Menu Close

Technical Storytelling: Comics and Community

By Alexander Slotkin and Laura Gonzales

While the social justice turn in technical communication is relatively new, comics have long served as venues for coalition building. From Jen White-Johnson’s work on visual activism for Black Disabled communities, to Alfred Hassler’s comic, Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story, to El Viaje Más Caro / The Most Costly Journey, a series of comic zines documenting stories from migrant farm workers living in Vermont, comics have historically (and contemporarily) been used as tools for community organizing, particularly among queer, disabled, Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (Piepzna-Samarasinha). Taking up Natasha N. Jones’ 2016 call for technical communicators to “move away from considering social issues on a purely descriptive level [and] toward research and pedagogy that promotes agency and advocacy and fosters collaboration for and about social change across disciplines, domains, and communities while engaging critical cultural concerns” (16), this special issue of ImageTexT highlights how community activists in and beyond technical communication use comics to facilitate community building and social justice initiatives by challenging, resisting, and/or calling attention to white supremacy.

Our goal for “Technical Communication: Comics and Community” is to constellate technical communication, comic studies, and community activism at a time when COVID-19 continues to disproportionately affect marginalized communities. Just as Technical Communication Quarterly’s 2020 special issue on “Comics and Graphic Storytelling in Technical Communication” begins with Erin Kathleen Bahl, Sergio Figueierdo, and Rich Shivener’s observation that comics “practitioners were distributing public health and COVID-19 stories on their web platforms and social media and digital literacy centers sought out comics to teach basic computer skills remotely” (219), we started brainstorming this special issue after observing the interplay between technical communication, comics, and COVID-19 messaging in our local community (see Figure 1). We then read Joshua Neufeld’s “A Tale of Two Pandemics,” a comic adaptation of a research article exploring the racial dynamics of the 1918 Influenza Pandemic to better understand racial disparities during the COVID-19 pandemic, and really began considering how technical communicators are using comics to facilitate community building and challenge everyday structures of oppression at the local and national level. Furthermore, we began reading and collaborating on the related work of community activists such as the Centro Profesional Indígena de Asesoría, Defensa, y Traducción (CEPIADET), an Indigenous-led organization from Oaxaca de Juarez, Oaxaca, Mexico, that continues using visual storytelling, including comics, to advocate for Indigenous language rights during the pandemic.

Figure 1. Graphic messaging from the City of Gainesville, Florida, encouraging readers to wear a mask. (RTS)
Figure 1. Graphic messaging from the City of Gainesville, Florida, encouraging readers to wear a mask. (RTS)

Although there is no definite consensus on what constitutes a “comic,” comics are often seen as a broad genre of graphic storytelling, rooted in activist communities, that rhetorically structures text and imagery through juxtaposition to depict, demonstrate, and/or convey information, whether it be a joke or technical process (see Bahl et al.; Yu; Understanding Comics). As such, contributors to this issue engage in a variety of writing genres, modeling the multimodal work other scholars in technical communication and adjacent fields have produced (see Rys; Google Chrome). Each contributor brings their unique disciplinary identities to bear on the comics field, creating a truly interdisciplinary conversation that bonds technical communication and comics studies to the fields of education, Latinx studies, and digital rhetoric, amongst others.

An Overview of the Special Issue

In seeking contributions for this special issue, we invited interdisciplinary scholars, from technical communication, rhetoric and composition, comic studies, education, media studies, and more, to illustrate how comics are used by communities to convey technical information in socially-just ways. We were so grateful to receive excellent submissions from scholars across multiple fields, all of whom embraced creative approaches to threading together comics and social justice.

Our work as special issue editors was to ensure that across all pieces of this special issue, we are highlighting the labor and intellectual contributions that communities of color continue making to comics research and praxis. As such, we worked to ensure that this special issue surfaces ongoing research that expands beyond the walls of the academy and attempts to honor the important contributions that community organizations, youth, and activists bring to our understanding of comics and their potential to convey technical information. Working as educators in the state of Florida in 2023, when education is being directly attacked by our state government, we wanted to craft a space where social justice driven educators and practitioners come together to highlight the potential for social change through multiple mediums. We’re grateful to our contributors for embracing and expanding these goals through their brilliant contributions. Below, we provide a summary of the articles you’ll find in this special issue.

Summary of Contributions

We open with Mónica González Ybarra and Idalia Nuñez’s article “Zines from the Borderlands: Chicanx/Latinx Pre-service Teacher Multimodal Critical Reflections.” Interested in the relationship between images and texts at the U.S.-Mexico border, González Ybarra and Nuñez focus on how zines reflect the knowledge and lived experiences of Chicanx/Latinx pre-service teachers living on the border, an overlooked site of knowledge for pedagogy, languaging, and literacy. To this end, making zines at the border is itself a form of social-justice praxis for this community. Their work concludes with a call for teacher training programs to encourage teachers to consider using pedagogical and storytelling tools like zines to engage students with borderlands content.

