“It’s interesting to see how people are dealing during this quarantine and also eye-opening to learn how fragile we are in the face of a pandemic.” – Gracey Zhang, Canadian comic artist
by Lavarnan Mehavarnan
As a spectator of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, I often struggle against overwhelming feelings of loneliness, self-doubt, and fear. Despite the initial closure of all non-essential businesses, we are still able to satisfy our basic needs for survival from the comfort of our homes. We find ways to reduce stress and prevent burnout while anticipating the release of vaccines en masse. However, this prolonged isolation contradicts our innate needs for socialization, which will only further elevate our feelings of loneliness as we continue to socially distance ourselves.
Thus, I wanted to create a form of documentation that puts this underlying issue into perspective, with humor and playfulness at its forefront. Unlike the coronavirus’ physical symptoms, this growing concern for mental health cannot be easily remedied with medicine alone. Personally, I have always found it easier to cope with stressful situations by finding the humorous silver lining among the dark clouds.
As a result, I choose to illustrate these circumstances with the comic form as it accurately conveys shared feelings of loneliness during the COVID-19 pandemic through playful visual and literary implications.This essay will explore how the pandemic survivor’s subject position as a reader can construct an empathetic understanding for mutual feelings of isolation.
Process of Creation
I solated utilizes the comic medium as an empathetic form of documentation to illustrate my own daily pandemic experiences. Furthermore, this short comic series challenges our understanding of pandemic life through multiple physical perspectives (fig. 1), while using satire and imagery to remind readers of the necessity for socialization during these difficult times. I felt as though the comic genre best illustrates this personal narrative in terms of humor and playfulness, despite being often overshadowed by other mediums with similar formatting such as contemporary meme culture. Other contemporary pandemic comic series, such as Gracey Zhang’s Isolated but not Alone, aesthetically present Zhang’s innermost thoughts associated to pandemic life but with intention to make her audiences think and laugh as they see themselves in her observations. (Collins) Comics are also generally a non-auditory form of art, its literary silence and relatable storytelling complement perfectly with shared experiences of loneliness due to social distancing restrictions.
This exploration of pandemic life through the comic genre began originally with the study of pandemic memes and its viral influence over social media. At face value, memes and comics share many similarities in terms of formatting, convenience, sense of humor, discussion of pressing issues, and simplicity to convey powerful visual messages. However, the primary objective of this digital exhibit was to create a better understanding of the urges to socialize throughout the pandemic.
Memes excel at making us laugh while touching on pressing world issues, but struggle to establish a common footing for readers due to its broad audience. (Barnes) On the other hand, comics use chronological narrative framing and panel spacing (known as gutters) to tell personal stories, while also appealing to the target audience’s emotions through satirical humor and playful characters. (Chute)
To put it simply, I chose the comic genre as a visual medium to document the underlying social and emotional hardships of quarantine that may not be as transparent in single-framed memes.
The Comic form as Documentation
Comic theorists Hilary Chute and Scott McCloud suggest that graphic narratives have the potential to intervene against a culture of invisibility by taking on the risk of visual representations. Furthermore, they grapple with “pictures” of suffering and trauma, but in a digestible medium that uses satirical humor to promote plenitude for these discussions rather than to encourage their erasure. The COVID-19 pandemic is not the first instance of mass illness and trauma, and will most certainly not be the last. Thus, this visual and written form of art challenges our scope of documentation, as the argument could be made for the preservation of qualitative personal experiences during a pandemic in addition to quantitative data for provincial coronavirus case rate statistics.
Another similarity between the comic medium and pandemic experience is the hypersensitivity to time. McCloud associates signifiers of sound with time, such as in a comic’s narrative framing as readers visually progress from panel to panel. (Sanyal) I solated applies McCloud’s theory using onomatopoeic signs and visual cues such as a ticking clock (fig. 2), the morning news channel (fig. 1), and a dining table with family members gathered around. These signs alert readers of their own hypersensitivity to the time, as we remain isolated at home with the days passing by, while providing a chronological progression of time within the comic.
Comics are an art form that can vividly illustrate a documentation of pandemic experiences, which allows authors to share suppressed emotions of loneliness to other like-minded readers. The reader plays an important role in this interaction as the recipient, they engage with all of their senses in this medium through visual and literary representations. Moreover, this digital exhibit can be viewed from the lens of spectatorship theory, as it challenges a pandemic audience to self-reflect on their own isolation from the subject position of a survivor of the COVID-19 pandemic. I solated creates the subject position of the pandemic survivor, and tailors its field of gaze in both the literal and metaphorically sense to readers who occupy that space.
Unfortunately, the comic medium is not as invincible as the superheroes that are often portrayed in its pages. For instance, I solated documents my experiences of self-quarantine that others can relate with, but is open to natural biases as a Ryerson University student living in Toronto. Furthermore, humor can be a coping mechanism while serve as a trigger for others depending on their own personal histories with COVID-19. Memes are a convenient alternative to comics, but the trade off is the development for personal connections in exchange for accessibility to a broader audience. We can use comics instead to connect with each other, document our lives during a traumatic event, and find laughter in our gloomy circumstances. Thus, the main takeaway from this digital exhibit is that the comic form puts the underlying issues of loneliness during the pandemic into light, for better or worse, through its use of satirical humor.
We are isolated spectators of the coronavirus pandemic, but that does not necessarily mean that we are alone.
Barnes, Kate, et al. “Dank Or Not? Analyzing and Predicting the Popularity of Memes on Reddit.” Applied Network Science, vol. 6, no. 1, 2020, pp. 21-21.
Batchelor, Dany. “Living the Learning Life in a Time of COVID 19.” CEA Critic, vol. 82, no. 3, 2020, pp. 192-199.
Collins, Leah. “Coping with COVID through Comics | CBC Arts.” CBCnews, CBC/Radio Canada, 7 Apr. 2020, www.cbc.ca/arts/coping-with-covid-through-comics-1.5524496.
© Copyright 2021 Mehavarnan, Lavarnan “I solated” Comic. Ryerson University. 21 April 2021
Chute, Hilary I., “Introduction.” Disaster Drawn: Visual Witness, Comics, and Documentary Form. Harvard UP, 2016, pp. 1-38.
Sanyal, Debarghya. “The Sound of Silence: Blank Spaces, Fading Narratives and Fragile Frames in Comics.” Studies in Comics, vol. 10, no. 2, 2019, pp. 215-233.
Sturken, Marita, and Lisa Cartwright. Practices of Looking: An Introduction to Visual Culture. Oxford University Press, 2018, pp. 103-113
Tonkin, Alison, and Julia Whitaker. “Play and Playfulness for Health and Wellbeing: A Panacea for Mitigating the Impact of Coronavirus (COVID 19).” Social Sciences & Humanities Open, vol. 4, no. 1, 2021, pp. 100142.
Images in this online exhibit are either in the public domain or being used under fair dealing for the purpose of research and are provided solely for the purposes of research, private study, or education.