A Graphic Conversation: Talking Comics and Scholarship

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  • posted byAnna
  • dateOctober 10, 2018
  • commentsComments Off on A Graphic Conversation: Talking Comics and Scholarship

Anne Brackenbury, Executive Editor at University of Toronto Press, and co-editor of the ethnoGRAPHIC Series, sat down recently with Kendra Boileau, Assistant Director and Editor-in-Chief at Penn State University Press to talk comics and scholarship in the context of Penn State’s Graphic Medicine book series, which has played an incredibly important role in establishing comics as a legitimate subject for scholarly inquiry and as a powerful narrative medium for broader audiences.

AB: Hello Kendra, it’s great to get an opportunity to chat with you about Graphic Medicine! I wanted to start with a question about where the impetus for a graphic medicine series originated. Why did you think you should launch a series of comics?


KB: First of all, Anne, it’s great to speak with you again! Thanks for this opportunity. One of the first contacts I made with Penn State faculty, after taking the position of Editor-in-Chief at Penn State University Press, is the phenomenal Susan Squier, Brill Professor of English and Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies, now emerita. I wanted to meet her because I was signing a new book series at PSU Press on animal studies. I knew that Susan was doing wonderful work on animals at the intersections of women’s studies, science studies, medicine, and agricultural studies, and I was eager to meet her. Little did I know that she and a group of talented colleagues in comic studies, medical humanities, and the comic arts were blazing the way forward with this wonderful thing called “graphic medicine.” “Graphic Medicine” became the second new book series I signed for PSU Press, and it’s an example of the kinds of inspiring collaborations that can arise between university presses and their own faculty when acquisitions editors are drawn into field-changing conversations. I’m grateful for that opportunity. Susan introduced me to the rest of this fantastic graphic medicine collective – part of an international network – and we got to work on publishing the Graphic Medicine Manifesto, to launch the series in 2015.

AB: I like the way you describe acquisitions editors being drawn into “field-changing conversations.” That’s exactly what happened to me when I started to talk to anthropologists who were interested in comics. Except that there was no existing community so part of what I did as an editor was float the idea of a series and build interest. It was a collaborative effort, but at many points I did have to take the lead and create the possibility before people could step forward. Do you see yourself and the press as co-creators of sorts for this series or more as enablers of a comics and medicine community’s vision?

KB: I think I see it as some of both of these things. The Graphic Medicine Manifesto came out with a strong vision for the field, and I was glad that the press could enable such a vision through its publication. Quite a few other projects have come to us from the community. But when it comes to managing a book series, as you know, acquiring editors are constantly in conversation with series editors about the scope for the series and how we think that might be pushed. A good book series progresses and evolves and I think that acquisitions editors, in consultation with their colleagues in marketing, can offer some important insight on how that might work. I have also started working on translation rights for our Graphic Medicine series, both to acquire translation rights for new projects (graphic novels, mostly) and to negotiate the translation of some of our own projects into other languages. For the most part, publishers are in a better position to do this sort of work (at Frankfurt and London, etc.) rather than the authors or series editors themselves.

AB: Yes, I think in this day of Open Access, people assume that making information available widely requires nothing more than hitting a Publish button. But presses really are important co-producers who know how to shape projects. They know their audiences and markets and want to create value and they have deep networks for doing so.

So what were your goals for the series?

KB:  A first goal of the series was to accommodate different kinds of books in the series. We would include not only graphic novels but also scholarly monographs, comics anthologies, and edited collections of essays and/or comics. Authors would range from scholars to artists, teachers, journalists, practitioners, patients, and caregivers, all working collectively to cultivate interdisciplinary conversations about any number of topics related to the human condition: illness and wellness, disability, caregiving, professionalized medicine, death and dying. For scholarly books in the series, we wanted to publish work in comic studies without apology for its subject matter, and in ways that would formulate new questions about the production, reception, and use of comics in all of its forms. This kind of work has lagged slightly behind the creative work itself; but I do think that the publication of the Graphic Medicine Manifesto has helped to galvanize scholarly attention to the field.

AB: So do you feel that you have met your goals? And if so, what is your definition of “success”?

