Weathering This World with Comics
Comics and graphic novels can take us to new worlds and help us see our next-door neighbors in a new light. Whether a teenager encountering monsters out of Mexican folklore or an investigative journalist following the tracks of a new alien species, comics and graphic novels have always been a home for unlikely heroes confronting injustice and trying to save the world. Through beautifully crafted stories and images, writers and artists react to environmental changes around them and dream of new ways to live on earth—and beyond! The following recommendations cover just a fraction of the many exciting environmental comics and graphic novels out there. If you don’t see your favorite, pitch us a future post about it!
Strange Weather We’re Having
Lauren Redniss, Thunder and Lightning: Weather Past, Present, Future (Random House, 2015)
Thunder & Lightning presents a series of weather vignettes that contain both the extreme—the book begins with the story of a flooded Vermont cemetery, “graves unburied” and dispersed by Hurricane Irene into neighboring fields—and the enchanting. One chapter, “Sky,” consists entirely of elusive fragments of skies in watercolor. Flipping through pages of cumulus and cirrus clouds, readers might begin to share Daisy Buchanan’s affectionate fantasy: “I’d like to just get one of those pink clouds and put you in it and push you around.”
But these clouds do not happen in a vacuum. The landscapes and people Redniss depicts are marked by climate change, war, and colonialism, a bassline of tension that informs the tones of stories she tells, the tenor of her images, and the techniques she employs. As in Redniss’s previous graphic novel Radioactive, the processes and materials she uses to create these striking images are thoughtfully chosen. Her two printmaking techniques, copper plate photogravure etchings and photopolymer process, are meant to invoke the tradition of “artists working in the name of science” to produce beautifully precise representations of specimens like the head of a flamingo or the American cowslip. Thunder & Lightning celebrates how weather can be at once scientific and surreal. —Laura Perry
Philippe Squarzoni, Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science (Abrams ComicArts, 2014)
Simultaneously intimate and sweepingly global in scope and scale, Climate Changed follows the author as he translates the often-abstract, always-overwhelming science of global warming into a compelling narrative punctuated by moments of memory and self-reflection. The graphic novel chronicles the author’s personal life as he grapples with individual accountability in the Anthropocene. Squarzoni interweaves testimony from leading scientists, economists, and journalists, a dizzying tableau of visual motifs that indict contemporary consumer culture (take for example, the menacing figure of Santa Claus looming over a Times Square bedecked in advertisements for fast food, cellphones, soft drinks, and gasoline), and meditations on storytelling. Since its original publication, the 2015 Paris Agreement, the Trump administration’s stated intention to withdraw from that accord, and the United Nations’s grim 2018 climate report have amplified the sense of urgency surrounding climate crisis. But that doesn’t mean Squarzoni’s work has lost its relevance. An accessible text, Climate Changed is perfect for anyone who wants to learn a little (or a lot) more about the science behind global warming. —Carl Thompson
Here There Be Monsters
Chris Dingess, Matthew Roberts, and Owen Gieni, Manifest Destiny (Image Comics, 2013-ongoing)
When George Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon, a renowned eighteenth-century French naturalist, proposed that North America’s climate rendered its animals small and feeble, Thomas Jefferson took the insult personally. Jefferson pointed to species like the moose, the panther, and the mastodon as proof of Buffon’s error and even shipped specimens to France so he would recant. Though Buffon’s theories would fall out of favor by the end of the century, Jefferson remained obsessed with America’s megafauna; and so, when Meriwether Lewis and William Clark embarked to map the Louisiana Territory in 1804, he quietly requested that they find proof that the mastodon still roamed the land. Manifest Destiny takes this secret assignment as its central premise and runs with it. Though Lewis expresses skepticism early on, he soon discovers that the frontier is filled with more frightening monsters than the mastodon. Manifest Destiny is a reflection on settler colonialism and its effects on the natural world: the practice of surveying not only renders the frontier legible to the nation but also begins to transform it into something deemed safe and accessible for Anglo inhabitation. Though Lewis and Clark are ostensibly the heroes of the saga, the reader can’t help but cheer as the peoples, the land, the flora and fauna they encounter fight back against the machinery of imperialism. —Carl Thompson
