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Covidity and Comics: Graphic Medicine from Singapore

By Weihsin Gui

 

Graphic medicine is a growing area of artistic production and intellectual inquiry that intensified during the COVID-19 pandemic as artists and scholars around the world grappled with the multiple effects of and responses to the virus. By “combin[ing] the principles of narrative medicine with an exploration of the visual systems of comic art” (Czerwiec et al. 1), graphic medicine “offer[s] a more inclusive perspective” and “creat[es] new knowledge” regarding illness, medical treatment, and caregiving (Czerwiec et al. 2, 19). Extending beyond didactic functions of disseminating accurate medical and public health information, graphic medicine comics can help healthcare professionals and patients represent and confront their own (often traumatic) experiences. Additionally, the creation of such comics may offer a safe imaginative space for self-therapy; finally, the sharing of these comics can enable individuals to discover and connect with supportive and empathetic communities (Venkatesan and Peter 6, 10). This essay examines three works of graphic medicine from the Southeast Asian country of Singapore: Weng Pixin’s COVID Times, Felix Cheong and Eko’s In the Year of the Virus, Koh Hong Teng’s “It’s Not the End”. All three were written during and represent different aspects of the COVID-19 pandemic as it unfolded in Singapore from 2020 to 2021. While these three comics do aspire toward some of the aims of graphic medicine listed above, they also evince “negative capability,” which Terrence Holt defines as “the capacity to entertain a schism within one’s identity” (330) and “to think and to feel simultaneously” but also “disjunctively” (331). 

Singapore had a quick and multi-pronged response to the worldwide spread of COVID-19 at the start of 2020 thanks to the country’s previous experience with SARS in 2003. The government’s Multi-Ministry Taskforce implemented screenings and quarantines for incoming travelers, created hospital isolation wards and special ambulances for COVID patients, enforced movement restrictions and physical distancing, introduced contact tracing technology, and also (during what became known as the two-month “Circuit Breaker” or lockdown phase) shut down businesses and schools. Overall, the Singaporean state’s response to COVID-19 in early 2020 was internationally considered a success and even a model for other countries. However, starting in mid-April 2020, a large outbreak among migrant workers housed in “overcrowded” and “poorly ventilated” dormitories revealed serious weaknesses in Singapore’s pandemic strategy. Although “government-led efforts” specifically addressing the migrant workers’ situation “succeeded in flattening the curve of infections […] by mid-August” (Yuen et al. 1289), the severity of the outbreak highlighted the long-term socio-economic marginalization of the workers Singapore relies on to maintain its glamorous facade.

According to J. J. Woo, Singapore’s “high level of public compliance with Covid-19 measures and its social stability” was due to the government’s balanced pandemic response that used two types of state power or political capacity. “The coercive form of political capacity emphasizes an active role of government in pushing through its policies” in the face of “competing interests” and “resistance”; the other “legitimacy-centred understanding of political capacity focuses on compelling societal and industry actors to comply” based on “trust and persuasion” (78, original emphasis). Although Singaporean comics creators are not in lockstep with government ministries and obviously do not wield any official political capacity, some Singaporean graphic medicine comics can be understood as participating in a softer approach associated with legitimacy by building up trust in and persuading readers to adopt public health measures. Two examples have been discussed in existing scholarship: The School of Medicine at the National University of Singapore, in collaboration with local comics artist Drewscape, published The COVID-19 Chronicles, a series of webcomics “aimed at educating and motivating members of the public to do what is necessary to protect themselves and the community” (E and Tan, 50). Sonny Liew, in five pandemic-related comics, “uses anthropomorphised animal characters” both “to offer scientific facts of COVID and its prevention” (Feng 102) and (in Liew’s depiction of the Merlion, one of Singapore’s national symbols) “to add a humorous, and somewhat sarcastic, touch to an otherwise grim portrayal of the social injustice experienced by migrant workers” (Feng 107). Liew’s use of satire to highlight the predicament of Singapore’s migrant workers can be seen as a precursor to the comics discussed in this essay, which represent more psychological and subjective rather than didactic or pedagogical responses to the pandemic.

