How I Learned to Love Comics: An Anthropology Editor Sees the Light

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  • posted byAnne
  • dateFebruary 12, 2015
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Graphic Adventures in Anthropology

This post kicks off a new blog series called Graphic Adventures in Anthropology. Once a week for the next 7 weeks, a guest contributor will write about some aspect of graphic anthropology (and by “graphic” we mean drawing in general, and comics in particular), from visual culture to visual communication, and from ethnographic method to dissemination device, culminating in the announcement of a new series we are launching at the press called ethnoGRAPHIC. Here’s the line-up:

Andrew Causey: Drawing as an Ethnographic Method
Stacy Leigh Pigg: Learning Graphic Novels from an Artist’s Perspective
Sherine Hamdy & Mona Damluji: Reflecting on Arab Comics: 90 Years of Visual Culture
Coleman Nye: Teaching Comics in a Medical Anthropology & Humanities Class
Gillian Crowther: Fieldwork Cartoons Revisited

Juliet McMullin: Comics in the Community
Nick Sousanis: Unflattening Scholarship with Comics
Anne Brackenbury: ethnoGRAPHIC: A New Series by University of Toronto Press

How I Learned to Love Comics: An Anthropology Editor Sees the Light
By Anne Brackenbury

The only comics I ever read growing up were of the Archie variety. Superheroes and weird fantasy characters never appealed to me, nor did the contrived dialogue and simplistic “POWs” and “BANGs” that characterized the action taking place. I was a realist for the most part, and when I ventured into fiction, I wanted characters I could relate to, and people grappling with serious concerns.

When I went to graduate school and worked in an academic bookstore, I only read political/literary theory or literary fiction. We did sell comics—mostly as a way to make abstract theory more accessible, as in the popular For Beginners series (Marx, Lacan, Foucault, etc.)—but I barely looked at them. I wanted my text delivered straight up, not watered down, or worse, served up in a fruity mix to make it more palatable. Maybe I was a little too earnest, or worse, pretentious (that IS what graduate school is about after all), but I think the medium wasn’t quite where I needed it to be yet. So I went my way, and comics went theirs.

Equity Ink_sampleBy the early 90s, comics were transforming, and though I would love to say that it was the publication of Art Spiegelman’s Maus that marked the beginning of my rendezvous with comics, it wasn’t. Despite the popularity of that book in academic and narrative theory circles, and despite the fact that I sold a lot of copies at the bookstore, I still found myself reluctant to pick it up. It was hip to exalt “low culture,” but I was a book person damn it, and comics were not real books in my mind.

It took me another ten years to be ready for comics, and it was Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis that marked my breakthrough. I’m not sure why I picked it up. Maybe it was because comics had a new name—graphic novels—which hinted at something more serious. Or maybe it’s because people I respected (i.e. serious book readers!) recommended it. What I encountered blew me away. I was awestruck at the way a serious subject could be made so powerful through the use of comics. Simple, almost childlike, images were used to tell a story about revolution and social change, and yet what I experienced as I read it was a complex set of emotions, as if I had lived through it myself. I laughed, I cried, I sensed the fear and tension hanging in the balance, and I understood the Iranian revolution in a completely different way, less with my head, and more with my senses. It was a quick read, but one that stuck with me for some time, the images etched in my memory.

And so the obsession began. I picked up Maus and finally understood what all the fuss was about. How could non-human characters be made to feel more human than humans themselves? I sought out comics and graphic novels from my favourite publisher and in bookstores across the city, from Yoshihiro Tatsumi’s Good-Bye to Chris Ware’s Building Stories and Marguerite Abouet’s Aya: Life in Yop City, and from Joe Sacco’s Palestine to Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home and Jeff Lemire’s Essex County. These graphic novels so compelled me that I wanted to know more about the format itself, so I read Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics and Will Eisner’s Graphic Storytelling and Visual Narrative. Heck, I even enrolled in a comic book bootcamp!

What struck me was the way large issues could be addressed by invoking the everyday, and the way text and image could work to support one another, and often against each other, in a productive way. A serious conversation, for instance, could be made less threatening and more approachable when juxtaposed with a humorous, or more lighthearted, visual. And a horrifying or intense image could be absorbed more effectively when accompanied by text that played it down. It had the opposite effect of romanticizing or aestheticizing the people and places in the story. It also had the dual effect of presenting a straight up story with a running commentary of sorts, only I didn’t have to keep shifting to the footnotes below, I just had to learn to read it differently. Research has shown that when people read comics, they often look at the entire page before starting to read it in a traditional linear way. They study the setting, the colours, the style, and the characters before they read even one word. And that’s what makes comics different. They tell a story that can unfold panel by panel, but they can also show multiple points of view, a complex world, and past/present/future simultaneously on one page. This “simple” format requires a pretty sophisticated set of decoding skills from readers, moving up and down and across panels to piece together the story in an active form of reading.

Equity Ink_sample2More recently, my infatuation with comics seems to have transformed into a long-term commitment. It’s not exclusive (I’m still very happy to read straight up fiction and non-fiction, and in fact, I often find reading a novel less taxing than reading comics), but I’m pretty confident in our connection, so much so that I have wanted to introduce comics to my friends, and most especially, my anthropology friends. Yes, I’ve been coming out as a comics fan in recent years, extolling the virtues of the format and how it might fit really well with ethnography to every anthropologist who will lend me his or her ears. Amazingly, almost everyone I have talked to can see the potential and is excited about the idea. If they were once skeptical of comics, they aren’t any longer. They know that anthropologists have been exploring the power of the visual, in particular photography and film, for a long time now. The focus has moved from documentary realism to understanding photography as both a method and a fiction of sorts, which has liberated it to be used in more creative and experimental ways. And comics, it seems, offer an opportunity to do something similar but with a different kind of potential. What does it mean to draw during fieldwork rather than take photographs? How would a visual artist document what he or she saw during fieldwork? What is it about the combination of text and visuals that would allow for less visible elements of fieldwork to be captured? What about re-presenting fieldwork ethically? What kind of imagination do comics encourage and how can they be rendered imaginatively but rigorously? And what pedagogical and communicative advantages do comics offer?

So sharpen your pencils, grab your doodling pads, and let’s head out on this Graphic Adventure in Anthropology together.

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