Representing Environmental Crisis in Digital Spaces: An overview of Climate Change Discussions in Webcomics
Climate Change is a reality: Ambika Raja, former journalist and aspiring researcher offers an overview of how Webcomics with their voices, formats, and discussions, are powerful weapons using uncomplicated language, short sentence structure, and striking visuals to get the message across quickly.
The latter half of the previous century had witnessed discussions on Gender, Racism, and Class largely dominating the political and literary spheres, with debates on environmental issues being strictly limited to reports published in newspapers. However, since the mid-eighties research on environmental crises, specifically Climate Change, have received their fair share of attention with scholars and writers viewing the topics from anthropological, sociological, journalistic, cultural, and multiple other perspectives (Glotfelty and Fromm 1996). Analogously, graphic narratives, which fall under the umbrella term sequential art (Eisner 1985), have evolved from their roots in caricature and elevated to an ambitious level with “more alchemy than science” (McCloud 1994). With numerous formats including comic strips, comic books, graphic novels, digital comics, and webcomics falling under the category of graphic narratives, writers and critics of the genre have attempted to distinguish the formats from one another in terms of length of the works, depth of subject matters, and industry binding techniques. Nevertheless, the confluence of texts and images in graphic narratives has offered writers boundless opportunities to experiment with their creative skills, and researchers, novel and exciting formats to study in length. Though graphic narratives had been kept aside from literary studies for a prolonged period as they were believed to be ephemeral readings meant primarily for children and adolescents, in the recent past, the format has garnered significant attention as an intriguing area of research. While comics of the preceding eras had predominantly focused on simple and lighter subject matters, since the publication of Will Eisner’s graphic novel A Contract with God and Other Tenement Stories the narratives have begun embracing graver and complex issues (Levitz 2015) including War (Maus, Palestine), Gender bias (Persepolis) and mental health troubles (My Friend Dahmer, Lighter than my Shadow). With terms such as Climate Change, Global warming and Ecological Crisis entering common parlance, of late, graphic artists have been initiating attempts to use the format to spread awareness on and instigate new conversations around environmental issues (Gavigan and Garrison 2020). The article aims to examine the relationship between web graphic narratives, popularly known as Webcomics, and Climate Change discourses. Through the article, I will trace the historical development of Webcomics from print graphic narratives since the 1960s and subsequently delineate how contemporary Webcomics are representing the Climate Change issue.
Graphic Narratives on Climate Change post-1960s
Mainstream comics including Batman and X-Men had reflected on American environmental and social issues in the 1960s and have continued to do so (Hihara 2016). Alan Moore and Dave Gibsons seminal work Watchmen series in the 1980s delved into the relationship between nuclear wars and environmental pollution, with one of the central characters Dr Manhattan’s arguing that Earth, like Mars, would be better off without humans, which, according to him, was the reason why Mars had chosen its chaotic terrain over life. Meanwhile in the East, Orijit Sen had published his River of Stories that discussed the impact of dam constructions upon indigenous communities and their livelihood. Another noteworthy example in the realm of Climate Change graphic narratives is Philippe Squarzon’s 2014 work Climate Changed that attempts to share the author’s struggle to accept the reality of carbon emission. Though some critics have argued that the interviews with climate experts and abundance of data in the narrative eclipse the storytelling power of the work (Farinella 2020), Climate Changed nevertheless succeeds in adding a personal touch to a global crisis.
Although often interchanged with one another, Webcomics and Digital Comics are not entirely the same formats.
With digital publications gaining popularity within the last decade and the current generation beginning to choose virtual media over their print counterparts, there has been a steady increase in the number of graphic narratives being issued online. Though often interchanged with one another Webcomics and Digital Comics are not entirely the same formats. To be precise, if the print edition of a comic book or graphic novel is made available online, it is known as a Digital Comic. Conversely, if a comic book is published in the virtual sphere to tell a single story, it can be called a digital comic. Webcomics are also a type of digital comic as they are released on an online medium. However, they are told in a more staccato fashion with one page at a time or three or four panels drawn within a single page. (For example, The Seeds by Ann Nocenti is a Digital Comic while the Strange Planet series by Nathan Pyle is a Webcomic). Webcomics are self-standing strips similar to the ones published in newspapers and unlike other graphic narratives, the number of panels in a webcomic is generally quite low.
Webcomics and Climate Change
Intergovernmental organizations such as the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) or United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNISDR) have observed that the comics their teams have produced have helped local communities learn how to take care of their environment and to stay safe in case of a natural calamity or emergency (Tatyana, 2017). This substantiates the argument that comics are useful tools in imparting knowledge. As the global attention span is narrowing due to the high volume of information available (Lorenz-Spreen et al 2019), in order to initiate dialogues on Climate Change, it is imperative to provide the maximum information on the subject using the shortest number of texts and visuals. Webcomics are one among the effective formats that can be employed for the purpose, as they are easily accessible for the tech-savvy Generation Y and Z, holds the attention of the readers through the amalgamation of colourful visuals and diverse fonts, and more importantly, imparts short but essential chunks of information. Unlike Climate Change memes that mock the way humans are responding to global issues, or animated videos and interactive pages on environmental topics developed by agencies such as NASA or the UN for educating children, Webcomics tread on a thin line between sarcasm and education. In other words, climate change webcomic artists are primarily attempting to educate their readers on the crisis through a blend of humour, dark comedy, and sarcasm.
