May 1, 2020

I had heard a lot about graphic novels but until recently had never read one. Now I come away impressed with the way words and images, working in tandem, can express a more powerful truth than either could alone.

Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home (2004) is actually a graphic memoir, not a novel. It’s a coming-of-age tale amidst family dysfunction in small-town Pennsylvania. With minimal text and sparse drawings it manages to convey sadness, humor, tragedy and confusion, all while being inspirational. It made me think about the materials for a graphic narrative that might work today to explain what it’s been like to live through and with the Coronavirus pandemic.  

Wisconsin voters. I think back to the sight of the Wisconsin primary on April 7. Voters withstood long lines, miserably cold and wet weather, and inexcusable statewide reduction of available polling stations simply to exercise a basic right. The imagery was compounded  by knowledge of the political manipulations that preceded it; a lame duck state house session where outgoing Republicans clipped the powers of the incoming Democratic governor; a long history of Republican-led efforts to disenfranchise urban and minority voters; and a scandalous state court decision in the immediate run-up to the primary which saw judges – meeting virtually, to protect themselves from infection – refusing to extend absentee voter privileges to eligible citizens who had requested such ballots.

The power of the right to vote drove the Civil Rights movement in the American South for decades. To see us reliving that struggle now, and for voters to risk infection in using that right, is an amazing testament to what a democracy could and should be.  

Michigan terror. The real pervasive terrorism afflicting this country has consistently come from within, not from foreigners. We were reminded of that on April 30 when a paramilitary goon squad of automatic weapon-bearing rebels tried to storm the Michigan state legislature as they were deliberating extension of the state’s shelter-in-place provisions.  Too many media outlets mislabeled this as a protest. When you’re a white nationalist bedecked with Confederate flags and Nazi regalia and spit potentially infectious bodily fluids in the face of policemen cordoning off a legally elected chamber of legislatures, you’re a terrorist, not a defender of freedom. The image was all the more disturbing because it actualized instructions from an April 17 tweet by the president calling on his followers LIBERATE MICHIGAN! 

The other disturbing thing about the image is that it flies in the face of overwhelming public support – on a bipartisan basis – for social distancing and other public health measures to quell the infection rate. But seeing it portrayed as the equivalent of a protest rally demeans the sanctity of legal protest and recklessly elevates storm troopers to the false equivalence of just another political movement.

Pence unmasked.  There’s a strange kind of toxic masculinity circulating among folks who think we don’t need to take basic precautions. It’s evident at those press photos of cabinet meetings and press conferences that people who should know better are standing too close together, without proper protection on and still shaking hands; they are making public policy as if it were simply imposing inconveniences on others that they can avoid themselves. So much for modeling proper behavior. We saw the absurdity of it on April 28 when Vice President Michael Pence showed up unmasked at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. He and his staff had been advised in advance by clinic officials that masks were compulsory. Reporters who later wrote of the indiscretion were threatened with restricted media access.  The photo, however, spoke for itself.

Fauci’s face palm. The anti-science bias of the administration has been a nightmare for years; it’s part of a deeper commitment to notions of truth as entirely pliable and subject to partisan control. This has weighed especially heavily on researchers in the life sciences, whether at EPA, CDC or NIH. Lately this epistemological commitment has turned lethal. So it’s always interesting to watch Dr. Anthony Fauci, for 36 years the head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. At a March 20 White House briefing, he was seen covering his face in a half-hearted gesture of embarrassment and distancing from Trump’s comments about “Deep State State Department.” The gesture, which he later (falsely) attributed to an effort to dislodge a lozenge stuck in his throat, was widely and rightly seen as a repudiation of the president’s entire approach to managing the crisis.

It’s hard to get images like these out of your head when they clearly and powerfully express a moment in time.  Throughout the pathos and tragedy of the last two and a half months, a great number of graphics have etched themselves in my memory banks. They don’t tell the whole story, but they reveal an awful lot. When it comes time to write this graphic narrative, someone will have plenty of material to work with. Only it won’t be a work of fiction.

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  1. Tollie Miller Reply

    Powerful piece, Brad. The many images of the past few months often carry more emotional weight than words. Though we need words to manage, reflect, move forward somehow.
    Fun Home was adapted to an award winning musical. I have the sound track which I am happy to loan, well wiped down of course!
    Best to you and Jane.

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