On Thursday September 29, 2022, we held a stimulating guest lecture and workshop with French non-fiction graphic-novelist, editorial cartoonist and animation director Aurel whose movie Josep was honoured by the 2021 César Award for Best Animated Film.
My warm thanks to Aurel for his time and enlightening and captivating insights, and to La Fête, Beyond Animation Festival and Clémentine Arfi for making this meaningful cultural exchange possible!
The workshop consisted in applying the various graphic non-fiction composition techniques discussed during the guest lecture to the comics adaptation of an imposed paragraph excerpted from the chapter A Race of Cooks in Yuval Noah Harari‘s book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (2011/2015). The 35 participating students -from Faculties and Departments of Literature, Architecture, Communication Design, Communication Arts, Psychology and Chemistry- had 30 minutes to compose individually a 2-page comics breakdown (drawn draft) of the paragraph. After completion, Aurel’s own graphic take on the Sapiens paragraph in his comics Singes and David Vandermeulen & Daniel Casenave’s comics adaptation in Sapiens: A Graphic History were introduced to the students to compare radically different approaches. Each student’s comics breakdown was later commented individually by yours truly.
Here are some results from the students’ workshop:
When abandoned by words, muted or silenced, Comics Art allows for different strategies to represent -or allude to- ‘invisible/invisibilized’ inner wounds, health and mental issues. These -usually overlapping- meaning-making strategies include, but are not limited to, the narrative use of colors, art/line style, textures and techniques (pencils, ballpoint pen, digital paint…), graphic embodiment of the characters, space-time interplay (space as time; contiguity of various moments/spaces/panels), braiding of visual motifs and visual metaphors, panels’ sizes and shapes, page composition (segmentation, layout, negative space…), text spatialization, speech balloons’ shapes and lettering, multi-modality (text-image dynamic; anchorage/relay, intertextuality), abstraction or suggestion (closure, gap between the panels). More on ‘the interaction between the medium of comics and the discourse of healthcare’, and the representation of (psychic) trauma, can be found on the website Graphic Medicine, and books such as Documenting Trauma in Comics: Traumatic Pasts, Embodied Histories, and Graphic Reportage (Palgrave Macmillan), Hillary L. Chute’s Disaster Drawn: Visual Witness, Comics, and Documentary Form (Harvard University Press), Harriet E. H. Earle’s Comics, Trauma and the New Art of War (University Press of Mississippi) and Eszter Szép’s Comics and the Body: Drawing, Reading, and Vulnerability (The Ohio State University Press) among many other publications.
Harriet E. H. ‘Earle suggests that comics are the ideal artistic representation of trauma. Because comics bridge the gap between the visual and the written, they represent such complicated narratives as loss and trauma in unique ways, particularly through the manipulation of time and experience. Comics can fold time and confront traumatic events, be they personal or shared, through a myriad of both literary and visual devices. As a result, comics can represent trauma in ways that are unavailable to other narrative and artistic forms.’
The following 17 ‘Traumics’ (comics on trauma) or Graphic Medicine narratives were produced by Thai or exchange students from various faculties (Psychology, Architectural Design, Language and Culture, Communication Design, Communication Arts, Engineering) at Chulalongkorn University, Thailand, during the Covid-lockdowns in 2021 and 2022 as the final creative projects of two of my courses: Imaginative Media, a comparative course on the representation of Refugee Narratives and Psychic Trauma in various media (literature, comics, movies, tv series, dance/choreographies, paintings…), and Visual Media Studies, a ‘General Education’ course mostly dedicated to the study of Graphic Narratives and Comics Art. Both courses include the study of Psychic Trauma and its representations through a series of lessons based on the seminal works of psychiatrists François Lebigot, Louis Crocq and Sándor Ferenczi, and on my conferences on Comics as a Language of Symptoms of Psychic Trauma. All students were made aware of the challenging nature and content of the courses on the first lesson (and could choose to drop the course, or skip the triggering content/lessons); they were free to select their graphic narrative’s topic, but it had to be related to psychic trauma or any other mental/health issues, and to change their topic at any point, if the ‘graphic’ composition felt too challenging. Some stories are based on personal experiences, other are based on research by the students. In preparation of the composition of their graphic narratives, we’ve analysed pages from a dozen trauma-related short comics or graphic novels from the US, Canada, Taiwan, Vietnam, Belgium or France. Along the semester, students worked on various (constrained/experimental) comics composition assignments. During the last weeks of the semester, individual consulting sessions with yours truly were held, one to discuss the first layout and a second to improve some elements of the advanced draft of their comics. Most of the students had no prior art/comics training, and the following stories are usually their very first comics narratives. Most stories reveal the crushing weight of social pressure/conformity in Thailand (and Asia), and that -if comics studies were rightfully considered and fully integrated in the university curriculum- students would be able to produce many more sophisticated and meaningful graphic narratives on social issues and as a means of self-expression and of mindful communication.