An analysis of the contemporary Webcomics reveals that while a section of them explicitly talks about Climate Change, the others discuss subjects connected to the issue such as deforestation, rampant construction, nature conservation, climate justice, and climate mitigation. Additionally, a few Webcomics have been dedicated completely to Climate Change subjects while the rest touch upon the topic through a couple of their standalone comic strips. A yet another noteworthy feature of Climate Change Webcomics is that a majority of them have earthly colours such as brown, pale green, and blue dominating the panels and they make use of moment-to-moment or action-to-action transitions; a conscious decision by the artists to put across their messages more effectively.
Any discussion on Climate Change Webcomics would be incomplete without mentioning Randall Munroe’s tri-weekly work xkcd in which the author has created a comprehensive timeline delineating how climate has changed over the past 22,000 years using data from ice core, thermometers, and tree rings. As opposed to the horizontal technique of panel creation[ref]In a majority of the comic narratives, the panels have to be read from Left to Right unless a different method is suggested by the artist.[/ref] employed by most graphic artists, Munroe has represented the timeline as a long vertical chart. The scrolling method clearly explains to readers why climate change is an issue worth being taken up immediately. Brian Kahn notes that the ups and downs in the timeline have been driven by changes in the earth’s orbit and other natural factors that influence the earth’s climate. The changes have been slow enough, however, for humans to adapt and even thrive during that period (2016). In the timeline, the data up until 1500 CE does not seem crowded as there is enough breathing space for the graphics. Conversely, the data in the years succeeding 1500 CE seem to be crammed together into a small section, which indicates the surge in climate-related issues in the post-1500 CE era. The Webcomic also offers readers three possible scenarios that can occur within the next century, suggesting the need for a quick and holistic solution to combat the crisis.
While Munroe has used a Climate Change timeline to discuss the pressing issue, the creators of the Not My Earth Not My Problem Webcomic series have dedicated an entire segment of a website to artistically generate conversations on the subject. The Climate Change section of the Webcomic has comic strips with a single frame and a short sentence each to highlight an issue connected to the crisis. For instance, to indicate the melting of polar ice caps, the creators have drawn the image of a water drop titled ‘Modern Snowflake’ along with the quote “Not to be confused with modern snow- looking very much like water” (Gill 2015). Likewise, the caption “Good job, greed” (Gill 2015) below an image of a burning Earth separated at a distance from a stack of cash represents how the human thirst for money is resulting in the slow death of the planet. Even though humans have to be solely held responsible for the slow destruction of Earth, some individuals are willing to do their bit to save the planet- The Fighting Climate Change segments of Amir Lopez’s Wyatt and Blu Webcomics featuring a coloured haired couple loosely based on the author’s experiences suggests this alongside a set of possible actions that one can carry out to reduce carbon footprints. The comic strip depicting the central character cycling to a local market instead of using a motorized vehicle showcases Lopez’s idea on how carbon emission can be cut down through simple and feasible methods. The Bird and Moon Webcomic and the Invisible Bread Series are two other relevant names in the Climate Change comic list with the former visualizing how other species are trying to stay alive during the ecological crisis, and the latter stressing the need for humans to interact with nature healthily.
The author employs anthropomorphism in these works to tell straightforward and heartwarming tales of hope and love.
Anthropomorphism or the attribution of human characters to non-human beings is a technique a majority of graphic artists have mastered to ensure powerful storytelling. Andres J Colmenares’ popular Webcomic wawawiwa has garnered a massive following in the past couple of months, especially on Instagram, as the author employs anthropomorphism in these works to tell straightforward and heartwarming tales of hope and love. While the Webcomic does not overtly discuss the Climate Crisis, Coleman converts complex ideas related to the environment into simple stories to encourage readers to reflect on the need to preserve biodiversity. The message of living in unison with nature and learning from our natural surroundings gets highlighted in every single strip of the Webcomic series. Additionally, the lack of strict panels and frames offers fluidity to the comics, making them a lot easier and interesting to read.
The purpose behind creating a Climate Change Webcomic differs from one writer to the other and for Rohan Chakravarty, author of the Green Humour for a Greying Planet series is to introduce readers to the wonders of the animal kingdom, inform them about worrisome environmental practices and policies, and encourage them to think and act responsibly (Ayyar 2020). Unlike the Webcomics discussed so far, each of Chakravarty’s comic strips in the collection of 200 comics is different from one another in terms of the font size, panel numbers, and length of the comic itself. The common factor, however, is that every comic is accompanied by a brief description of the issue. While the description undoubtedly renders more information to the reader, at times it also takes away the fun of reading a comic strip. Nevertheless, comic strips in the Green Humour collection such as IPCC Code Red or Ecological Grief show multiple human and non-human perspectives on the Climate Change issue.
Since Climate Change is clearly a reality and not a myth, it is crucial to bring in diverse voices in different formats to the discussions. Webcomics evidently are a powerful weapon for the purpose as its uncomplicated languages, short sentence structure, and striking visuals put across the message faster than other forms of media, as substantiated in the preceding sections.
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Gavigan, K. W., & Garrison, K. (2020). ‘Graphic novels help teens learn about racism, climate change and social justice – here’s a reading list’, The Conversation. https://theconversation.com/graphic-novels-help-teens-learn-about-racism-climate-change-and-social-justice-heres-a-reading-list-131442 Accessed 3 August 2021
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