Recently I took part in an online discussion for ‘Comic Ethnographies: Graphic Narratives and Social Justice Research’. The event was organised by the Centre for the Study of Inequality, Culture and Difference. I was joined by researchers, writers and comic artists who have used the comic format to explore and present questions of social justice and community action.
My talk was called ‘A Tale of Two Comics’ and explored the different approaches to two comic series I have edited and produced. The first, Dawn of the Unread, celebrates Nottingham’s literary history. The social problem it addressed was the gradual lowering of literacy levels across the UK and the value of libraries and bookshops as hubs of civic action.
The comics were published on the 8th of each month in 2014 to coincide with the launch of National Libraries’ Day and ran for sixteen issues. A comic is a complex creative production line with many roles required to assemble the completed digitised version. It’s a bit like setting off 16 rows of dominoes at overlapping times and watching them slowly fold into each other. In addition to the comic was a reading flash mob, a smartphone app, a literacy pack for schools, various talks at festivals, placements for over 200 students, a book, and using the project as a case study for Nottingham’s successful bid to become a UNESCO City of Literature. There was more but it’s exhausting just trying to remember everything we did. When the comics were finished, I spent a year staring out of the window.
Whatever People Say I Am is a series of online comics challenging stereotypes. It was created in response to our very fragmented times whereby dominant narratives such as Brexit, Covid, and Trump have split communities in two. People are no longer complex and contradictory individuals but either with you or against you. To compound matters, these supposed divisions have been amplified by social media. The grammar of digital communication encourages us to scroll rather than dwell and so there is a danger of simplifying complex social issues. The aim of this project was to put a face to statistics. To create a space for refugees, migrants, the retired, and dementia suffers to share their view of the world and explain what it means to be them. To accommodate this, the comics ran to 20 pages long, whereas Dawn of the Unread were limited to eight pages.
The comics take roughly two years to produce. They are drawn from extensive research and focus groups, with many of the participants involved in the co-creation of the comics. If Dawn of the Unread was about speed, Whatever is firmly about delayed gratification. I much prefer this way of producing comics because you get to know your subject intensely and this leads to long lasting relationships. Writing has always been about community building for me. Researching storylines is an excuse to stop and chat with people and get to know them better.
The other panelists discussing their work included Hugh Goldring and Nicole Burton of Petroglyph Studios. Based in Ottawa, Canada, they have been adapting scholarship into comics since 2014. Their comics cover a broad range of social issues ranging from policing to refugees. Their most recent publication is Wonder Drug: LSD in the Land of the Living Skies, a history of psychedelic psychotherapy in midcentury Saskatchewan. You can see their work here.
Edmund Trueman of Junk Comix has been creating and self-publishing underground comics for the last decade with a keen interest in the refugee crisis and the squatting movement. In 2021 he co-created the comic Dunkirk Jungle with Alejandra Pajares, based on interviews with residents of the Dunkirk refugee camp. In 2022 his first long-form graphic novel was published –Postcards from Congo.
Alejandra Pajares has conducted anthropological research on urban conflict and gender in Turkish Kurdistan, and identity formation at Greek and French refugee camps. Alejandra is currently collecting people’s stories on the effects of gentrification in Barcelona.
You can watch a recording of Comic Ethnographies on YouTube here.
- Inequality, Difference and Identity blogspot inequalityculturedifferencentu.blogspot.com
- Dunkirk Jungle: A comic about life behind the UK border freedomnews.org.uk
- Wonder Drug: LSD in the Land of Living Skies 49thshelf.com
- Sophie Fuggle Twitter twitter.com/fuggbug
- Whatever People Say I Am website whateverpeoplesayiam.co.uk
- Mobile Refugee Support – Please consider volunteering with them.