Sequential science

Daryl Cunningham's short webcomic, The Facts in the Case of Dr. Andrew Wakefield, has been getting some chatter on Twitter and the blogs this week.

The comic is less a story than an essay on bad science. Cunningham summarizes the story of Dr. Andrew Wakefield, who claims to have found a link between the MMR (measles, mumps, rubella) vaccine and autism. While Wakefield's research has become an article of faith in some circles, leading parents to the risky choice of not vaccinating their children, Cunningham shows, in just a few panels, that the research was faulty, unethical, and tainted by financial incentives. It's a shattering story, and Cunningham backs it up with references in a followup post.

But does it need to be a comic? I started wondering as I read it, because it struck me as being more an illustrated essay than a sequential story. Cunningham relies heavily on the research of Brian Deer, a reporter for the Sunday Times, and he presents the reader with a series of facts and opinions, some presented by a narrator, some illustrated by simple art such as an altered photo of Dr. Wakefield, a map of the world, etc.

For instance, Cunningham writes, "Facts and evidence are seen as just a matter of opinion, rather than proven truth. And blind unreasoning belief is considered as valid as critical thinking." He illustrates these two panels with a narrator speaking the words and faceless figures carrying anti-vaccine signs. Do the pictures add to the meaning? Are the pictures telling a story that is not fully expressed by the words? It doesn't seem so. There is really only one piece of sequential storytelling in the whole comic:

The rest of the comic is pure exposition. What Cunningham has done is take a complicated issue, boil it down to its essence, and present it in a way that most readers can easily understand. This looks easy, but only because Cunningham did such a good job; I have done my fair share of this type of writing and I know how hard it is. Furthermore, Cunningham has dodged the trap of loading down his comic with a ton of text; most panels have only one sentence.

And this is where I feel this is a legitimate use of comics: Comics are a medium for information the way that water is a medium for fish. Cunningham could have presented just the text as a series of statements, but it would have looked weird and overly simplistic. The images help him pace the presentation while keeping the reader engaged. The color scheme sets the tone of the discussion—slightly somber—and the individual images signal context and shifts in direction: Here's a picture of a newspaper, and now we will move from discussing Wakefield to discussing what the papers said about him. In a few instances, the image amplifies the text:

This is much more powerful than words alone. So while The Facts in the Case of Dr. Andrew Wakefield may not fall under any definition of a comic as sequential storytelling, I do feel that Cunningham's essay is made richer by the comics format.

There is something more: My children got all their shots years ago, and no one in my family has been touched by autism, so to be perfectly honest, I wasn't that interested in the topic. I picked up on this because it was a comic, not because it was an issue I felt strongly about. And the comments in Cunningham's LJ (another part of the medium) include a robust discussion of good and bad science as well as the comic itself, so I am quite sure I'm not the only one. So in this case, the medium really is the message.

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