Yesterday evening I went to a lecture ‘Experiments in Comics Ethnography’ given by Alex Pavlotski at Auckland University. I went because I know nothing about comics in this kind of context, and it was very interesting!
First of all a disclaimer – this post is based on the lecture only, and the bits of his comic he showed during it. I need to read the whole thing, and if you also want to, it’s here.
First it was cool how Alex had managed to combine his two great loves – ethnography and comics. It was clear he was passionate about both; and it was also clear that it was not easy to work with comics in a traditional academic university-type context, for example academic journals do not necessarily want to publish work in comic form. The sociological university environment in which he works seemed to me to still have many of the comics ‘hang-ups’ that have largely disappeared from regular life (i.e. they’re for children, they’re for newspapers etc.)
The impression just described was reinforced by the very interesting and predominantly ethnographer audience (it’s possible my friend and I were the only comic-types there). Their questions were all ethnography related, about the content of the project, the research methodology etc. They seemed a bit perplexed and annoyed when I asked a couple of comics-focused questions (but to be fair comics audiences are often perplexed and annoyed by my questions too, so meh.)
I really loved some specific things – he is firmly wedded to the word ‘comic’ and all that implies, he skillfully shot down someone who wanted to use the term ‘graphic novel’. He used gorgeous thick black lumpy lines as his frames. As a child he taught himself English from Asterix and Tintin books. He said that the text/image combination allowed him to “move from” Russian to English. And there was this brilliant quote (I apologise, I can’t remember where it comes from, I think maybe a revered manga artist). It was something to the effect of “the picture does not tell the truth, but the truth is in the picture”. Sigh.
I was not really convinced by his attempt to use a comic to show ethnographic method (which he said was his main aim). But again, perhaps I need to see the comic more closely. Apart from 'intention', it was difficult for me to see how Alex’s comic was any different from, for example, Palestine by Joe Sacco (especially given the ‘conflict’ emphasis of both books).
He did use comics in a different way that I thought was more interesting than his finished product, which was as a social media research tool. He would draw a pointed yet looser, shorter, funnier comic (much more the kind of comic I like) and post it to a relevant FB group he’d set up, and the subsequent and substantial comments formed part of his research evidence. So cool and sensible!
He hadn’t drawn himself in the comic although he talked a lot about subjectivity within ethnography and authorship, and I thought this might have been a powerful way to symbolise this within the work. I asked him about it, but he got distracted and wasn’t able to answer.
He was an advocate of ‘social environmental justice’ (I have possibly got the term wrong) which (I think) is about the ways in which environments both support and reflect ideology. This is what he said he had in his mind when he drew the (real Ukrainian) settings in which the ethnographic action of the comic took place. Re this there were interesting ‘before’ and ‘after’ conflict drawings. I also really liked his building drawings, they were detailed but not excessively photo-realistic; they were a bit delicate and wobbly, even the big imposing political buildings. I didn’t get to talk to him about his motivation for this.
He did seem wedded to ‘sequence’ as a defining feature of comics (which I don't think it is) and quoted Scott McCloud (and I think I was very restrained in response). But he was equally positive about the (much more relevant to me) text and image interplay. I was interested in how he worked with this, given that the bulk of the text seemed to be quotes from research subjects which he could not and would not (as an ethnographer with integrity) change; I wondered how you would avoid simply ‘illustrating’ the words you’re given. Again, I didn’t get to talk to him about this.
Overall it was very interesting to me. I really liked learning about a new context for, and approach to, comics. And Alex seemed like a nice guy.