Comics

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…

 

Conc1.jpg

Conc2.jpgConc3.jpg

Conc4

Conc5.jpgConc6.jpg

Conc7.jpgConc8.jpg

 

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.

– Dr Pava

Advertisements

The best thing to come out of Brexit and the Trump victory [and some music]

untitled-1

Stupid, stupid, people. A denial of democracy isn’t authoritarianism. It’s complacency. The democratic slogan for every election should be “if you don’t use it, you lose it.”

I posted the above on social media the day after the outcome of the American election was publicized, and since then I feel increasingly like I need to clarify this post. The conversations that post sparked made it seem as if people think that I was arguing that low voter turnout was the only issue that decided the outcome of the Trump/Clinton race.

Fact is, many people reacted this way tells us something about how people are thinking. It seems like everyone wants this whole election outcome to be pinned down by one explanation. It was the media; it was Russian intervention; it was middle class discontentment; lies; corruption; a grand conspiracy.

cg5459a2b718634

Voter participation is an issue, and it was certainly a factor. But it is far from the only factor. Democratic engagement with politics and vote value have been a hobby horse of mine for years since being exposed to the alternative first hand. But, it is not the only reason Trump won. Just to make my position clear, like with everything else, this outcome was the result of a combination of factors. Media landscape and engagement, social media, political marketing, charisma, the left-right divide, the economic and geo-political circumstances, reactionary populism (from both sides), the rise of individualist identity politics, culture, class, authoritarian militarism (both sides of politics), neoliberalism and many other real and complicated elements converged to deliver this result.

All of these factors have to be considered in thinking about the outcome. I get bummed out when people chose not to vote, but voting doesn’t solve any problems alone – it’s just a useful mechanic for societal transformation. Also, to me, the most valuable function of voting participation is that it gauges the level of interaction between the public and the political sphere. And it always makes me sad to see when that gap when it grows wider.

Aside from all the endemic issues Trump and Brexit illuminated, the big thing these phenomenal events proved was the power of the vote. That, despite any efforts from the establishment and regardless of how entrenched the people in power may appear, at least in England and America (I think in Australia and many other democratic nations as well) people’s participation in voting, or lack there of, has a massive impact on the political process.

For everyone who might despair at the results of these processes, this is an important silver lining. My annoyance at abstention is based on my deep commitment to the democratic process. Imperfect as it might be, it’s much better than dictatorship. This may be cliché: but I love the freedom that it offers. The important thing to remember is that democracy requires work and participation.

And that is the bitter pill. Keeping politicians honest is actually the job of the public in the democratic system. Again, we return to the notion of political participation. In the wake of this election, allegations came out about mass corruption within the American political system. The involvement of big money and corporate influence were pointed to as massive rots in the system – the reason to shake things up and bring around change. People were keen to be involved in this process of exposure and a million sources suddenly came to light.

Though a great deal of the information that was published was either blatantly false or politically framed in bias, much of it was true. Trump was seen to be delivering the public ‘The Truth’ about the system. Except, NONE of this is new. Hillary is following a trajectory of American politics that has been ‘exposed’ many times in the past. People have been campaigning about corporate involvement, the unfair projection of military power and the delivery of promises the 60s and before. These people have even pushed into the mainstream. Michael Moore, Noam Chomsky, Joel Bakan, Naomi Klein, Adam Curtis, John Pilger and others made public appeals in the media and in press in open and accessible ways. The press ran endless stories and exposed corruption and corporate influence regularly. Academics in the field published books and articles and campaigned to draw public attention. In the 90s, top charted bands spoke about issues that resonate with contemporary realities – geo-politics, corruption, racism, sexism, freedom and democracy. And they did it with emotion and directness that makes the ‘edgy’ /pol kids of today seem tame in comparison.

While the music got play, when it came to the message, very few people listened. Perhaps what’s different in this election is that people have been pointed to it for the first time by dire economic circumstances – now that life is hard the folks are looking for someone to blame.