My deepest thanks to all my students as they were always fully dedicated to the ‘unconventional’ content of my courses and to the comics assignments they were given. More comics have been produced during these two courses, but some were either redundant with the stories presented here or need some additional editing before publication. More graphic narratives should be published online soon.
These ‘graphic’ narratives contain depictions of domestic violence, sexual abuse and harassment, child abuse, self-harm, suicide, eating disorders, body shaming, [cyber-] bullying, disasters/mass shootings, discrimination, nudity, offensive language, and more…
Reproduced with permission. All rights remain to the authors/artists.
As an assignment for the “Visual Media Studies” course (GenEd course offered by the Faculty of Communications Arts, Chulalongkorn University, Thailand), students from various faculties and departments (Architecture, Communication Design, Psychology, Engineering, Literature…) were asked to explore the concept of “windows on time in a single place” developed by American cartoonist Richard McGuire with his two stories titled “Here” (1989 in the pages of RAW, and 2014 as an extended graphic novel). The complete groundbreaking graphic narrative can be read on this post: “Here” by Richard McGuire.
Here are some of the results, tackling topics such as Thai political turmoil, adoption, Black Lives Matter, but also time travel, family ties and… cats. Many more results from the CommArts students are also posted on this page.
PS: click on the comics pages for higher resolution.
On the occasion of the 150th Anniversary of Friendship between Belgium and Thailand and after introducing the Belgo-Palombian character Marsupilami in graphic narratives to denounce a case of black panther poaching in Thailand (see students’ comics HERE), students were invited to revisit another famous -and much scrutinized- Belgian comics character: Smurfette(or Schtroumpfette in the original version)!
Thai (and foreign) Chulalongkorn students from the two courses mentioned above were asked to create short graphic narratives (2 to 4 pages) on imposed topics related to the Critical Tradition which challenges “the control of language to perpetuate power imbalances by exploring the way communication establishes, reinforces and maintains power structures in society” (see Denis McQuail, McQuail’s Reader in Mass Communication Theory, Sage Publishing, 2002). With a vast majority of Asian and female students in my courses, the Smurfette Principle and Whitewashing in Film topics seemed to be appropriate and meaningful choices. The latter topic addresses the under-representation of minorities in the media, and more specifically the Hollywoodian habit of casting white actors to play non-white characters while disregarding the -mostly comics- source material (see articles by Steve Rose and Keith Chow). Infamous recent examples include Tilda Swinton casted as a Himalayan mystic in Doctor Strange, Emma Stone casted as a Chinese-Hawaiian character in Aloha, Scarlett Johansson playing a Japanese cyborg in the live-action feature Ghost in the Shell, or British actor Ed Skrein who decided to step down from his (half-Japanese) Ben Daimio’s role in the upcoming reboot of Hellboy. Criticism on cultural appropriation and whitewashing has also been raised towards Wes Anderson’s latest feature Isle of Dogs (see here).
“In its original sense, ‘whitewashing’ meant covering or cleaning something up. In today’s cultural landscape, it is a stain that won’t rub off. Now, ‘whitewashing’ describes the habit of casting white actors to play non-white characters, often to shoehorn in a star, sometimes out of racial insensitivity, invariably to the detriment of people (and especially actors) of colour.” Steve Rose in ‘“The idea that it’s good business is a myth’ – why Hollywood whitewashing has become toxic”, The Guardian (source), 2017.
In line with the Feminist Critical Tradition which criticizes communication content and practices that perpetuate patriarchal hierarchies and ideologies, The Smurfette Principle was coined and defined by poet and essayist Katha Pollitt in 1991 in the New York Times as a practice in fiction to include only one stereotypicalfemale character in an otherwise all-male cast (see quote below).
“The message is clear. Boys are the norm, girls the variation; boys are central, girls peripheral; boys are individuals, girls types. Boys define the group, its story and its code of values. Girls exist only in relation to boys.” Katha Pollitt in “Hers; The Smurfette Principle”, The New York Times (source), 1991.
