The Future Art of the Past? An e-panel on comics and archaeology – Part 2, edited by John Swogger

13 Mar

Featuring: Chloe Brown, Peter Connelly, Troy Lovata, Hannah Sackett, John Swogger and Al B. Wesolowsky

Click here to read part 1 of this panel.

Ancient artefacts, lost archaeological expeditions and ruins long hidden in jungles and deserts have long been part of comics heritage. From the EC Comics clichés of lost pyramids and ancient curses through to the Phantom and Adele Blanc-Sec, archaeology has long served as an inspiration for comics writers and illustrators.

It is only relatively recently that archaeologists themselves, however, have begun to use comics in a professional context. The list of published examples is not long, but includes works like Archaeology: The Comic (Johannes Loubser, 2003) and the archaeological comic ‘zine Shovel Bum (Trent DeBoer, ed., 1997 – present; collected edition, 2004).

This e-panel brings together six archaeologists, all of whom are making comics about archaeology, aimed at a wide range of audiences. Their work explores new ways of using comics as a medium for science communication.

*               *               *

Al B. Wesolowsky: Page from Trenchant Tales: Of archaeology and the absurd (unpublished, 2009)

John Swogger: Following on from Part 1, where we talked about what makes comics particularly suited to archaeology, I’d like to pick up on something Pete mentioned earlier: writing, artwork, the practice of actually creating archaeological comics.

Let’s start with an obvious question: what authors and writers have influenced you, and how do you see that interest and influence in your own work?

CB: Having read comics/graphic novels since childhood predominantly for leisure but increasingly for an appreciation of the art work, I am aware the impact and staying power of illustrations on the reader. It’s therefore an important resource in education which is yet to be fully exploited. I have been inspired by Tintin growing up, due to the vast range of mysteries covered, and the Sandman novels by Neil Gaiman, because of the depth of the subjects, storyline, development of characters and fantastic art work.

TL: I used to read many more comics than I do now. Simply keeping up with the volume of the new while finding time to revisit what once so engaged me—maybe stuff by Will Eisner or Neal Adams or Mark Schultz—or what I failed to pick up the first time around—for example, mid- to late-1990’s issues of Mad Magazine or half of James Sturm’s graphic novels or a few of Chris Ware’s monumental undertakings—is a job unto itself and I already have a full-time job as a teacher and researcher! These days I find myself dropping by the public library and ploughing through the anthologies they have on hand rather than purchasing piecemeal as things come out. This invariably means I’m slightly behind the times at best. But that seems to just be what happens when you get older. I keep reading comics because they’re so engaging.

HS: I do read comics. I try and read a variety, (I’m not obsessive about superheroes), and I would read even more if I had more money and could buy as many as I liked! I work part-time as a school librarian, so I read comics for children like The Phoenix, The Little Vampire, Tales from Outer Suburbia (Shaun Tan) and Adventure Time (Pendleton Ward), but I also read comics aimed at grown-ups. I really love the Grandville series by Bryan Talbot (in fact I love all his work). I suppose I’ve recently read a number of Jonathan Cape titles, including Days of the Bagnold Summer (Joff Winterhart), Dotter of her Father’s Eyes (Mary and Bryan Talbot) and Please God Find me a Husband (Simone Lia). I also like the SelfMadeHero publications – Sherlock Holmes (Ian Edginton and I.N.J. Culbard) and HP Lovecraft (Edginton, D’Israeli, et. al.) adaptations.

AW: Almost completely alt-comics and small-press offerings. I appreciate the appeal of superhero mainstream comics but never really have followed them. I read Eddie Campbell, Lucy Knisley (who was in my class at the Center for Cartoon Studies 2007–2009), Alison Bechdel, Joe Sacco, the late Harvey Pekar, Seth, Joe Matt, Chester Brown, Lewis Trondheim, and Guy Delisle. I also like David Collier, Kim Deitch, and Rick Geary.

Hannah Sackett: Archaeological Oddities No. 2: Silbury Hill (from Archaeological Oddities, Vol. 1; 2013)

Hannah Sackett: Archaeological Oddities No. 2: Silbury Hill (from Archaeological Oddities, Vol. 1; 2013)

JS: I hear many of the same authors and writers being name-checked here: I’m also in that same Tintin/Pogo/Joe Sacco/Alison Bechdel Venn diagram! Al, is there anything in particular about these kinds of comics creators that has had a direct impact on the work you did for that course?

