Evolution of a Sketch Chemistry Cartoon

At ChemScrapes, a lot of cartoons are done in rapid response to something that is going on in Twitter. Other cartoons are ideated while in meetings, upon hearing certain word combinations, or even while driving to work. For the most part I like to think that ChemScrapes doesn't offend anyone, but I can't rule out that pics of viagra adopting a superman pose over a toilet because of a permanent erection (below left), or molecules trying to "couple" without a catalyst (below right) could be off-putting for some. Needless to say, ChemScrapes does not have any publishing standards to ahdere to - people are free to follow or not. If people don't get the joke, that is also fine. I don't really need to worry as long as someone gets it and I can't sack myself for not always landing a joke.

Chemical and Engineering News (c&en) on the other hand does have publishing standards (and therefore so does Sketch Chemistry), and it also matters if the jokes land with the audience or not. So, every month my collaborator on Sketch Chemistry (Michael Torrice) and I go through an alignment process on the panel for the month. Panels are usually submitted as very rough sketches, and the idea is developed from there. Some of the ideas come together very quickly whilst others need some work and refinement to be suitable to engage a diverse audience from multiple backgrounds. Sometimes, what seems like a really funny joke at the rough sketch stage may turn out to be a little obscure, so we need to modify it to be fit for subscriber consumption. Other times, we start and idea and then realise part way through it might not be entirely suitable for the publication.


I thought it would be interesting to take a Sketch Chemistry cartoon and show the process we go through. The example I have picked from February 2019 (shown below) has elements of a joke that was hard to land, as well as some borderline material in terms of publishing standards. (https://cen.acs.org/content/dam/cen/static/images/sketch/cell-biologists-1024.jpg#.X5UjBubqbV4.link).

The way this cartoon appears is as a play on words of "cell biologists" - cells biologists looking at cells through a microscope, where the the cells are also biologists experimenting on other cells in a microtitre plate. The way this cartoon started off was quite different. I can't find the original sketch, but it was a thirty second scrawl on a bit of paper that just had a bunch of cells in a plate, a cell outside the plate with a syringe, and simply labelled "cell biologists" (I'll upload it when I find it). We shortlisted the rough idea and started the process.


Once we decide to develop an Idea, I usually work up the rough sketch into a draft and send it for a progress report. While doing this, I often start to think of other possibiities and layers of jokes that could go into the more refined cartoon. I decided this cartoon needed to be more than a play on words and there should be some conflict going on. So I introduced a syringe full of bleach (pre-COVID, not inspired by Trump), made some of the cells in the plate seem a scared, and then also had another cell biologst asking about ethics approval.

For me, it wasn't enough for the cell biologist to be asked about ethics approval, I wanted to suggest that the experimenter didn't have it and had been found out. As the creator of the cartoon, the joke is always immediately obvious and all the connections make sense in my mind. To the editorial team (who are much more experienced at thinking about their audience than I am), the multiple layers made the initial play on words hard to draw out. Also, the suggestion of impending death to the cells in the plate is possibly borderline in terms of publishing standards, so we decided to tone it down a bit. Michael suggested we could introduce a scene with a microscope into the cartoon, that would be clearer. I liked this idea, but struggled to execute it.


My nature is to overcomplicate things, so what I did next actually made the cartoon much worse - I went 100% the opposite way where I tried all the plays on words. I decided to introduce the new panel as a prison scene into the cartoon. In this scene, incarcerated cell biologists are in a prison cell (obviously) and they are looking through a microscope at some....well....cell biologists (see below).

I immediately regretted sending this one off - it was face-smackingly bad. So instead of hitting the reset button I spent some more time on it before Michael could feed back, just to see if a more fleshed out drawing would help. It didn't! The result is shown below.

As expected, Michael suggested I had overcomplicated the cartoon and we now had a backstory to explain. What are the biologists doing in prison? And how do they have glassware when they are in jail? Do prisons even do cell biology? He suggested that perhaps we move the scene to a lab scenario so there is less explaining to do. We toyed with the idea that the researchers were just looking perplexed, but decided we needed some dialogue to land the joke. My first cut is shown below where we made it seem as if the cells were applying for a job.

By the time we get to this part of the process (where we have agreed on the scene and drawing), it is just a matter of tidying up the dialogue. As mentioned before, I tend to overcomplicate things, so Michael had a much better suggestion (as he always does) which ultimately found its way into the cartoon as it is published.


For this cartoon, I also made an animation of the cells coming into focus which we never ended up using. In fact I had almost forgotten I did this until I was going through the files for this post. So, it appears here for the first time - cell biologists.


So there you have it, the evolution of a Sketch Chemistry cartoon. I have to say that not every month is like this. Through the last year and the COVID period - we have got much better at single panels and faster turn around as we have analysed what the viewers like and built an appreciation for the kind of jokes that land well. Aweome fun and Michael is a great collaborator.