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Medicine and Health

Take Note: 'COVID Chronicles' Explores The Pandemic Through Comics, From Funny To Deadly Serious

The 'COVID Chronicles' cover image (left), the book's publisher Kendra Boileau (top right), graphic medicine researcher Susan Squier and her chicken avatar (middle right), and comic contributor Kay Sohini (bottom right).

The COVID-19 pandemic doesn’t seem like it would be fodder for comics. But the recently released anthology “COVID Chronicles” takes on the heavy topic in more than 60 comics. They range from single New Yorker-style panels up to 17 pages. And the topics go from funny to deadly serious.

Here to talk with us about “COVID Chronicles” is Kendra Boileau, assistant director and editor-in-chief of Penn State University Press. The book is published under its Graphic Mundi imprint, where she’s the publisher.

We also have with us Penn State Brill Professor Emerita of English Susan Squier, who studies the intersection of comics and medicine, and contributor Kay Sohini. 

Here's that conversation:

Emily Reddy  

Welcome to Take Note on WPSU. From my home studio, I'm Emily Reddy. The COVID-19 pandemic doesn't seem like it would be fodder for comics. But the recently released anthology "COVID Chronicles" takes on the heavy topic in more than 60 comics. They range from single New Yorker style panels up to 17 pages, and the topics go from funny to deadly serious. Here to talk with us about "COVID Chronicles" is Kendra Boileau, assistant director and editor-in-chief of Penn State University Press. The book is published under its Graphic Mundi imprint where she's the publisher. We also have with us Penn State Brill Professor Emerita of English Susan Squier, who studies the intersection of comics and medicine and a contributor to the collection, Kay Sohini. 

Thank you to all of you for talking with us. First, I'm amazed that you've released this book so quickly. It came out this March, about a year after the pandemic began. 

Kendra, the preface says you sent out the call for these comics in April of last year, just a month after the pandemic really began. How did you know so quickly that you wanted to make this book?

Kendra Boileau  

Well, things happened really fast at the beginning of the pandemic. It seems like our lives really changed overnight. For those of us who are tapped into the comics creator community, we were seeing all kinds of comics pop up on our social media feeds: Twitter, Instagram, Facebook. And comics creators all over the world were coping with this pandemic by journaling their own experiences. And you know, given the press's history of publishing comics about medical issues, our graphic medicine series, which has been in place since I believe 2014. It seemed like a no brainer to check out the kinds of work comics creators were doing in response to the pandemic and think about collecting these into a volume. At the time we were planning our launch of Graphic Mundi, which is a trade comics imprint. We had planned to launch in the fall of 2020. The pandemic delayed that by a season. So we pushed the launch off until January and thought, you know, if we could succeed in coming up with a collection of pandemic comics fairly quickly, that would be a nice volume with which to launch the the imprint. Which we did in mid-January. And yeah, so we we pushed it. I accepted submissions for about six months. And then my colleagues in production put their pedal to the metal and really worked fast to make this happen to have books in hand by January. So I'm really proud of all of my colleagues coming together to make this work.

Emily Reddy  

And readers get a taste to the book right on the cover. Can you describe it for us and tell us how you arrived at that image?

Kendra Boileau  

Yeah, so the the cover is a cityscape you see, you see city buildings on either side of the of the cover. And in the street. In the middle, you see a crowd of people all looking toward the camera toward the reader and they're all wearing masks. Looming in the distance is a large drawing of the Coronavirus in red in the backdrop there behind a skyscraper. And the scale is frightening. You know, it's as big as the skyline. So the perspective here is fabulous. It shows the crushing weight of this virus and humanity pretty much under its weight. This is a French artist called Deloupy. I had met him at a comics conference in France, and got to know him. And I also saw that on Facebook, he was doing these, these one-off illustrations of how COVID was affecting people in various ways. And so I got in touch with him to see if he'd be interested in giving us a cover image. And he did this for this book. And I think it turned out turned out really well.

Emily Reddy  

It's really striking. It is. You you collected these comics from mid-April to mid-October of 2020. And reading them It really feels like this snap shot in time, of a moment in time. And there's a real range of topics. Can you tell listeners what some of the different stories are about and did you curate to get this mix or were you were you just lucky?

