This landscape surgery session, under the general theme of ‘Visual methods and visual communication’, featured Dr Eric Laurier Reader in Geography and Interaction at Edinburgh University, who introduced us to his broader development of visual methods and more specifically ‘Using comics to communicate research to a research audience’.
Eric has been a pioneer in research on everyday practices and in ethnomethodological developments in the social sciences, particularly known for his use of video technologies and methods. This session was based on a project, organised by Shari Sabeti at Edinburgh bringing researchers from different disciplines including education, English literature, anthropology and sociology to work with a comic artist, Simon Grennan. We started by sharing the experience of Eric and his colleagues as they engaged for the first time with the comic form, using Sharpies and paper to try and communicate aspects of our research. In what could become a new hashtag trend, #heardatlandscapesurgery, the experience evidently triggered some uncomfortable memories for some: “this is stressful,” “painful,” “surprisingly stressful,” “oh no!”
Demonstrating great perseverance in the face of this stress, everyone produced something and Eric considered that the results showed pretty advanced skills and techniques, such as the use of perspective and representation of time, interspersed with a good peppering of familiar stick people. You can see for yourself in the gallery of examples below.
Eric and his colleagues followed up these beginnings with more in-depth work such as exploring the work of four comic artists, focusing on details such as the use of colour, and transitions from one frame to the next for example.
In the next part of his talk, Eric introduced us to some aspects of the relationship between comics and human geography. Much work has been done about comics rather than using comics. Examples include examining geopolitics (for example, Klaus Dodds on Steve Bell’s cartoons of the Falklands war); the representation of place; the production, circulation and consumption of comics, and practices of reading comics. The only article written as a comic, as far as we know, is by Wilson and Jacot in Geographical Review. One PhD thesis has been submitted in comic form, Unflattening by Nick Sousanis, at Columbia University, published by Harvard University Press.
Much of the relationship between comics and human geography has been as a communicative enterprise. Here Eric was keen to point out the baggage of comics in the British cultural context. This carries an assumption that comics are a way of simplifying research complexity and therefore mainly a means of communicating with a public beyond the academy. Eric’s approach, on the other hand, is very much focused on exploring the role of the comic form in communicating research to a research audience. In this respect, publishers such as Taylor and Francis have created comics of abstracts, although the excessively colourful style makes them harder to read than the abstracts themselves. This style perhaps also reflects the British cultural baggage of comics, both with the authors and the readers, which contrasts particularly with the French cultural context, where, for example, it is easy to find Proust in comic form.
A further aspect of the relationship between comics and human geography is to be found in examples of documentary or factual research. Joe Sacco’s ‘Palestine’ uses comics to communicate his research through extended interviews. He produces drawings based on his field photographs, but notably brings himself into the frame; the style is busy and contains dense blocks of text. Joe’s style contrasts with Chester Brown’s work on Quebecois Louis Riel which has much simpler images, which he extends and links to his sources in extensive endnotes. Among other examples, Eric cited Steffan Kverneland’s ‘Munch’, which conveys a polyphony of voices through the use of different visual styles alongside each other. How do people work with the comic form in practice? As a way of answering this, Eric took us through Art Spiegelman’s Maus, and illustrated the methods in applying the comic form that are revealed in his notebooks. The book is based on Art’s interviews with his father, and his notebooks show through juxtaposition how he substantially reduced the transcripts to speech bubbles laid out in panels; the drawings were added once this had been done.
We then moved on to look at how time is dealt with in the comic form, following Scott McCloud’s work on comics as sequential art. We looked at the example of conveying the duration of pauses. This can be shown through one or more panels with no speech, through a single but wider panel, or through the content of the panel, where rain can convey an endless quality or experience. There are critics of the idea of comics as sequential art; Marcus Doel and Chris Ware to name two. Ware describes comics as ‘a jigsaw where the puzzle does not quite fit together’ (2003a). Simon Grennan, the comic artist that Eric and his colleagues worked with, has criticised Ware’s work in turn, describing it as more like diagrams than comics. A particularly fascinating example of duration can be found in Richard McGuire’s ‘Here’. McGuire presents the same space from the same perspective but has multiple points in time, including geological time, within the frame.