These subjective responses in the comics by Weng, Cheong and Eko, and Koh can be described as “covidity,” a “neologism” introduced by Sweetha Saji, Sathyaraj Venkatesan, and Brian Callender to describe how “the intense experience of paradoxes, physical and mental toll, existential angst, fear and anxiety” caused by the pandemic can motivate individuals to “reinvent oneself in the context of constant disruption, and the trauma of everyday life” (142). Specifically, such a reinvention involves “develop[ing] an idiosyncratic philosophical attitude towards oneself and to others, often engendering a distinctive subjectivity” (142). This idiosyncratic philosophical attitude that is characteristic of covidity is similar to another mindset that other scholars of narrative medicine have examined in non-pandemic contexts. 

Reflecting on the need to juggle multiple mindsets in his day-to-day clinical practice, Terrence Holt (a medical doctor who was formerly a literature professor) describes “negative capability” in the context of narrative medicine as the “capacity to think and to feel simultaneously” but also “disjunctively”, to both “experience and observe oneself in the act” (331) of giving care in situations often requiring “the fragmentation of the self” (330). The term negative capability was originally coined by the English poet John Keats, and much ink has already been spilled in literary studies over the term’s meanings and connotations (Keats himself famously never explained it at length). I expand on Holt’s brief definition, which centers on the physician’s self-awareness involving the internal fragmentation of a singular self into multiple parts. There is also another outward-facing aspect of negative capability, which Linda von Pfahl elaborates as a creative process that “begins with a desire for self-fulfillment” but gradually becomes “a psychological openness that enables the poet to experience other people and objects by assuming their characteristics” (451). Such “capacity for experiencing and expressing multiplicity” may help the poet “develop a capacity for sympathy” for those other peoples and objects whose characteristics and identities are assumed in the creative process (von Pfahl 454). Pfahl’s and Holt’s different understandings of Keats’s negative capability are not necessarily opposed: the fragmentation of oneself into many parts may be in line with or even a pre-condition for the psychological openness and experience of multiplicity coming from outside the self. 

In tracing the literary-philosophical background of negative capability and its use in narrative medicine, I highlight similarities between negative capability and covidity. Granted, the former emerges in the context of Holt’s clinical practice and narrative medicine; the latter’s distinctive subjectivity (as discussed by Saji, Venkatesan, Callender) arises in the context of the COVID pandemic and graphic medicine criticism. Yet is there not a resonance between covidity’s reinvention of oneself through the development of an idiosyncratic attitude towards the self and others and negative capability’s capacity to think and feel simultaneously, disjunctively, and sympathetically about multiple people and objects? To wit, although negative capability has not been an idea widely applied to the study of graphic medicine, it may offer a means to think about the slippage between and potential reconstitution of individual and collective subjectivities in graphic medicine texts beyond the chronological and topical scope of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Returning to the three Singaporean comics at hand, my point is that negative capability offers a way to analyze Singaporean graphic medicine that goes beyond primarily educational or informational aims. It trains our attention to the different subjectivities and attitudes (both individual and collective) that emerge during the pandemic years. Moreover, negative capability also serves as a counterpoint to what J. J. Woo calls the political capacity of the Singaporean state to confront and manage the pandemic. The Singaporean comics’ negative capability, in contrast to the Singaporean government’s political capacity to swiftly and robustly respond to the pandemic, opens up spaces for readers to reflect on social, political, and cultural circumstances surrounding the pandemic. Such circumstances may be overshadowed by official reports or media coverage that pay more attention to numerical statistics and biomedical developments. The negative capability of the comics can be understood as a creative process of simultaneously representing pandemic-related incidents, topics, or tropes (on the one hand) and thinking about them disjunctively, opening them up or out to generate new insights (on the other hand).

To phrase this another way: if the Singaporean state deploys measures using political capacity to manage COVID-19, then Singaporean graphic medicine comics express a negative capability through which covidity’s reinventive and idiosyncratic individual and collective subjectivities can be represented. These graphic representations may highlight or reveal multiple aspects of the pandemic affecting individuals and groups that fall outside the domain of pandemic-targeted healthcare and public health measures put in place by the state.

Weng Pixin’s COVID Times

COVID Times by Weng Pixin is a short, autobiographical comic that aptly illustrates the blurring of boundaries and shuttling between individual and collective consciousness during the pandemic. (For clarity, I will refer to the author as Weng and to her authorial avatar as Pixin.) In terms of physical format, the comic has the appearance of a newspaper or newsletter, with four sheets of A5-size paper stapled together to create sixteen verso and recto pages, including the front and back covers. The comic’s newspaper or newsletter appearance matches its title, COVID Times, which is a pun. It refers on one hand to the time period of Singapore’s first circuit breaker or lockdown from April to June 2020; on the other hand, it plays on newspaper naming conventions, echoing (for example) the title of Singapore’s flagship newspaper The Straits Times.  But the cover of COVID Times introduces a key twist: Pixin’s face is set squarely in the center with a bland or empty expression. This hints COVID Times offers a personal story rather than news reportage about the pandemic in Singapore. The twist in the cover image thus conveys the emotional paradox of living through a large-scale, global pandemic in isolated and often solitary conditions, especially during a lockdown period when movement is restricted.

