Science Cartoonist Studies Science of Science Cartoons

Article by Jeff Day

Scientifically, do science comics have super powers?

Photograph of Matteo Farinella

According to Matteo Farinella they do. He recently penned the article Science Comics’ Super Powers in the July 2018 issue of American Scientist.

If anyone would know, it’d probably be him. Matteo is not only a science cartoonist, but [ahem], he’s a scientist studying the science of science cartoons.

He’s a PhD in computational neuroscience, and author/illustrator of several science graphic novels including Neurocomic, which has now been translated into nine languages. Recently he returned to academics as a post-doctoral fellow at Columbia University researching science cartoons.

Cover of Neurocomic
Inside panel from the comic Neurocomic

Matteo has categorized science comics’ super powers to include visualization, storytelling and metaphors. Using those powers, science comics have proven to be particularly good at engaging learners, as evidenced in the literature.

But comics can also help with teaching. Matteo illustrates an example of how water can be used as an explanation for electricity flow. He notes that visual metaphors have always been important for understanding new scientific concepts, especially those that were invisible.

Illustration comparing hot water to electricity flow

You can read more about the science of science comics in his article. But for AMI, I dug deeper into what Matteo was up to and where he was taking his unique career.

It sounds like Neurocomic was your breakthrough that showed you could do something with science communication. Can you tell us about it?

Neurocomic was definitely a turning point for me. Before then I was vaguely aware of science communication but I didn’t think it was something I could do. I mostly associated it with journalism, documentaries, or museums, none of which I had any experience with. I have always been drawing comics but I had a very narrow idea of what comics could do: fiction or at best autobiography. I hadn’t really seen any comics about science. It was my colleague (and later coauthor), Hana Ros, who first encouraged me to write about my favorite subject (neuroscience) in the format I was most comfortable with (comics). Together we applied for a Wellcome Trust People Award to write “a graphic novel about the brain” and that’s when I finally started to think more seriously about the potential for comics in science communication.

How did the Columbia fellowship come about?

​​I was already in New York City because my wife grew up there. I was a freelance illustrator at the time (mostly working on my children’s book Cervellopoli) and looking for interdisciplinary events and other initiatives combining science and art. That is how I came across the Center for Science and Society. I was not planning to return to academia, but the fellowship in ‘Society and Neuroscience’ seemed like a unique chance to combine my two main areas of expertise: neuroscience/psychology and science communication. I was incredibly lucky (literally at the right place, at the right time) and I still can’t believe I spend my days studying science comics.

Science illustration collage
Illustrations by Matteo for Science-Practice
Scientific illustration of tissue cross-section
Illustrations by Matteo for LÖK ZINE.

What is the focus of your fellowship at Columbia? What are some insights about science comics from your time there?

​​​The goal of my project is to study the role of comics and other visual narratives in science communication (i.e. who are the readers? What are the effects on learning and engagement with science? How can we make them more effective?).

​​​However, while it all started with my interest in comics, during the past two years I ended up learning a lot about fields like data visualization, information design, educational psychology, the power of narratives and metaphors. Now, instead of thinking of ‘comics’ as a field of its own, I see them as a unique combination of visualization, storytelling, and other communication strategies.

Also, I started to realize that there are subjects that may be more suitable than others to be presented in comic format, and audiences that are more receptive to it. My hope is that the science communication community will start looking at comics as a tool, rather than a ‘funny’ alternative to traditional mediums.

What do you think is next for you after you complete your program at Columbia? Are you planning another book?

​​​​I love my current mix of research and practice but Columbia University is very special in that sense. There aren’t many other places that would allow me to maintain this balance. So once again I find myself forced to choose between science and art, which is really hard for me. I have started sketching ideas for another book (or two!) so I may just take a year to work on that. I also recently discovered that I really like to teach. I would love to find a way to work with science communicators and help them develop their visual skills.

Can you share a bit about how you like to work?

​​​​As a self-taught artist I have never been very experimental in terms of techniques. I am still doing most of my drawings by hand with brushes, black ink, and markers. More and more often I find myself using Photoshop to add some color but I don’t really have any special tricks. To be honest I like the limitation of black and white: it forces me to focus on the message and come up with clever solutions to represent complex concepts, instead of relying on special effects or elaborate visualizations. My sketches and storyboards are not very exciting; I usually start from the scientific concept I want to explain and look for interesting ways to represent it. Here are a couple of examples from when I was working out metaphors for Neurocomic:

Sketch of comic panel about memory
refined inked comic panel about memory

What cartoonist or science comic(s) have influenced you most?

​​​​That is always a difficult question because while I still love comics and there are many cartoonists that I admire (Chris Ware above all) I can’t say they influenced my work very much. I think science comics require a slightly different set of skills. Larry Gonick is definitely a master of the genre, for the way he uses characters and metaphors, but most days I find it more useful to look at other science cartoonists posting their work online. That’s why I started collecting examples on It is still a very young field and I think we can learn a lot from each other!

​​​​​To learn more or keep up with Matteo’s work, you can visit
Instagram: @matteofarinella
Twitter: @matteofarinella