I Draw (A Graphic Dissertation), Therefore I Am

Panel by Kay Sohini depicting the author's avatar speaking about her research and writing, in a speech balloon, she says, "Who am I writing this for? Who is my audience? If I seek to address people beyond the confines of academia, if I seek to converse with people who share the marginalized position/s with which my work is predominantly concerned, how can I readjusted or tailor my academic discourse to appeal to them?"

[Editors’ note: In part one of a two-part essay, Ph.D. candidate Kay Sohini writes about drawing a graphic dissertation, comics as scholarship, and comics as thinking. In part two, coming next week, Sohini builds on what she’s written here as she writes about comics as literary affordances and holding environments, key ideas in her graphic dissertation.]

“By making comics I put myself in a unique and precarious position to experience a liveliness in my research that carries over into the finished comic.”
– Ebony Flowers

I have to be honest. I wanted to draw a graphic dissertation long before I knew why I wanted to do it. The year was 2015, I was a first year Masters student, and I had just read about Nick Sousanis’s Unflattening (2015), which is considered to be the first doctoral graphic dissertation: a dissertation written entirely as a comic. I remember enthusiastically telling one of my then academic advisors that I wanted to do the same. He dissuaded me by saying that it requires enormous amounts of talent, implying I had none. He was not wrong. The “why” came much later — a move across the world, starting a PhD, and two new (and inordinately more supportive) academic advisors later, to be precise. By the time I took my qualifying exams and defended my dissertation proposal, I had made up my mind — I was going to draw the whole thing. I had even taken a semester-long intensive art class at Teachers College, Columbia University (with the amazing Tara Geer, who was the first and only person to teach me that drawing humans is less about mimicking shapes and more about capturing movements), to prepare myself for the task. Nevertheless, I would argue that I did not know why, certainly not as well as I thought I did, even when I was defending my dissertation prospectus in December 2019.

Throughout much of that meeting, with the help of examples from the works of BIPOC and queer cartoonists, I made a case that formal aspects of comics enable non-reductionist and nuanced representation of complex intersectional identities. I ardently argued that the more I thought about how comics appeal to social justice, how they accommodate narratives by and about people who have been historically pushed to the margins, how they help readers reconsider social biases about gendered/racial/cultural Others, the more I was compelled to think about modes of production. I reasoned that if I wanted to write about comics as literatures of resistance, I needed to ask questions about accessibility and readability:

Panel by Kay Sohini depicting the author's avatar speaking about her research and writing, in a speech balloon, she says, "Who am I writing this for? Who is my audience? If I seek to address people beyond the confines of academia, if I seek to converse with people who share the marginalized position/s with which my work is predominantly concerned, how can I readjusted or tailor my academic discourse to appeal to them?"
Panel by Kay Sohini depicting the author’s avatar speaking about her research and writing.

I concluded these questions led to comics, as medium as well as method — to address issues of accessibility of academic discourse, as well as to push the boundaries of visual art-based research in addressing social inequities. My wonderful committee agreed, I passed the defense, and I remember feeling distinctly relieved and validated in equal parts. It has been eight months since. While I still believe that all of the above is true, I have some additional thoughts on the subject. First, why do we need to defend the choice of writing a dissertation in any form that is not the standard academic prose? Why do we assume that other forms are incapable of the rigor or scope of the academic article?

In Thinking in Comics: An Emerging Process, Nick Sousanis writes that when he decided to do a dissertation in comics, he did not think of it “as a radical act,” that he did it simply because drawing comics is something he has always done. That he simply pushed forward with “Why not?” That is, until he “became more fully immersed in academia … [and became] acutely aware of the political implications of what [he] was proposing.” Meghan Parker, the author of “Art Teacher in Progress” (a Master’s thesis in comic form), writes that she “began making comics as a way to inquire into [her] teaching practice, [her] art practice, and who [she is].” Yet, in the process, she was made to question the legitimacy of art as scholarship.

Panels excerpted from Meghan Parker's "Art Teacher in Progress."
Panels excerpted from Meghan Parker’s “Art Teacher in Progress.”