AW: I note that most all of these do autobio, at least as part of their output – so that’s the immediate link with my work. I especially like Sacco’s work as a comics journalist (that is, not writing about comics but using comics as a medium for recent history and current events), and the travel comics of Knisley, Delisle, and Trondheim. I read collections of older comics, especially those by Roy Crane, John Stanley, Walt Kelly, and Carl Barks. Their range of styles is enormous (Little Lulu vs. Pogo) but their skills at storytelling and pacing are instructive and worth studying. A number of Barks’ Scrooge McDuck stories involve themes from antiquity and he brings a proper sense of wonder in these tales.

I try to bring those qualities to my own comics, to inform readers that archaeology is not just about fabulous discoveries, or being pursued by giant stone spheres or agents of the Illuminati, but more about people trying to carry out field work in places they might never have otherwise visited. Archaeologists have a curiosity about the past and its material culture that is quite at variance from the depictions of, say, the Indiana Jones stories. Our challenge can be to find interesting ways of presenting the realities of field work; my tendency is to concentrate on the human interest side of things, but comics are capable of dealing with most everything on the more scholarly side as well.

JS: And visually?

AW: Pretty much all of those comics have influenced me, not so much for artistic style (I cannot hope to match the drawing abilities of, say, Bechdel, Knisley, or Campbell) but I study how they tell their stories, how they differentiate their characters visually, and how they pace their tales. I like the way the cartoonists present themselves, often as bemused observers willing to go along for the ride (Delisle is very good at this); this approach, I think, generates both interest and goodwill on the part of the reader. The tone is not didactic or rarefied, but more of a “Hello. Want to hear a story?” feeling that makes the reader a participant in the unfolding tale.

JS: What about everyone else? What from your reading lists can you see reflected in your work?

HS: For me it’s the work of Tom Gauld (You’re all just jealous of my jetpack), Adam Murphy’s Corpse Talk and Josie Long’s Alternative Universe that have influenced Archaeological Oddities. One Girl Goes Hunting – the graphic novel about Neolithic Orkeney I’m doing with John Swogger – is more influenced by animation. I’m sure all the Tinitin and Asterix I read as a child have had an influence on me too, and they and The Beano and Mandy started my interest in comics. Comics have had a big impact on the project I’m developing with Stephanie Moser at Southampton University, as the aim is to get children drawing comics about artefacts they have encountered on museum visits.

TL: This would be the question that a skilled archaeologist of comic books would use to place me within a stratigraphy and accurately date me! Most of my stuff is clearly the by-product of a pile of poorly archived ‘zines and mini-comics combined with what so engrossed me from teenage times to early adulthood. I suspect most people simply can’t escape the influence of that stretch of years. So, for how my stuff looks and how I think visually, influences would be the Matt Feazell’s of the world on one hand and, on the other, Los Bros Hernandez first run at Love and Rockets or whatever Shawn Kerri and George Trosley had in CARtoons magazine on any given month. Not a single one is a science or archaeology comic per se. Yet shared black and white formats are clearly some of the link between the commercial and do-it-yourself publishers. These are the comics that I consumed and thought, I can do something similar with the tools and skills I have on hand. “I’ve got black pens and white paper, I can do this sort of thing.” When I became an archaeologist I fell back on those tools at various points.

JS: Hergé has been an obvious influence on my artwork, and I include a large number of ligne claire illustrators in that same category of influence, from Jacques Tardi (his Adele Blanc-Sec stories being an obviously archaeological influence, too) to Adamov. But I came to work in that style because it served the need for detail and precision rather than any specific desire to imitate the look of Tintin, per se. Moebius, for similar reasons, has been a big influence on my pen and ink work in archaeology generally. Many years ago, a film-maker described my reconstruction illustrations as “looking as if they had been drawn by Robert Crumb,” because of all the crosshatch-work in my drawings. So there’s that old sixties underground style in there as well – perhaps unsurprising given that archaeological visuals also rely heavily on black and white rather than full colour, and that most archaeological illustrators (myself included) are self-taught.

It seems fairly clear that we’re all leaning in some similar directions. There’s an obvious influence from a broad school of “adventure realism”: Hergé, Tardi, Chester Brown, the Hernandez brothers, etc. But there’s also clearly a lot of influence from the “alternative” side of the fence, both in artwork and approach to story-telling. I think it’s interesting that, with a few notable exceptions, we’re all still very much drawn to less cartoon-y, more detailed artists – and yet also to writers who are dealing with often very nuanced, alternative approaches to their storytelling: Bechdel, the Hernandez brothers, Chris Ware, etc.

This mix sounds very much like a description of archaeology itself: visually often detailed and specific, but dealing with a lot of narrative complexity.

What about some practical advice or observations about the making of archaeological comics?

