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The hybrid panel "Collectively Creating Comics: Ethno-Graphic Storytelling and/as Teamwork" explored various forms of engagement and collaboration around the creation of comics and graphic novels. While comic books may be the work of a single author, who both writes the script and draws, they are often the result of a collaboration between a literary creator, who conceives the script, and an artistic creator who develops an original graphic form for the script. Through a series of interventions and reflections by comic artists, anthropologists, and others, this panel discussed the possible relations between comic drawing and ethnographic explorations, notably in terms of a space for collaboration, collective engagement and/or as teamwork.

Steven Van Wolputte, the first presenter, is one of those anthropologists who have the skills necessary to draw comics. Professeur of Social and Cultural Anthropology at KU Leuven, Belgium, Steven has been engaging with graphic anthropology, resulting in a handful of graphic novels exploring the possibilities of drawing for seeing, writing and thinking, both during and after the fieldwork. During the session, he discussed his more recent collaboration with historian Richard Ivan Jobs (Pacific University, United States) to graphically depict the life of a French explorer-adventurer in the Mexico-Guatemalan borderland in the 1930s. Steven elaborates on how they graphically engage with this history, both in terms of their narrative elaboration as well as their exploration of photographic and other archives (film, radio talks, interviews). Drawing, he emphasized, implies a different form of representation and support of analysis, that allows to foreground certain aspects of experience and background others. Steven also evoked the materiality of comic books, and how to approach paper drawings as (physical) objects conveying narratives with emotional themes.

In his presentation, Frederik von Reumont drew on several comic projects he was involved with. Trained in cartography and geography, Frederik has been conducting research on comics and the different ways of using them as didactic devices. During his presentation, he discussed his role as an illustrator for the making of the comic book “About Us: Stories of Climate Change”. Consisting of 10 chapters based on real-life stories, this book resulted from a collaborative work with Erlend Moster Knudsen, a climate science researcher and activist. Frederik elaborated on how Erlend and himself built the storylines (arcs of the stories) and sequenced each of them in a storyboard presenting the succession of each scene. In this project, the comic collaboration consisted of Frederik and Erlend devising stories together, Frederik drawing them as comics, both authors discussing the drafts, and Erlend adding a summary of the science background and academic references to each episode. More recently, Frederik has completed a comic on the pharaonic couple Akhenaten and Nefertiti, for which he did the drawing, a friend did the colouring, and his brother made a soundtrack for a public reading. Frederik reported that whereas he had developed a certain idea of the comic while researching and drawing it, it “changed completely” with the colours and sounds through which his collaborators not only interpreted the story and characters, but also added to them.   

After a short break, the DELTA Team and the different artists working together on a comic book about everyday life in river deltas presented their project. As the presenters mentioned, the comic project and stories are based on ethnographic fieldwork conducted by the DELTA Team in four river deltas: Irrawaddy/Ayeyarwady (Myanmar), Mackenzie (Canada), Parnaíba (Brazil) and Sine-Saloum (Senegal). In this frame, four artists, originally from the research regions/countries, have been invited to participate in the creation of short comic stories (two for each of the deltas). This project primarily aims to reach non-academic audiences, especially among the research participants. The presentation shed light on the working relationship between the artists and the researchers. As the title of the panel indicates, this engagement has been framed in terms of a collective rather than a collaborative endeavor (echoing the distinction traditionally made in the comic scene between collective and collaborative works). This semantic choice refers to a particular work methodology that was outlined during the presentation. The stories were conceived (and thus initiated) by the researchers on the basis of their respective field experience. They have since been subject to a rewriting process and adaptation into a graphic format in pairs with the respective artists, each of them having their own approach, style and sensibility. Based on this multi-layered collective methodology (between researchers and artists, between artists and within pairs of artist/researcher), the DELTA comic book is thought of as a collection of four pairs of idiosyncratic, yet related comics.

From a still structuring project, the discussion moved to the graphic novel “Lissa: a story about medical promise, friendship, and revolution” published in 2017. Written by anthropologists Sherine Hamdy and Coleman Nye, and illustrated by artists Sarula Bao and Caroline Brewer, the graphic novel is about the friendship between two teenage girls living in Egypt, health issues in their families and their personal drama and hopes in the context of the 2011 “Arab Spring” revolution. During her presentation, Sherine described the process of writing and drawing the comic story. She shed light on the multiple back and forth between the academic and illustrating side in order to make the story compelling visually. In order to immerse themselves in the research context, Sherine took her co-author and the two illustrators for a trip to Cairo, after which the script - which was initially written by Coleman and Sherine - was almost completely redone. This process of re-writing involved a great deal of interaction and communication, with new scenes being added, and others altered. Unlike ethnographic texts, which allow lengthier and more nuanced descriptions of experience, language or meaning, comics constitute a more direct medium. Comics have their own narrative play, which requires some bits of “translation”, notably in the case of stories inspired by ethnographic research such as for “Lissa”. During the presentation, Sherine evoked the many flexibilities that the graphic format also provides for storytelling. Due to issues of political sensitivity, the principal characters are composites, something that provide enhanced anonymity. The graphic format thus provides both constraints and possibilities that Sherine and the “Lissa” team have been collectively addressing.

Finally, Leo Leowald, based in Cologne, reflected on his experience as an illustrator and comic artist. Whether with his semi-autobiographical comic strip “Zwarwald'' or, more recently, in a collective comic book about the city of Cologne (“Mit Comics durch Köln”), Leo places humor at the center of his drawing. He relies in particular on verbalization and cultural meanings in German, which made him say that “Zwarwald”, for example, is difficult to translate. The reaction of humor, spontaneous and open, implies that one has understood and adheres to it. When the humorous features are directly associated with the wording, they become something difficult to translate. Humor in comics and more generally in drawing has to accommodate that people habitually differ in terms of humor behaviors. The use of (humor in) comics, if it allows to tackle subjects from a different and more amenable angle, raises the question of translability. As was pointed out during the discussion, this issue is particularly relevant to the delta comic project where the primary audience (i.e. the research participants) is itself composite (e.g. inhabitants of the Arctic Mackenzie Delta, shrimp fishermen from the Parnaíba Delta in Brazil, etc.). The translation of comic strips into different languages is a question of its own, and its realization should be conceived as part of a collective work between the artists, researchers and translators.

The question of translability led the discussion to the larger question of the legibility of the graphic format for non-comic (and in some cases less) literate people. In relation to the delta comic project, it was noted that one way to limit the impact of cultural differences among the audience was to limit the use of texts, preferring a series of visual imagery. It was also recognized that there is a form of irreducibility in these differences and a need to recognize that the different audiences have a certain agency to read and navigate the different comic stories in their own way.