Can Comics Save Your Life?


“Hi everyone, hope you are happy and healthy!” declared the Instagram account of celebrated Williamsburg bookstore Desert Island, on April 1, 2020. “We all need something positive to think about and a lot of us have time on our hands, so let’s do a project together. Who wants to make something? Please send comics visualizing your ideal future, in a utopian world after we survive this moment.”

Four months later, the project features over 250 short comics from more than 50 countries. One of the most comforting and moving art projects of our pandemic era, the resulting Rescue Party series has ballooned into a large-scale, global collaboration between artists and—crucially—regular people, all trying their hand at expressing “a utopian or ideal future post-virus.”

Perhaps the first Rescue Party entry best encapsulates the project. Appearing less than 24 hours after Desert Island’s initial call for submissions, the comic—from London-based artist John Broadley—is stylish and scratchy, composed in black, red, and blue. Broadley’s comic poses the question: “The end? … Or the beginning?” In the most memorable panel, a Dr. Spock–like figure takes a hammer to a computer: “Computers made excellent servance but I have no wish to serve under them.” (Spelling deliberate.) Subsequent panels continue to ask: “Or the beginning?” “Or the beginning?” “Or the beginning?” The interplay of endless questions and endless beginnings could broadly define the hundreds of contributions to Rescue Party.

The idea of a “rescue party” seizes on the idea behind Desert Island’s name (which itself invokes a thought experiment about the essential comics you’d need for survival) and extends it. In the age of quarantine and the pandemic—which is to say, an age in which ideation around life and death is limned by the ever-present reality of extremity and existential choices—the concept takes on new significance. Now, the rescue party will come and get us from the desert island of our isolation. Instead of just providing stories to keep us company, it will transport us to safety. The word “party” also resonates: the comics are a celebration, as well as a collection—even a movement—that is performing imaginative rescue.

Many of the strips, in imagining a longed-for future, diagnose the psychic and material systemic failures that have been with us all along, and which the virus has revealed with shattering clarity. There is something joyful in the straightforward sincerity of these utopian visions, something satisfying in witnessing the visual-verbal articulation of the end of problems.

Gabrielle Bell’s contribution, in a crooked, urgent hand, ends with two people marveling against a background of robin’s-egg blue. “Remember the toilet paper hoarding?” one says to the other. “Ha! Remember when we believed that money was more important than anything else?” she replies. “In fact, in the same way that life outside of capitalism was once unimaginable,” the narration reads above them, “the opposite will be true. We will wonder why we’d been so parsimonious, so suspicious, why we bothered to hoard when there’s more than enough of everything for everybody.”

 

 

On March 16, 2020, due to the coronavirus outbreak, owner Gabe Fowler shuttered Desert Island, which specializes in comics and zines (a 2018 New York Times headline deemed it “The ‘Punk Rock’ Comic Book Shop”). Away from the store, in isolation in a Connecticut cabin, he made some collages, which he described to me as “not great. … Pretty loose.” But, meditating on loneliness and creativity, Fowler had a “lightbulb moment.” On April 1, he posted his call for submissions on the Desert Island Instagram account. The only formal requirement was that the comics had to unfold in a nine-panel grid.

Fowler’s background is in fine art; he graduated from the School of the Art Institute in Chicago, where he majored in video, and he worked as an art handler in New York before opening his shop, in 2008. (He also founded and organizes Comic Arts Brooklyn, a successful annual festival and book fair.) “I try to be a hard-ass, reliable, relentless person,” he told me, explaining his drive to disseminate art and culture. “I want to feed it, and I want it to grow, and I want people to anticipate: ‘This is good, is there more?’”

The ethos of Rescue Party—with its open call, basic structure, and broad spectrum of work—is profoundly democratic and conspicuously positive. Fowler acts as a friendly facilitator, an editorial stance born of his passion for expanding access to art.

Contrary to the stereotype that art-comics culture is an esoteric “in group” enterprise, the vast majority of Rescue Party contributors (approximately 80 percent) were unknown to Fowler before they submitted. (The strips are posted on Desert Island’s Instagram as well as the official Rescue Party account, which Fowler created a few weeks after the project began, as it quickly grew.) Some entries, particularly earlier ones, have only a smattering of likes, while others have upward of 15,000.

It’s a rare pleasure to spend time with these comics, in small and stirring bursts of nine panels (in many cases an additional, 10th panel is offered, which gives a view of the entire 3×3 grid). Happily, the collection lives in an online space that hasn’t generated any vicious discourse, whatever viewers might think of the entries.

When I started reading Rescue Party, often in the dark on my phone, or lying in bed next to my young son, I was pleasantly surprised that the comments were so consistently positive—especially after becoming accustomed to feeling gutted by the state of the world every time I went online. Later, I learned that Fowler deletes the negative comments. But the project is not—editorially or aesthetically—a twee sidestep, some denial of our brutal global reality. Rather, it’s explicitly concerned with recognizing that reality and attempting the focused exercise of imagining the other side of it.

