A Genre-Based Approach to Graphic Narrative as Social Justice Artifact and Rhetorical Opportunity in the Classroom

Lauren Beard
University of North Carolina Greensboro

How can scholars utilize the intersection of visual rhetoric, social justice, genre theory, and embodiment theory to craft resistance reading and writing practices in the classroom? What contemporary and relevant artifacts exist as models of these applied theories? An excellent example is digital graphic narrative, specifically digital graphic narratives that relay the experiences of minority individuals who have found safe spaces in this genre. My website, https://laurenbearddigital.wordpress.com, focuses on the rhetorical choices made by online comic artists who identify as LGBTQ and how these choices lend themselves to a re-articulation of genre, embodiment, and social justice. Before I delve into my own work, I will provide a review of current the digital humanities scholarship that has shaped my research.

Introduction and Literature Review

How can scholars utilize the intersection of visual rhetoric, social justice, genre theory, and embodiment theory to craft resistance reading and writing practices in the classroom? What contemporary and relevant artifacts exist as models of these applied theories? An excellent example is digital graphic narrative, specifically digital graphic narratives that relay the experiences of minority individuals who have found safe spaces in this genre. My website, https://laurenbearddigital.wordpress.com, focuses on the rhetorical choices made by online comic artists who identify as LGBTQ and how these choices lend themselves to a re-articulation of genre, embodiment, and social justice. Before I delve into my own work, I will provide a review of current the digital humanities scholarship that has shaped my research.

The digital scholars whose work influenced this project are Jennifer Sano-Franchini (2015) and Laurie Gries (2016). Sano-Franchini wrote an article in Ridolfo’s watershed Rhetoric and the Digital Humanities entitled “Cultural Rhetorics and the Digital Humanities: Toward Cultural Reflexivity in Digital Making.” In the article, she discusses how traditional beliefs about Asian identity and reflexive rhetorical meaning are complicated when moved to a digital platform. Specifically, she analyses both the YouTube videos in which Asian women share their experiences of getting mono lid surgery to make their eyes more European-looking, as well as the responses to these videos others publicize in the comments section. The reasoning behind Sano-Franchini’s investigative project echoes my own: “[C]ultural rhetorics” she writes, “theorizes how rhetoric and culture are interconnected through a focus on the processes by which language, texts, and other discursive practices like performance, embodiment, and materiality create meaning” (p. 52). She links cultural rhetorics to resistance practices by remarking, “Ultimately, the goal should be to produce…more culturally cognizant writers and readers who are aware of and deliberate about the rhetorical strategies they are using…to get people talking about identity and the various ways it is rhetorically constructed in a way that is reflexive and productive” (p. 59). Sano-Franchini looks at the everyday actions of the individuals in this digital community and poses new questions and categories for digital scholars to consider when thinking about the critical purposes of Digital Humanities. My goals for my own digital research project also focus on crafting new meaning-making strategies within both scholarly communities and the digital environments, communities, and situations these graphic narrative artists encounter and that we all must navigate daily. Beyond cultural reflexivity, Laurie Gries’s work in rhetorical visualization and circulation has also influenced this project.

Gries’s website, http://kairos.technorhetoric.net/21.2/topoi/gries/index.html, articulates the reasoning, methods, and data behind the prolific and influential “Obama Hope” 2008 campaign image. She analyses things like genre, medium, date, location, and art form in order to craft a rhetorical portrait of how this image was created and is still in circulation today. Ultimately, she advocates for collaboration and data literacy among scholars in order to show how projects like hers can help generate new knowledge for communities interested in visualizing, coding, and drawing analytical conclusions from our digital culture. My website mirrors, albeit on a small scale, Gries’s philosophical and methodological approach to her visualization. Thus, in the spirit of Gries and Sano-Franchini, my website looks at minority graphic narrative artists on two social media platforms, Instagram and Tumblr, through a shortened method of Greis’s Iconographic Tracking and Sano-Franchini’s cultural reflexivity. For the scope and purposes of this project, I focus specifically on LGBTQ graphic narrative artists and code 60 images and comic panels from 25 authors. I analyze the visual and verbal features of the texts I compiled and their relevance to how the artists choose to present themselves to readers. In other words, I examine the different genres and narrative forms these comics take and how these forms influence the artist’s rhetorical identity. I then categorize, code, and analyze this information accordingly. There are more schools of thought I would eventually like to explore with this method, such as Disability, Race, and Historiography, but in order to maintain the quality of a project this small, I have decided to narrow my focus to the four theories I mentioned in my opening sentence, visual rhetoric, social justice, genre, and embodiment. Ann Fox (2017), a disability theorist, criticizes those who would participate in the scholarly erasure of the individual and multifarious bodies which ascribe to minority labels, and I believe the same reasoning stands for the artists I have chosen to analyze. They range from Trans-identifying, Bisexual, Pansexual, Asexual, Queer, Non-Binary, Non-Labelled, and some labels they create all their own. In short, the theoretical integrity behind the nature of this project relies on remaining respectful of multifarious modes of individuality.

