Adventure Background

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Background story and info. on the origins of the Adventures in Synthetic Biology comic

  • This whole comic thing has been weird, new, and enjoyable. Comics turn out to be a hugely powerful technology for communication and education. Thus, thought it might be worth quickly documenting and sharing the story of how all this got started and played out. Endy 11:11, 11 Nov 2005 (EST)
Figure 0. Becky Ward's candid of one of the younger 2005 ICSB conferees considering an early color draft of the comic.

  • We (MIT SBWG) had been spending a lot of time thinking about how to hide information and manage complexity in engineered biological systems. One cool set of ideas has developed around engineered genetic devices, and how to send signals between devices using common signal carriers. Unfortunately, it's turned out to be very difficult to teach ideas about common signal carriers to students and others. There are a number of conceptual sticking points. So, to attempt to help with teaching, I made some abstract depictions of genetic devices. For example, here's a depiction of a genetically encoded inverter (Figure 1).
Figure 1. Abstract depiction of genetic inverter. Blue arrows are PoPS signals into (left) and out from (right) the device. Green box is RBS. Yellow triangle is repressor ORF. Red box is terminator. Orange circle is operator / promoter site.

  • Meanwhile, Felice Frankel organized a meeting on Image & Meaning in the summer of 2005. In her brilliance, Felice asked each participant to send in a visual image associated with their work, so that it could be printed on our name tags. The name tags also did *not* include affiliation. As a result, everybody at the meeting had two immediate questions to ask everybody else. (1) What's that? (pointing at your name-tag image) and (2) Where are you from? Instant conversations. In any case, feeling confident, I sent in the abstract inverter image for my name tag.
Figure 2. Photo of the first draft I sketched out for the story board of the comic on the plane ride home. You can make out the first ever "drawings" of System Sally and Device Dude in the 2nd panel.

  • The first person who walks up to me and asks "What's that?" turned out to be Larry Gonick, author of The Cartoon Guide to Genetics. I told him about the image (Fig.1) and explained how the genetically-encoded inverter works. He said, regarding the depiction, “that sucks!” After recovering from shock I asked why. He said that I had told him a story, but that the image is static. It’s an image, but with no meaning. He said I needed a comic. I asked him how to make a comic. He said, “just go make it.” Now, at this point, I have to admit that I was pretty stoked about the power of comics as a tool for explaining and teaching. This is mostly do to the amazing work of Saul Griffith, Joost Bonsen, and Nick Dragotta on HowToons. Joost and Saul had both been sharing and demoing their awesome comic series on "tools of mass construction." Keep an eye out for their forthcoming book!
  • So, on the plane ride home, I sketched out a version of the comic (Figure 2). You can get a sense of my drawing skills. My hope here was to visually illustrate each of the conceptual sticking points students (and we) encounter in thinking about PoPS, our common signal carrier for genetic devices. That way, we could hand out the comic and folks could see a dialog around each of these sticking points. The comic would provide visual substrate for mulling things over.
Figure 3. Chuck's first rough / quick sketch of the comic.

  • Recognizing my utter lack of drawing skills, Isadora Deese suggested that we ask Chuck Wadey if he would be interested in illustrating the comic for us. Isadora sent Chuck a fax of the sketch shown in Figure 2. Chuck turns out to be more or less amazing. Right away, he sent back a rough sketch of what he thought we were getting at. Chuck also made some critically important comments. To summarize -- (1) he didn’t have any direction on characters at this point (2) he didn't feel that folks would have enough information to understand what was going on (unless they were already doing this work), that the comic was designed for somebody who was already 75% of the way into the field. Isadora Deese also chimed in with advice on characters, script & plot development. So, in order to increase the audience of the comic, and keep Chuck excited about the work, we decided to add two earlier chapters with the hope of explaining the concepts of “programming DNA” and “engineered genetic devices.” I also borrowed a copy of the FANTASTIC book Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud. Definitely worth checking this book out if you've time. It's a wonderful, self-extracting primer on visual communication.
  • So, at this point, Isadora and I buckled down and made a full-on script, along with ideas about characters. Chuck started working from this and pulled off more amazing stuff. Figure 4 has one of his first pencil sketches. We worked through a lot of questions as Chuck moved to the color finals. He kept amazing us with his ideas and insights for how to depict stuff. And, as a bonus, right at the end of the final color version, he dropped in a nice visual reference to MIT and Boston -- see if you can find Building 10.
Figure 4. Chuck's first full pencil sketch based on full (draft) script and character descriptions. He's great.

  • Check out the final version back here!
  • To request a free color comic book-style reprint please email isadora AT mit DOT edu.
  • Go make your own comic!