by Jean Cochrane August 14, 2015
Picture this: five students, ages 15-19, crouched around a large sheet of paper — each holding onto a piece of thread, each piece of thread taped to a communal marker, the marker floating gently above the paper. They’re trying to draw Youth Media Organizer Beth Patel’s face as a group. The group’s task depends on the skilled coordination of its members. It’s not going well. They’re stuck on the left pupil. Every time they miss, the balance of the marker changes. Morale is plummeting.
Beth intervenes: “OK, you have a minute to finish, starting now.” The students are shocked: it’s taken them five minutes to do Beth’s hair and right eye, and she says they have to do the rest in 60 seconds? They let out a communal moan. For a second, they blank. What happens next surprises us all: they finish drawing her face, right on time.
What you’re picturing is PSU’s Documentary Comics Workshop — a special workshop series for PSU members and affiliates that ran during the month of July.
The first question most people ask is: What’s a documentary comic? Good question. On the first day of the workshop I posed that same question to the students. The students tried to get at it through examples: they brought up traditional comic strips like Garfield, of course, but they also brought up more radical work like Let the Fire Burn, a documentary about the City’s bombing of the MOVE house in 1985, and Maus, Art Spiegelman’s legendary graphic novel about his father’s experience during the Holocaust. They were already well-versed in documentary comics— whether or not they knew it yet.
At the end of the day we settled on a working definition: documentary comics have to tell true stories, and they have to depend on some kind of mixture between text and image. But that definition didn’t quite satisfy the students. We agreed we needed to add one caveat. For us, documentary comics would have to pose a challenge to common narratives. As we put it, documentary comics would have to adopt a new perspective to tell a “little story,” a story that seems small and relatable, in order to shed new light on its “big story” for the reader.
Our group made comics about all kinds of “big stories” that were important to us. Some of these we did as a group: together, for example, we talked about how young people are shut out of decision-making about standardized tests, and wrote comics about testing from the perspectives of students. We also worked on individual projects over the course of July. Two students wrote about mainstream perceptions of depression, tackling miseducation in pharmaceutical ads and the ways in which schools and workplaces are set up to fail students with depression. One student interviewed domestic violence educators and hotline operators to explore how they deal with secondhand trauma. One student wrote about the school-to-prison pipeline, taking to the streets to ask how neighbors felt about the new juvenile detention center on 48th and Haverford.
The workshop was a learning process. Although all of the students had a background in art, a few of them had never made a comic before. Naturally, they learned the particular skills and techniques that this kind of storytelling requires. But perhaps more importantly, they learned that comics are an achievable goal. They moved comics and documentary from that nebulous realm of “things other people do” to the tangible realm of “things that I can do.”
I was ready for the students to learn a lot. I wasn’t ready for how much I would learn. I’ve been publishing comics for six years, and sometimes I catch myself feeling like I know it all. When people ask me “why make documentary comics?” I’ve trained myself to launch into my stump speech: that documentary comics are our best hope for nonfiction storytelling in the Internet age; that comics are primed for young people who already communicate primarily through image-based platforms like Instagram, Snapchat, and Vine; that there’s so much to say about our world, and that I want what I say to be accessible to as many people as possible.
These things are all true. I stand by them. But this summer, I learned that they are not the root reason I do this. I don’t do this so that I can teach young people about the world — I do this so that young people can teach me.
Young people are rarely taught that their voices matter. In Philly’s crowded, underfunded school system, that “rarely” can verge on “never.” It’s an attitude that is built into our political system on a structural level: high school students can’t vote or run for office in their city government, let alone in their own school district. So what can they do? Put that question another way and it sounds more familiar: How can a class of people struggle for the resources they need without political representation?
It’s an ancient question. Philadelphia colonists were wrestling with it in the 1760s, as were the indigenous people they were trying to exterminate. Dr. King was wrestling with it in Selma in ‘65, as was Fred Hampton in my hometown in ’68. Each eventually reached their own conclusion, a conclusion that informed their strategy. But PSU’s strategy stands out to me as exceptional. PSU knows that young people may be barred from electoral leadership, but that they are, and always have been, our cultural leaders. Young people have always made the most exciting things. Young people have always done the most exciting work.
This summer at PSU, my students and I experimented with documentary comics as a political strategy. This involved putting a lot of media to the test: testing TV news; testing our definitions of “documentary comics”; even testing my past work — by physically cutting it up, rearranging it, and seeing what I could have done better. Above all, we tested ourselves. Starting with that minuscule minute, huddled around our mangled rendition of Beth’s face, we put our motivation, our commitment, and our principles as activists and media-makers to the test. In the end, it was a better kind of test than the Keystone. It was a test that was designed for us to pass. ◦
Jean Cochrane interned at PSU during the summer of 2015. They are a student, artist, and activist based alternately in West Philly and Chicago’s South Side. When they are not acting the fool in front of a room full of students, they can be found making doc comics for the South Side Weekly, making pop jams under the name Hard Femme, and geeking out over transfeminisms at the University of Chicago’s Center for the Study of Gender and Sexuality. Follow their work at jeancochrane.com.
Jean would like to extend their gratitude to the Jeff Metcalf UCIJAM Grant program at the University of Chicago for generously funding the documentary comics workshop at PSU.
We extend a big THANK YOU to PhillyCAM for allowing us to use their beautiful space for the duration of this workshop.