Kendra Boileau  

Some of both. We got a lot of submissions. I purposefully asked for creators to think about the pandemic from a number of perspectives. For example, I didn't want a series of quarantine comics. And you know what happened as the pandemic unfolded is that the dimensions of the pandemic sort of exploded as we were going through this. And so naturally, I received a selection of submissions that were very diverse. So we have a contribution from someone whose mother passed during the pandemic. And it's his story of what it was like not being able to see her, you know, the last time you saw her and how he had to communicate with her by video, and what it was like to, to not be able to say goodbye. That comic made me cry when it came in. I mean, that's a true comic, some of these comics are very fictional. So you have very personal stories like that you have sort of slightly humorous comics about what it's like to be in lockdown and quarantine, you have some heavy hitting social issue comics, Kay Sohini, who's here with us, did a comic that addresses issues on on that sort of global social political scale. And I was hoping to include comics that would include people from a number of communities, including people from communities of color, because we know that the pandemic has impacted communities in very different ways. So I was going for diversity in the comics, and I feel very fortunate to have received a lot of wonderful submissions. That pretty much answered, answered that call. And so putting this together in a volume ended up being fairly easy for me.

Emily Reddy  

Susan... we're going to talk to Kay in a minute. But Susan, I wanted to bring you into this conversation. The world of graphic novels to do with medicine is something you've studied for some time as a professor, you're now retired from Penn State, and president of the graphic medicine international collective. How did you first get interested in the scholarship of comics?

Susan Squier  

Well, actually, it wasn't even the scholarship of comics that got me interested. I was interested in doing the scholarship I was already doing on literature and medicine, on feminist studies, animal studies, science studies. And as I was writing books and giving talks, I discovered that the quickest way to interest an audience and also to get an idea across was often to refer to a comic. So when I was writing my book called "Liminal Lives" that was looking at the way biomedicine has reshaped the lifespan from the beginning of life to the end of life. And I was giving talks, I found a comic called Bad Blastocyst that took on the issue of could cells... it was about stem cell use and stem cell research. And it took on all of the moral and ethical and social and legal issues related to stem cell research in one eight-panel comic. And so I would give talks on that, and people would really grab it. They were really into it. And when I looked back over my work, I found that I've been using comics as sort of intros and think pieces in my work since 1990, when I was on a research grant in Australia, and was talking about the relation between visualization technology in in-vitro fertilization and visualization technology in the Gulf War as it was being waged. So there's something about the way comics bring together very disparate fields and ideas quickly and visually. That was always extremely interesting to me. And then at a certain point, the graphic medicine movement started and it became something to think about directly and specifically and not as a method into other things.

Emily Reddy  

What, I mean, what is it about the comic that that makes it work for these really heavy subjects?

Susan Squier  

Oh, I think there are a couple of things. One thing is in a way, because comics often use avatars you know, you can, you can use mice and cats, you can distance a super difficult subject, as Art Spiegelman did in "Maus" by representing the beings as mice and cats, and allowing himself then to talk about the Holocaust, and talk about the powerful impact that he had on his father and then on him. So there's a distancing involved. The other thing about comics that's really powerful is that they operate sequentially and also instantaneously. So you read a comic and it goes from left to right, and it tells a story the way a narrative does. But you also see a comic, and you see all the aspects of it on the page. And you can even decide to look back and look forward. And so that allows for a very rich processing of the sensory and emotional feelings. And because it's visual, we often link in physiologically, I believe, to the bodies that are shown in the comic, and we tend to identify with them. They move us in ways. So if I could just give one example of this from my teaching of comics, I taught a man who had been in the Gulf War, and an improvised explosive device blew up under his jeep. And he had Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome, many, many injuries, both physical and psychological. And he was in a class on graphic medicine with me. And I asked everybody to draw a comic about something that happened either to them or a friend that had something to do with medicine. And he drew a comic that began as stick figures about some stick figure guy being in an IED explosion. And as he drew it over the course of the semester, that stick figure guide pretty soon came out as this happened to me, he started talking about that, he drew the whole comic, and went through all the process of that experience. And at the end, he wrote a final paper, which then became a talk at a graphic medicine conference, on how comics helped to process trauma. Because you can not only follow the narrative, you can slow it down, you can move in or move out of any aspect of any page. So he said it helped him put the pieces of that trauma together more effectively than any trauma therapy dad, at the Walter Reed Hospital that he went to after he came back. So it's a powerful medium.

