Living on the Edge: The Value of Graphic Social Science
Comics are great for science. The ‘comics’ medium (not to be confused with comedy and the comics that preform it) is a tool of communication and research that has great potential for the social sciences. But, new methods are always met with skepticism. It’s up to those who are native to the medium to convince the scientific community of its benefits. And to share some of the difficulties that come with breaking new ground.
My name is Alex. I am a ‘comics’ native.
It all started with trains. There’s a wonderful thing happening on public transport. It started about seven years ago. For me, it began with a moment in which a young woman walked onto a train, sat down and opened up a copy of Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi. Right there! In front of everyone! She was reading comics. Then, it happened again. This time it was a young man with a copy of Fables by Vertigo. I was both overjoyed and scandalised. They were doing it right there, in the open, with no shame. And it just keeps going on — I’ve seen it a bunch since then.
I have no doubt that people have been ‘shamelessly’ reading comics in public for years. And I know that this says way more about me than them. In fact that’s the point. Comics are my language. As a migrant kid who spoke no English but came from a family of readers, comics were my first foray into the Anglo culture. Back in the early 90s, when I was first introduced to the medium, they were a way to read without being able to understand the language. They were addictive and off-the-bat; an irresistible, dangerous flirtation. You see, coming from a family of readers, illustrations were for kids or ‘the stupid’. Yet, I always liked to draw. Worse yet, I never saw an issues in punctuating those drawings with a few words of dialogue. This is how I saw it: words are great, but pictures have so much more to say. Why not have both?
Fast-forward to today. I’m a anthropology researcher with a bunch of experience in the field and the workplace. I’ve got a book (or two) I’m working on. Both monographs spend some time exploring the boundaries of mixed media. Both speak in the language to which I am a native. Here is a fresh piece of that work. This is a part of a conclusion to a current manuscript. I hope you’ll forgive refferences to prior content. On these pages I ask the question: can comics be ethnography?
Heads up: In these comics I use the word ‘comics’ deliberately, in a way that defines conventional grammar. In the book I am writing I argue that ‘comics’ is a term that we should use to describe a medium separate from the comic — the funny, ironic or conversational. I have some strong ideas about how they can make a good ethnography…
That was a part of a conclusion to a monograph that is under construction. In it I talk about comics history and its grammar. So far, everyone loves it, until they hit the logistics of publication. Over the last year I’ve spoken to some highly reputable academic publishers. Each one has been excited by the manuscript, but confused by the format. “This is great! We love it for the comics,” I’m told. “But, can we have less pictures?”
I understand the mentality behind this contradictory response. It’s the same mentality I have on the train when I see comic book readers. I’m excited by the change, but I react through the stigma I grew up with. Comics? In public? Are you childish? Stupid? These attitudes are the result of stigmas I seek to unpack. Worse yet, there is a matter of tradition and subsequent logistics of the academe.
The written word has the unquestionable monopoly on academic analysis. For publishers, the convention defines a physical restriction on publication. Any academic who has submitted a manuscript has been asked some version of the following question: How many ‘plates’ or illustrations do you have? This is telling. We haven’t used ‘plates’ in printing for a long while. That term comes from the days of hard press, when individual pages would be laid out in physical plates that would emboss (press) ink onto the page through brute force. Those plates were unique and craft intensive objects; to be thrown away once the physical object was worn out from the physical force of ongoing use. Plates were expensive to make, picture plates were the most expensive of all.
In the era of digital printing, we still talk with the terminology of 19th century technology. For academic publishing, the tech has moved on, but the attitudes have remained the same. For all the benefits that comics might offer and all the excitement that sympathetic academics might have for its innovations, our community doesn’t know what to do with the novelty of this communicative method. The stigma is strong, and it goes all the way back to Plato. We still think that the word is pure, closer to the ethereal ideal, and the image is profane, closer to the material — Cartesian dualism incarnate. This dualism, and it’s puritanical ancestor, is being made increasingly redundant by contemporary neuroscience. Yet, it is also why these monographs are still unpublished — editors are unsure about what to do with this new marginal text. Such is life on the edge.
The best way to brush a chip off your shoulder is to have someone point it out. Here I am looking for allies and critics. I know I’m not the only comics native. And I’m still committed to the cause.
P.S. If you’re a publisher, and you’re interested in challenging formats, let me know! I really am staking my career on it.
Alex Pavlotski is a cartoonist, anthropologist and an honorary research fellow at LaTrobe University in Melbourne, Australia. His research interests are in visual communication, subculture, neuroanthropology, leadership, masculinity and gender. He wants to make comics about all of them!