Visualizing the History of Science with Argha Manna

Drawing of Carl Sagan

Visual by Argha Manna (published in ClubSciWri)

As someone who loves science, I was very pleased to discover the work of Argha Manna. His instagram and website are full of amazing and intricate comics and illustrations inspired by the history of science. The genre of indie visual science communication is something I would love to see more of, and Manna is doing phenomenal work in this space.

I was immediately drawn to Manna’s creations, but seeing his illustration of Carl Sagan (featured above) sealed the deal for me in becoming an instant fan.

Please enjoy the short interview below where Argha shares his unique background as a scientist turned artist, his processes, and his creative inspirations.

Tell us about the creative projects you work on.

I am currently working on two comics projects. One with Sci-Illustrate, a Munich based science-illustration company. The other is a collaboration with Prof. Geoffrey Bowker (University of California, Irvine) and Dr Bodhisattva Chatterjee (University of Oslo). In the first project, I have been creating motion comics on brain organoids. The second project is a book project on coevolution, under the CoFuture project. My past projects could be found here.

How long have you been visually creative? And how did you get into making comics around the history of science?

I am a self-taught artist. I have not attended any art school or design school. I dropped out from my PhD in cancer biology in the final year of grad school and I did not have any job. At that time I was severely depressed and took refuge in art. Making art became a therapy for me.

I started making science illustrations because I have an extensive background in science. I started my own blog named ‘Drawing History of Science’ in 2018. I found that even though there were many sci-illustrators and sci-cartoonist working around the globe, hardly anybody tried to tell stories from the history of science through art. So I took the opportunity to play on the open field. Joseph Wright (of Derby) directly influenced me to capture stories from the History of Science through visuals, but I took a different path from him. Instead of painting, I found comics to be a good medium to bring tales from the history of science into life. 

What tools do you use?

My method is hybrid. Usually, I love to draw images using waterproof black ink. Then I scan the drawings and add colour either digitally (using Adobe Photoshop) or manually (watercolours and other mediums).

Is there one image or comic you are particularly proud of?

I would like to mention two pieces of work.

1) Since the last year I have been collaborating with Prof. Lydia Bourouiba, the principal investigator of the Fluid Dynamics of Disease Transmission Laboratory from MIT. At the end of 2020, I published an essay in comics translating complex scientific findings from Bourouiba’s lab into a visual story. The essay was published in The Annals of Internal Medicine and was also featured in Graphic Medicine – The Best of 2020 list by the Journal of American Medical Association.

One of Manna’s visuals published in The Annals of Internal Medicine

2) In 2019-20, I collaborated with the University of Exeter on a project titled ‘Famine Tales from India and Britain,’ a project supported by the Art and Humanities Research Council, UK and the British Library. My role was to develop graphic non-fiction on the Great Bengal Famine of 1770. The graphic story will be published soon by Jadavpur University Press. Now the project website is exhibiting my work online. Please click here to enjoy the exhibition.

One of Manna’s intricate images depicting the Great Bengal Famine of 1770

Are there any visual creators who inspire you?

When I started drawing comics I was mostly inspired by Joe Sacco’s graphic journalism. I used to dream of producing work like Sacco and of writing a comic book like ‘Palestine’ someday. Larry Gonick’s science comics also amazed me.

Beyond comics, I used to get inspiration from Sun Xun and Ai Weiwei. Their subject matters and styles are very different from my practice though. 

What advice would you give to someone interested in making comics or who wants to add more visual creativity to their work in general?

I don’t think I am in the position to advise anyone since I consider myself a young student of the comics medium. Rather I would like to share what I followed and am still doing. I do not keep faith in talent, rather I practice a lot. Comics are a very slow medium. It involves background research, writing, and drawing. So one has to be very patient. I try to learn from the work of the masters every day, like Art Spiegelman, Joe Sacco, Chris Ware, and Robert Crumb.

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