Emily Reddy  

Yeah. And how do you define "graphic medicine"? Because some of the comics here in "COVID Chronicles" are about things that don't seem to be about medicine, like learning to bake bread in quarantine or doing puzzles as a family?

Susan Squier  

That's such a great question. One of the things that those of us in graphic medicine have debated since the very beginning, is if we wanted it to be called graphic medicine, because there is a pushback on the concept of medicalizing things, thereby turning them into pathology when they're just an aspect of normal experience or of life. And, you know, one could argue with graphic health, instead of medicine. But what I would say is, really I'd love to see medicine, reframe itself, to understand that medicine is something that happens to an individual and to a population in multiple social contexts that health is and that that really we should think of the concept of health as being something that ties together all scales from the very, very small, the microbial, to the health of the planet, and climate change. And so graphic medicine, I think, if really properly understood and put into play is anything that reaches health, wellbeing, illness, disability, on all of those scales.

Kendra Boileau  

This is Kendra. 

Emily Reddy  

Yeah. 

Kendra Boileau  

Can we talk a bit about the the the pun that there we might see in "graphic medicine," Susan?

Susan Squier  

Yes, absolutely. 

Kendra Boileau  

I think that that justifies also the use of the word medicine instead of health because, you know, "medicine" is, you know, "take your medicine, it's good for you." You know, so graphic medicine, sort of the goodness of comics to help heal us in some way. So there is that sort of play on on words with the term "graphic medicine."

Susan Squier  

It's also the healing aspects of the process of drawing, the healing aspects of the drawn line, the connection between the page through the pen or the brush to the person doing the work. Yeah. So it's all of those things.

Emily Reddy  

So creating the comics is also the medicine. Do you have a favorite comic from this collection from "COVID Chronicles"?

Susan Squier  

Do I? Susan? Oh, my goodness. It's really... it's so hard to bring a favorite in. I mean, I'm not going to say Kay's because she's right here. So I will move beyond Kay's, although I love yours, Kay. And I tell you what I really love is Maureen Burdock's comic, which is, now I'm going to try to find it. Yes, it's about the it's called "The Right to Breathe." And it's about the relationship between the way COVID impacts breathing and the way our incredible problem of social justice has impacted breathing as for example in the murder of George Floyd. And then it really works between ticks and bats as species that are seen as vermin, and are losing their space in the world, which is partially what's giving us the virus, you know. And then the incredible racist denial of space to people of color. So it's a really powerful comic in a very short form. And with some great graphic illustrations. They're powerful and out there.

Emily Reddy  

A lot of these fit so much into just a few pages, or even a single panel. How about you, Kendra? Do you have one that sticks with you and why?

Kendra Boileau  

Well, the one I mentioned earlier, the comic by Sean Seamus McWhinny about losing his mother to COVID. But they all really stick in my mind because with each submission, I felt like a window opened in my world, you know, as I was sequestered up here in my study. You know, a window looking out into other people's lives and experiencing something that had never possibly occurred to me that would be the the consequences of this pandemic. So, I guess my maybe cheesy answer would be that the whole collection is my favorite.

Emily Reddy  

If you're just joining us, this is Take Note on WPSU. I'm Emily Reddy. We're talking about the "COVID Chronicles," a collection of comics about the COVID-19 pandemic. We're talking with publisher Kendra Boileau, graphic medicine scholar and Penn State Brill Professor Emerita of English Susan Squier, and contributor Kay Sohini. So, Kay, you contributed the comic "Pandemic Precarities: An Account from the Intersection of Two Worlds." You live in New York City, you're from Calcutta, India, two hot beds. And you talk about your grandmother's death in India from COVID-19. I'm sorry for your loss. You talk about how COVID wouldn't even let you grieve her properly?

