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WONDERCON ’21: Four acclaimed creators talk COVID, current affairs, and history repeating

Creators Darrin Brown, Nate Powell, Thi Bui, and Derf Backderf do a deep dive on their experiences making political comics.

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At this past weekend’s WonderCon, four acclaimed cartoonists gathered virtually for a thought-provoking panel on their latest work, effects of the pandemic, and comics as political commentary: Derf Backderf, Darrin Bell, Thi Bui, and Nate Powell. The panel was moderated by Andrew Farago, Cartoon Art Museum curator.

Three of the panelists focus on book-length projects, while Bell maintains a fast-paced editorial cartoon, Candorville. Two of the creators, Powell and Backderf, have in recent years published works on dissent history, the March trilogy and Kent State: Four Dead in Ohio, respectively. Bui is known for The Best We Could Do, a graphic memoir exploring her family’s history surrounding the Vietnam War. During the panel, these variances allowed for fascinating contrast viewpoints.

All the creators felt the effects of the pandemic, with many life activities being put on hold. Tragically, Backderf lost his mother to COVID-19. His 40-stop book tour for Kent State—released last year, the 50th anniversary of the Kent State massacre—also had to be canceled.

The pandemic, while intensely challenging, wasn’t the only thing on the creators’ radars. Bui found that the cancellation of in-person events freed up her time for work, though organizing for the 2020 election later claimed her energy. Powell put finishing touches on his upcoming book of personal and political essays, Save it For Later, coming out on April 6 from ABRAMS Books. Bell, by way of his regular strip, continuously tapped into the Zeitgeist (and started two graphic novels to be published by MacMillan). And Backderf wondered if future readers would find the current era too dark to read about.

Present day turmoil presented interesting questions for the comics historians/political commentators. Should they try to cover current events midstream?

Bui reflected, “I’m working on this long graphic [nonfiction book] about Asian Americans in detention and prisons. Then the George Floyd protests added another level, and racial tensions in Oakland are adding this other level. I feel like I’m always running to catch up with current events and incorporate them into the book. […] It’s hard. Part of me wants to crank out stuff fast and the other part of me knows that I need more time to distill stuff.” She also noted that writing about the past gave her the luxury of taking her time, and that commentary on current events may sometimes force one to take shortcuts.

Bell’s editorial work on current affairs (which won him a Pulitzer Prize) gives him a unique perspective on the pulse of politics. He remarked on a grim trend he’s seen in audience responses: “I used to get a lot of people emailing me to say, ‘I used to see it one way but you forced me to see another perspective.’ But more and more what I’ve seen is people are just incredibly polarized. And when I do something critical of one politician, I know it’s going to get a whole lot of positive reaction from people who oppose them.”

Perhaps it is only through past lenses that we can see clearly right now? Delving into the interaction between past and present, Farago asked if the comics historians predicted how timely their graphic histories would be today.

Backderf thought Kent State would be relevant, because “the thing about history is, so much of it is forgotten and that’s why we keep repeating it.” But he was chilled by its publication timing. “[The book] was supposed to come out in spring 2020 and it got bumped to fall because of the lockdown. In Europe, you had the ‘gilets jaune’ protests, the police crackdowns there. And I was like, ‘Oh my God, this is just like 1970 in America!’

“And over here we didn’t have that yet, we had the anger but we didn’t have millions of people in the streets. And just like that, the BLM protests started, and suddenly, holy cow, it’s happening here. And then January 6th on top of it! It was really kind of overwhelming.”

Powell discussed how his creative team’s narrative choices on the March trilogy, which captured John Lewis’s recollections of participation in the Civil Rights Movement, were shaped by the modern day climate: “I’d say over the course of doing March, […] we were watching the temperature rise [politically], checking in with each other, being like, ‘Do we need to weigh in on this particular situation in the pages of March?’ each time.

“And every time, our conclusion was that if we do our job right at telling this first-person historical account, we have to trust that the reader, who lives in the same world as us, will really have no option but to make those connections themselves. But also, what was important was that we kept having that conversation, that we were keeping up with what was happening and how that was unavoidably being reflected and echoed within the pages of the history we were putting down.”

The panelists also pondered the nature of having an impact. Bui remarked, “I don’t know that any of us can really change that much alone, just by making stuff. But it’s part of an ecosystem of people uplifting what you said—because you said it in a way they wished they could—and then other people sharing it, and maybe teachers are teaching it and creating conversations around it. That’s where the real work happens.”

For more insightful panelist commentary on politics in comics and the creative process, check out the full panel here!

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