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Keynote Address – Material Comics

By Mita Mahato and Summarized by Madeline Gangnes 

Mita Mahato’s work explores loss: end-of-life care and death, heartache, identity loss, species extinction, habitat degradation, and climate change. Through a presentation of her artistic experiences, philosophy, and methods, combined with audience participation, Mahato conveyed to her keynote’s attendees the power of paper and paste. She spoke openly about her “origin story” as a comics creator, which, she said, “has everything to do with materiality.” Mahato began creating comics in the wake of her mother’s death from cancer. Making comics “became a way for [her] to grapple with” questions like, “How do you make sense of the fact that an entity that you’ve known your entire life as having concrete, material existence has none? How do you go from thinking of someone’s life that has been tangible and touchable for all your life to experiencing it only as thought, memory, traces?”

One of Mahato’s early explorations of these questions was her comic, “September,” in which she created images by cutting paper out in “a process of removal,” “an act that was destructive” even as Mahato was “also creating; what’s left behind are images that tell a story.” Cutting up paper and rearranging shapes into comics prompts Mahato to “consider and experiment with spatial and narrative arrangements.” In addition to repurposing newspaper, magazines, gift wrap and wrapping tissue, maps, and other paper materials for comics and collage, Mahato makes her own paper by blending paper scraps into pulp, straining it, and drying it as sheets. “Making paper,” she said, “is about obliteration.”

Mahato also spoke of the ways in which print newspaper page layouts have inspired some of her paper collage work. “When I read newspapers,” she said, “I find my eyes drifting across the page. I see heads and limbs and suits rather than the bodies to which they’re attached. I see colors isolated from the pictures or advertisements in which they are used.” For Mahato, paper collages, like those featured in her mini-comic “Patterns” (2016; Figure 1), “build conversations between and across stories and images.” By juxtaposing visual and textual elements from old news stories, images, and other paratextual materials, Mahato is able to “access a past while creating a new story.”

Figure 1. Excerpt from Mahato’s “Patterns” (2016).

Though paper is Mahato’s primary material, she sometimes uses digital methods in her work. For example, she has used Photoshop to adjust color saturation in found paper. Mahato sees “the digital realm as a provider of tools—it helps [her] to execute [her] vision for the analog.” Mahato sometimes layers a comic’s gutters on top of the cutout shapes on the page, which “allows [her] to play with the gutter space as the thing that is dividing or being bridged” by the other elements. “We all understand the gutter-space as a really dynamic, imaginative, and magical space,” she said, “and in giving it material existence, I try to really highlight that.”

Mahato’s turn toward environmentally focused comics began in 2015, when she became fascinated by whale echolocation and directed her interest in the conceptualization of loss specifically toward whales and the degredation of ocean habitats. Mahato’s communication with scientists local to her home in the Puget Sound area led her to consider the plight of the Sound’s resident orca populations, who have been in danger of extinction due to noise pollution, low food supply, risk of oil spills, and other anthropogenic threats. She created a comic for the Seattle Weekly that she hoped would “implicate the general Seattle public” in the degradation of the whales’ habitat. She also created a wordless cutout comic, “Sea” (2015; Figure 2), which “explore[s] the spaces through which whales move in order to meditate on the limitations and anthropocentrism in our usual storytelling strategies.” In layering cut papers, Mahato sought to “construct a remote and unfamiliar place—one that registers the uselessness of our words and usual ways of seeing when it comes to non-human experiences.” Before she presented the pages of “Sea,” Mahato directed the audience to “find some scrap paper that’s near you. I want you to touch it. I want you to rub your fingers on it. Get a feel for it. And then fold it. Crumple it. Tear it.” As Mahato scrolled through each page of “Sea,” the comic was augmented by the spontaneously, collectively generated soundtrack of manipulated paper. Attendees counted this communal experience among the most powerful moments of the conference.

Figure 2. Excerpt from Mahato’s “Sea” (2015).

Mahato briefly discussed the poetry comics she created for her book, In Between (2017), in which she “meditated on how comics could engage in traditional poetic forms.” She presented a comic from In Between using simple animation so that the comic “presented itself” to the audience in silence. She then closed her talk by recounting her experiences at an artist residency in the Norwegian Arctic, which informs her upcoming work. Tensions emerged from the fact that while many of the artists in residence were concerned with climate issues, the trip carried a significant carbon footprint. They also considered the degree to which their artistic materials might be harmful to the environment. That being the case, the project focuses on waste, particularly plastic waste, which Mahato called “a scoundrel material.” In her continued explorations of loss, plastic makes Mahato think about transformation through a material that is “so hard to break down.” Plastic is “so hard,” she said, “to ‘lose.’”

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