NCRM videos

Comics as a research method

Lydia Wysocki, Lucy Tiplady


Comics can appear in print and digital formats as newspaper cartoon, comic strip, a story of one or more pages within a magazine, comic book, graphic novel, fanzine and webcomic. Comics’ broad range of genres, which span from editorial opinion, graphic essays, autobiography, social realism, pedagogical comics or countercultural, present vast possibilities for use as research methods. All these forms and genres are examples of the same comics medium. Moreover, the multimodality and expressive possibilities in page and panel composition make comics a suitable method for the analysis of processes of cognition and memory acquisition as this is a medium built on the expressive multiplicity of fragments and the synchronicity of possible times. Our focus goes beyond examples in creative practice and journalism to focus on how comics help the communication of research. There is joy in the freedom to make your own comics and share them with different audiences beyond paywalled academic publishing. You can make and photocopy a comic yourself, as a low-risk low-cost endeavour. You can explore other art, writing, and printing possibilities in collaboration with experienced comics artists and writers, and distribute the finished comics however you see fit. Opportunities for general audience print distribution include libraries, comics conventions, comics shops, and special events, or you might prioritise targeted distribution through specific schools, charities and NGOs, or other groups. Online distribution goes further. Uploading PDF or image files of your comic to your own website and social media or building an audience through webcomics platforms can share that same comic with different audiences. But it would be a mistake to see digital and online environments only as distribution channels: they offer new ways to use comics. Consider the use of scrolling and hyperlinks to offer different paths through a story1, or use of GIFs to introduce movement2. These are used by comics creators for innovation in storytelling, but the possibilities for research are only starting to be explored. See, for example, Gertrude Bell: Archaeologist, Writer, Explorer3 using hyperlinks to connect narrative comics with digitised artefacts. For an assessment of what an effective comic is we need to consider formal elements of the text itself (author(s), script, drawing technique, style, composition, colour) as well as the paratext, the material that surrounds the comic forming a frame to the main text (front cover, binding, back matter). These components play a role in the main goal of a comic: communicating a message successfully to an active reader. Readers complete this act of communication with their active participation in the reading process. We step back from assessments of what a good or bad comic is because it puts too much weight on aesthetics and narration. While important, there are other facets to consider. For example, comics within the Graphic Medicine movement drawn by patients, clinicians or children to reflect traumatic experiences may use an unrefined drawing technique or the script might be simple, but the reader may consider the comic successful in communicating an experience in an authentic, moving way. With all that comics offer, why limit this to the dissemination of finished research? There are opportunities to use comics throughout the research process, from planning to doing to disseminating. The FaSMEd Comics project4 was part of a larger European consortium project using formative assessment and technology in new-style maths and science lessons5. Our team (including Lydia Wysocki, Lucy Tiplady, Jill Clark, and Ulrike Thomas) ran a lunchtime comics club with schoolchildren aged 11-12, making their own comics to reflect on their own experiences of the project. After introductory activities on the sequencing of events, and how words and pictures can work together, we discussed what it was about those lessons that should feature in the comics. Each child made a rough version of their comic in pencil then final artwork in ink. We then used the comics as a prompt when interviewing the children about their experiences: what had they drawn, and why had they drawn it as they did? Only then did the comic move to being used in project dissemination to tell the wider project team, and people beyond the project, about pupils’ experiences told in their own words and pictures. The same comic was used as part of elicitation, interviewing, and dissemination, as both a process within and as an output of research. Other work includes: Sarah McNicol’s participative project ‘Graphic Lives: telling Bangladeshi migrant women’s stories through graphic narratives’6, Chris Bailey on the use of comics to transcribe video data7, and the collaboration with the visiting artist Javier de Isusi, engaging with local NGOs in Newcastle8. We look forward to continuing discussions in our session at NCRM Festival 20189.