Troy Lovata: from Shovel Bum #19

Troy Lovata: from Shovel Bum #19

TL: More archaeologists should shamelessly read more comics. That’s part of understanding the context I’ve previously mentioned. I’ve been approached a number of times by people wanting to collaborate on a comic or some form of illustration based on a fairly limited background in the field. They saw something in particular they really liked and want it emulated in a presentation of their own research. It’s hard for some of those folks to really express what they’re drawn to or understand why it might or might not work as they expect without more exposure. But this doesn’t mean they should sit and read up until they get the background necessary to be an expert. On the contrary, more archaeologists should also try creating comics, especially hand drawn work. Archaeologists are a fairly visual lot—this should be no surprise as they work so much with physical artifacts and on physical landscapes—and they’ve got great stories to tell. I’ve seen some engaging comics come from simply giving it a shot in very manageable circumstances. Such people aren’t going to put professional illustrators nor professional trained comics creators out of business, but they can nonetheless create valuable narratives. This means producing comics that aren’t necessarily long form. But there are niches needing to be filled by the short, the quick, and the sometimes messy.

JS: I’d like to see archaeological comics actively trying to bring the visual side of archaeological practice, data and interpretation back into the text we already produce. I’d like to see comics that restore the close interrelationship that exists in the field between image and description – regardless of whether this is talking to an external audience as education, interpretation or outreach, or talking to an internal audience as peer-reviewed data. Comics – or if not comics, then the language and lessons of comics – could bring back the sense of connection that exists as archaeological knowledge is created in the field. I’ve always thought it particularly painful to have had the experience of working in the heart of an excavation, standing in the remains of a building and seeing the chronology and building history all around you, and then later flipping back and forward through the publication between plans, plates, finds drawings and text, utterly unable to recapture that sense of connection. I think comics can bring all these disparate kinds of archaeological information together in a way that could give them so much more meaning, both to us as archaeologists, and to our various external audiences. Comics like these could challenge archaeologists to re-evaluate the effectiveness of the voices they currently use when they speak to those audiences.

AW: Yes – slice-of-life stories about field work, illustrating the conditions under which archaeologists work. Also some good introductions to ancient technologies (stone-knapping [1], ceramics, metallurgy, sculpture, architecture, astronomy, agriculture, economics, ship-building, travel) that would be suitable for students or for the general public. Such booklets could easily be site- or project-specific and could be used in reports aimed at a more popular readership. Another topic could be the history of a project, how it was formed and its goals selected, how field work was performed and information gathered, and how concurrent analysis affected the working goals and hypotheses of the project.

CB: It would be exciting to see the illustrative format become accepted as part of the archaeological recording process. An artist’s book created alongside a site report but also, comics produced to complement post-excavation analysis. This would provide a bridge between the post-excavation lab work and the excavator. It might allow issues which arise later – such as contamination of samples – to be eliminated at earlier stages, due to a deeper understanding of individual actions impacts and various protocols.

JS: I think this is an important point, and something which I think is being explored in a number of fields: the use of the comics approach to image and text – ie: bringing them together – in the actual recording of scientific data or designing field or lab protocols. I suggested a few years ago at the Visualisation in Archaeology workshop programme at Southampton University, the use of “airline safety information card” type training tools for field archaeologists to explain new sampling protocols, etc.

CB: And if Illustrating the processes and techniques used throughout the excavation process is done on site, and illustrating scientific processes employed at the post-excavation stage is done in the lab, both would then be useful in an educational context and for outreach programs.

JS: I know that in both medicine as well as in environmental and development working, people are looking at comics as a model for recording fieldwork practice and experience: as an alternative to a purely text-based record. Comics as field journals, which is something I’ve done in the Pacific.

HS: Comics in archaeology do have the potential to be really sophisticated – they can communicate complex ideas in a visually appealing and enticing fashion. I believe that comics should be drawn by people who care about and understand the medium, not just a comic/cartoon-style drawing by designers who don’t appreciate the potential of comics. I do feel, though, that education and outreach are not the limit of what comics can do in archaeology. I think that comics are endlessly versatile and can be used to do anything – to document the experience of being an archaeologist, to look at the process of making artefacts and sites, to explore theoretical ideas. Comics can (and should) find a way!

AW: There can be a didactic component based on a narrative of discovery, elements of fact and fiction (stated as such) can be used in the work, with the goal of using comics to distil and present the theoretical approaches and the findings in a report. As for biography, I can imagine a graphic version of Glyn Daniel’s Some Small Harvest, his autobiography, or Agatha Christie’s memoir Come, Tell Me How You Live. I suppose I view comics as ancillary to the formal report, with the former supplementing the latter and appealing to a wider readership, but not substituting for it.