Kay Sohini  

Yeah. For me, it was really a kind of like way to process for like this multiple things I was feeling at the time, because like you mentioned, I live in Queens, New York. And I really... I love the city with all my heart. I love how it diverse it is. And like when COVID hit, we were suddenly looking at this completely empty, like hauntingly empty streets. And it was surrounded by this resounding quiet, only interrupted by constant ambulance sirens. It was a lot to take. And then my grandmother died. And it was like... we know New York was the epicenter of the pandemic last summer. But more specifically the place I live in. Like the neighborhood I live in Queens. It's mostly non-white, the median income is at least 5% less than the city median. And I knew I had to write about it because I was grieving myself. And then I was also already invested in the field of medical humanities before the pandemic. But I really did not want the writing to be too academic, or too removed from the ground reality of things. So instead, I wanted to kind of like focus on a visual autoethnography based on my lived experience, also combined with like a critical commentary from my position as a South Asian immigrant living in New York and watching this pandemic unfold on either side of the world in ways that increasingly disenfranchised minorities.

Emily Reddy  

You actually wrote... Let me read what you wrote. You wrote, "People like to say that this virus does not discriminate. While technically true, the statement obscures the fact that some communities are more vulnerable to and more affected by the virus than others." What were you seeing that led you to include that?

Kay Sohini  

Yeah, I mean, that was like... I remember when the pandemic started, like for a few few very naive, I think weeks, some people said that COVID would be like the great equalizer. And we got over that quickly, because we know like it deepened existing inequalities exponentially both on global and local scale. For example, like I said, my neighborhood was like very effected simply because it's not as affluent as some other neighborhoods in New York. And also like, as far as India is concerned, we did have one of the world's strictest lockdowns in March. But still right now, it's one of the worst COVID hit countries in the world. And the reason it happened is because some lives were valued more than others. I remember when the lockdown was enforced, thousands upon thousands of migrant workers were disenfranchised completely. They did not have... so migrant workers are people who work in Delhi or Mumbai, like basically the cities and they come from rural villages. So when the lockdown happened, like all transportations were blocked by the government and they couldn't go home. So they ended up walking, like literally hundreds of miles in very close quarters and many of them died and it just really spread COVID really badly. And they were kind of like then vilified for spreading COVID, which was really unfair because they were put in the situation by the state. It was kind of like how Asian Americans in cities like New York and San Francisco were kind of like, you know, like the violence against Asian Americans here has increased exponentially since the pandemic began.

Emily Reddy  

I was actually surprised that that you didn't actually highlight in your comic. I wondered if you experienced that hate against Asians or not or not?

Kay Sohini  

So, personally, I did not because I also have asthma. So I was isolating. I was mostly at home. But I do have friends who experienced it. And whenever my partner was going out, I was terrified for him. Yeah, it was not great.

Emily Reddy  

Yeah. I also thought it was interesting that you made sure that you gave sources of the different facts, you included: Washington Post, Institute of Policy Studies, and for one "as told by my grocer," Do you hope that your comic can get through to people in a way that maybe the Washington Post can't?

Kay Sohini  

So I might be biased because I'm actually drawing my entire doctoral dissertation as a comic. So I'm really invested in comics. That's like just disclosure. But yeah, I do think comics can kind of like get, you know, like, touch people in ways that straight up, like journalism, perhaps or even academic writing cannot. Because it makes visible the human cost of suffering. And it does so in a very evocative manner, because so much of the comics we have seen, at least about COVID, are very centered on lived experiences. I think it's very visceral. I mean, good writing can do it. So I did not want to make absolute statements. But still seeing it as well as reading about it, it kind of like compounds the effect of it. And also like it's very accessible. There has been like a rise in Instagram comics, like people just putting up their drawings and their feelings about the entire lockdown, losing loved ones, all those things in real time.

Emily Reddy  

Kendra, I noticed that in the Penn State press release about "COVID Chronicles," it said, graphic novels were a hard sell for you at first, it sounds like you've come a long way, now being the publisher of the Graphic Mundi press, you know, what led you to change? You know, what was it that changed your mind? 

