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Visualizing the Environment through Comics

Visualizing the Environment through Comics

For a new class in Literary Arts and Studies, students are exploring—and making—sequential art that challenges how we understand the natural world.

Visiting the Nature Lab with his Literary Arts and Studies class, Assistant Professor-in-Residence Thomas Doran (standing) invited students to think of it as filled with "environmental narratives."

As a hybrid of literature, illustration and cinema, sequential art offers a wide range of expressive possibilities. Thomas Doran, an assistant professor-in-residence in Literary Arts and Studies (LAS), believes that this versatile medium not only helps students understand multiple creative forms, it also enables them to communicate in clear and uniquely impactful ways. In other words, he says, graphic literature provides artists with “a space for creating ideas” of real value.

This notion is the basis for Visualizing the Environment in Comics and Graphic Literature, a new LAS course that Doran designed and has been leading this fall (and will again in the spring). In it students explore how comic books, strips, graphic novels and other sequential art forms frame ideas about the natural world, and how they can be used to make critical interventions into urgent issues.

From the gothic horror of Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing to the environmental journalism of Lauren Redniss, the course covers a diversity of genres and perspectives on climate, weather, animal rights and other topics, shedding light on ecological problems as not just political or technological, but cultural as well.

“Students are using the [comics] medium to interrogate current—and dire—problems at a deep level.”

Doran, whose longtime interest in comics has become increasingly central to his research and teaching, says that the diverse expertise of RISD students (who clearly “aren’t afraid to draw”) has inspired him to build more experimental assignments into the curriculum. In addition to traditional research papers, participants in Visualizing the Environment are also creating sequential-art “essays” that address both environmental issues and the critical discourses surrounding them. “Students are using the medium,” says Doran, “to interrogate these current—and dire—problems at a deep level.”

A panel from a sequential-art “essay” by Fred Mathelier 20 FAV.

Even for students who have been reading and making comics since childhood, this has been an eye-opening approach to sequential art. Madeleine Teh 20 GD, who created a web comic that uses social-media conventions to challenge how people interact with nature and technology, says that this hybrid approach to writing criticism has pushed her to reevaluate how she understands the medium. “The work I’ve made for this class,” she notes, “has made me more conscious of how to use specific formats to deliver meaning.”

Likewise, Fred Mathelier 20 FAV, a transfer student from a more traditional liberal arts college, says that applying the visual language of comics to academic writing has been a very rewarding challenge. “And the fact that there are enough interested people here to make a [liberal arts] course that focuses on comics urges me forward with my own work,” he says.

In addition to appreciating students’ experience with sequential art, Doran is also impressed by the level of ownership they feel in shaping a collective vocabulary for talking about the art forms and the environmental issues at the core of the class. Their diverse backgrounds and studio majors have led to lively discussions and several collaborative anthologies that expand on concepts they’ve encountered so far. “Students here are really receptive and open to engaging with the medium in new ways,” he notes, “but they also want to have a say in that process.”

“Is landscape a commodity for humans to trade and sell? Where do we draw the line between humans and nature?”
tom coute 19 fav

As much as students say that their knowledge of comics and graphic literature is growing through Visualizing the Environment, the class is also making a profound impact on the way they understand sustainability, climate change and other crucial contemporary issues. “Is landscape a commodity for humans to trade and sell?” asks Tom Coute 19 FAV. “Where do we draw the line between humans and nature? These are the larger-than-life questions I’ll take away from this class.”

Robert Albanese / photos by Jo Sittenfeld MFA 08 PH

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