In terms of layout, Weng uses a regular two by six panel format on almost every page to highlight the regularity and temporal monotony of life during the lockdown. The emotional monotony is also expressed in Weng’s simple black-and-white illustrations that train our eyes on her authorial avatar due to the lack or minimal presence of background details and other characters. Pixin’s dialogue on the opening pages of the comic attest to the temporal and emotional monotony. For example, “Every day is a variation of the first day. The first day of Circuit Breaker” (Weng 1) and “It feels like the movie Groundhog Day. Time standing still, waaayy still” (Weng 2). The slowness of Pixin’s experience of time is expressed by the visual succession of days and dates that appear in most of the panels on page 2 starting from “Monday” going all the way till “Friday 17 April,” which correspond to Pixin’s narratorial dialogue about her coping mechanism: “In the mornings, I recite to myself the date & day, so I don’t lose track of this ongoing time loop” (Weng 2). 

However, Pixin is not caught in an unchanging loop. On the next page she says that “I am learning and re-learning who I am versus the person I think I am” (Weng 3). She begins experiencing a splitting of self-consciousness that is characteristic of negative capability, which helps her move outside her isolated sense of self. Here Pixin is reading online news articles about an infamous pandemic incident commonly known as “The Bak Kut Teh Man”. A Singaporean man who returned from overseas on 23 March 2020 was issued a 14-day stay-home or quarantine notice but he did not understand or was not properly briefed that the quarantine notice took effect on the very day of his return and not the next day. That night, this man went out to eat bak kut teh (pork rib soup) and posted photos of his meal and his whereabouts on social media. The authorities tracked him down and arrested him; he was subsequently charged with violating his stay-home notice and sentenced to six weeks’ jail. Pixin initially reacts by labelling the Bak Kut Teh Man “a terrible person” (Weng 3). But her opinion changes as she gradually reflects on how she too “often miss[es] details on paper documents” like a written stay-home notice and can misunderstand official instructions; she realizes that she could have behaved “just like him, the terrible bak kut teh man” (Weng 3). Here, negative capability enables Pixin to move from opinionated censure to psychological openness. 

Pixin’s psychological openness towards other people despite the solitariness of pandemic isolation increases as the comic unfolds. When Pixin learns about the large-scale COVID outbreak in Singapore’s migrant worker dormitories, she is not surprised since she knows about the “overcrowded and frankly, just very bad living conditions” in the workers’ dormitories provide “an ideal scenario” for spreading illness (Weng 6). In three panels on page six, Pixin reveals the source of her knowledge: she remembers seeing photographs from ten years ago taken by Singaporean journalist Samuel He, who stayed with migrant workers for several weeks to document their lives and living conditions in a photo-essay (see fig. 1). What is important here is that Weng, the comic’s author, chooses to draw by her own hand and from memory the photographs of the migrant workers rather than reproduce them by facsimile. Weng recognizes that she does not have first-hand experience working with Singapore’s migrant community and thus cannot speak for them. But she makes an ethical move to inform readers about somebody who does: the photojournalist Samuel He. Weng’s hand-drawn versions of He’s photographs can be understood as a mode of negative capability. Her representations of He’s photographs create a productive disjunction or slippage, because the hand-drawn simplicity of the photographs as they appear in the comic might arouse readers’ curiosity and motivate them to seek out Samuel He’s photographs and his continuing work with Singapore’s migrant community.

A four-panel comic drawn in black and white. The narrator remembers Samuel's article about the living conditions of migrants and laments the lack of improvements in the past decade.
Fig. 1. Pixin remembers Samuel He’s photo-essay about Singapore’s migrant workers from Weng Pixin, COVID Times.

