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From Seadragons to Ospreys: Squidtoons Explores Science Through Comics

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A collage of titles and illustrations from the Squidtoon comic series. Titles read: "Don't Harass the Seagrass!" "Anatomy of the Pacific Hagfish" Anatomy of the Pacific Mackerel" "Gimme Babies Or Gimme Death!" "Anatomy of the Velella velella" "Anatomy of the Osprey"
A screenshot of several Squidtoon comics created by Garfield Kwan and Dana Song. (Courtesy of Garfield Kwan and Dana Song)

Whether you’re interested in how hagfish produce sticky, thick slime to defend themselves from predators or how ospreys get into dexterous “yoga” positions to catch fish, boy do we have the comic for you.

This science cartoon will not only leave you entertained but will teach you fun facts to share at your next party.

At least, that’s the goal for Squidtoons creators Garfield Kwan and Dana Song.

Kwan is a physiologist, marine biologist and UC Davis postdoctoral researcher. In his free time, Kwan illustrates the complicated research concepts that he’s studying, turning them into comics. Back in 2013, he approached Song – who Kwan knew had a unique style and goofy spin on her own illustrations – with his idea for a cartoon series that makes science research more accessible and fun. In 2015, they published the first Squidtoon comic online, all about the anatomy of the market squid.

“Garfield’s passion for this is infectious,” said Song, who is a public health and urban studies research associate at UC San Diego. She dedicates a big chunk of her spare time to creating comics and infographics. “Putting the world into some sort of canvas is always really fun to me,” she said.

A three-part illustrated comic strip is seen here. The first part is titled "Mimicking natural light settings." Two illustrated seadragons, one purple and one orange, are seen here sitting facing eachother at a round table with drinks on top. The first speech balloon by the orange seadragon reads "Arnold, the lightning is so unromantic! It's awful!" Right below this is the text "Click!" This is followed by the second speech bubble by the orange seadragon that reads "Arnold, is this all a joke to you??" The third speech bubble by the blue seadragon reads "I didn't do it, Amelia!" The second section is titled "Mufflinf Aquarium Ambience." Two illustrated seadragons are seen talking to eachother. Speech bubbles read: "I Love you! Evangeline!" The text "HUMMMMMM" is seen throughout the comic. A second speech bubble reads "Are you deaf? Why do you never respond?!!" The third section is titled "Increasing tank width and height." A graph is shown showing the proportionality of "Tank Size" and "Mating Success". The graph depicts that as tank size increases, so does mating success. Two speech bubbles read: "Darling, a big, fancy house would be nice after all....we don't want our babies to be unhappy now, do we?"
A screenshot of Squidtoons comic ‘Seadragons: Gimme Babies Or Gimme Death.’ (Squidtoons)

The scientist-artist duo has created more than 40 comics about topics ranging from marine biology to ecology and the environment. In one comic, they illustrate the necessary light, ambiance, tank size and everything else you might want to know about how to breed seadragons.

Their most recent comic brings us into the anatomy of the osprey.

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A project to inspire — and inform

Part of the inspiration behind this comic, Kwan said, is being able to communicate and help people understand the fascinating findings of complex scientific research. Creating comics is also another outlet for Kwan to share the “cool research” he’s doing with the world.

Song believes that art is a crucial communication tool, especially in the field of science, and wants more collaborations between scientists and artists as an effective way to get more people interested in science.

With the dawn of social media, the most valuable asset now is our attention, Kwan said.

“We’re fighting for attention to bring people to important ideas,” Kwan added. “But we’re also competing against, just, cute cats and dog videos.”

Squidtoon creators Dana Song (right) and Garfield Kwan (left). (Courtesy of Dana Song and Garfield Kwan)

Kwan said that scientists need to always be thinking about how to communicate their research with the public. It can take time to digest scientific concepts and even more time to figure out how to communicate these concepts to a larger audience, Kwan explained.

For Song, the challenge is preserving the quality of the work while keeping pace with where the audience is at. “As a science communicator and also a scientist myself, I need to ensure the work that we communicate is on par with the standards of science,” Kwan said.

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The authors go above and beyond to make sure Squidtoons is both visually appealing and factually correct; they’ve adopted the scientific process of peer review and leveraged their relationships with other scientists.

Squidtoons has been a “labor of love,” Kwan said. The illustrators hope that they can continue to make more comics, inspire more people with science, and ultimately create awareness around important issues like climate change. “I want science to help us understand the world better,” Song said.

Squidtoons is available online for free for all to access. The comic has been featured in a textbook, the Seymour Marine Discovery Center in Santa Cruz, and has received funding from the National Science Foundation and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. In 2018, Kwan and Song published a Squidtoons children’s book.

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