Category: Applied Comics

Blues Lives

snakesmComics and biography go particularly well together. There’s something about the narrative of a life-story that seems to “click” with the particular sequential approach of comics. The event-by-event sequential approach of a biographical photographic essay is fine – but the way in which comics layout can be manipulated to expand, contract, compress and emphasise particular elements or motifs can really add shape and form to a biography.

I’m not a blues fan per se, but I love the biographical comics of well-known (and not-so-well-known) blues musicians, drawn (and mostly written) by Gary Dumm [American Spendor, Students For A Democratic Society, etc. ] and featured on the Music Maker Relief Foundation site, and originally in the Music Maker’s Rag newsletter. Dumm’s panels demonstrate how informational comics can seamlessly skate between “infographic”, “illustrated-text”, “cartoon” and “comic”. Looking at a collection of individual biographies, an overarching sequence becomes apparent: a comic made up of comics.

The question: when is a comic not a comic? – which I think people studying informational comics and graphics often ask – seems here to be pretty much irrelevant. It’s the underlying understanding of a “comics approach” to not just the individual biographies, but to the overall project that seems important – not whether or not a specific work has a requisite number of panels, or features speech-bubbles, or whatever.

Lydia often describes “Applied Comics” as comics that have a job to do. How a creator gets that job done – how they manipulate the comics tradition, how they adapt, expand, contract, compress and emphasise particular techniques or elements of comics’ visual language is what adds true shape and form to a comic. As in Dumm’s blues biographies, successful elision infographic, illustrated-text and panel-by-panel sequence is what helps bring the informational content of applied comics alive.



tiny_adventure_1Here’s an interesting example of a comic travelogue: Tiny Adventure Journal. It’s the work of artist Shing Yin Khor, a sculptor, an illustrator and a comics artist from Los Angeles. The comic is her artists’ journal, following her in her travels, between various residencies and commissions, across the US and Canada. Along the way she records her visits to weird and wonderful museums, botanic gardens, comics conventions and colleges.

Shing Yin Khor makes a lot of imaginative comics – but it’s interesting to find someone who uses the comics form not just as a great creative medium, but as an effective documentary one as well. Read Tiny Adventure Journal and The Center for Otherworld Science and you’ll find a nice sense of synergy between the fiction-storytelling and the record-keeping, informational side of the craft.

I think we all already know that good storytelling is good storytelling, and it doesn’t matter if you’re writing about aliens, flying whales and other dimensions – or insects, fossils and ancient Rome. Comics is a fluid practice, and creators can jump happily between genres: from fiction to fact, creative to applied, science to science-fiction. What would Tiny Adventure Journal be like without The Center for Otherworld Science in its DNA?

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.


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.

Science Ruins Everything talk about comics and information has to touch on xkcd at some point. There’s no doubting the comics’s information credentials. But what’s perhaps more interesting is the way in which that information manifests.

As an archaeologist, I’m not sure I qualify as a proper scientist in xkcd’s eyes, so perhaps it’s no surprise that I don’t get some of the comics. But even the ones I don’t get I still find interesting (I admit it: I’m one of those people whose next port of call after xkcd is often a Wikipedia article).

I feel as if I’m prompted to go find out about things I don’t know not because the comic has explained it, but precisely because it hasn’t. What’s interesting about the manifestation of information in xkcd is that it’s often presented without much in the way of explanation. It feels like an entirely counter-intuitive approach, but it clearly works. But how does that work? How can comics so full of facts, detail and information leave out the explanation?

Perhaps we shouldn’t always feel as if a comic has to be the whole answer to a given question – perhaps it’s okay for it to be part of the answer. A comic can’t always replace an academic journal, an user’s manual, a detailed prose explanation, or even a Wikipedia article – and perhaps they shouldn’t try. Perhaps a better use of their accessible and engaging qualities is to point the way.

Maybe, they shouldn’t be the answer that unravels the mystery, but a way to re-phrase the mystery in order to pique curiosity.