Kendra Boileau  

A hard sell for me at first, because I was not really introduced to comics until I met Susan Squier, which was in 2011, I think. I grew up as a student of literature. My training is in French literature. And I did not grow up, grew up in a family who encouraged reading the funnies or graphic novels or comics of any sort. So it was really an alien medium to me. I met Susan and we started talking about, you know, the work she was doing in graphic medicine, and how that connected in with the kind of work that's happening in the academy. And so as an academic publisher, it really started to come together in my mind that comics have a place in the academy as an instrument of both research and teaching. It was a bit of a challenge in early days to convince some of the board members overseeing the press's list that this was in fact a good direction to go into. But that quickly, no longer became an issue.

Emily Reddy  

That release also said that you have first resisted doing a book about COVID because you were... it seemed opportunistic. How did you decide to do it after all? And I should point out that the proceeds are being donated. 

Kendra Boileau  

Yes, thank you. Proceeds from the sale of this volume are being donated to BINC, the Book Industry Charitable Foundation. So we were working at the time at the press with a professional comics consultant called Rich Johnson, who assisted me with the compilation of this "COVID Chronicles." And, you know, he pointed out that after 9/11 there were quite a few books, comic anthologies that came out addressing the events of 9/11, after the Puerto Rican hurricanes. And he can convinced me of the value of these kinds of collections to help people process, come to terms with trauma. And then also my work on collecting the comics and putting together confirm for me that this is in fact a constructive exercise both putting this together and also hopefully for readers as they read through.

Emily Reddy  

And, Susan, you keep a comics journal. What do you put in there?

Susan Squier  

Yes, I do and that is following Linda Berry, the great guru of all comics lovers. She has a number of volumes on this, but I follow her smallest model. Which is you take a composition notebook, you open it up on one page, you draw a line you write down, I think it's five or six things you did, and six things you saw. And then at the bottom you write questions you've had and answers you've had. And you do this for every day. And then on the other page, what you do is you draw a box, and you draw one of the things that you did or saw in that box. And then... it's morphed. So it used to be below it, I would draw another close up. And then it would be I would draw ideas. But you do that for every day. So I have four composition notebooks that I've been drawing since before the COVID pandemic hit. I started in December of that. And so I have the arc of the entire thing. Almost every day. The day we had to start masking. The day we were talking about flattening the curve. All throughout the election and the impact of that. And it was so therapeutic for me. I think when we're in very dire circumstances, one of the impulses is to shut down. And frequently, people who are writing diaries stop writing diaries in that time. I published a book on war and gender, and one of the essays was a really good medical humanities essay on how women stopped writing in their journals during the Civil War. But this mandated write and draw -- and with the stress, really on drawing -- was extraordinarily freeing and keeps a record. So that's, that's been very powerful for me.

Emily Reddy  

It sounds like that's almost a historical artifact. And, and I was thinking about that about "COVID Chronicles," as well. That it really kind of documents, some of the historical things that were happening, could see historians using it. 

Kendra, I feel like if you put this call out now, you would get a whole different mix of comics. Maybe people struggling to reenter society, people thinking, "Oh, delta variant," you know, long term effects. Any plans for a Volume Two?

Kendra Boileau  

Not at the moment. But I do know a group of people who are working on collecting comics from frontline workers. So these are comics that are not being drafted in the moment, the way the comics in our collection were. But these are comics that will in some ways present an "after the fact" or "in hindsight" perspective. And I think that's going to be a very valuable collection of comics. I haven't really thought of anything more for Graphic Mundi. But as time goes on maybe that'll change.

Emily Reddy  

Well, thank you all for talking with us. 

Kendra Boileau  

Thank you for having us. 

Emily Reddy  

The "COVID Chronicles" is a collection of comics about the COVID-19 pandemic. We talked with publisher Kendra Boileau, graphic medicine scholar and Penn State Brill Professor Emerita of English Susan Squier, and contributor Kay Sohini. You can hear more Take Note interviews at WPSU.org/TakeNote. I'm Emily Reddy, WPSU.

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