If Katha Pollitt bases her criticism on the Smurfs animated TV series, the Smurfette character was first introduced in Peyo’s A Smurf Adventure: The Smurfette serialized in Spirou magazine (Dupuis, Belgium) in 1966 and written by Yvan Delporte [1928-2007] and Peyo [Pierre Culliford; 1928-1992]. The Smurfette was created from clay by evil wizard Gargamel in order to launch a feud in the all-male Smurf village. The recipe’s ingredients (see Fig. 2; “Sugar and spice, but nothing nice… A dram of crocodile tears… A peck of bird brain…”, etc.) used by the wizard present themselves as an appalling and misogynistic list of personalilty traits. Let’s point here that the recipe is accompanied by an asterisk leading to a footnote (see Fig.1 ). In the French edition (but I don’t know if the footnote was already in the first serialized publication), the footnote reads “This text only represents the views of the author of the grimoire ‘Magicae Formulae’, Beelzebub Publishing” (my translation). The 1976 English further relieves Delporte and Peyo of any responsibilities which are rejected on the “Male Chauvinist Pig Wizards” Incorporation…
Nevertheless, the Smurfette’s origin story raises more criticism. Smurfette first appears with unruly black hair, a large nose, basic dress and slippers (see Fig. 3). Feeling miserable because of her physical appearance and lack of attractiveness, she undergoes an “operation of plastic smurfery ” [sic] at the hands of Papa Smurf to become a blonde Smurfette -inspired by French actress Brigitte Bardot- with shortened nose, curled eyelashes, gown and high heels; she is now “one of a kind, full of feminine grace and frivolous. She can also be very much a woman, playing with the feelings of her sweethearts” (from Smurfette’s official bio quoted in Jason Richards’ The Problem With Smurfette). Turned into an “object of desire” and with stereotypical feminine personality traits, Smurfette -and the male Smurfs themselves by competing for her attention- will bring even more trouble in the village soon to be flooded. Let’s add, to be fair, that Delporte and Peyo do not depict the male Smurfs from their best angle either; they do not save the day (except for the more tempered Papa Smurf) and are made laughable -and “identical”- by their hazardous and idiotic behaviour.
The character of Smurfette evolved positively -albeit quite slowly- over the past decade; becoming the leader of the Smurf village in the 2010 adventure La Grande Schtroumpfette, or an airplane pilot on the outside paint job of some Brussels Airlines’ Airbus A320.
The imposed format was “knowledge (or educational) comics” in order to explore the ability of text/image (multimodal) narratives to condense and convey a large amount of information in a limited space of only a few pages. See quote below.
“Just like diagrams, info-graphics, and other forms of science visualizations, comics use words and pictures to convey information, however they also divide the information into panels [McCloud, 1994] which can facilitate the reading experience and highlight important information, such as parts and processes [Mayer and Gallini, 1990]. Furthermore, comics not only break down the information into more digestible units but can also reassemble them into meaningful compositions […]. As summarized by comic scholar and educator Nick Sousanis: “the spatial interplay of sequential and simultaneous, imbues comics with a dual nature — both tree-like, hierarchical and rhizomatic, interwoven in a single form” [Sousanis, 2015]. In other words, comics can be read linearly, panel by panel, but also lend themselves to non-linear explanations, encouraging the reader to constantly reassess earlier panels in the light of new information. Similarly, science often requires readers to make connections between multiple scales and domains of knowledge, not necessarily arranged in a hierarchical, linear order. In conclusion, while comics are often perceived as an easy and playful format, they may be exquisitely suited at presenting complex information in a rigorous yet accessible way.” Matteo Farinella, “The Potential of Comics in Science Communication”, in JCom Journal of Science Communication 17/1 (source), 2018.
Examples of “knowledge comics” provided to the students included the excellent series La Petite Bédéthèque des Savoirs (Le Lombard, Belgium) which presents itself as “pocket-sized hardcover educational books on subjects as varied as artificial intelligence, sharks, heavy metal, and the history of prostitution. Each volume in the series is written and drawn by a different writer and artist pair. Internationally-renowned experts in the fields work with comics luminaries for a unique alchemy every time” (source). Some volumes are available in English by IDW Publishing under the series title “The Little Book of Knowledge”. Other references were Nick Sousanis’ doctoral dissertation in comics form Unflattening, Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics and Understanding Rhetoric: A Graphic Guide to Writing by Elizabeth Losh, Jonathan Alexander, Kevin Cannon, and Zander Cannon.
Page from “The Little Book of Knowledge: Tattoos” by Jérôme Pierrat (author) and Alfred (artist). IDW Publishing/Le Lombard.
Page from “The Little Book of Knowledge: Heavy Metal” by Jacques de Pierpont (author) and Hervé Bourhis (artist). IDW Publishing/Le Lombard.
Page from (upcoming in English) “The Little Book of Knowledge: Sharks” by Bernard Séret (author) and Julien Solé (artist). IDW Publishing/Le Lombard.
Page from “La Petite Bédéthèque des Savoirs #18: Le conflit israélo-palestinien” by Vladimir Grigorieff (author) and Abdel de Bruxelles (artist), Le Lombard.
The Smurfette Principle and Whitewashing in Film Knowledge Comics by Chula students
The Smurfette origin (exploring elements from the Semiotics lessons: symbol, icon, connotation…).
A satirical take on the Smurfette Principle starring Pepper Potts and Tony Stark (aka Iron Man).