Weng makes another productive slippage at the end of the comic, one that goes beyond producing a contrast between her art and someone else’s. Instead, the comic’s ending offers a surprising stylistic and topical shift. On the penultimate page of the comic Weng retains her standard two by six panel format and gives quick capsule summaries of “Some good folks” in Singapore selflessly helping others during the lockdown period, such as hawkers providing free meals to the needy. The comic could have ended on this uplifting note and page, with Pixin encouraging readers in the bottom right panel “Don’t let news of bad behaviour get you down” (Weng 13).  But on the final page of the comic, Weng suddenly presents us with an anthropomorphic bat addressing all of humanity, almost like a government official holding a press conference about COVID updates (see fig. 2). This spokesperson for the “Bats Association” cautions humans to “refrain from being too close to us” (the bats) and to “respect the lives and boundaries of all other members of the Animal Kingdom as a whole” (Weng 14). This is obviously a reference to COVID-19’s zoonotic origins: the virus very likely jumped from animals to infect humans in late 2019. 

A four-panel comic of a bad speaking to the reader drawn in black and white. The bat "send[s] a message of peace to all humans" and asks that they keep their distance.
Fig. 2. Anthropomorphized bat addressing readers from Weng Pixin, COVID Times.
My point here is that Weng is anthropomorphizing the bat rather than the COVID-19 virus; this is significant because the virus being given human attributes is a more common metaphor appearing in pandemic comics. This move by Weng also evinces negative capability: as the comic unfolds Weng’s psychological openness and sympathy extend not only to multiple humans and groups of humans, but also animals like the bat. Weng is simultaneously taking both animal and human perspectives here, constructing a stereoscopic subjectivity that is one hallmark of covidity’s reinventive impulse. The conclusion is both humorous and serious; the improbable talking bat reminds us that if humans do not change our exploitative and abusive treatment of other animals, another zoonotic pandemic will most likely happen.

Felix Cheong and Eko’s In the Year of the Virus

Like Weng Pixin’s COVID Times, In the Year of the Virus unfolds its negative capability by starting from a single story and then opening out to other stories. The book-length comic begins with a series of seemingly disjunctive and fragmented stories that converge towards the end; it combines multiple individual perspectives about the pandemic into a distinctive subjectivity at the end. The comic consists of poetry written by Felix Cheong and art by Eko (the pen name of artist Jia He Yi). Although the comic contains eight chapters, I will focus only on three of them in this essay.

The eponymous chapter “In the Year of the Virus” introduces us to a young man who is struggling with the anxiety caused by the solitariness of pandemic isolation and the constant stream of statistical data related to COVID-19. As the man says, “the numbers go stark mad” (11); the pot on his kitchen stove that starts to boil and then boils over symbolizes how the pandemic numbers seem to “grow beyond control” and fear and dread are “taking root and taking hold” in the man’s life (11). This is confirmed on the next page, where we see a panel showing a TV screen with a simple line graph of rising COVID-19 numbers (see fig. 3). Although the young man is alive, the numerical bombardment of pandemic cases and deaths places a strain on his sanity; this is emphasized by the visual close-up of the man’s eyes, revealing his mental and physical exhaustion, paired with the lines there are “so many I cannot count” and “so many I cannot rest” and “so many east and west” (12).

In a red-toned comic, a man stands at a counter drinking from a mug while a TV plays a report on Covid-19. The panels zoom in on his face then on his meal. As they close in, the text reads, "The dead sleepwalks in my head. So many I cannot count. So many I cannot rest. So many. East and west."
Fig. 3. Young man reacts to COVID-19 statistics from Felix Cheong and Eko’s In The Year of the Virus.

But two pages later it turns out the young man was dreaming: he wakes up in a COVID-19 quarantine ward. A healthcare worker comes to check on his status and informs him that “it’ll not be over soon,” which could either refer to his quarantine period or the pandemic itself (14). The chapter ends with the words “The numbers are coming for me / they are knocking on my door / to add me to their more and more” (14-15). These lines of poetry are accompanied visually by a gradual zooming out and then a top-down view of the man’s surroundings on a splash page. The man is sitting in a small quarantine cubicle surrounded by similar cubicles in a large ward. Aside from the man (who is in a green shirt), everything else is colored a sickly yellowish-brown (16). This visual representation helps readers empathize with the man; they may share his feelings of isolation, helplessness, and claustrophobia due to the restrictions placed on their physical and social activities as well as a dreadful sense of being reduced to numerical statistics in the eyes of medical staff.

