Notes from Harvard's "Thinking with Comics" Workshop
The ideology of the Graphic Novel and the battle for schools
To judge from mainstream reporting, the “book-banning” controversies sweeping the nation’s school boards indicate not a shift in the content of school bookshelves but a change in parental attitudes, galvanized by political fearmongering over Critical Race Theory and LGBTQIA+ literature. According to a recent article in the New York Times, the call for the removal of books from public schools and libraries represents a dramatic “escalation” in the rightward shift of the Republican Party,1 as though it were because of Republican rhetoric that parents have suddenly become concerned about the content of their children’s education.
But the parents’ concerns aren’t new. The books are. The last two decades have seen the development and refinement of a new type of graphic novel, its content anything but comic, examples of which—like Maia Kobabe’s “Gender Queer”—have become lightning rods for culture warriors on both sides.2 Explicitly political, studiously unfunny, and patronizingly didactic, the genre has apparently become a mainstay of public-school bookshelves around the country, exciting outrage wherever it is (belatedly) noticed.
This semester, Harvard students have been offered a window into the movement–artistic, political, intellectual–responsible for all the commotion, in the form of an exhibit titled “Public Life and Public Health in Contemporary Comics,” tucked discreetly into the Johnson Kulukundis Family Gallery in Radcliffe Yard’s Byerly Hall. Hosted in conjunction with the Center for Cartoon Studies, a fine arts program based in White River Junction, the exhibit presents the Dearborn parent’s worst nightmare, boasting content that infantilizes, sexualizes, and propagandizes the reader all at once and with equal ease.
Ringing the exhibit are some 92 graphic novels and comic collections, ranging from “Pregnant Butch: Nine Long Months Spent in Drag” to “Guantanamo Voices” to “The Black Panther Party: A Graphic History” to “Cancer Vixen” to “A Quick and Easy Guide to Sex and Disability.” Near the back of the room, I picked up the 2020 edition of “The Comics Journal,” where a white family of four, mouths heavily overbitten, leered out from under the incredulous caption, “Republicans???” The 2022 issue features a frowning female artist scribbling away at a caricature of Donald Trump as a nearby TV asked, “What is he lying about now?” On the back, a relaxed, red-capped Trump is shown tubing his way over a precipitous waterfall. Inside the cover, a group of women expose the scars left over from the removal of their left breasts as one of them mouths the word “hero.”
The north wall of the exhibit features selections from “This is What Democracy Looks Like,” a “graphic guide to governance” advertised on the Center for Cartoon Studies’ website as a resource for secondary school students and civics courses. The sections reproduced on the wall recount the struggles of decent, honest, hard-working, ordinary people, endeavoring to introduce their spontaneously developed ideas–which all happen to be Democratic Socialist platform planks, like “passing a living wage” and “expanding healthcare”–in the face of shadowy obstructions ranging from “vote suppression [sic]” to a “lack of diversity” to “wealthy people and corporations” to “racial, social, and economic injustices.” Online, the book is billed as “non-partisan.”3
The world suffered a great loss in 1994 with the death of Richard Scarry, creator of the “Busytown” series of children’s books. However, his readers will be encouraged to learn that Scarry’s iconic characters have found new jobs as full-time Bernie Bros, at least to judge from the Kulukundis Gallery’s south wall, where Freddie Fox can be found explaining the history of the insurance industry’s opposition to Medicare while Huckle Cat poses as a corrupt senator in the pocket of unnamed “big industry players.” Lowly Worm is now gainfully employed as a threatening line on a graph of US healthcare “outcomes,” demonstrating that “the US ranks close to last in healthcare quality, efficiency, and access to care.” This claim, it may as well be said, seems to originate from a study performed by the Commonwealth Fund, a partisan organization whose website features ominous reports on climate change and reproductive rights in addition to explicit calls to “achieve universal coverage.” In this study, the United States was indeed ranked last, out of an arbitrarily selected list of 11 industrialized nations,” according to metrics—“access to care, care process, administrative efficiency, equity, and health care outcomes”—that unapologetically begged the question.4
I had the pleasure of visiting this exhibit on the 29th of October, when Mr. Dan Nott, a graduate of the Center for Cartoon Studies, presented a workshop on “Thinking With Comics.” Mr. Nott characterized the purpose of his vocation as nothing short of revelatory. In his view, as I understood it, the cartoonist is less a clown than he is a preacher, less a preacher than he is a prophet, and less a prophet than he is a savior. By “boiling down ideas to their essence,” cartoonists are to lay bare the deceptions of ordinary reality, enabling others to recognize the “hidden systems” in which author and audience find themselves entrapped. As an example of his craft, Mr. Nott displayed a cartoon image of the Google home screen, behind which sprawled a jumbled complex of factories, server farms, and the US Capitol. I appreciated the sentiment.
Anxious to uncover the hidden systems in which I lay captive, I picked up “Your Black Friend,” a graphic short story by artist Ben Passmore. The comic traces the footsteps of a young man—namely, “your black friend”—who does his best to enact every conceivable racial stereotype within the confining bounds of 14 brief pages. He “reads about Fanon and about the Black Panthers,” assaults innocent police officers after hearing about an apparently unrelated and distant incident of police brutality, and spends his days chafing at his friends’ microaggressions, such as playing too much Beyoncé in his presence or explaining how to fix a bicycle tire.