KB: For the trade books in the series – graphic novels and anthologies – we needed to establish a presence in the graphic novel marketplace, an entirely new area for us. Thanks to some excellent reviews in mainstream media outlets, we’re making good progress in this regard. The “big-picture” goal we set for the series was to publish books that matter, books that make a difference. I certainly see anecdotal evidence of this – not just for PSU Press books but for the many wonderful graphic medicine projects published elsewhere. Down the road, I expect scientific studies (from the Penn State College of Medicine, for example) to reveal more tangible evidence of the ways in which work in graphic medicine can teach new ways of thinking and inspire new ways of feeling about subjects that, quite honestly, can be very difficult to contemplate.

AB: How did your press board respond to the idea of a comics and medicine list as you were trying to get it off the ground? Were there any concerns?

KB: Frankly, there were concerns among some members of our press board when I proposed to them the idea for this series: qualms about whether comics were in fact a legitimate area of scholarly inquiry, and dismay at the idea of a university press publishing “comic books.” But there was some support there as well, for which I was grateful. This was several years ago now – more than that, and as you know there’s a strong trend now in publishing graphic novels at university presses. Your own ethnoGRAPHIC series at Toronto is part of this wonderful trend.


AB: Yes, there is suddenly a trend emerging, though it certainly didn’t feel that way five years ago when I was entertaining the idea of a new graphic novel ethnography series. Since then, given the very positive response to the ethnoGRAPHIC Series, I would say that everyone at my press is on board. My biggest concern now is finding enough projects to keep publishing in a regular cycle. There is so much work that goes into making a graphic novel and it’s a learning curve for all involved. It takes a long time, and a certain kind of academic, to manage and see through this kind of project.

KB: Yes, I can see that trying to achieve a regular publishing cycle is tricky, especially if you’re commissioning entirely new graphic work and conjoining that with expert pedagogical apparatus. It’s a real team effort. But I think in time that will be easier for you, as the series develops a reputation and people “get” this new cool thing that you’re doing. I’m sure you’ll see a lot of great new proposals.


AB: How about your vision for Graphic Medicine? Has that changed along the way?

KB: I don’t know that the series has changed along the way because it still feels quite new. My approach to acquiring is certainly changing, as I learn about the kind of work being done and as I consider the possibilities. We view the scope of graphic medicine perhaps more expansively now than we initially did, because we should be concerned not just with the health of the human being but with the health of the entire planet, scaling it up, as Susan Squier might say. How we care for the planet now will impact how we’ll care for ourselves down the line – whether we’ll have access to safe living conditions and clean, sustainable sources of food and water, or whether we’ll continue to see entire populations on the move as they seek out the means for survival. So yes, on the radar of graphic medicine are the larger issues of climate change, species extinction, natural resource depletion, war, genocide, human, environmental, and animal rights – collective concerns, in addition to the more personal concerns that have inspired graphic medicine.

AB: Interesting! I like the idea of scaling up. That’s a great way of keeping your options open for the future.

Has there been a least favourite part of working on this series?

KB: Least favourite for me is having to make acquisitions decisions based on the “marketability” of titles under consideration, especially when the potential audience for a given project can be hard to assess and predict. It can be difficult, if not impossible, for university presses to take the kinds of financial risks that commercial presses do; but at the same time (and unlike most commercial presses) we’re driven to some extent by mission, which means trying to find ways to support the less saleable projects. This is an ongoing challenge.

AB: I hear you! It’s a bit of a guessing game at this point but our first graphic novel has far exceeded my expectations and I hope that makes it easier in the future.

And just to end on a more positive note – what has been your favourite part of working on this series?

KB: What I have most enjoyed is being drawn into the dynamic graphic medicine community, which has given me the opportunity to meet and work with so many smart, creative, compassionate people. It feels like a window has opened onto a whole new world for me – a world of possibilities, both personal and professional. I’ve made some good friends among this group; and knowing that we’re publishing books that have the capacity to change peoples’ minds and experiences is very gratifying.

AB: It’s so true isn’t it? I have found the people interested in comics, ethnography, and more generally, those who use creative/sensory practices to be incredibly warm and open. Maybe it’s because many of us already feel marginal, but I have found that support to be invaluable as a motivator, not to mention a home, while trying to get things off the ground. I completely understand the window to a whole new world opening.

Thanks for taking the time to talk to me Kendra. I’m excited to see where Graphic Medicine goes in the future!

For more information about the Graphic Medicine Series see:


For more information about the ethnoGRAPHIC Series see:



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