Comics as Resistance
"The compression of ideas into memorable icons gives cartoons their ability to burrow deep into the brain."
Image from Drawing Unbelonging by Kay Sohini.
In comics, both the content in the panels as well as the spaces in between them create meaning. Gutter spaces prompt readers to imagine the action between the panels to complete a sequence. Since each panel is drawn to represent one individual moment, a quick succession of panels creates a semblance of movement from one to the next. In Understanding Comics, McCloud writes that this illusion is created by how “our minds fill in the intervening moments” between the panels, each of which depict “a single moment in time”. In other words, since comics is an additive medium, it “actively solicits through its constitutive grammar the participant’s role in generating meaning” (Chute, Comics and Media 21). Specifically, the white space between the panels makes the reader an active contributor in creating meaning from the narrative, as they are compelled to imagine the action between the panels in order to transition from one to the next. The reader then, witnesses the conflict unfold in a temporal sequence—deriving “movement from stillness,” and instead of simply “observ[ing] motion” (Chute, “Critical Inquiry” 25). In the process of being an active participant in data synthesis, the creator and the reader form a space of shared sensibilities. It is this participatory nature of comics that makes it an effective tool to appeal to social justice.
The first comic I read that that made me think of the phrase ‘Comics as Resistance’ was Malik Sajad’s Munnu: A Boy Kashmir. It is arguably one of the most written about graphic narrative to come out of South Asia. Before I encountered Munnu, I had already read works such as Joe Sacco’s works of comics journalism or Guy Delisle’s graphic reportage from Burma and Pyongyang. Which are all, needless to add, excellent works of graphic journalism. However, Malik Sajad’s work stood out to me because while Munnu can certainly be classified as graphic journalism, it is a work based on his lived experience under the Indian occupation. Caught in a crossfire between India and Pakistan, in Kashmir, the personal is never not political. Sajad, in a style strongly reminiscent of Spiegelman’s formative work Maus, draws Kashmiris as Hanguls, a species of endangered deer native to the valley. Like the people of Kashmir, external forces threaten their habitat. The judicious use of anthropomorphism helps emphasize how Kashmiris—like the endangered Hangul—are battered, butchered, and pushed into a state of exile in their own home. His shorter works on the on-going violence in Kashmir have been published by the New York Times (you can read them here). In early 2017, just before I came to the US to pursue a PhD, I had the privilege of meeting him in the “Doing Graphic Stories” seminar organized by Jadavpur University. Since then, things have taken a turn for the worse in Kashmir. The area is highly militarized and has been under lockdown since August 2019. Citing security concerns, the Indian government also imposed a communication blackout on the area, severely limiting internet connectivity and broadband and further censoring news from the valley.
In the age of social media, art as resistance too has assumed new forms and modes of dissemination. When in late 2019, the Indian government announced two fundamentally anti-Muslim legislations (CAA and the NRC), many artists of Indian origin based both in the homeland and abroad took to Instagram to post political comics about the issue. This is by no means an exhaustive list but here are few examples of comics as resistance against oppression:
1. Jamun Ka Ped run by Mayukh Goswami and Meher Manda, who are based in New York and Mumbai. They refer to their work as “webcomics of dissent” and have written and drawn about the protest in Shaheen Bagh, the Black Lives Matter movement, and the unjust arrest of Umar Khalid amongst other issues.
2. Similarly, Susruta Mukherjee and Saswata Mukherjee have been drawing about the mis-management of Covid-19 that led thousands of domestic migrants in India stranded in cities far away from their hometowns without a livelihood, labour trafficking, and more.
3. "A Brief Introduction to Sunderbans" by Upamanyu Bhattacharya, drawn in the wake of Cyclone Amphan that caused severe ecological damage in Sunderbans, part of the world’s largest delta.
In the United States, a similar wave of webcomics surfaced in the wake of Covid -19. Hillary Chute wrote an article on the phenomenon in Public Books titled “Can Comics Save your Life?”--she even mentions the Covid-19 anthology I have a chapter in, due to be published in Spring 2021. Some other examples (that do not involve self promo) are: 1. Thi Bui’s interview series in The Nib called “In/Vulnerable” in collaboration with Reveal, The Center for Investigative Reporting. 2. Medical anthropologist, writer, and artist Dana Walrath’s comics on Covid-19, spotlighted here in the Graphic Medicine website. 3. The New Yorker cartoonist Jason Chatfield’s account of getting covid, denial and recovery. 4. Bianca Xunise’s work on police brutality, “The Weight of Being Black in America”.
5. Ben Passmore’s workshop “Making Comics for the Politically Indifferent” on The Believer magazine. His work can be read here.
6. ABC News (Australia) collaborated with a cartoonist to report on a story about a transplant gone wrong. There are many, many more brilliant comics of dissent. I will try to keep adding to this list when I can, but for now, here’s a list of all pandemic related comics curated by the Comic Nurse and others from the Graphic Medicine Collective.