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Graphic Novels & Socio-Ecological Systems

Let’s say you’ve just pulled off an innovative, interdisciplinary symposia bringing together stakeholders across socio-ecological systems in the world’s oceans. You spent a week in France with 230 ecologists, social scientists, economists, modellers, and lawyers collaborating on solutions for managing and protecting marine ecosystems.


Now, how do you get the broader scientific community to read your symposium report?


If you were clever enough to invite a professional cartoonist to the symposia, you pull together pages of fun, dynamic sketches and publish a graphic novel in the ICES Journal of Marine Science.

Illustrations from MSEAS 2016 by Bas Kohler, published in ICES Journal of Marine Science.

This is the amazing — and fun! — trick that Dr. Olivier Thébaud and Dr. Jason Link accomplished after MSEAS 2016.


Managing marine socio-ecological systems: picturing the future’ is a graphic novel illustrated by Bas Kohler that was published alongside Dr. Link’s traditional overview of the MSEAS 2016 Symposium. The illustrations are amazing — they pack in energy and dialogue with playful humor across an incredible range of serious, challenging subjects.

Illustrations from MSEAS 2016 by Bas Kohler, published in ICES Journal of Marine Science.

The backstory of this graphic novel contains a lesson in interdisciplinary communication. The science steering committee for MSEAS 2016 invested serious planning time into the social side of their symposium. Dr. Thébaud writes:

The idea of inviting Bas Kohler at MSEAS was initially aimed at increasing interaction between participants during the meeting, as we were bringing together folks from different disciplinary networks which do not usually meet.

Dr. Link and other steering committee members were skeptical, but MSEAS brought in cartoonist Bas Kohler through funding dedicated to the social and cultural side of the event. After Day 1, everyone at MSEAS was hooked. As Dr. Link remembers, “Kohler’s beautiful illustrations just got to the core of your talk. In fact, there was a lot of negative feedback from the day without Bas. He was wanted at every session!”


After MSEAS 2016 Dr. Link says he “drew the short straw” to write the normal, boring report. But, “no one reads the boring report. We wanted to do something unique. This was a conference about social and human systems and we wanted to capture that in a different medium.” So, Dr. Link brainstormed an outline for a cartoon report. He wanted to tell a story about the state of the discipline, the meeting itself, and future directions for scientists and stakeholders. The MSEAS team looked through Kohler’s illustrations from the symposium to create the graphic novel around this outline. Dr. Link did write a straightforward report — it’s published in the same issue of ICES Journal of Marine Science — but he also pitched the graphic novel to an editor at the journal. This was not a terribly risky pitch since Link was friends with the editor, but as far as he knows it is the first graphic novel published in a peer reviewed journal.

Illustrations from MSEAS 2016 by Bas Kohler, published in ICES Journal of Marine Science.

We talked a little bit about the intersection of art and science. There are many artists engaged in science communication, through most of their work is facing out towards the general public. In this case with a graphic novel in a journal*, MSEAS has Bas Kohler’s work facing inward, toward the scientific community. Link is hopeful that this “paper” will inspire other conference organizers to consider bringing artists to their symposia. He encourages others to carve out a small fraction of the conference budget, explore local artists, and ask how do we want to capture our story? “Just have it on the list,” he says. He’s following his own advice, currently working on another symposia steering committee and exploring this option again. “A lot of us have been in this game for awhile — we need to mix it up and keep it fresh.”


Happy reading!

Illustrations from MSEAS 2016 by Bas Kohler, published in ICES Journal of Marine Science.


Thébaud, Olivier, Jason S. Link, Bas Kohler, Marloes Kraan, Romain López, Jan Jaap Poos, Jörn O. Schmidt, David C. Smith, and Handling editor: Howard Browman. “Managing marine socio-ecological systems: picturing the future.” ICES Journal of Marine Science 74, no. 7 (2017): 1965-1980.



*The graphic novel & MSEAS report are open access and thus available to the general public, but still, deciding to publish in a journal is by definition looking for niche audience.

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