Next, Emma Kostopolus connects zines as a comic medium to socially-just pedagogy in her multimodal article “Skillshare and Guerrilla TechComm: Zines in the Technical Writing Classroom.” Framing zines as a form of mutual aid as well as an anti-capitalist approach to publishing, she suggests that zines offer students an avenue for practicing technical writing in service to their communities. Kostopolus also draws on her own teaching experiences to compose an informational and instructive zine for technical communication instructors hoping to incorporate this pedagogical activity into their social-justice toolboxes.

Lastly, in “Bam! Pow! Zap! Battling Systemic Ableism in Technical and Professional Medical Communications through the Application of Graphic Medicine Grounded in Disability Justice,” Kristen C. Bennett engages with technical and professional communication’s social justice turn by exploring how comics challenge ableism in public health communication. First exploring how ableism is circulated across public health documents, she later contends that graphic medicine can be used as a social-justice tool for prioritizing the experiences of disabled individuals. In so doing, she invites technical and professional communicators to use comics to highlight and challenge ableist documentation practices.

Conclusion

The contributions to this interdisciplinary special issue are examples of the imaginative and generative possibilities for constellating community activism, comics studies, and technical communication. We invite you to engage deeply with these articles and to think through how what these brilliant scholars are suggesting may benefit social-justice issues and initiatives in other community contexts.

Editor Positionality Statements

Alexander Slotkin is a PhD candidate in English at the University of Florida studying writing and rhetoric. His research interests include cultural rhetorics, technical communication, Jewish rhetorics, public memory, and non-Western methods/ologies. As a white-reading member of a “model-minority,” he understands the privilege and responsibility of being a Jewish academic as centering the contributions of marginalized communities in our disciplinary conversations.

Laura Gonzales is an Assistant Professor of Digital Writing and Cultural Rhetorics at the University of Florida. As a white Latina with commitments to language and racial justice, she works to highlight the importance and value of language diversity in classroom, community, and professional contexts.

References

Bahl, Erin Kathleen, Sergio Figueiredo, and Rich Shivener. “Comics and Graphic Storytelling in Technical Communication.” Technical Communication Quarterly, vol. 29, no. 3, 2020, pp. 219-221.

Bennett, Marek, Julia Grand Doucet, Andy Kolovos, and Teresa Mares (Eds.). The Most Costly Journey: Stories of Migrant Farmworkers in Vermont Drawn by New England Cartoonists. Vermont Folklife Center, 2021.

Hassler, Alfred. Martin Luther King and The Montgomery Story. Fellowship of Reconciliation, 1957.

Jones, Natasha N. “The Technical Communicator as Advocate: Integrating a Social Justice Approach in Technical Communication.” Journal of Technical Writing and Communication, vol. 46, no. 5, 2016, pp. 342-361.

Krishnan, Lakshmi, S. Michelle Ogunwole, and Lisa A. Cooper. “Historical Insights on Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19), the 1918 Influenza Pandemic, and Racial Disparities: Illuminating a Path Forward.” Annals of Internal Medicine, vol. 173, no. 6, 2020, pp. 474-481.

Los Derechos Viven. Centro Profesional Indígena de Asesoría, Defensa, y Traducción, https://losderechosviven.wixsite.com/cepiadet.

McCloud, Scott. Google Chrome: Behind the Open Source Browser Project. Google, 2008.

————. Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art. Tundra Publishing, 1993.

Neufeld, Josh. “A Tale of Two Pandemics: Historical Insights on Persistent Racial Disparities.” Journalist’s Resource: Informing the News, https://journalistsresource.org/race-and-gender/pandemics-comic-racial-health-disparities/.

Piepzna-Samarasinha, Leah Lakshmi. Care work: Dreaming disability justice. Vancouver: Arsenal Pulp Press, 2018.

Rys, Rachel. “Powerful Marginality: Feminist Scholarship Through Comics.” Journal of Multimodal Rhetorics, vol. 3, no. 1, 2019, pp. 5-19.

“Wear a Mask.” Go-RTS, https://go-rts.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/07/Wear-a-Mask-banner-web-1-768×259.png

White-Johnson, Jen. jenwhitejohnson. October 2018. https://jenwhitejohnson.com.

Yu, Han. The Other Kind of Funnies: Comics in Technical Communication. Routledge, 2016.

Related Articles