Why study brain injuries in a comic book?


Last week, I told you about a new, peer-reviewed study detailing more than 700 cases of traumatic brain injury in the comic Asterix. Yesterday, I went on New Hampshire Public Radio's Word of Mouth to talk about WHY that study was done. That's the question everybody had about this research. And it's a reasonable question. After all, what good is it to anyone to know how comic book characters get injured?

The answer is surprising. On several levels. For one thing, lead author Marcel Kamp told me that Traumatic brain injuries in illustrated literature: Experience from a series of over 700 head injuries in the Asterix comic books is the first peer-reviewed paper he's ever published that didn't need any revisions. The reviewers were very supportive, right from the beginning.

The other big surprise: This is really a culture shock thing. Turns out, what the general public sees as frivolous "dumb science" makes a lot more sense if you know how this paper fits into the cultural norms of medical research. I explain this in my Word of Mouth interview, but I will spoil you on one little tidbit. Before you complain about the waste of public funds, you really should know that no public funds were spent on this paper. As Kamp told me, "the analysis" was done on weekends and holidays, using the researchers own collections of comic books.

Image: goldenslumbus, a Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike (2.0) image from terrapin_flyer's photostream


  1. I think that panel is from Astérix chez les Helvètes?

    Anyway, I read somewhere that quite a lot of this “quirky” research is done without funding. They do it in their off hours just to generate press coverage.

  2. (A slightly off-topic comment, for which I apologise, but it is about the site and the image:)

    I’m slightly bemused by Boing Boing’s use of Creative Commons images in cases like this. The general use of Creative Commons photos to illustrate stories is a great cheap way to add visual impact to interesting stories; but where the image in question is obviously not sourced from the person you’re crediting, why bother? For example, this appears to be a scan of a panel from Asterix and the Banquet, written by R Goscinny and illustrated by A Uderzo. Why bother crediting the person who scanned it? Is this just easier than claiming fair use (which I do think applies here)?

  3. Le tour de Gaule d’Asterix. Besides, there’s was a study years ago about how several and continuous cranium traumas inhibited Tintin’s normal growth and let him an eternal teen.

  4. I can’t listen to the article, but the value I see in this is that in the real world, TBI are often dismissed as not as serious as other injuries; soldiers and denied benefits, football players are put back in the game.

    If head injuries are portrayed in the media as something someone could bounce right back from, could those representations be to blame for why people don’t take brain injuries seriously?

  5. “Turns out, what the general public sees as frivolous “dumb science” makes a lot more sense if you know how this paper fits into the cultural norms of medical research.”

    This is often also true in many other fields, including mathematics and computer science. I for one am glad to work in a field where most non-scientists don’t really know *what* I’m studying, just that it has something to do with semiconductors.

  6. This post says that the study was well done. And it says that it wasn’t done with the researcher’s own resources (hence no good-use-of-taxpayer-funds concern).

    But the post says absolutely nothing about why the research isn’t a complete waste of time — it fails to deliver on the headline. Your Word of Mouth piece may be awesome, but it’s not responding right now, so I don’t know what it says. So I’m left feeling like there might well be a reason that this isn’t just navel-grazing, but nobody can be bothered to tell me what that reason is.


  7. As a follow-up, they could study the head injuries of Thomson and Thompson in the Adventures of TinTin. They cannot go more than a minute without some sort of head injury.

  8. Has anyone done a study on how the “A.C.M.E. Novelty” company has stayed in business for decades despite dealing in shoddy/substandard goods and apparently only having one customer: Wile E. Coyote?

    1. The publication you are looking for is The Road to Serfdom by Friedrich Hayek.

      The System Works!â„¢

      1. Then what happens when the Road Runner is finally captured? What will the “A.C.M.E. Novelty” company do? It’s not like they are going to inspire Wile E. Coyote to find a new enemy to keep the company alive, right?

  9. What amuses me about the NPR site is that for their illustration they’ve managed to pick one of the very, very few pages from the entire Astérix omnibus where NOBODY is getting whacked upside the head…

  10. J’adore Astérix! There are english translations available, but some of the jokes may be lost on you if you’re unfamiliar with French history, popular culture, and regionalisms. Still, well worth it – the funniest of all of les bandes dessinés (comic strips/books).

    1. What about the fair use in the Asterix picture of a beautiful Beatles song…

      Not just fair use, out of copyright: the words – well, the relevant ones! – are from the beautiful Thomas Dekker ballad which The Beatles set.

  11. I do agree with escowles here, although I know I’m a little late:

    Can you tell us WHY the research was done? This post sets us up to think you’re going to tell us that, but it doesn’t.

    Do we have to listen to the podcast?

  12. Hi SamSam,
    I have no connection with the authors of this paper
    but I can tell you why I would have done this research
    if I had thought of it.
    This is serious relevant social research. Asterix, while
    almost unknown in the US, is basically universal in the
    rest of the world. Most literate countries have Asterix
    available in their own language, with topical jokes adjusted
    to the taste and times that the translation was done.
    To understand the issue, even if you don’t agree with this,
    take it as an axiom that these are some seriously funny commix.
    If you want to learn French, I recommend getting the English
    and French versions of the Asterix comix and read them both
    all through. You will have some questions, certainment, but
    you will know a lot of interesting things you didn’t before.
    So in context of this study, I have to draw a bit of a
    distinction – there are two levels of humor met here.
    The depictions of violence in Asterix are, despite heavy
    armament (swords, pikes, Obelix) almost nobody ever dies.
    After suitable potion-related preparations, the protagonists
    sort of hit the “bad guys” and they get sidelined, with bells
    birds and sometimes punctuation marks floating around their
    heads. In a more modern context these bad guys would be
    “terrorists” and they would be full of .50 inch holes.
    The Asterix cartoons don’t take that route. Instead, they
    depict the vanquished minions of whichever foe these protagonists
    come upon as having some kind of interesting but brief
    and perhaps educational experience. “After this period of
    flapping birds and ringing bells, you may reconsider the
    decisions that led to it”. Not sure why Goscinni and Underzo
    went this way (or even if I spelled their names right) but
    I read all the books in every language I could find and they
    were all funny. Perhaps the idea of getting hit hard enough
    to kill any human and only getting a brief feeling of
    disorientation has a very strong cross-cultural humorous
    appeal. The great popularity of these translations can be
    explained partly by that means.
    The other side of it, beyond the really excellent artwork
    that is so adaptable in translation, is the translation work
    that follows the topical context of the primary populations
    of each translation language. Asterix in French has jokes about
    what was going on in the French universe (mostly government)
    and the Italian version was more about the current set of
    scandals from Milan and Rome; this deliberate topicality of the
    translated jokes certainly led me to buy more than one version
    of each book, so I have to conclude that there was a wider
    version of that effect which helped fund better work from the
    So although I think this particular research is relevant,
    I have to wonder if there is some kind of special axe being
    ground here. It may be a valid statistical observation, I
    haven’t thought about it enough but yes, apparently having
    the opponents of the heroes get whacked in the head and have
    birds, bells or punctuation marks floating around their heads
    is funny in any language and these comix made the most of it.
    Is this good or bad? I’m not sure where the researchers were
    going with this. I think that a big laugh about something that
    I wasn’t thinking about before is better than total ignorance.
    Later on I may learn of “political” concerns that make one
    view or another popular or not, but I learned of many issues
    I didn’t know about because of Asterix having to hit someone.

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