Comics in the Time of a Pan(dem)ic
COVID-19, Graphic Medicine and Metaphors
As the world is reduced to a global community in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, Graphic Medicine’s collection of COVID-19 comics presents multiple perspectives by patients, health-care providers, and artists. Through the deft use of metaphors, these comics offer a creative and collective response to the virus and its profound impact on our lives. Comics have always responded to pandemics and catastrophes, illustrating the social and cultural aspects of these events in affective, economical, and visceral ways.
Co-edited by M.K. Czerwiec and Alice Jaggers, the Graphic Medicine website has been curating comics, editorial cartoons, autobiographical cartoons, and social media posts under the heading “COVID-19 Comics.” These “COVID-19 Comics” are further categorized under various thematic heads that address issues such as depoliticization of deaths, disability access, and racial and economic health disparities, among others. These comics express “covidity,” a neologism that captures individual and collective responses to the COVID-19 pandemic, including a range of paradoxes, physical and mental toll, existential angst, fear, anxiety, and the trauma of everyday life. These psychological dimensions and sociocultural aspects of the pandemic condition are represented in comics through visual metaphors.
Three predominant metaphors in the COVID-19 comics are analyzed in this article, viz., military/war metaphors, superhero metaphors, and anthropomorphism.
Superhero metaphors are common in the COVID-19 comics. From encouraging Americans to participate in the World Wars to shaping attitudes towards totalitarian regimes, superheroes and heroines (e.g.: Captain America, Wonder Woman and the Justice League) have played a significant role not only in mainstreaming comics but also in conveying extraordinariness amidst challenging times. In fact, several graphic medical narratives, such as Marisa Acocella Marchetto’s Cancer Vixen: A True Story, Ashley L. Pistorio’s Vita Perserverat, Brian Fies’s Mom’s Cancer, and Cece Bell’s El Deafo among others deploy superhero metaphors and tropes to convey hope, empowerment, resilience, and transformation. Given such a cultural history, it is not surprising that superhero metaphors reappear during the pandemic situation. In the context of pandemic, these metaphors are invoked to convey the superheroic interventions required to control the pandemic. Several comics imagine the current pandemic-causing virus as a supervillain and healthcare professionals as modern-day superheroes who save humanity. Put differently, the moral framework and responsibilities characterizing a superhero are mapped onto the frontline workers. Although there is a danger in glamorizing frontline workers as superheroes, these comics, in essence, positively acknowledge the altruistic and health-preserving powers of the healthcare professionals.
Artoboy, an avatar of the artist, leads a group of health-care workers in its fight against COVID-19. Its diminutive size contrasts with that of the virus, which is personified as a giant skeleton who parades a dead body coming down the hill. The cartoon evokes the growing nature of the pandemic and therefore the need for superhuman powers to handle the condition.
The artist directly references the iconic Superman in his illustration of a healthcare professional getting ready for duty while wearing hospital scrubs that bear the Superman insignia. Here, the transformation from ordinary to extraordinary is at once literalized and symbolized onto the frontline worker’s body.
Military and War Metaphors
Military and war metaphors are commonly used metaphors during pandemics/epidemics. These metaphors which convey a sense of sovereignty, threats, and territory, frame the pandemic primarily as a war between the frontline workers and COVID-19, and also as humanity versus the virus. Such metaphors have both advantages and disadvantages. While these metaphors can positively create shared contexts, build communities, and motivate action, they are also perilous in that they stigmatize patients and inadvertently constitute (toxic) nationalism and social violence.
This cartoon is entrenched in the language of chivalry and medieval warfare. The foe in this equation befittingly wears a crown, representing its status in the current natural hierarchy. These elements add a historical reference that often accompanies broader pandemic narratives, viz., we have long been at war with microbes.
This cartoon by a healthcare professional invests in the cultural logic of war. Imitating the font style and minimally revising the original text of a World War I poster, Bellchambers’ comic establishes strong intertextual and intergenerational relationships. While the original war poster issues a call for action, Bellchambers’ creatively appropriated poster is a call for inaction – which, ironically, will help win the present war against the virus.
Another dominant metaphor is anthropomorphism in which the COVID-19 virus is bestowed with human traits. Though the use of anthropomorphism is as old as comics, it found its fullest expression in Art Spiegelman’s Holocaust graphic novel, Maus. As Waytz and colleagues (2010) demonstrate, situations of high cognitive load and social isolation such as the present pandemic increase the use of anthropomorphism. Elsewhere, Epley, Waytz, and Cacioppo (2007) point out “effectance,” or the need to make sense of the actions of other agents “to reduce uncertainty,” as another reason for the use of anthropomorphism. Further, anthropomorphism aids the artists to concretize psychological states and embodied experiences that otherwise elicit traumatic reactions. In the context of COVID-19, metaphors accommodate and represent multifarious responses to the pandemic and throw light on our individual and collective relationships to the virus and the lived experience of the pandemic. These fraught and intensely paradoxical perspectives embody hope, radical self-reflection, apocalypse, and posthumanism.
The artist’s presentation of the virus using animal semiotics teems with meaning, embracing at once the political, the abstract, and the virulent nature of the virus. The use of Chinese symbolism emphasizes the geopolitical nature of the pandemic and harkens to dark xenophobic themes that often accompany pandemics.
In short, metaphors accommodate and represent multifarious responses to the pandemic and throw light on our individual and collective relationships to the virus and the lived experience of the pandemic.
Epley, N., A. Waytz, and J. T. Cacioppo. 2007. “On Seeing Human: A Three-Factor Theory of Anthropomorphism.” Psychological Review 114 (4): 864–86.
Waytz, A., et al. 2010. “Causes and Consequences of Mind Perception.” Trends in Cognitive Science 14 (8): 383–88.
This contribution was prepared by Sathyaraj Venkatesan based on the original article: Saji S, Venkatesan S, Callender B. 2021. “Comics in the Time of a Pan(dem)ic: COVID-19, Graphic Medicine, and Metaphors.” Perspectives in Biology and Medicine 64 (1):136-154.
This article was written in the first 6-8 months of the pandemic in India.