As a long time liberal humanist and democrat the current circumstances call for mixed feelings. To be honest, under ordinary circumstances, I’d be overjoyed at [anti establishment, Hillary] allegations gaining traction in the public realm. Right now, I’m more than a bit worried. This information is being offered for a reason. Those mentioned above worked to expose these issues because they held aspirations of fixing the system. They were speaking to the public with faith in the idea that political power could be taken back by the public. When this information is broadcast now, by the Trump campaign there is a different purpose – the attainment of political power. The aim was to shift the blame. The story is that politicians are bad. It resonates and appeals to previously held popular ideas. But this corrupt and ‘broken’ system has been widely supported by a previously disinterested public. When the public was given news about all of this before Trump, nobody listened. When 9/11 happened that same people calling foul about the war now were first to condemn investigations of this type as unpatriotic. When the global financial system collapsed in 2008, public pressure for prosecution quickly evaporated.

Most people wanted news that was either fluffy or talked about their immediate fears. There are hundreds of books and articles by academics and news reporters on all of these issues, articles that only 1% of the population has ever picked up. This complacency is in large part to blame. The process that lead the US political system to this state took many steps, and the public never held the establishment to account long enough to change the trajectories of power.

We do need change – but we also need to be careful about our information and act with public good and democracy in mind. I just hope people remember this and work for greater transparency and democratic accountability after this farcical election. Now, that the power of the vote and its capacity to bring about revolutions are clearly demonstrated, and the ills of the old system are still in the public mind, is a big chance for us to get involved. To imagine how we want to make things better and engage. To remember what we learned and not to turn away in disappointment or satisfaction, or worse yet, turn on each other.

The work of democracy is never done. People really do have the power, we just need to have the will. The best thing about the surprise election results of this year is that we KNOW it can be done.

How about some music?

Here’s a niche artist, MACKLEMORE. You might not have heard this song, cos it’s a little political. But then, have you actually looked into the politics of his music?

Classic folk lyrists, Ani DeFranco, delivers a poem that ranges from political to immediate.

Let’s take a trip back in time. You’ve heard this song a million times as a movies soundtrack… but have you actually paused to listen to the lyrics?

A little bit of soul from Middle America. Country is all about breakups, pickups and whiskey, right?

2Pac is famous…

What was 2Pac talking about? Everyone gets the same service… No, they don’t. Sometimes 911 is a joke.  Sad thing is, not much has changed since the 90s.

I’d love to hear your picks. I need me a good political playlist.

Parkour and the link Between Competition and Depression

Dear parkour friends,

I tend to favor novelty, so I’m not a huge fan of turning everything into sport. And my concerns and findings were often expressed in my comics. But as I dig deeper, I am finding some disturbing links between competition and depression that parkour practitioners might be interested in.

parkourpanels78

But first, let me introduce myself. I’m doing some research on the book that is to come out of my PhD. I’ve recently completed a study about parkour and the people who practice it with samples from Australia, America, Canada, England, France, Denmark, Russia and Ukraine (with some brief visits and glimpses into other places). One of the things I wrote and drew about – I’m the guy who is behind the Parkour Panels – is how parkour can be practiced by those who are strictly against competition, as well as those who think that competition is good and, even, inevitable. Many of you will have met me. For those who haven’t: Hi!

bonuspanels1
Panel from all the way back 2011….

Now that my PhD is in the bag I’m looking to expand on some of those ideas. While reading has been great, I’m currently going through a book which is central to this topic. It’s called The Happiness Industry, and written by Dr. William Davies, an American sociologist. This book summarizes much of the more academic research I found on the topic of adding competition to all kinds of activities: from parkour to running entire nations. As I took notes I realized that the content is really important for those in parkour communities – particular in America, Canada, Australia and the UK where the sportification of parkour is well under way. I thought I’d share some of my notes with you…

Having done a great deal of research on the subject, here is what Dr. Davies has to say.

” … It transpires that competition and competitive culture, including that of sport, is ultimately related to a disorder that was scantly discussed in 1977 but which has become a major policy concern by the end of the century. As the 1970s drew to a close, Western capitalist countries stood on the cusp of a whole new era of psychological management. The disorder at the heart was depression. ”

Davies points out that the competitive societies inherently rate greater levels of social inequality. Where competition is limited in the social sphere (like Scandinavia) rates of depression are much lower. In America and the UK, where competition is promoted as a social virtue, rates of depression are epidemic.