Quickly moving on, I turned to “Other Boys,” an autobiographical graphic novel by Damian Alexander. The novel charts the story of a boy whose mother was murdered by his father at an early age. Raised by his grandparents, he spends elementary school hanging out with female friend groups, playing with dolls, filling out a sketchbook, and reading “Anne of Green Gables” and “The Little Princess.” Though discouraged by the brutish behavior of his male classmates from self-identifying as a boy, he finds himself attracted to male superheroes, as well as to the boys in his class who step in to rescue him from bullies. After speaking with a school therapist, the boy experiences a moment of self-discovery, as he applies the favorite slur of his colleagues—“gay”—to explain his own life in one, discrete identity.
The “truths” disclosed by this story have, with the passage of time, come to seem anything but self-evident. The character traits that the story stereotypes as homosexual have since, in the cutting-edge political correctness of our time, been either decategorized as not necessarily associated with or indicative of anything (for instance, it would be regarded as problematic to suggest that any man who behaves in a non-masculine way is ipso facto “more gay”) or else recategorized as indicative of a dysphoric gender identity. If the boy described in the story were referred to a school therapist today, it is unlikely that he would ‘come out’ with quite the same self-image as in the story, not least because “only liking boys” means nothing if “boy” is an undefinable linguistic artifact based on an allegedly outdated understanding of human sexuality. Whatever one’s stance on the truth claims at play, it should be apparent that this particular graphic novel does not reveal any universal truth, as much as it crystallizes the stereotypes of a particular social context.
Finally, take “The Story of My Abortion,” an apparently autobiographical comic by Tatiana Gill. It tells the story of a pro-choice woman whose “biggest fear from puberty on was getting pregnant.” The narrator describes her life as a series of pregnancy “scares,” followed by ecstatic relief after every negative test. She prays to a God in whom she does not believe to protect her from pregnancy, thanks Him for negative tests, and announces that, if she were ever impregnated, she “would run, not walk, to the abortion clinic.”
When she suddenly discovers that she is four months pregnant (through consensual sex with her boyfriend), she—depicted with a demon-like monster in her belly—responds with panic. One panel shows her screaming at an ultrasound technician, whom she accuses of being “pro-life,” apparently because he points out the baby’s hands and beating heart. Her doctor, too, she “suspects” of being pro-life, simply because the doctor mentions adoption as a possible alternative, while the protagonist insists, “Oh, I’m getting an abortion.”
If you want to levy unspoken prejudices with a pen stroke, to martial misconceptions with a sentence, to deploy convenient myths and make them goosestep together—write a graphic novel.
After years of “grief” and substance abuse following the procedure, the narrator finds solace in the Shout Your Abortion movement. She concludes, rather unconvincingly, that she has not “felt the shame since,” declaring that “Happy or sad, easy or hard, early or late term, having an abortion is okay.” The big questions of the story—the origin of her obsessive fear of pregnancy, the extent of her recreational substance abuse (crystal meth, ecstasy, nitrous oxide, and nicotine are all mentioned before the pregnancy), the nature of her relationship with her boyfriend—are left unaddressed. For an unknown reason, the narrator regards pregnancy as a disease, terminates the disease, and is, or wishes she were, proud of it.
The protagonist of the story did not have to live life in mortal terror of becoming pregnant. There was, at least as the story describes it, no medical reason for her to be terrified of her own body. But she was brought up in “liberal Seattle,” by “liberal parents,” pro-choice from day one. Evidently, she was taught to regard pregnancy as an invasion, an exertion of hostile power over herself, an expression of an oppressive class hierarchy. She paid the price for the culture of Choice. And now she has put it all into a comic, so that younger women can follow in her footsteps.
On balance, I had to concur with Mr. Nott. The graphic novels of the Johnson Kulukundis Gallery had, as promised, disclosed to me the nature of a powerful hidden system. It so happened, however, that this system was operated by Mr. Nott and his colleagues. It was a system predicated, not on boiling down truths, but on confirming deceptions. Rather than exposing reality, the graphic novelist seems to make a business of condensing stereotypes. If you want to levy unspoken prejudices with a pen stroke, to martial misconceptions with a sentence, to deploy convenient myths and make them goosestep together—write a graphic novel. On the other hand, if you want to see your secret errors publicly validated, if you want your private lies lovingly affirmed, if you want your deepest hatreds matched with enemies as shallow as you would like them to be, then look no further than the vibrant color and black-and-white moralism of the Kulukundis Gallery. If pointlessly reified identities are the sum of your personality, if hackneyed narratives of class struggle are the sum of your worldview, if once-clever sophistries vulgarized beyond recognition are the sum of your thought, then you will find kindred spirits galore in those polychromatic pages.
These books fascinate me. A creature of the Massachusetts public school system, I was reading them long before they made any headway in Virginia. I know them, warts and all. And they are often nothing but warts. They deserve–richly deserve–to be read critically. They come loaded with ideological content, some of it probably not recognized even by their authors. Soon someone must get around to unpacking it all. Perhaps it will be you.
But even if you do not share my fascination with tendentious Leftist children’s literature, someday you may be interested in knowing why the younger generation thinks as it does. The answer hides in the pages of “Pregnant Butch.” It stares out starkly from the cover of “Woman Rebel: The Margaret Sanger Story.” It has been prophesied on the back of Nib magazine’s “The Power Issue,” under the slogan: “All Power to the Cartoonists!” And, if you are interested, it is on display, right now, at Harvard, drawn out in glorious, even sensuous color. Pick up and read!
A version of this article originally appeared in Small World, the December 2022 print issue of the Salient.
Alexandra Alter and Elizabeth A. Harris, “Attempts to Ban Books are Accelerating and Becoming More Divisive,” New York Times, September 16, 2022.
“This is What Democracy Looks Like,” The Center for Cartoon Studies, (n.d.).
“Mirror, Mirror 2021: Reflecting Poorly,” The Commonwealth Fund, (August 4, 2021).