These anecdotes and the general biases against multimodal scholarship (i.e., that which makes use of a combination of media) make me wonder: why do we, by default, go by the assumption that any non-traditional form of inquiry — comics, graphic essays, creative non-fiction — are qualitatively inferior? Are we going to continue to pretend that what is generally accepted as academic language is not couched in classist, often racist practices? Besides, who is served by this boundary?

Comics as Scholarship

The cultural perception about drawing is that it requires considerable talent. This notion, coupled with the tendency to see drawing as of lesser intellectual value than writing, deters people from experimenting freely and utilizing the form’s vast potential in both scholarly and public spaces of research and inquiry. Lynda Barry — the comic artist, scholar and, most recently, recipient of the MacArthur Genius Grant — has maintained throughout her long career as an artist-scholar that drawing does not have to be hard or something that only “artists” should engage in. In Making Comics (2019), she writes that “There was a time when drawing and writing were not separated for you. In fact, our ability to write could only come from our willingness and inclination to draw.” Barry, however, challenges the very concept of “representational drawing” and advocates for drawing as a method for expression, experimentation, and a way to get to know oneself. In other words, drawing is not just a way to illustrate, but also a way of thinking, stepping into the familiar and the unfamiliar and, hopefully, of discovery.

Before encountering Barry’s work during my graduate study, I had already used, albeit in an informal capacity, the comics medium to articulate and even to access certain parts of my consciousness that resisted straightforward textual delineation. Specifically, I used comics, mostly subconsciously, to work through my experiences with bipolarity, years before encountering comics scholarship. However, drawing comics is not just cathartic or a therapeutic exercise. Comics are also capable of soliciting deeply affective responses across geographical and cultural borders from its readers. In Graphic Medicine Manifesto (2015), Susan Squier, a founding member of the Graphic Medicine Collective, writes that in comics “as we read,” we also “internalize the action.” Put another way, gutter spaces prompt readers to imagine the action between the panels, to use their own imagination and/or experiences to fill in the gaps. For example, since each panel is drawn to represent one individual moment, a quick succession of panels creates a semblance of movement from one to the next. In Understanding Comics (1993), Scott McCloud suggests that this illusion is created by how “our minds fill in the intervening moments” between the panels, each of which depict “a single moment in time.”

In other words, since comics is an additive medium, it, in the words of comics scholar Hillary Chute, “actively solicits through its constitutive grammar the participant’s role in generating meaning” (Comics & Media). Specifically, the white space between the panels makes the reader an active contributor in creating meaning from the narrative, as they are compelled to imagine the action between the panels in order to transition from one to the next. The reader, then, witnesses the conflict unfold in a temporal sequence: deriving “movement from stillness,” instead of simply “observ[ing] motion” (Chute, Comics & Media). In the process of being an active participant in data synthesis, the creator and the reader form a space of shared sensibilities. In that vein, I contend that the participatory nature of comics makes it an effective tool to appeal to social justice. Comics today have become tools for dissemination of stories that are silenced otherwise, as seen in What Has Happened to Me, a webcomic about a Uighur woman’s persecution in China that went viral in 2019. Consequently, artist-scholars such as Ebony Flowers — the second known person to write a graphic dissertation, “Drawbridge” (2017), and the Eisner winning author of Hot Comb (2019) —  have advocated for the potential of comics as not just literature, but as a process of self- and ethnographical discovery.

Comics as Thinking

On the theoretical aspect of things, a graphic dissertation not only enabled me to take my academic inquiry to the public sphere by combining my socio-ethical obligations (as a woman of color and an immigrant) with my scholarship, but it allowed me to do so in a materially accessible form and a qualitatively accessible language. That said, two and a quarter chapters into actually drawing my dissertation, I think I am finally beginning to understand the true extent of “Comics as Thinking.”

