Comics about monsters, superheroes, and old favourites Donald Duck and Mickey Mouse helped us chill out as children. Spy Vs Spy in MAD magazine kept us in splits, and Dilbert took the edge off Kafkaesque office scenarios. Now a Hyderabad-based data science and AI firm, Gramener, with its headquarters in the US, is trying to use the comics format to breathe life into the annual reports of companies, hard-to-recall playbooks for salespeople, health campaigns or online chemistry lessons.
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Gramener’s Story Labs unit has created an open source tool, Comicgen, that will allow anyone to create comic strips on any topic. It has a library of comics characters in varying postures and with expressions that can be inserted into visual editors like Illustrator and Photoshop. There are plug-ins and tutorials to ease the path of novices, as well as APIs (application programming interfaces) to enable techies to pull data from the cloud to automatically update the comics. A character’s expression, for instance, could reflect the movement of the stock market.
To explain the possibilities, they have chosen to use the example of cricket, something almost everyone has an opinion or analysis on. Story Labs head Richie Lionell and his designer colleague, Ramya Mylavarapu, have come out with a book, From Data To Stories—in part an illustrated book, with a cricket comics data story created by the authors, in part a guide for beginners to come to grips with the tools and craft.
Techies clueless about storytelling can learn how to weave a comic with data and visuals. Those well-versed in storytelling can learn to use the art of fetching data, cleaning it, and serving analytical insights. The book’s story is simple: A techie couple from India is visiting England during the 2019 ODI (One Day International) World Cup and the conversations veer towards India’s games. The artwork is minimal, without the sort of backgrounds you would find in regular comics. The focus is on illustrating the concepts.
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Bar charts with over-by-over scorecards accompany the comic strips. It’s easy to visualise there, for instance, how the KulCha overs, by leg spinners Yuzvendra Chahal and Kuldeep Yadav, choked Australia’s run chase against India in the first match. A speech bubble from one of the characters in the accompanying comic strip explains it.
Lionell, a sports buff, says it helped that cricket data is readily available online, enabling access to scorecards going back to the first Test match between England and Australia in Melbourne, Australia, in March 1877.
This brings its own problems, though. Copious amounts of data can make it harder to draw meaningful insights, making it more important to ask the right questions and push the data you want into Excel or other tools for analysis. The tutorial in the second part of the book has exercises for such analysis.
Data visualisation in multiple scenarios has become increasingly vital in the adoption of the web and smartphones in daily life. The visual language of comics, with sequential art, snapshots and speech bubbles, creates new possibilities, especially for a generation used to communicating with emojis. Lionell says they are also building a library of emoji-based charts which can be connected to data.
Adoption in business-case scenarios is picking up, though not all companies are taking it seriously. “One of Gramener’s existing FMCG (consumer goods) clients wanted an entire sales playbook in comic format,” says Lionell. At present, however, it’s easier to work with media, non-profits, environmental groups and so on, he adds.
He is hopeful, though. Story Labs is introducing comics in doses, in quarterly reports, for instance. “Corporate folks already use memes to convey technical insights. Soon comics will become part of the mainstream.”
Sumit Chakraberty is a Bengaluru-based writer.
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