2020 ushered in the convergence of multiple societal, political, environmental, and health crises, many of which have continued to churn at a near-constant roil since the declaration of COVID-19 as a pandemic two years ago. In a context ripe with rapidly evolving variables, acute unrest and destabilizing uncertainty, we’ve consistently been presented with the challenge to guide students through curricula while ensuring that the importance of the moment, the depth of its complexities, and associated sociopsychological impacts have been appropriately and adequately conveyed over the past two-plus years. As scholars and educators, questions of how to best engage in what are undoubtedly “difficult dialogues” in accessible and meaningful ways while not succumbing to (or accidentally encouraging) counterproductive actions like doomscrolling and echo chambering have remained constant.
I discovered that comic books, with their ability to “engage the political and cultural landscape from a critical perspective” yet also “intimately link to the current social, political, and ethnic circumstances of their production” have aided in providing a necessary balance (Fernández L’Hoeste 2017: 3, 4). Because Generation Z (people born between 1997 and 2012) was “raised on a diet of audiovisual overstimulation and used to processing information at a faster rate than any previous one—thanks to a never-ending relationship with video-game consoles, tablets, laptops and cellphones — the complexity and possibilities of interplay between image and words are more than obvious” (Fernández L’Hoeste 2017: 14). As a scholar deeply interested in the convergence of pictorial representation, language, and real life, I find the scope with which Generation Z university-level students can decipher visual messaging to be useful to connect dots between course content and current affairs (particularly in a second- or foreign-language classroom).
While it may seem at first glance like a juvenile outlet, comic books are not frivolous or “lowbrow” but have become firmly established as bona fide mediums; social texts worthy of providing a space for understanding and reflection as we grapple with unprecedented challenges such as pandemic, inflation, war, and more. Héctor D. Fernández L’Hoeste says it best with his description of comics as having the “capability to reflect the harshest of matters in a package that, at first, appears harmless and, in even the worst of cases, turns out to be wonderfully instructive in spirit” (14). David Keane agrees, suggesting that comics enjoy a greater “latitude” than perhaps other genres to “attack established ideas” since a “cartoonist [or comic book illustrator] can say and do things . . . (that others) cannot say or do” (847).
When we transitioned to quarantined remote learning in March 2020, and subsequently remained at either a virtual or hybrid model for several semesters after, one ongoing goal was to identify a tool that would aid in the transition of the course content and the mode of content delivery while also reflecting what was occurring in the nation and world. With Fernández L’Hoeste, Keane, and others in mind, the comic book series “El peso hero” by Héctor Rodríguez III emerged as an ideal medium to navigate current events of the pandemic along with what else is happening in the nation and world. Of course, it was (and remains) vital to provide an objective and balanced learning environment, and so incorporating resources such as All Sides along with regular guest speakers, peer-reviewed scholarly content, and more has complimented exceedingly well the content, questions, and discussions that arise from the examination of storylines, characters and dialogue.
Comic content and real-world applicability
One issue of “El peso hero,” titled “The Essentials,” was a direct response to the labeling of certain sectors as essential during the early days of the COVID-19 outbreak while simultaneously excluding them from pandemic relief benefits. For students and scholars studying Hispanic studies, Latinx studies, border studies, political science, international studies and criminal justice, and even nursing it demonstrates the inconsistencies of labeling farmworkers, recipients of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals permit (DACA), and other noncitizen peoples as essential yet denying access to the “benefit[s] that can mean life and death as COVID-19 spreads across the country” (Rodríguez 2020: 3).
While “The Essentials” takes place on a farm in the Texas Rio Grande Valley, exclusion from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security, aka CARES Act, spanned multiple employment sectors and socioeconomic levels (e.g., delivery truck drivers, construction workers, postal workers, food delivery personnel, grocery store employees, educators, physicians, and other medical staff) across several noncitizen categories (not just undocumented but DACA and the H-2A temporary agriculture worker and H-1B specialized worker visa programs, which are federally recognized and granted). Many do not know much about the differences between these categories or are aware of how substantial the economic contributions of noncitizen groups are for the stability of the U.S. economy and civil infrastructure. Buoying is not limited to informal economic sectors like most think. When the pandemic required mass national shutdowns, there were upwards of 700,000 active DACA recipients at the time: 43,500 working in healthcare and social assistance industries, 76,000 in restaurants and service and 15,000 as educators.
Pairing “The Essentials” and data along with the two-plus years of experience living through a pandemic challenges what experts like Aviva Chomsky labels as “myths about immigration”. The illustrations and dialogue in “The Essentials” gave a visual entry for students to learn how “farm workers harvest the fresh produce on which millions depend” yet lack safety protocols in the midst of a pandemic that “puts them in a difficult position” (Rodríguez 2020, 9). This was an abstract concept for most until they began living the reality of supply shortages. Combining this narrative from “The Essentials” with empty store shelves, food insecurity, and limited access to personal protective equipment (PPE) and adequate COVID-19 testing led to an examination of how the absence of appropriate economic and safety protections means that entire sectors are at risk of collapse and of potentially perpetuating avoidable community transmission of the disease. It also facilitated an examination of exclusionary policies like the public charge rule that discourages noncitizens from seeking public assistance or medical care. “The Essentials” provides multiple entry points to engage with the reality of U.S. dependence on noncitizens, the morality of exclusion during an unprecedented health crisis, and subsequent consequences. The visual and narrative design choices of comic book creatives are a particularly apt barometers of social attitudes and comics can uniquely aid their reader to understand the ebbs and flows of society, politics and history.
In the challenging sociopolitical context of 2020 to present-day, comic books by socially conscious creators do not depict make-believe worlds that are distant, escapist, and illustrative of an unattainable or unrelatable reality. Creators have instead used them as spaces to address things like the essentiality of migrant labor, immigration categories, contradictions between labels and policies and racialized political rhetoric (among many other pertinent themes for the times we have been living through). Readers can turn to them for truthful representations of lived experiences.
Through characters and narratives, comics provide a mode of meaningful commiseration in a manner that, as Ana Merino explains, “denounce(s) injustices” and “forces the reader to get involved emotionally with the sordid realit(ies)” (259). While the opportunity for a moment of escapist leisure remains a part of the entertainment value of perusing a comic book, they also provide a storyline that directly inserts the reader into the real world, complete with controversy and dissension but also with the opportunity for dialogue and agency. The stories compel connection, which, in turn, provides a valuable foundation to comprehend the complexities of U.S. social and political systems and grapple with the challenges created by pandemic-related upheaval.
This article has been modified from a piece first published in Hispania, the scholarly journal of the American Association of Teachers of Spanish and Portuguese (AATSP). It is republished here with permission from the AATSP. Please visit www.aatsp.org for more information about the journal and the organization.
Kaitlin E. Thomas is an assistant professor of Spanish and the associate director of the Center for Global Resilience and Security at Norwich University. Her research delves into U.S. and Latina/o/e identities that result from transborder cultural and national fusion, (un)documented Latina/o/e immigration, and intersections between social media and cultural iconography.
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