“Let’s face it, it’s a real negative time,” Fowler told me. “I don’t have patience for people who would comment, ‘Don’t you understand that the world is a pile of garbage and you people are idiots?’ Yes, I do understand that, but I don’t need to hear it from you. That’s not what we’re here for right now.”

 

 

So, what are we here for right now, with this series? Though they run the spectrum from virtuosically, professionally gorgeous to appealingly sketchy (while most are drawn, some are collaged, or painted, like Dixie Law’s Philip Guston–ish entry, filled with feet and ashtrays), they are almost entirely executed in color, and some strong themes emerge across the comics. Some have titles, some don’t; a common opener is “When this is all over,” or “Once this is over.”

Numerous strips are about touch. One of my favorite panels, from Christina Lee’s “Post-Quarantine Visions,” depicts two hands—one yellow, one green, both with long, hot-pink nails—moving in from opposite sides of the frame for a high five. Many entries present hands simply, almost abstractly. In Robin B.’s graceful, silent strip, the middle set of panels consists of simple line drawings of hands—black, green, and then blue—that emerge out of oceans of marks, becoming numerous and patterned and ultimately entwined.

Of course, among the strips about touch, there are plenty of sensual or aching comics about sex, and quite a few about hugging. From the opposite angle, Kaitlin Chan’s entry notes, “When we’re allowed to go out again, I won’t judge PDA-ing couples.” We will have learned tolerance.

There are many flat-out funny strips. I loved Ida Hartmann’s blunt opening gambit: “Corona-isolation had made me painfully aware of how annoying I was, and what a horrible state my body was in,” she writes, above a woman exclaiming: “UARGH.” But there is much in the Rescue Party lineup that is grim, even dystopian.

One striking entry that blends the dark and the hopeful to searing effect is by Kana Philip, who also provides a sonic voiceover. (Among the most popular of the strips, it has about 17,000 likes.) “Only kids will be left,” read pink capital letters above a dark green sketch of a child’s face, executed in what look like skillful charcoal strokes. “The adults won’t make it.” Like The Handmaid’s Tale, this feels both like a science-fiction premise and also, right now, utterly possible. It’s a brilliant nine-sentence story, full of suspense, trouble, and warmth.

In another entry, whose colors progress from dark to light, a man wearing a mask and goggles ventures out alone through an eerie deserted town. “Nature had begun to reassert itself,” we learn, and technology and nature are better able to adapt to each other. The man encounters a cat mewing at his feet. “But in the end, it was not technology that moved humanity forward,” the text declares, “it was compassion.” In the final panel, the man removes his mask and goggles and cuddles the purring cat. (On the Instagram of the artist, Jim Schuessler, many other pictures are of detailed ink images of skulls on beer coasters.)

 

 

Across the strips, nature overtakes cities, climate change is reversed, and the Anthropocene figures heavily. The pleasure in reading and looking at all these sincere imaginings is modest, unforced. Unlike debates about aesthetics, sincerity, and irony conducted in the wake of 9/11, Rescue Party doesn’t feel attached to opposing polemics.

Instead, the Rescue Party frame is open and multifaceted; it takes “light” work as seriously as it takes the work that expresses strong critique of structures of power with an anticapitalist philosophy, for example, or an antitechnocratic one. The series is stuffed with eclectic comics that delight with an often goofy, surface charm—eye candy, to use an annoying phrase that somehow feels right here, like an unexpected gift.

The second panel of Denmark-based Zven Balslev’s “Let’s Have a Fun Party” pictures a blissed out, musical bear in a bow tie. While a symbolically ominous bat flies above him, the bear bangs out a song on his drum kit. In Chile-based Valentina Silva’s bright, fuzzy submission, anthropomorphized pieces of fruit—softly rendered, with smiley faces—wear skimpy bathing suits; it’s unexpectedly, adorably cheerful.

A graduate student of mine recently described Rescue Party’s allure. Referencing a comic that stars a bear meeting cosmic forces, by Elli Rhodes—the most admired entry by the metrics, with almost 18,000 likes—he wrote to me: “It’s suffused with a warmth in both its coloring and its sentiment. Both are comforting during these otherwise dark and melancholic times, regardless of whether the comic’s optimistic perspective is realistic. It both acknowledges sadness and provides an escape to a better potential future, one that is lush and vibrant and populated by cute and friendly characters. It’s basically a warm hug.”

Everything about this entirely digital series manages to be haptic: its textures, its fantasies, its self-reflexive creation; the feeling it gives that it can hold the reader through the force of its pictured world.

 

 

The Rescue Party collection demonstrates the power of comics—its aesthetics and possibilities—in this moment. Rosalind Krauss, in her famous 1979 essay “Grids,” identifies the grid as the feature that announces “modern art’s will to silence, its hostility to literature, to narrative, to discourse.”

But the form of comics, however aligned with modernist aesthetics, has consistently revealed that grids can do the opposite of silencing; a comic’s grid (whether articulated, or present as an absent regulation) is its primary mechanism for communicating stories.