The next chapter, called “This Too Shall Pass”, shows the human side of the masked healthcare professionals looking after the quarantined man, possibly in the same hospital or quarantine facility. It focuses on a hospital nurse and begins with a splash page of the nurse tying up her hair; four subsequent panels zoom in on the nurse donning her personal protective equipment (PPE): mask, hair cap, scrubs, and eye protectors (17, 18). The panel showing test tubes labelled “COVID-19” suggest that the nurse works in the hospital’s COVID testing center or intensive care unit for COVID patients (see fig. 4). The panels on the next page show in quick succession the nurse’s hectic day: she administers a swab test for a child wearing a red shirt; gets briefed with her co-workers at 8:00 AM; rushes to assist an emergency patient at 3:30 PM; falls asleep in a chair at midnight (19). 

In a blue-toned comic, a scene in a hospital progresses through the day. The first panels show a healthcare worker administering a COVID test. The rest of the page shows a hallway with healthcare workers at three stages of the day. The passage of time is indicated by a clock on the wall reading, 8AM, 3:30PM, and 12AM while shadows indicate the setting sun. The text reads, "This, too, shall pass. For another memory, a snapped and shot now, that might and would have come for us, but our breath held out longer than we know."
Fig. 4. A nurse’s day at the hospital from Felix Cheong and Eko’s In The Year of the Virus.

What is remarkable about this chapter is the use of first-person collective pronouns in the lines of poetry, such as “For another memory, a snapped and shot now / that might and would have come for us, / But our breath held out longer than we know” (19). The nurse is a collective figure who represents many healthcare workers and medical staff. Through the nurse, readers glimpse the healthcare professionals’ collective tenacity and perseverance that held out longer than they themselves knew possible, despite overwhelming circumstances and great personal cost. The chapter ends on an uplifting and comforting note: as we read the lines “how we hold fast / to each other, as sunlight riding on drops of rain”, the nurse receives news that the child she tested for COVID earlier is now discharged (21). The child is seen waving goodbye to her, walking away from the hospital. The close-up of the nurse’s eyes, dropping a tear of relief and happiness, is a direct contrast to the young man in the first chapter whose eyes are filled with pandemic-induced anxiety.

The two chapters of In the Year of the Virus discussed so far achieve two common goals of COVID-related graphic medicine: to foster empathy among readers (in the case of the young man) and to inform readers about pandemic experiences hidden from the public eye (in the case of the nurse). The final chapter is titled “Let the Morning In”, and it is here that the comic displays negative capability as it gathers earlier narrative strands in a disjunctive yet coherent fashion to generate insight that goes beyond topical information about the pandemic. In this final chapter, characters from earlier in the comic re-appear: the anxiety-ridden young man is now out of quarantine and video-chatting with his elderly mother. Even though mother and son are smiling, the lines of poetry express the long-term trauma caused by the pandemic: “you look like life but you are dead / you may smile but nothing is said” (41). Later the hospital nurse from the chapter “This Too Shall Pass” returns home from a night shift all alone, but her night is brightened by a “Thank You!” card from the child she treated. Here the lines of poetry have an uplifting tone that matches the nurse’s delighted expression in the bottom panel: “She pulls the dawn across your sky / she sets you up for one more try” (45). The comic could have ended here on this encouraging note that shows support and praise for hardworking healthcare workers like the nurse, but the creators go one step further and expand the scope of the narrative outwards to Singapore as a whole (see fig. 5). The last two pages of the comic have a dominant bright yellow tone, suggesting a morning sun that brings hope and cheer. People are depicted going about their daily lives using the TraceTogether smartphone app developed by the government for contact tracing (46), and the last page of the comic is a splash page with a waterfront view of Singapore harbor with two important landmarks. The three towers on the left side of the page are those of the Marina Bay Sands Integrated Resort (which is a casino and luxury hotel); on the right side are the skyscrapers of Singapore’s Central Business District (CBD). At the top of the splash page is the concluding poetic line, “Soon the morning is inside you” (47). 

In a sepia-toned two-page spread of a comic, city scenes are juxtaposed with images of nature around the city. The text reads, "Take it in as the air turns light. Turn a leaf as your eyes glow bright. Cup this change like a gift of dew."
Fig. 5. People trying to resume normal life and a panoramic view of Singapore’s central business district from Felix Cheong and Eko’s In The Year of the Virus.

