Author: John S.

Archaeologist, illustrator and artist - one half of the Inside Out team with Diana.

Patricia Cornflake: comics and feminist art theory

cartoon1Guest post by Suzanne van Rossenberg

My very first cartoon made in 2007 (image above; click for larger version) has become emblematic of the research I started last year. Back then Patricia Cornflake’s Lesbian Lifestyle was a response to my jobless situation in the arts, in which I had been trained, and my growing interest in LGBTI activism and advocacy. After ten years of working in the arts and activism in the Netherlands, I obtained a scholarship to research the relationships between the two and moved to London.

In my fifteen-year practice of writing, drawing and painting and project management, making comics was a marginal, incidental activity with mainly my friends as an audience. You can see a selection of them here. Some of them have been published in an online queer journal and showcased in art exhibitions.

Recently, cartoons have become more important in my work. I’ve included them in presentations about my research at academic conferences and used the format to review and critique feminist literature. Five cartoons will be published in a forthcoming book about feminist art (theory). Because the context of my comics is so specific, I understand not everybody will find them funny. Often they are not meant to be (only) funny.

It was only a few weeks ago that I found out about the Applied Comics Network through my brother (an archaeologist who also uses academia as a platform for his creativity), when I told him I was working on transforming one of my short stories into a graphic novel. The concentration of drawing relaxes me after hours of reading and writing. There is also another link between comics and my research: fiction can be an invaluable tool for addressing sexism and racism in the arts, academia and other norm-setting areas.

Therefore, I hope to learn more about applied comics and comics scholarship in the near future. Through the Applied Comics Network I hope to get in touch with more artists I can relate to and learn from. I am sorry to have missed the meet-up in May, but I’m definitely attending the Leeds conference. Please get in touch via Twitter @PCornflake or email: SV384[at]live.mdx.ac.uk. Would love to hear from you!

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Team Bean

beans_1More Canadian political comics – this time in the form of a satirical take on the upcoming election. Beans sets the Canadian federal election campaign in a posh school, where all the politicians are students competing in the upcoming Student Council elections. There’s a kickstarter to help fund the project, but if you’re in Canada and want to help Beans out on the street, then there are ways you can do that, too. It’s political comics inspiring political activism.

They’re only a few strips into their projected 31-strip run, so it’s hard to see exactly where Team Bean are headed – or who they’re audience is. Do political comics need to be aimed at a local audience in order to work? Or can you make comic-based political commentary (even about specific, local issues) accessible to a broad, non-local audience? If so, how?

People Just Get It

1390041430jt5t-300x200This past weekend’s Observer carried an interesting interview with Benjamin Dix, writer of a graphic novel about Sri Lanka’s civil war. The book, The Vanni, was a collaboration between Dix as writer, and artist Lindsay Pollock. The book follows the fortune of a fictional Tamil family, but is based on interviews with real survivors of the war.

The interview is of interest because it sheds some light on Dix’s creative process as a comics writer, and demonstrates just how much background research goes into such a project. But for those of us interested in applied comics, it’s also interesting because of the direction this book has taken Dix. He has since set up a non-profit company – PositiveNegatives – which has so far published almost a dozen similar works. The majority of the works are informational in nature – comics used by NGOs and charities as lobbying and awareness-raising media. The aim is to eventually create works which teach about human trafficking, migration, sexual violence and conflict.

Time and again, the interview makes use of arguments familiar to those of us who work with applied comics:

“… the visual narrative transcends cultural differences and literacy levels…”

“… it [the comic] is a very flexible format … it can look really high-tech and we can animate it… or it can be printed out in schools in Nigeria…”

Dix concludes the interview with this interesting observation on the value of the comic in an age of digital media:

“This [comic] is a very human-led way of telling a story. In this digital, Photoshopped age, there is something very organic about the fabric of the comic, the simplicity of pen on paper.”

Perhaps, despite the comic’s analogue origins, and despite the close links between comics and more technological media such as animation, there’s something unique about the comic as a medium for telling difficult stories and making hard-to-read information accessible. Perhaps, as Dix observes, when it comes to comics: “People just get it.”

Comics With Problems

comics-with-problems_1I’ve recently been directed to Ethan Persoff’s fantastic archive of weird and off-the-wall informational comics, or Comics With Problems, as he puts it.