In this same vein of integrity, the graphic narrative genre must find a more solid academic space in our scholarship and teaching of rhetoric and composition. Pedagogically, Rebekka Anderson (2016) advocates in her article “Teaching Visual Rhetoric as a Close Reading Strategy” for the more inclusive teaching of visual interpretation, which readily corresponds with Gries’s interest in data visualization and Sano-Franchini’s cultural awareness:

Visual rhetoric taught as a close reading strategy can aid in genre transference in that students are better able to understand and respond to the different performance-oriented genres that they will encounter in academic and non-academic contexts. This strategy can also raise students’ awareness that their information experiences are always designed. When students are aware of how they are being guided to experience and comprehend information, they are better positioned to critique and, in many cases, actively shape or reshape the information designs that they encounter. (p. 35)

From this excerpt we can see how the implications of my project coincide with a digital pedagogical approach to instructing students how to more critically navigate the seemingly endless barrage of persuasive visual cues and strategies, academic or otherwise, in a digital environment.

Another reason I am interested in comic theory on a digital level is because I believe there are fascinating, vital observations and interpretations we can glean from studying how certain aspects of digital embodiment, as well as theories about comics, gender, identity, and narrative in general, are transferred, reclaimed, or completely redone when we move from a print to a solely digital platform. Another reason I would like to look at minority artists specifically is because graphic narratives/comics have traditionally held a powerful, problematic role in society, from being historically racist to unabashedly sexist. However, we are now seeing queer, disability, and other minority/marginalized artists working to rearticulate and reclaim this genre. For example, Joamette Gil (2017), whose comic series on Instagram and Tumblr, “As the Roots Undo,” relates the Afro-Cuban queer experience as a fantasy action/adventure story. This comic series effectively conceptualizes Joamette Gil’s lived experience while reinforcing the culture’s historiographic narrative.

My ultimate goal for this digital project is for us as rhetoricians, digital scholars, and critical humans to begin thinking critically about how these small rhetorical, artistic movements within the larger, deafening noise of the internet at large (or even just the other spaces of these social media platforms) adds texture to our understanding of online minority narratives and contributes to a larger awareness of the socio-rhetorical power of difference. These artists’ difference is their visual, rhetorical, and artistic strength. Visual rhetoric and data visualization hold vast rhetorical potential for us in terms of the culturally reflexive work we can perform digitally and teach our students to engage in as well. The best starting place for data literacy in the humanities, as Gries so aptly writes in her website’s conclusion, is to be collaborative and vulnerable and willing to “[enter] into a process of digital experimentation with hope for success yet also with openness toward failure.” Therefore, building a coalition of digital scholars who are willing to engage in the rigorous work of rhetorically engaging with our digital archives will only enhance our scholarship, critical purchase, and pedagogical effectiveness.

Theoretical Framework

To investigate this rhetorical situation of minority web comic artists, I must first explain the theories I am using: Genre, Embodiment, and Social Justice. How do these theories overlap with Comic theory to potentially build a usable framework for rhetorical analysis as well as data analysis? Hillary Chute (2008), a prominent comics theorist, argues there is a rhetorical meaning-making gap between what we read and what we see on any given comic panel. She says comics have a fascinating, important way of telling stories and representing history (p. 452). As a case in point, Ajuan Mance (2015), a queer, black artist who regularly participates in Afro Comicon, shares comic panels on their Instagram which describe their experiences with queer spaces in the United States from past decades, such as the 1980’s. Queer/Disability/Non-White history through graphic narrative is an artifact deserving of scholarly and classroom attention. Thus, the following three theories provide useful perspectives and interpretations that can help us better understand and teach the rhetorical situation of queer web comics, both historically and as a current, fluid entity.