What I wish to emphasize about this final page is the sheer lack of humans in what ought be a bustling city area; this is, after all, Singapore’s main business district. This scene without people brings to mind the many photographs shared on social media during the first year of the pandemic showing empty streets and deserted towns or cities during their lockdowns. But unlike those photographs that were often framed by or invoked a sense of loss and dismay at the absence of human life, Cheong and Eko portray this absence as a space for hopeful renewal and reflection. The new, metaphorical morning is going to be inside you (readers of the comic) with the usual connotations of enlightenment and illumination. The ending of In The Year of the Virus is thus similar to the conclusion of Weng Pixin’s COVID Times. Both comics express covidity through their turns towards non-human subjects or objects at their conclusion with a psychological openness characteristic of negative capability. In Weng’s COVID Times the subject is a talking bat; in Cheong and Eko’s In The Year of the Virus the object is Singapore’s waterfront view that, devoid of human activity, offers a space for reflection on humanity, even as human life seems to be returning to a semblance of normalcy.

Koh Hong Teng’s “It’s Not the End”

The absence of human activity is taken to another level in Koh Hong Teng’s comic “It’s Not the End,” which is completely devoid of verbal narration or dialogue. Koh’s thirteen-page black-and-white comic contains no word or text balloons, and any words that appear are either on signs or objects. Another striking feature of this dialogue-less comic is Koh’s panel layout. Unlike Weng Pixin’s COVID Times, which has a fairly regular panel layout, in “It’s Not the End” each successive page presents an increasing number of panels as Koh continuously adds extra rows and columns. Koh himself offers an explanation for this proliferation of panels: the pandemic “started incongruously but developed with such intensity and pace” and this gave him “the idea of starting with a full-page panel, and the panels would multiply in the subsequent pages” (Ong). 

This proliferation of panels traces and matches the increasing scope and intensity of the pandemic. The comic begins with a single splash page showing a very busy wet market with animals in cages and raw meat on sale; on page two, there are now two panels indicating that the wet market is in Wuhan city, where the outbreak began. Pages three and four depict the rapid and global spread of the virus: international transportation comes to a halt, airports and cruise ships shut down, various countries and cities go into lockdown. Pages five and six contain twelve and sixteen panels respectively, now focusing on healthcare workers treating patients and burying bodies of the deceased. The panels here mostly concentrate on the actions, expressions, and body language of medical personnel, conveying their frantic, exhausting, and increasingly desperate efforts to provide care. And page six informs us that the comic is now centered on Singapore, as we can see the two words TraceTogether, a reference to the contact-tracing smartphone app.

The visual effect of Koh’s multiplying panels does something more than provide a visual correlative to the virus’s rapid, intensive, and extensive spread around the world. Thinking through negative capability offers this productive paradox: as the scale of the panels decreases the scope of the comic as a whole increases. In other words, even as each comic panel becomes smaller in size and does not depict parts of people and objects, “It’s Not the End” as a whole draws attention to wider and deeper connections with other people and the world at large. For example, page nine has thirty-six panels presenting half-body shots of various people wearing masks and trying to go about their jobs and daily lives during the pandemic (see fig. 6). The police officer’s uniform in the top row and the sarong kebaya attire of the flight attendant in the second row from the bottom reveals that the context is still Singapore. 

With stark black borders dividing them, thirty-six panels show black-and-white portraits of people wearing masks in a variety of poses.
Fig. 6. People of different occupations wearing masks in Singapore from Koh Hong Teng’s “It’s Not the End.”

But on page ten, the seventy-two panels no longer depict people but human hands engaged in various activities or holding different objects or animals (see fig. 7). This can be understood through negative capability’s schism and fragmentation: the comic represents hands of multiple people engaged in everyday activities to cope with or sustain themselves through the pandemic, but the lack of any full bodies or faces (in contrast to the previous page) is disjunctive. By this I mean that readers will not know the specific identity of any person performing a particular action or holding a particular object, but what is important here is that all the people (metonymically represented by hands) seem to be doing something at this same moment in time. Readers experience and observe multiple actions visually spread out on the page, which can offer a degree of comfort through the realization that other people and other hands are also trying to get a literal grip on the drastically changed circumstances of pandemic life.

With stark black borders dividing them, seventy-two panels show black-and-white depictions of hands engaging in a variety of tasks.
Fig. 7. Close-ups of hands doing different activities or holding various objects from Koh Hong Teng’s “It’s Not the End.”