Since its earliest days, comics has approached the regularity of the grid either as a useful constraint that defines experiments in irregularity, or as a “democratic” syntax (to use Ivan Brunetti’s formulation of same-size frames on a page). Rescue Party’s swipeable grid is a flexible tool that offers both a shared grammar to creators—introducing a common aesthetic plane—and a common access point to viewers, who must read all the comics the same way, by advancing digital frame by frame.

Like Fowler’s other publication projects—including the Desert Island–published inaugural issue of the feminist magazine RESIST!, edited by Françoise Mouly and Nadja Spiegelman, and Smoke Signal, his ongoing anthology print magazine—the Rescue Party series is free. Unlike his other projects, though, this one is created specifically for Instagram.

Of course, its born-digital quality reflects its content: the coronavirus and its restrictions on physical touch and togetherness. As the language of the open call makes clear, Fowler views contributors as collaborators in a collective endeavor of public, global making. (I noticed entries from Australia, Canada, Germany, India, Hong Kong, Peru, and Poland, to name just a few.)

“That’s a real positive,” he told me. “You don’t have to exchange money to participate in international culture. I make a free newspaper, but to mail one copy to France is $30. [This is] a nonmonetary exchange project. … Communication only.” And, besides requiring access to a computer or phone, it’s low-tech: “You can be a person with a pad of paper and participate in this project,” Fowler said.

There is a field of comics already, with distinct formats and frames, that engage COVID-19. (Penn State University Press even announced a new imprint, Graphic Mundi, inspired by the pandemic’s effect on narrative; its first book will be a graphic collection responding to the virus.) Creators range, as in Rescue Party, from professionals (see, for instance, cartoonist Jason Chatfield’s account of getting the virus) to medical professionals who have created black-humor comics about the lack of PPE, for example, and posted them online.

Most of these comics circulate digitally, on personal websites, social media accounts, and online venues like The Nib, although the virus has also bent the content of daily newspaper strips. Many of these comics are usefully inventoried at Graphic Medicine, the website of the international medical-artistic movement of the same name that examines, broadly speaking, the overlap of comics and health care (see Jared Gardner’s two essays on graphic medicine here at Public Books).

This summer, cartoonist Dean Haspiel and pop-culture writer Whitney Matheson released the benefit project Pandemix: Quarantine Comics in the Age of ‘Rona, a 19-artist collection, which includes well-known figures like Josh Neufeld and Kristen Radtke. Neufeld’s opener is a standout, a grim and careful piece of comics journalism that reveals the inner workings of a New York hospital trying to scrounge necessary equipment.

I am reminded—encountering both quick, loose work by, say, doctors, and sleek, deeply researched pages by veterans like Neufeld—how urgent a form comics is. This urgency is especially evident in its ability to telegraph an idea with unmistakable force, and to convey detail, sequence, and feeling, showing us the expressive faces behind the masks and phones in addition to dimensions and orthography. Comics can efficiently show the scale of a problem, while also connecting that problem to particularized bodies.

Rescue Party is part of the growing field of COVID-19 comics, but it is distinct in its collective orientation to the prospective, in its temporal elasticity wrapped up with desire. It is related to but apart from the documentary—and is affecting, then, in a different register.

 

 

Rescue Party’s inclusive comics communication has sparked, in the past few months, real attention and devotion. This has as much to do with the huge presence of drawing in the Rescue Party images as it does with the joy of encountering, in each entry, an evidently hand-crafted vision, especially during a time when touch is under so much pressure and the future feels so unclear (and when those two things are intimately connected).

The mark-making spotlighted by the Rescue Party series indexes the conspicuous presence of bodies. Drawing has an intensity and intimacy that beckons, especially when the concept is so personal.

Further, in creating a world of marks, drawing conspicuously links the past, present, and future—as in Sean Kelly’s elegiac comic about eating a slice of pizza on a public bench with a stranger in early March, knowing things were about to change and knowing that she would later yearn for that moment. As Joe Sacco pointed out in an event with Art Spiegelman for the Society of Illustrators in July, in comics drawing, “the same hand draws the past and the present—the hand indicates continuity.” That continuity itself is hopeful; Kelly’s strip captures a quiet moment in the past that is linked to her vision of the future.

Rescue Party is a reminder that in the struggle for better times—for political and social transformation—one needs to be able to imagine what one wants. One needs to be able to create that psychic space, which Drucilla Cornell (defending the political efficacy of aesthetics) has called the “imaginary domain.” This domain is significant not only as planning and motivation, but also as a way to nurture the complexities of identification and fantasy that shape personhood.

Comics are not the same as a magic wand, but they are astonishingly good at concretizing the imaginary. The vital comics of Rescue Party make the imaginary material, visible, accessible. “If I had to visualize a world that’s better in the future, that’s what the project is,” Fowler said. “I truthfully believe that’s the answer. … If you can visualize it, you can do it.”

 

 

This article was commissioned by Ben Platt and Kelley McKinney. icon

Featured image: Detail from Christina Lee (@xxtinalee), “Post Quarantine Visions” (2020)





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