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.”

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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.

AppComNet at Comics Forum 2015: Comics & Politics

comics-forum-cfp

Applied Comics Network is super-mega-very delighted to host a session at the Comics Forum 2015 conference as part of Thought Bubble.  Click the image above to go to the Comics Forum website and download it as a PDF.

Comics Forum’s theme this year is ‘comics and politics’ and they’re inviting a range of interpretations of this theme.  We at AppComNet are hosting a session on the politics of comics that communicate specific information, and the use of comics in education.  Again, this is a theme that welcomes many different points of view.

Comics Forum is a friendly academic conference.  Within this, our AppComNet session welcomes proposals from both comics creators and comics scholars – anyone who works with comics and graphic narrative.

We have some plans for the format of our AppComNet session at Comics Forum but this all depends on the proposals we receive. This could include the following (but no promises until we receive your proposals!):

  • a talking-and-slides presentation about comics you’ve created, or how you’ve used comics created by other people
  • mini workshops on activism and education through comics
  • a show’n’tell of comics you’ve created – do you make comics with specific political content?  Or is it the process of making your comics that says something about politics?
  • a comics-making challenge activity for Comics Forum participants
  • panel discussions on a theme
  • …or something completely different.

The closing date for proposals is 30th July 2015. Please email your proposal to comicsforum (at) hotmail (dot) co (dot) uk

If you’d like a quick chat before putting in your proposal, twitter is the best way to get in touch: @appcomnet.  For queries about the conference as a whole please contact comicsforum (at) hotmail (dot) co (dot) uk

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