The final pages of the comic portray not human faces or hands but insects, plants, and plant parts (on page eleven) and then a string of zeroes and ones, which is binary code (on page twelve). These two pages also make a turn towards the non-human realm, which is similar to the turns made by Weng and Cheong and Eko in their comics.  Covidity, which is the intense experience of living through and learning from the pandemic, breaks down the rigidity of boundaries between human and non-human domains. The insects and plants are reminders of humanity’s place in the natural world and the zoonotic origins of COVID-19, but they also offer a sense of hope. Many of the plant parts shown in the bottom half of the page are seeds, which are a common metaphor for new life, rebirth, and new beginnings. Similarly, the binary code represented could suggest a reduction of life into machine code, but it can also connote how digital technology makes pandemic life bearable. It is common knowledge that the internet and video streaming services became vital during lockdown periods for information and entertainment; videoconferencing technology was necessary for essential work and telehealth and also keeping in long-distance contact with family and friends. And it is thanks to binary code and digital technology that Koh Hong Teng is able to publish and share his comic, which does not have a print version as it is only available as a PDF.

To conclude, the three comics examined in this essay can be read in terms of three functions of graphic medicine comics outlined by Sathyaraj Venkatesan and Anu Mary Peter: aside from educating the general public about health and wellness, graphic medicine “encourages future health-care professionals not only to comprehend and perceive patients’ experience but also to pronounce and portray their own trauma” (6); second, it can be a safe imaginative and therapeutic space for those living with or treating illness to “access their inner realms that are fragmented by traumatic experiences” (10); finally, graphic medicine can form “an emotional community by bringing together individuals of similar experiences, thereby extending empathy and support” (10). More than this, the comics also represent covidity’s reinvention of the self into a distinctive subjectivity through the disjunctures, slippages, and emotional and perspectival openness of negative capability. Returning to John Keats, whose pithy statement about negative capability is that it emerges “when” a person “is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason” (I:193), one can see that negative capability can be helpful in thinking through and with graphic medicine comics that focus more on the uncertainties, anxieties, and vicissitudes of illness and healthcare and less on providing factual biomedical information in a didactic fashion. Pairing negative capability with the study of graphic medicine is in the spirit of health humanities scholarship, which Susan Merrill Squier describes as “attend[ing] not only to the intersectional factors shaping the relations between patient and caregiver but also to the power of unorthodox sources, including comics, to convey meanings otherwise overlooked in conventional medical humanities scholarship” (48). 

The three comics discussed in this essay engage with well-known incidents, tropes, and topics arising from the COVID pandemic in Singapore but also (through the use of genre and form) represent them in an unorthodox manner. Pixin Weng’s COVID Times may appear at first blush to be a straightforward autobiographical text about lockdown life, but it quickly expands beyond her self-consciousness to introduce and include other subjects such as marginalized migrant workers and the animal world (with its anthropomorphization not of a virus but of a bat). In The Year of the Virus tacks between characters experiencing intense pandemic isolation and engaging in intensive pandemic healthcare, which are both common topics in COVID-related comics; what is remarkable is how the comic creates continuity within and between the comic’s disjunctive stories through the rhythm and rhymes of Felix Cheong’s poetic lines that verbally accentuate the bold strokes and vibrant colors of Eko’s visual art. Koh Hong Teng’s “It’s Not the End” begins as a standard narrative of the COVID virus’s origins, beginning in a Wuhan wet market and then spreading across the world; yet Koh’s proliferation of panels on each successive page offers a simultaneous glimpse of the multiple, disjunctive effects of the virus on different countries, communities, and individuals, and he expands the scope of the comic from a wordless visual pathography to a cautiously optimistic gesture of hope and renewal with the concluding metaphors of plants and seeds. These comics’ negative capability is a contrast to the political capacity exercised by the Singaporean state to manage the pandemic, but it is no less productive and instructive. The comics literally illustrate various emotional, psychological, and social aspects of pandemic life that may not be reflected in graphs, charts, and other pandemic information focused on morbidity and mortality. They do so not only by creating schisms and fractures within a single identity (whether of the author or the reader) but also by enabling an openness towards other people, objects, and non-human beings, adopting an expansive view of the world even within the highly confined and solitary spaces during the most intense and uncertain period of the pandemic in Singapore.

Works Cited

Cheong, Felix and Eko. In The Year of the Virus. Marshall Cavendish, 2020.

Czerwiec, M.K., et al. The Graphic Medicine Manifesto. Pennsylvania State UP, 2015.

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