Coronavirus-themed comics aiming to educate, engage

· 8 min read

Coronavirus-themed comics aiming to educate, engage

Series of web-published comics being produced by industry veterans, Nebraska faculty
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Bob Hall
The opening panels of "C'rona Comix," a collaboration between Husker alumnus Bob Hall and University of Nebraska–Lincoln faculty.

Not all heroes wear masks, but the anthropomorphic cast of “C’rona Comix” does — to protect its loved ones from harm, naturally.

That cast — Bat, Cat, Graffiti Mouse, Professor Grey, Reporter Fox and Skate Goat — populates the panels of the latest comic collaboration between the dynamic duo of Husker alumnus Bob Hall and Judy Diamond, professor and curator at the University of Nebraska State Museum.

In the vein of their earlier team-ups, “World of Viruses” and “Biology of Human,” the recently released “C’rona Comix” aims to resolve some misconceptions about the novel coronavirus while spurring younger readers to seek more information on the virus and pandemic.

“We have a really deep respect for kids’ ability to learn on their own and to ask important questions,” Diamond said.

Available for free at https://worldofviruses.unl.edu/covid-19, the series melds the talents of Hall — a longtime artist and writer who has worked on stories featuring The Avengers, Batman and Daredevil — with the expertise of Diamond, Liz VanWormer and other University of Nebraska–Lincoln faculty.

The first of five coronavirus-focused series planned for release during 2020 and print publication by summer 2021, “C’rona Comix” sees its characters coming to grips with and, in some cases, literally getting to know the novel coronavirus.

An early sketch of Bat, one of the six characters starring in the recently released "C'rona Comix."

“We feel like there’s a lot of misinformation floating around, and what we’re doing is trying to showcase scientific information in ways that kids will be motivated to want to read, because it’s fun to read,” Diamond said. “Hopefully, that will help them become motivated to take the next step: to read some articles about it, to read the news, to begin to distinguish good information from misleading information. That’s a really critical ability that we hope to instill in people.”

But Diamond and Hall said “C’rona Comix” and its follow-ups, which will highlight topics that include the transmission of viruses from bats to humans and the particular challenges facing Native American tribes, are being written to inform, entertain and stimulate rather than prescribe, condemn or alarm.

“There’s a certain amount of public health information that inevitably goes into it, but this isn’t really about telling people to wash their hands,” Hall said. “We do have a couple of characters that are young and feel they didn’t have to wear a mask. One of their friends gets the virus, and then they decide, ‘Oh, wait, maybe we should.’

“But I think we’ve found … that the more you tell somebody they’re wrong not to do something, like wearing a mask, the more they will just dig in and say, ‘Who are you to be telling us?’ So we’re trying to give a lot of reasons why you should do this or that without getting into those particular politics.”

Later this year, the team will distribute copies of the comics to roughly 10,000 middle school students in Lincoln Public Schools. By surveying student opinions of the comics, which are being funded by the National Science Foundation, the team will continue its long-running research on how to engage students and bolster their science literacy with alternatives to standard curriculum. Faculty from the sociology department and the Social and Behavioral Sciences Research Consortium will help ensure that the team is asking the right questions, in the right way, to properly measure the effectiveness of the comics.

Getting the opportunity to survey so many students is rare, Diamond said, especially when conducting research on such a timely and hopefully short-lived phenomenon. Years of partnering with the schools on “World of Viruses” and other projects has helped foster the trust essential to making it happen, she said. The fact that the team provides LPS teachers with insights from its research, and lets the students keep the comics, has only cemented the partnership.

Judy Diamond talks with University of Nebraska–Lincoln students about the development of an exhibit now on display at the Morrison Center.

“We try to make sure that we give back to them in substantial ways,” Diamond said. “It’s very reciprocal, that relationship that we’ve forged with Lincoln Public Schools. It’s very special.”

Comic, sans routine

That history has likewise gone a long way toward streamlining the creative process behind translating the science of a virus to the unique storytelling format of a comic, said Hall, who also invoked the word “trust” when describing the team’s dynamic.

“Which is not (to say) that you’re always right all the time, but more that you’re, in this case, wrong about a third of the time,” he said. “Judy and I — and I’m finding this with Liz, as well — don’t seem to have much hesitation about saying, ‘No, that doesn’t work. We’ve got to fix this, and then this has also got to work.’ And it’s absolutely critical to have that relationship in this kind of a context.”

The process differs a bit from his workflow at Marvel or DC Comics, where Hall would often be tasked with illustrating a set of panels before he or other writers decided what text, and how much of it, they could manage to letter in. With “C’rona Comix,” Diamond, VanWormer and advisers from the Nebraska Center for Virology and University of Nebraska Medical Center first settled on concepts they believed should be included: the distinction between the novel coronavirus and an influenza virus, for instance, or the value of analyzing how a virus has mutated. Sometimes they would offer up what Diamond called a “very, very rough” narrative outline.

Mostly, though, they let Hall’s storytelling instincts, sense of humor and feel for characters roam free, churning out script drafts that the trio would then comb through and revise.

A preliminary layout from the first page of "C'rona Comix," written and illustrated by Nebraska alumnus Bob Hall.

“Bob is our storyteller, and Bob is the person who takes some of those ideas and puts them into a context with characters that are intriguing and that someone can follow and fall in love with,” Diamond said.

The veteran playwright and theater director also found himself taking on another role: middle school stand-in.

“I have a degree in theater; I have a degree in art,” Hall said. “I probably have too many degrees, but none of them are in science. I finally figured out that part of my function is to say, ‘I don’t get it,’ and to make sure that I put myself in the position of a kid who’s reading this, who says, ‘That’s too much science for me. I don’t understand quite what’s going on.’ Part of this is because that’s who I am, and part of it is because … I have to find ways to visualize this stuff.”

The proverbial art-and-science dynamic flowed both ways. Just as Hall informed the communication of the science, VanWormer and her students in the School of Natural Resources helped sketch a character — conceptually, at least.

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Liz VanWormer
“We were talking about how, in the case of pandemics or any infectious disease, a lot of times there are scapegoats,” said VanWormer, assistant professor of veterinary medicine and biomedical sciences. “That sort of generated the idea of the Skate Goat, which is now interwoven into the story. So it’s a character that came from this general conversation that Bob just brought to life.”

That free-flowing, adaptive mentality — Diamond described it as “intensely collaborative, sometimes on a minute-to-minute or hourly basis” — has allowed the team to clear deadlines that occasionally induce mild cases of whiplash. The National Science Foundation approached Diamond about applying to its Grants for Rapid Response Research program in March, awarded the funds in early May and expected the first deliverables just a month later.

Generally, Hall said, a team would plan out all five series well in advance of producing them. This time, it had mere weeks to conceptualize the characters, setting and narrative of “C’rona Comix.”

“By that time, the (first) deadline was two days away,” he said, comparing the experience to his brief stint writing for a soap opera. “And that’s interesting, because it means that you’re stuck with certain things. Sometimes you say, ‘Oh, if only we hadn’t done that, then we could do this.’ On the other hand, because you make those decisions, other things come to mind that you can do. So it’s a heck of a way of working.”

Given the pace at which researchers are discovering and reporting new information about the coronavirus, the team said it’s also a fitting way — and one that will put it in a position to respond accordingly.

“What we knew at the beginning is going to be different than what we know at the end,” VanWormer said. “So we are constantly trying to weave in new pieces of information, too.”

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