by Coleman Nye and Sherine Hamdy
We are simply thrilled to have Lissa so thoughtfully reviewed by this amazing group of scholar-artists. We want to first thank each of the reviewers for so generously reflecting on this project and for considering it on its own terms. Their responses are more than we could have hoped for when we first imagined a readership.
We are particularly charmed by Parismita Singh’s self-representation as a teapot, as well as her playful incorporation of visual cues from Lissa, such as the cats, lizards, and birds. Singh’s review beautifully models one of the great pleasures and strengths of comics as a form of what Lochlann Jain calls “multi-valent storytelling.” This unique combination of text and image was part of the initial draw of the medium for us, as it allowed us to layer, juxtapose, and complicate the connections between our research contexts.
We certainly aren’t the first anthropologists to see the potentials in comics and, as the revolutionary artwork coming out of Egypt attests, we are deeply indebted to comic and graffiti artists who have been exploring the intellectual and political potentials of comics for quite some time. We are, however, grateful to be in such good company and hope that Jain is right in generously suggesting that Lissa encourages us to reconsider “how we gather and define ethnographic knowledge and communication.”
When we first embarked on this project, we honestly only thought of ourselves as “taking” from the genre of comics to enrich our academic pursuits. We never considered how this exercise might contribute to the genre of comics, and we feel especially honored that Singh saw something of value in the ways that we engaged with and credited our collaborators. Her suggestion that Lissa could serve as a useful model for artists in accounting for questions of power and attribution in their own work is exciting, and also challenges us to broaden our understanding of comics as a form of public anthropology.
We are similarly grateful to Stacy Pigg for suggesting that our anthropological sensibilities enabled us to shift the conventional relationship in drawing between figure and ground, such that the sociopolitical contexts could emerge as characters and the characters could become the ground, depending on the perspective of the reader. Comics contain a multitude of possibilities of understanding what Pigg calls “contexts-in-bodies” rather than simply “bodies-in-society,” and we are delighted that she sees these possibilities emerging from our work.
As for Singh’s “confession” that she reads comics for pleasure — nothing could be more fulfilling for us, as authors of this genre, to know that this pleasure was at least not entirely lost through our academic tendency to analyze everything to death! Lochlann Jain also admits to skepticism of our additional pedagogical materials, having initially asked, “Why not let the work stand on its own?” But even in moving away from dense academic prose, we still wanted Lissa to be accessible to those academics unfamiliar with comics. Several colleagues admitted to us that their impetus is to focus on the words and to forget to look at the images. Another mentioned the discomfort she felt in “reading” the silent panels (those with no dialogue or text). Yet another colleague confessed that whenever she reads comics, she wishes she could push the pictures out of the way and simply get to the text. These reactions certainly attest to our overly honed logocentrism! But we did not want to dismiss these colleagues from our potential readership. We hoped that through an included analysis of how to read comics, and our analyses of why and how comics worked to further our academic research, that we could draw them in.
Re-thinking our own propensity for “thick description” was challenging for us as we sought to adapt our ethnographic research into a graphic novel format. Working in the medium of comics forced us to think differently about our habits of communication and reception. The formal constraints of dialogue boxes, for example, prodded us to radically pare down the text and rely far more heavily on the visual field and the reader to fill in the rest. Pigg points to this in her description of “closure,” as the comics reader must do the work of interpreting the visual elements in each panel, and then linking the individual images on the page together to perceive the whole story. The reader must “feel” the information in comics, Pigg reminds us, and while the author-illustrator team, as Jain says, must show rather than tell, the interstices between the panels still allow for multiple readings, putting the reader in the position to differently experience and explore anew the layered times, spaces, and perspectives across the panels and pages.
We have been conscious from the beginning of our project of crafting Lissa as a more accessible text — accessible for those who learn visually, and for those who have different reading, attentional, or cognitive abilities in their reception and processing of information. As we get more feedback from readers, we hope to incorporate different responses and needs into future projects. For example, we learned that Lissa was being taught in a college classroom in which a visually-impaired student was enrolled. This has prompted us to begin production on a full audio description of Lissa for visually-impaired readers and for those who might benefit from listening to the story.
Perhaps it is too early to tell if we have succeeded in all of our goals. At the very least, we are happy to have provided intellectual stimulation to our audiences and to have retained the pleasure of visual storytelling powerful enough to bring readers into heretofore unfamiliar worlds. Aside from our gratitude toward our readers, we also feel deeply indebted to one another, as Lissa was a labor of love and intense collaboration among its authors, artists, and the revolutionaries who inspired its story.
Coleman Nye is an Assistant Professor of Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies at Simon Fraser University.
Sherine Hamdy is an Associate Professor of Social Sciences at the University of California-Irvine.