Catch that phage DNA! Bacterial CRISPR-Cas defense against invading phage viruses.

Hi everyone, I’m Nicky Lab Brat, a Scientific Illustrator! I specialise in illustrating science through manga art… but what exactly is manga and how can it be used in science communication?

“When I tried to explain what I did in the lab to my friends, they all seemed so impressed, ‘blinded by science’. I don’t think it should be like that.”

‘Manga’ means ‘comics’, or more accurately ‘pictures that run wild’ in Japanese1. Famous examples of manga include The Ghost in the Shell, Mighty Atom (Astro Boy), Death Note and Attack on Titan2. Manga books are comic books typically read from right to left in keeping with Japanese formatting. Whilst they are most widespread in Japan and Asia, they are becoming more popular in the West, with many being adapted into animated TV series or ‘anime’. Studio Ghibli films are another famous example of Japanese cartoons that have brought our screens to life, offering surreal and beautiful escapism in today’s chaotic world3.

I started reading and drawing manga before I studied Science properly, and originally wanted to be a ‘manga-ka’, or manga artist. Later though, I became curious about Biochemistry and having graduated four years ago, I now work in Applied Microbiology.

Whilst studying at university and later working in industry, I couldn’t help but notice the immense gap between researcher expertise and public knowledge of science. When I tried to explain what I did in the lab to my friends, they all seemed so impressed, ‘blinded by science’. I don’t think it should be like that. Anyone should be able to understand and enjoy science if it is made accessible. That is why I wanted to get involved in Science Communication.

During lockdown in the UK, I was not allowed to go into work and instead spent my furlough time drawing science-themed cartoons, including a one-panel cartoon for the Society for Applied Microbiology (SfAM) Micro-Comic Competition. The theme was mental health in science. I aimed to illustrate the struggles of managing a heavy workload in a microbiology lab.

I didn’t realise it at the time, but my science illustration adventures had begun! Since then, I have produced two covers for the SfAM Microbiologist magazine4, produced personalised illustrations for our latest webinar series5, and was commissioned to create an advertisement for the Scottish Universities Life Sciences Alliance (SULSA) ‘Through the Looking Glass’ event6. I hope that my art production will soon enter its exponential growth phase!

So, how exactly do you create a science manga?

There are no Standard Operating Procedures or publications detailing how to do so – it depends on the subject matter, the audience, and of course your individual artistic style! Just as science is not always black and white, neither is creating comics. However, it is helpful to draw on examples such as PhD Comics7 and the manga Cells at Work! by Akane Shimizu, which depicts the busy life of cells in the human body8. Manga illustrating complex scientific concepts are still uncommon, but I hope they will become more popular in years to come.

Here are some of my top tips on creating science doodles, based on my experience:

Catalytic character: an enzyme in manga form!

M = Message

If you were publishing a study, what would be your key discovery or take-home message? What would be in your abstract? How would you grab the reader’s attention? Bear in mind we would like science to be accessible, so avoid jargon where possible.

A = Analogy

With manga you have a freedom you don’t get in a test tube: artistic license! It doesn’t matter if it’s crazy, so long as it clearly and accurately explains the concept. You may have heard CRISPR-Cas gene-editing technology acting like a ‘molecular cut and paste tool’, but you could also design a glycoprotein character adorned with candy canes and chocolate sprinkles to represent the sugar modification! Since Gram-negative pathogens are sugar-coated but can cause serious disease, they could make the perfect ‘super-cute-but-deadly’ villain for a comic!

Don’t let the sugary decorations fool you…E. coli can be a deadly Gram-negative pathogen.

N = Narrative

There is a technique called ‘Ki-shou-ten-ketsu’ used by top manga artists9, which translates as ‘introduction, development, twist and conclusion’, similar to ‘beginning, middle and end’ of a story. Maybe for scientists, this could be on a parallel with research papers or laboratory reports: ‘introduction, methods, results (complete with unexpected setbacks and missing samples!) and conclusions.’ If your scientific saga is still unfinished, where is your research headed? Bring on the sequel(s)!

G = Get drawing!

Your comic does not need to be a Hayao Miyazaki masterpiece10… relax and get started however works best for you and your creative, fiery neurons! For example, I doodle best whilst binging on BBC Earth boxsets, but you might prefer total silence or a high-tempo club soundtrack. Whatever you choose, creativity and stress seldom go hand in hand. Remember, you can always turn a new page and create a new doodle if the first doesn’t work out. Just like science, the first ideas are not always the best and failures can lead to interesting developments.

A = Audience

Remember who will be reading your comic creation! Make sure your comic is relatable and engaging for your audience. Are you entertaining fellow scientists, or those with no scientific experience? Will your readers be children or adults? A school pupil may not yet appreciate the mechanisms of catalysis in metalloenzymes, but they might be excited by how glowing bacteria live inside Hawaiian bobtail squid, providing the squid with a vital ‘invisibility cloak’ for when they venture out to hunt11. Bear in mind your audience’s experiences and interests to get maximum impact!

I hope this concise guide can help you to pick up your pens and doodle your research abstracts! I hope to share my own micro-manga with you moving forward and I leave you with some samples.

She may wear a crown, but she is no fairy-tale princess. Meet Corona, a ruthless viral warrior.
The moment a biochemist sees her protein band on her Western Blot…

Hope you enjoy designing your own science-art creations… let the experimenting begin!

Until next time,

Nicky Lab Brat

  9. ‘Manga in Theory and Practice: The Craft of Creating Manga.’ Hirohiko Araki, 2015. Viz media.
  10. Hayao Miyazaki Biography,
  11. ‘I Contain Multitudes: The Microbes Within Us and a Grander View of Life’. Ed Yong, 2016. Vintage.