch a potential consumer's eye for a few seconds longer than something else. The company has also created a MySpace page for the comic that has its own theme song (co-produced by The Scientist's advertising and display manager, Dan Nicholas). Not everyone's a fan. "It seems like it really risks trivializing their brand," says Walker of the MySpace and comic book venture. Young was also surprised when he went on the Web page. The theme song, he says, "doesn't exactly fit with Dr. Pestka's [Sidney Pestka, PBL's founder] image...He's a very proper gentleman." "I hate to think that scientists take everything so seriously," Shujath says in response. "They are some of the most creative people around." But after looking at some of the profiles of other MySpace users who asked to be "friends" of the comic's Web page, including several bikini-clad women, he conceded that senior scientists might not like "these sorts of shenanigans. I'll have to edit some of our 'friends.'" The next day the "friends" list was considerably shorter. Edyta Zielinska Images: courtesy of PBL Interferon and Lab Bratz (c) 2005-2007 Edward Dunphy, Illustrated by Max Velati, used with permission. Links within this article: A. McCook, "Cartooning science misuses," The Scientist, August 3, 2007. PBL Lab Bratz Howard Young R. Walker, "Buzz marketing," New York Times Magazine, August 5, 2007. Murketing Interferon Force on MySpace


Avatar of: Cesar Sanchez

Cesar Sanchez

Posts: 3

August 11, 2007

I always liked science comics. The first ones I remember were "The Post-Docs of Rap" (that was the title, I think) and others in "Trends in Biochemistry". That was the paper version, which I liked to browse during my PhD (in that time, electronic versions were the future).\n\nScience comics: a good choice for a company to get some publicity, evidently. But also an efficient way to communicate a complex message to a broader audience. We need more!
Avatar of: Ellen Wardzala

Ellen Wardzala

Posts: 3

August 14, 2007

I have been day-dreaming of using a comic-book treatment to teach the immune system. This is a wonderful first step. Hope the developers continue with this venue.
Avatar of: BJ Allan

BJ Allan

Posts: 2

August 17, 2007

Comic books can also be about those who do science. G. T. Labs specializes in wonderful graphic biographies of scientists.

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