In Social Justice theory, Kelly Oliver (2004) utilizes rhetorical recognition of the socially vulnerable and social justice to build her case for the implicit rhetorical nature of witnessing and testimony. These comic artists immortalize their stories in graphic narratives and these narratives in turn becomes a testimonial artifact to the embodied queer experience. Also, Carolyn Miller’s (1984) cornerstone article “Genre as Social Action” reworks traditional notions of genre as a list of rules that different texts simply “fit into,” and posits the theory of genre as a rhetorical tool, an intentional response to a perceived rhetorical situation (p. 153). These web comic artists utilize graphic narrative and the genres therein to respond to a digital situation of articulating their unique, non-normative identities. Finally, Butler (2004), a foundational pioneer of performativity theory, posits that gender is socially constructed, not assigned at birth; an individual’s gender is a result of repeated, performative, rhetorical choice. For example, the artists I drew from for my website identify with genders all over the spectrum, and they are in complete control over what gets told and how it gets told. Thus, their comics repeatedly perform gendered experiences and situations in a digital body.

As aforementioned with genre, these artists perform the graphic narrative as a social action, just like Carolyn Miller writes in “Genre as a Social Action.” Studying bodies in a digital environment complicates but also contributes to the genre-based approach of studying the actions of “everyday readers and writers” (Devitt, 2004, p.2). The artists I compiled are from various corners of the world and bring unique life experiences into their art. The autonomous nature of social media means these artists can capture their stories in their art exactly the way they want them to be told and publish them to the entire world with one click. Thus, the comic genre is a fantastically accessible avenue for writers and “everyday” bodies to share their experiences, and, with the right interpretive tools, this medium allows us as readers and fast-paced digital consumers to respond more accurately and ethically to their storytelling. For one example, which I elucidate in my data analysis on the website, these individuals must rearticulate traditional modes of memoir, such as point of view, to create space for a unique and divergent though nonetheless genuine sense of self. In this re-articulation, memory perhaps functions as one of the most important rhetorical tools, since memory allows these artists to harness agency from tragedy and hate. This digital landscape and the tools therein at these writers’ disposal gives them the opportunity to create a digital self where they have the freedom to disseminate and perform for an incredibly wide audience. By recognizing the rhetorical legitimacy and power of the graphic novel as a genre system that can uplift marginalized voices and lived experiences, scholars and readers can achieve a more advanced understanding of how to consume graphic narratives, and artists can push the generic constraints of graphic narrative even further, potentially inviting greater numbers of systematically silenced voices to participate. Graphic narratives written by individuals who inhabit spaces that reside outside of societal normalcy have a unique, artistic ability to confront the status quo and hegemonic gaze of those in power who would seek to disparage dissenting voices. Here is where pedagogical opportunity presents itself.

Pedagogical Implications

Eve L. Ewing (2017), a comic artist and sociologist at the University of Chicago, wrote in an online New York Times opinion piece, “Why Authoritarians Attack the Arts,” about the necessity of artistic resistance. “Art creates pathways for subversion,” she asserts, “for political understanding and solidarity among coalition builders. Art teaches us that lives other than our own have value...artists who occupy marginalized social positions can use their art to challenge structures of power in ways that would otherwise be dangerous or impossible.” Unfortunately, graphic novels and comics have historically been considered a juvenile, low form of art. So, when a poignant narrative comes along, it has the probability of being swept into a larger pile of generic stereotypes. However, both the burgeoning field of comic theory, as well as these minority artists are changing this narrative. Ewing finishes her New York Times piece with the haunting admonition, “We need the arts because they make us full human beings. But we also need the arts as a protective factor against authoritarianism. In saving the arts, we save ourselves from a society where creative production is permissible only insofar as it serves the instruments of power.” Thus, comic theorists and minority artists are doing important work exploring the socio-rhetorical possibilities of comics and graphic narrative. There is critical purchase to be had from studying comics, but critical purchase of a different kind than with what traditional scholars are familiar.

As instructors in the humanities, we should not neglect to teach the generic forms hatred and prejudice take in society, as well as the forms of generic resistance to this hate. These artists have a platform to, as I mentioned at the beginning, speak for themselves in a way that challenges normative and limiting discourse. They perform resistance by calling out and subverting the mainstream use of heteronormativity, sexism, racism, ableism, and patriarchal violence. Thus, graphic narrative encompasses a specific and vital type of social justice artifact, and teaching the rhetorical nature of this genre can and should be a tool for cultivating resistance reading, writing, and interpretation in the classroom as well as in larger public, counterpublic, and cultural spaces.