John Swogger: Page from Barclodiad y Gawres (CADW – Welsh Government Historic Environment Service; 2014 – in press)

John Swogger: Page from Barclodiad y Gawres (CADW – Welsh Government Historic Environment Service; 2014 – in press)

JS: I think there are often big gaps between the professional and wider understanding of what it means to be an archaeologist and what it means to do archaeology: gaps between fact and fiction, between data and interpretation, between the professional report and the personal experience. The usual academic approach to publication and presentation in archaeology just doesn’t really suit the ambiguities inherent in these gaps. For example, I’m not sure where would be the best place to work out the various archaeological ramifications of the theories or obsessions of famous archaeologists whose legacies have left lasting impressions on the work of subsequent generations of scholars. These would be stories about clashing personalities, undue influences, questionable motivations. These are also stories which touch on particularly sensitive issues for archaeology: fraud, forgery, obsession. But these are also important stories which should be told. You’re very constrained in academic journals or written biographies, and these would be narratives more full of questions than anything else. Dr. Muna Al-Jawad, a geriatrician and comics creator, has identified comics in medicine as having a role to play in analysing “difficult areas of practice”. Perhaps comics might be a way of looking at some of these “difficult areas of practice” in archaeology?

PC: One interesting observation is that the large majority of comics produced by the main publishing houses are joint productions, e.g., there could be a writer, a penciller, an inker, a colourist, a letterer and an editor all involved with the publication of one issue. Whereas, as far as I am aware, the large majority of archaeological comics have been produced by sole operators. I am aware that the example given above is as much an economies of scale issue as anything else and the large publication house production line could be streamlined to writer and artist. However, there may some weakness in archaeological comics produced by a single person and this may need to be investigated more.

JS: That’s an interesting observation, Pete, and I think fertile ground for another round of discussion entirely. We haven’t talked a lot about the “drawing board” practicalities, if you like, of producing archaeological comics. I think there are a lot of questions about time, training, writing and visual approaches to data and so on, that would be extremely interesting to discuss further at some point.

I’d like to thank my panel colleagues: Pete, Hannah, Al, Troy and Chloe for taking part, and also Ian Hague and Comics Forum for hosting our discussion.

*               *               *

Chloe Brown is a Fine Arts graduate, currently studying for an MSc in Bioarchaeology at the University of York whilst forming an archaeological illustration business. She is producing her first archaeological comics this summer based on experiences working both in the lab and the field.

Peter Connelly is Director of Archaeology at York Archaeological Trust and a Trustee of the Council of British Archaeology. He was Director of York’s Hungate excavations for five years and has a wide range of experience in large-scale public archaeology. He’s not a comic creator (yet), but has long been a reader of Silver Age and independent comics.

Troy Lovata is Associate Professor of Archaeology at University of New Mexico Honours College. He has been a long-time contributor of comics to the archaeological ‘zine Shovel Bum, and produced part of his PhD defence in the form of a comic. His book Inauthentic Archaeologies: The Public Uses and Abuses of the Past, was published by Left Coast Press in 2007.

Hannah Sackett received a PhD in landscape archaeology from Leicester University, and is is currently developing a project on visual narrative and the reception of museums with Pr. Stephanie Moser at the University of Southampton. She has published papers on the use of land in eighteenth and nineteenth century Buckinghamshire, bronze age rock carvings in Norway, and archaeology in the writings of Lewis Grassic Gibbon. She is the creator of the Archaeological Oddities comics, and is collaborating with John Swogger on a graphic novel set in Neolithic Orkney.

John Swogger has been an archaeological illustrator for almost twenty years, working for small archaeological units, museums, excavation projects and as a freelance illustrator. For ten years he was site illustrator for the Çatalhöyük Research Project in Turkey. He has produced comics for education and interpretation projects in the UK (Bryn Celli Ddu, Barclodiad y Gawres, Llyn Cerrig Bach – CADW), the Caribbean (Archaeology in the Caribbean – Carriacou Island Archaeology Project) and the Pacific Islands (Palau: An archaeological field journal), and has written comics about the use of comics in archaeology to the Society for American Archaeology.

Al B. Wesolowsky is the retired Managing Editor of the Journal of Field Archaeology and the current Art Editor of the same publication. He received the MFA from the Center for Cartoon Studies, White River Junction, Vermont, in 2009. He has an extensive background in excavation in Texas and the Balkans and creates comics based on his experiences in the field.

[1] – Knapping: the process of turning a piece of stone into a tool.

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Posted by on 2014/03/13 in Guest Writers


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