In drawing over a hundred pages of comics over the last few months, I am learning through practice that the point of comics is not just to use pictures to illustrate or, as supplementary components to simply repeat or even to emphasize the textual elements. The point of comics is to generate new content and meaning through drawing: to use the visual space to think, to map memories, to find patterns, to draw connections, to strategize, to give form to an inchoate idea, to develop a deeper understanding of the topic at hand. Comics, especially graphic memoirs or ethnographies, are an exploration of how one represents information self-reflexively. Something I find myself constantly trying is how to cut down on the textual. On the first draft of each page, I ask myself: what can I replace with images? What can I show and not tell? How do I balance the image and the text in a way that each does not detract from the other? The exercise helps me figure out what exactly is necessary for the story and what is extraneous to the argument I am trying to make.

Recently, on reading Erin Williams’s Commute: An Illustrated Memoir of Female Shame, I first remember feeling gutted by the deeply evocative nature of her work, and then realizing that she did not make use of a single panel throughout the length of her 300-page graphic memoir. It got me thinking about what distinguishes picture books from comics. So much of the early theory about what makes a comic (such as juxtaposition of pictures and images or a deliberate sequence advanced by McCloud) is no longer absolute considering the rapid innovations in the form such as wordless comics or comics that are not sequential at all. Does it then come down to iconographical (simplified images that resemble the subjects they are representing without going into too many realistic details) drawing?

A few weeks back I found myself agonizing over my inability to draw comics that are simple but effective instead of the more painterly style I often lean towards. I wondered if my “comics” are just illustrations in panels and not really comics at all. Luckily, while following #ComicConAtHome, I found the panel Teaching and Learning with Comics. The discussion reminded me that the most fascinating thing about comics is that there is no one formula. The aesthetics of comics, as Susan Kirtley astutely pointed out, matters less than what comics allows us to do, i.e., “distill an event down to its essence—which helps us figure out what was important about that event and helps us think through the past, present and future” (SDCC 2020). In essence, drawing comics allows us to think in space (to paraphrase Sousanis’s words from the same panel) regardless of the shape the final product assumes.

There are scholars who write about comics in ways that are precise, visually attentive, lucid and luminous. Yet, for every scholar who writes about comics with the visual flair and specificity it deserves, there are those who resort to insufferable esoteric jargon. I am admittedly a little envious of the first kind. Writing about comics with equal consideration of the form and the content, as well as of how one mediates the other, is trickier than it appears. The latter category of scholarship, however, I find counterintuitive and largely not useful; having always been wary of the concept of taking an art form as accessible as comics and turning it into obscure scholarship that requires specialized knowledge for people to “decode.” Although, to be fair, maybe what appears obscure to me — a first generation student, who struggled with dry academic prose for a long time — is not the case for the more seasoned of my academic kin. Regardless, I am glad to be surrounded by people who are open-minded about art-based scholarship, who are not just supportive of those of us who want to pursue unconventional methods but are sincerely enthusiastic and curious of the potential of multimodal approaches and what we can achieve with it. I am also grateful to Ebony Flowers, Nick Sousanis, and everybody else who did this first, for paving the way, for making it a bit easier for the rest of us who followed and/or plan to do so. Being able to use their work as references to explain where I am going with mine has been helpful in both expected and unexpected ways.

Works Cited:

Barry, Lynda. Making Comics. Farrar Straus & Giroux, 2019.

Chute, Hillary L., and Patrick Jagoda. Comics & Media. A Critical Inquiry Book, 2014.

McCloud, Scott. Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art. HarperCollins Publishers, 1993.

Parker, Meghan. “Art teacher in Process: An illustrated exploration of art, education and what matters.” 2017. https://summit.sfu.ca/item/17806

Mk Czerwiec, et al. Graphic Medicine Manifesto. University Park, Pennsylvania, The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2015.

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Kay Sohini

Kay Sohini

Kay Sohini is a comics-maker and PhD candidate in English at Stony Brook University. She is currently drawing her doctoral dissertation as a comic, which is an auto/ethnographic project about race, gender and illness politics. Her work on comics has been published in Inside Higher Ed, Sequentials, Assay: A Journal of Non-fiction Studies, amongst others. She serves as the Secretary on the executive committee of the International Comic Arts Forum (ICAF). More details about her work can be found on her website.