One interpretive reading strategy is Anis Bawarshi’s (2003) guidelines for analyzing genres in rhetoric and composition classrooms. He is concerned with invention in composition, why and how writers begin to write, and invites us to examine invention, “not only as a site for the writers’ articulation of desire, but also a site for the writers’ acquisition of desire” (p. 1-2). Following Devitt’s theories of genre as rhetorical responses to situations, Bawarshi posits genres as sites of invention: “Invention does not involve an introspective turn so much as it involves the process by which individuals locate themselves within and devise ways of rhetorically acting in various situations” (p. 114). Thus, he believes that “Genres…rhetorically place their writers in specific conditions of production” (p. 153). The digital visualizations on my website, https://laurenbearddigital.wordpress.com/data-visualizations/, show how a range of comic artists on Instagram and Tumblr utilize, subvert, reconfigure, and reclaim various modes of genre and storytelling in order to relay their embodied queer histories and experiences.

Bawarshi argues that composition instructors, instead of just constructing arbitrary limitations on what analyses can and cannot exist in an academic space, should instead encourage students to push generic boundaries by collecting diverse samples of genres, identifying and describing the contexts of their uses, describing textual patterns, and analyzing what these patterns reveal about the context in which the genre is used (p. 159). Ultimately, Bawarshi concludes that instructors “should teach students how to identify and analyze genred positions of articulation so that students can locate themselves and begin to participate within these positions more meaningfully, critically, and dexterously” (p. 146). For instance, students with disabilities can analyze the medical discourse genre and come to conclusions about ableist or eugenic language, or international students can analyze the immigration policy genre to explore its rhetorical moves and contexts. The possibility for student involvement, creation, and learning is virtually limitless.

Therefore, not only will scholars benefit from becoming more culturally reflexive by employing these rhetorical and generic methods, but students will also have a greater wealth of genres in the classroom with which to interact, which means instructors can better prepare them to navigate our generic world as critical, informed, and ethical rhetorical beings. Also, since genre has been and will continue to be an incredibly powerful force in our world, it makes sense that we recognize its potential (and potential pitfalls) from every vantage point, including the traditionally less-academic genre of graphic narrative and comic books. Hope for a less divided, less violent future starts with educated, critical readers of all genres.

References and Works Consulted

Anderson, R. (2016). Teaching visual rhetoric as a close reading strategy. Composition Studies, 44(2), 15-38.

Bawarshi, A. S. (2003). Genre and the invention of the writer. Logan, Utah: Utah State UP.

Bechdel, A. (2015). Fun home: A family tragicomic. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Butler, J. (2004). Undoing gender. New York, NY: Routledge.

Chute, H. (2008). Comics as literature? Reading graphic narrative. PMLA, 123(2), 452-465. Retrieved November 15, 2017.

Dryer, D. (2008). Taking up space: On genre systems as geographies of the possible. JAC, 28(3-4), 503-534. Retrieved November 13, 2017.

Devitt, A. J. (2004). Writing genres (Rhetorical philosophy and theory). Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press.

Ewing, E. L. (2017, April 16). "Why authoritarians attack the arts." Retrieved April 26, 2017, from https://www.nytimes.com/2017/04/06/opinion/why-authoritarians-attack-the-arts.html

Fox, A. (2017). We must be critical: The current purpose of disability studies. Disability Studies Quarterly, 37(3). http://dx.doi.org/10.18061/dsq.v37i3.5925.

Gries, L. (2016). Mapping Obama hope. Kairos, 21(2). Retrieved November 13, 2017, from http://kairos.technorhetoric.net/21.2/topoi/gries/index.html

JOAMETTE GIL. (2017). As the roots undo. [Tumblr post]. Retrieved from http://joamettegil.tumblr.com/

Mance, A. (2015, February 16). 8-rock. [Tumblr post]. Retrieved December 5, 2017, from http://8-rock.tumblr.com/post/111132221863/excerpts-from-gender-studies-a-zine-by-ajuan/htmp

Miller, C. (1984). Genre as social action. Quarterly Journal of Speech, 70(2), 151-167.

Oliver, K. (2004). Witnessing and testimony. Parallax, 10(1), 79-88.

Sano-Franchini, J. (2015). Cultural rhetorics and the digital humanities: Toward cultural reflexivity in digital making. In J. Ridolfo and W. Hart-Davidson (Eds.), Rhetoric and the Digital Humanities (pp. 49-64). Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

This text was accepted for publication after an anonymous peer review process.
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