Author: Suchi Gaur, October 92015 - All I can remember of comics from my childhood days are images of me flipping through the fresh pages of Archies, Pinky, Chacha Chowdhary, Biloo, Tintin and Champak amongst many others. And while I sat watching Avengers sometime back, all I could think of (beyond analyzing the movie on SFX and characterization, plot, story) was how every (mostly) comic character, hero, at the end is trying to save the world, restore peace. How, at the end, comics have somehow created characters which reinforce certain positive messages amongst the audience, the readers. As a tool for communication, comics have been a great medium for behavior change. As children, while Champak reinforced positive behaviors and practices, as adults, Comics could also do many magical things, if tapped well.

For a recent project at work, I am in the process of developing comics for edutainment on a critical public health issue. Always excited to tell stories, I love how I can always link up my work to creatively interesting formats like comics.

But then, in the field of Public Health, what can comics really do and how?

It has been observed that popular entertainment has been effective in educating audiences about disease prevention[1] which borrows from the Albert Bandura’s Social Learning Theory which discusses how most behavior is learned through modeling and involves persuading communication developers to incorporate health issues in their designing and programming. While audience learns new habits and behavior by seeing these role models on screen/stage, they adapt them into their own lives. Examples showcase how this has been adapted in puppet shows, songs and drama. In the context of comics, this process of role modeling can play strong role in motivating community members and targeted audience to change behavior and enable dealing with difficult situations as posed in the stories. Adopting this method therefore became critical in designing comics for any public health issue. As a strategy this can help not just to demonstrate new behavior or reinforce existing right ones but also tap on the audience emotions which is more likely to make an impact through stories that relate to their lives.

Why Comics?

Dissemination of key messages aims in encouraging positive behavior change among people, through a medium which is acceptable, understood and liked by the community. Singhal and Rogers[2] in the late 1990’s suggested that EE (Entertainment - Education) was “the process of purposely designing and implementing a media message to both entertain and educate, in order to increase knowledge about an issue, create favorable attitudes and change overt behavior” (1999, p. 229). Over the years comics have transitioned into a widely used mode of communication. Comics as a medium provides a platform for easy accessibility of knowledge, to its audience. Appropriate representation of story helps the audience to understand issues in a holistic and organized manner. Information derived from comics can further be used as usable practices by the audience. Sequentially placed narrative through visual develops easy understanding of even complex issues. The art of storytelling through use of symbols and icons (socio-cultural) provides a platform to connect with the audience instantly.

Strong visual representation, tight storyline, well defined characters, limited space to convey messages makes them a flexible medium for literate as well as semi-literate audience.

Though comics come with their own set of challenges like literacy and socio-cultural settings, they still have immense potential to be an extremely powerful resource for behavior change. There are groups in the country that are using Participatory Comic Development as a process of engaging with communities, especially youth groups. The World Comic Network in India promotes the use of grassroots comic not just as a medium for self-expression but also effective communication in communities, facilitating engagement on critical issues of community importance.

Comics have over the years proven their potential in the field of public health. Comic book[3] named "Intelligent" was designed to serve as an educational tool that engages the next generation of malaria researchers, allowing students in schools and colleges around the world to learn about the disease, how it is transmitted, and what the scientific community is doing to fight it. In European Virtual Institute of Malaria Research (EVIMalaR) updated that "the resource has been translated into eight different languages - of which over two thousand have been downloaded, and four thousand copies [have] been printed. Another[4] recent example includes a comic planned series covering various aspects of prevention and treatment of Ebola in Liberia. Published by International Organization for Migration (IOM) Liberia, this graphic story was created in order to raise awareness about preventing Ebola and seeking early care when Ebola is suspected. Similarly, in India, though the tool hasn't been utilized that much in Public Health, especially disease communication, the potential is immense and needs to be tapped well.

And while I am in the process of developing comics, managing the multiple challenges, what I have also realized is that in the field of Public Health Communication, role of research is of prime importance. This includes the story and process of development to be based on a research as well as, the importance of a feedback, evaluation of the impact of the comics on the readers, both immediate and long term. At every step, the messages and the way the messages are packaged need to be backed by research done in the field.

To me, Comics are not stand alone tools for behavior change but very much a component of the package of edu-taining formats that should be used for social development, be it in the field of public health or any other.

[1] Bandura, A. Analysis of modeling process. School of Psychology Digest 1975; 4:4-10

[2] Singhal, A. & Rogers, E.M. (1999). Entertainment-Education: A communication strategy for social change. New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

[3] Malaria: The Battle against a Microscopic Killer

[4] Spread the Message, Not the Virus - Graphic Story

Image credit: Author

This blog was featured on the author's LinkedIn page.