“Yet there is more to this than just a statistical correlation. Behind the numbers, there is troubling evidence that depression can be triggered by the competitive ethos itself, afflicting not only the ‘losers’ but also the ‘winners’… That competition makes many people ‘seem inferior’, has been proved far more valid than even left-wing 1970s school teachers could have imagined; it also tells them that they are inferior.”

What follows are a number of case studies that have surfaced over the last few years that show that elite athletes are highly prone to mental illness, particularly depression. I won’t type out this long section, instead I’ll just give you these links – directly related to his examples.

“A study conducted by Georgetown University found that college footballers are twice as likely to experience depression as non-footballers. Another study discovered that professional female athletes display similar personality traits as those with eating disorders, both linked to obsessive perfectionism. And a series of experiments and surveys conducted by the American psychologist Tim Kasser has revealed that ‘aspirational’ values, oriented around money, status and power, are linked to higher risk of depression and lower sense of ‘self-actualization’. Whenever we measure our self-worth relative to others, as all competitions force us to, we risk losing our sense of self-worth all together. One of the sad ironies here is that the effect of this dissuade people, including schoolchildren, from engaging in physical exercise all together” (studies cited).

parkourpanels99

“Perhaps it is no surprise, then, that society such as America’s, which privileges a competitive individual mindset at every moment in life, has been thoroughly permeated by depressive disorders and demand for anti-depressives. Today, a third of adults in the United States and close to half in the UK believe that they occasionally suffer from depression…”

In the process of working on my PhD I found many people who unquestioningly pushed towards competition in practice. I’ve also heard a lot of slander for those who chose to practice on their own terms – that they weren’t serious or that their scene was not as evolved.

I hope that this can broach the divide a little. Give us all cause to pause and consider: If parkour is practiced for self-improvement, what role do competitions play in this process. And, if competitions are about business, how far are we willing to go in marketing our practice… particularly if it hurts the students we are trying to inspire and makes it inaccessible to others.

For more about the connection between depression and competition, click on the links in this sentence.

love!

– Pava

Hybridity, Anthropology, Comics and Pop-Culture

I’m presenting a lecture for students of anthropology of popular culture. These are the lecture ‘slides’. This one is a bit of a comics lecture – you need both audio and video to understand what’s going on.

Maybe I’ll make a video once the audio is recorded.

🙂

001.jpg

 

002.jpg003.jpg

 

What comics can do (for ethnography)

In 2009 I submitted my honors thesis in the field of anthropology. The central argument of that thesis was that medium of comics (as in, the format of comic-books) can (and should) be used to tell ethnographic and scientific stories. I did my best to make a good argument. I think I did OK because my University department decided to call my bluff. The following year I started fieldwork and research for a PhD. A large part of this new thesis was to be told through the unique combination of words and image that make up comic(s).

The topic of research turned out to be way, way deeper and more immersive than I had anticipated. My experiment with format had to take a back seat to the presentation and analysis of parkour culture, community and practice. It was an incredible experience for which I am super grateful. I learned so much and made so many friends! About two months ago I submitted that thesis. And, as planned, it had comics in it! Though, not as many as I initially hoped.

While I wait for my results I find the time to look around to discover that there are quite a few others who are experimenting with format. There are exciting things going on and I’m really delighted to see the work of others who share my passion for illustration and comics in Anthropology.

So, I want to fly a flag and put my stuff out there. If this is the kinda stuff you’re into (comics or visual anthropology) I’d love to hear from you!

Below are a few pages from the conclusion of my honors thesis. They’re about the capabilities of the medium of comics.

Thanks!

– Pava

P.S. Sorry! This file is en early draft! I can’t find the finals. Excuse the expressive gremlins… But hopefully it will be enough to give you an idea!

conc2_by_alexpav

conc3_by_alexpav

conc4_by_alexpav

conc5_by_alexpav

thesis_conclusion__p_5_by_alexpav

There was more text… but I don’t want to bore you.

What do you think?

Check out some ethnographic comics from my PhD:
Ilja in Copenhagen
Rhys
Ruz and EZ

The Chronicle of CAPTAIN TRUTH! (part 1)

Captain TRUTH Pt.

… Click here to read PART 2… 

Have you met Captain Truth? He walks amongst us; many of us have made his acquaintance. It doesn’t matter how much you know, or how directly you know it – he always knows better. Aliens, conspiracy, illuminati… he knows, he has evidence and it’s not flimsy at all!