These are applied comics definitely from the weirder end of the spectrum: from government-sponsored oddities (Military Courtesy – a comic book all about how to salute properly), and classics (Will Eisner’s Treat Your Rifle Like a Lady), to well-known characters in public service publications (Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids in anti-drug Buzzy’s Rebound) or slightly obscure educational comics (Learn Cherokee with Blondie and Dagwood); to curiosities like a 1987 AIDS awareness comic sponsored by Madonna (Who’s That Girl?) and unusual mascots such as Pip, the Magic Safety Elephant (The Perils of PIP – Preventing Poisoning); all the way to the outer fringes of weirdness (Capn Veedee-O and Ms.Wanda Lust in VD Claptrap,  or Daffy Qaddafi: A Dictator’s Nightmare in Wonderland, or Don’t Bruise that Pig), hysteria (America Under Socialism, and The Two Faces of Communism), and offensiveness (the pro-segregation comic George Wallace for the Big Job, or the bile-filled Homosexuality: Legitimate Alternative DEATHSTYLE).

Stranger danger, anti-fluoridation, temper tantrums, body odour, Mickey Mouse selling speed, family stress, Foreskin Man, heroin abuse, landmine awareness, the Phantom running for city council, group poop, dancing condoms – and Sam the Disaster Horse talking about terrorism awareness. Hats off to Ethan Persoff: this is a crazy archive of crazy comics. Explore at your leisure – and enjoy. If nothing else, perhaps learn some lessons about how not to make applied comics.

On Strike

en_greve_street_medicsI came across an unusual political comics project recently that posed some interesting questions about the role of experience in informational comics.

The project was called En Greve, and was to be a comic documenting the student protests in Quebec in 2012. The protests were sparked by a decision to raise tuition fees by 80%. Students went on strike, and academic and administrative staff at universities, as well as hundreds of thousands of ordinary Canadians took to the streets in support. The protests became known as the Maple Spring, and eventually resulted in the election of a nationalist government and a repeal of the tuition increases.

Possibly as a result of the successful repeal of the fees increase, the comic book project seems to have stalled. An Indiegogo campaign to fund it failed to reach its target, and I’m assuming that the two artists went on to other projects. A shame, as the comic work they completed was extremely interesting. Like a travelogue, the experience of the artists – both students during the protests – didn’t simply frame the information being communicated, the experience was the information.

In many ways, the boundary between experience and information is something which is constantly being negotiated in applied comics. As creators, to what extent is our treatment of the subject matter shaped by our proximity to it? Does this proximity determine what makes a “good” informational comic? A readable one?

More on En Greve at the project tumblr. More on artists Laura Ellen and Jane Dough.
But does anyone know what eventually became of this project?

Barscrawl

barscrawl-dramThis comic is one for the “Why Didn’t I Think Of That?” file.

Bill Roundy has been writing review-comics of bars in Brooklyn for five years now. I think they’re fantastic – clear, succinct, and yet still funny and personal. There’s a real ring of truth to them as a result: comics drawn not solely for information, but to inform.

That’s the key. A review is a subjective piece of writing. You’re not just saying where the bar is, or what drinks are on the menu – a review is meant to give an informed opinion: subjectivity and objectivity mixed together. Bill uses both the art and the words to shape this mix. Like a good bartender, he uses a measure of architectural detail, a dash of caricature, a jigger of sarcasm, and a goodly slice of quick observation to create a delicious blend.

I suppose the proof of this blend is in the eating – or, in this case, drinking. Has anyone out there ever tested any of Bill’s reviews with a visit to one of the bars?

And if you’re into that sort of thing, also check out Bill’s D&D comics.
Or, for that matter, his gay romance ones.

The Dark Side of Applied Comics

disney_exxon_energyOne of the very earliest comic books I ever read as a kid was an educational comic full of information. Or, perhaps I should say it was “educational” and full of “information”.

It was a comic about “Energy Conservation” starring Mickey Mouse and Goofy, and sponsored by Exxon. Yes, that’s right: Exxon, that well-known corporate advocate of energy conservation. Just how “educational” was the “information” in that comic?

Applied Comics has something of a dark history to contend with. Comics have been used in the service of some pretty dodgy “information”, and been created as tools for some fairly dubious “education”. Just as applied comics as a serious field of study and practice might need to contend with public perceptions of comics as juvenile or dumbed-down, it also might need to contend with its legacy as blatant propaganda.

How do we ensure that informational comics can be used as a legitimate tool for presenting arguments, encouraging debate and changing opinions without allowing them to slip over into something darker?

Check out a snarky review of a comic in the same series over at paleofuture.com