Eric rounded off this part of his talk with a look at narrative and perspective in the comic form, citing Alison Bechdel’s ‘Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic’ and Simon Grennan’s ‘Dispossession’. Bechdel’s work uses a complex stance including the subjective, with her narrative voice running over the top of the story. Grennan’s work creates Trollope’s narrator’s perspective in an adaptation that pairs comic and other text. Eric drew our attention to Grennan’s illustrations from the perspectives of different characters, supported by the strong use of colour.
In the next section, Eric took us on his particular journey through the comic form, starting from the challenges he faces in communicating transcripts. With illustrations of the Jefferson transcription system in examples from Schegloff’s data of phone calls and Mondada’s multimodal work on mobility and talk, showing how they work as a complementary literary pairing, the complexity for the reader of following what’s going on was made very clear. This was the basis of Eric’s clear attraction for using graphic transcripts in comic form. So what are the main elements of comic form? Bubbles convey speech, captions convey non-verbal action, frames convey sequential events and their form, visual content conveys dynamics, social and spatial relationships and duration, and different points of view convey different spatial and personal perspectives. All of these can be used to create a much more accessible and straightforward way of communicating transcripts. The advantages of the comic form were explored in the project’s workshops, with experimental hybrids being tried through various iterations.
An interesting point that Eric raised was how this application still left the argument, an essential if not the essential element of communicating academic research, outside the comic elements. The comic form was used to convey transcript information, but not to advance the argument itself. Comic content remains a form of illustration to complement text. The challenge then is to bring the argument within the comic form, so that it embraces the research as a whole. Eric concluded with three illustrations of experiments started with Tim Smith’s work on street performances, (see photo), in which an event is ‘read’ from two perspectives, starting from the top left and bottom right, and moving into the middle of the page. A further example was in Eric’s digital poster comic, with short sequences of moving images (rather like gifs) and fixed speech bubbles. A final example was in the form of a flip-book hybrid, offering temporality in a fixed text format.
A lively discussion followed, which covered questions about the baggage of the comic form in a British cultural context; whether this work has changed Eric’s writing and editing practices; and applications in other disciplines such as architecture. One key advantage of the comic form that came out of a question on Eric’s experimental video and speech bubble experiment was the particular reading practice that the comic form offers over video. Here the reader can backtrack through the piece in a way that is easier than video rewind/replay.
There was a brief discussion about the focus in the talk on temporality compared with spatiality. The form also seems to offer up significant opportunities to explore ways of considering space. For example showing different spaces simultaneously, using different visual forms like maps and diagrams, and working beyond the frame to the page as a whole. Eric referred us particularly to the changing perspective in Simon Grennan’s ‘Dispossession’ as a significant way that the comic form can engage with its spatial opportunities, but also reiterated Grennan’s criticism of Chris ware’s work as not being comic. He mentioned Matt Madden’s experimental graphic work ’99 ways to tell a story’. While we didn’t explore this issue further, it strikes me that there is much to unpack here. Does the circumscription of the comic form limit the opportunities for communicating research? Is it more important to embrace the conventions of the form that give it coherence and structure?
We considered the pressure that researchers might feel in using a particular medium, comparing their use of it to its professional practitioners. Whether this is the comic form, film and video production or drawing, the value in using the medium does not depend on how it compares with the best in the business: we are researchers, not comic artists or film directors. This part of the discussion was reminiscent of the point made on research exhibitions last month – bringing up again the tensions between the medium as process and as product in a research context. We can perhaps forgive standards of academic writing that do not always match those of the ideas they communicate, although this is not everyone’s view. How do we, or will we, respond to amateur quality in other media despite its contribution as research method and/or form of communication? This discussion moved on to consideration of drawing, which has particular capacities for understanding in drawer and viewer. The advantage of the comic form in communicating research to a research audience is that it is more compatible with the sequential construction and communication of an argument, which, as we have noted, seems to be the main point.
You can find out more about Eric and his work at http://www.ericlaurier.co.uk and the comics and research communication project he has been part of with Edinburgh School of Art, at https://sites.eca.ed.ac.uk/comicpraxis/.
Katy and Huw
Photo gallery of surgeons’ comics (photography by Huw):