Eric M. Esquivel and Ramon Villalobos, Border Town (Vertigo Comics, 2018-ongoing)
The comic series Border Town is, as its creators put it, like “Scooby Doo, but Mexican.” The series is set in Devil’s Fork, Arizona, a small desert city fraught with deep racial divisions, violent anti-immigrant sentiments, and a steady flow of demons, gods, and monsters from Mictlan, the Aztec underworld. These creatures out of Mexican folklore appear as whatever each Devil’s Fork resident fears most: an armed ICE officer, a neo-Nazi carrying a tiki torch, an “urban teenager” wearing a hoody, the Batman villain Bane. Writer Eric M. Esquivel and artist Ramon Villalobos drew on their personal experiences of growing up Mexican American in the U.S. to inform their stories about monsters in the borderlands and the boundaries that divide us. In a place where the school board threatens to cut the art teacher’s health care and key her car when they learn of her plan to teach the work of a Latinx artist, the violence of racism manifests not only in the fenced landscape but also in the bodies, psyches, and imaginations of the people who live there. —Laura Perry and Addie Hopes
Charles Burns, Black Hole (Penguin Random House, 2008)
Set in 1970’s U.S. suburbia, Charles Burns’s Black Hole chronicles the lives of four main characters (Chris, Rob, Keith, and Eliza) as an insidious sexually transmitted disease—vaguely termed “The Bug”— spreads among the town’s teenagers. The Bug manifests itself differently in everyone. Some can easily hide their new physical anomalies. But others develop boils, antennas, tails, and gills as physical “proof” of their illness, and they are forced to find shelter in a forest on the outskirts of town. Over the course of the book, all four characters contract The Bug and move out to the encampment. While the forest is a strange and frightening place of “exile” for the suburban teens, it is also a safe haven, removed from the prying eyes of those left unscathed.
A tale about growing up in the midst of the AIDS epidemic, Black Hole sheds light on the less obvious monsters of the moment: those who prefer to live in ignorant bliss of others’ suffering. His drawing style—precise and colorless, dominated by black ink, and reminiscent of woodblock prints—throws into relief the clear “us-and-them” distinction enforced by the uninfected. Burns’s artistry is quite stunning: each boil and tentacle is made perfect through Burns’s impeccable attention to detail. He insists on the beauty of these bodies, marking his refusal to follow the townspeople’s fear and distrust of the “impure.” —Tori Yonker
Environmental Justice Is Social Justice
Mat Johnson and Simon Gane, Dark Rain: A New Orleans Story (Vertigo Comics, 2011)
Dark Rain tells a story that is a compelling mix of crime, disaster, and environmental injustice. Set in New Orleans, the comic follows two men who plan to rob a bank by taking advantage of the city-wide disarray after Hurricane Katrina. Writer Mat Johnson uses their attempted heist to address the failure of public institutions to care for those left devastated by the storm, financial corruption in the banking industry, and the cruelty of private security firms tasked with protecting businesses at the expense of human lives. Standing in knee-deep water, one of the would-be bank robbers pleads with private security guards to allow him to look for bandages in a pharmacy to help an injured woman he’s met. The guards refuse and beat him, telling him: “This isn’t the place to come for handouts.” Like Johnson’s other work, which takes on issues such as chattel slavery (HellBlazer: Papa Midnite), lynching (Incognegro), and gentrification (Hunting in Harlem), Dark Rain incriminates the larger social and economic institutions that perpetuate racial violence and environmental injustice. —Laura Perry
Ann Nocenti and David Aja, The Seeds (Dark Horse, 2018)
Writer Ann Nocenti and award-winning artist David Aja join forces in the dark four-part science fiction series The Seeds. The series follows what’s left of the dying planet after climate change and devastating pollution forces humans to survive in two environmentally condemned zones, separated by a militarized wall: Zone A, where wealthy urbanites rely on advanced technology and social media to ease growing melancholia; and Zone B, a lawless district where inhabitants shun tech altogether. When Astra, a young journalist, encounters an alien sent to collect the last “seeds” of human biological material, she must venture into the hostile Zone B to investigate the alien’s mission. Nocenti’s writing is deliberately dissonant, disorienting readers by layering many voices and alternating between the superficial chatter of social media and philosophical ramblings. Visually, The Seeds captures a bleak, apocalyptic landscape. The hexagonal motif David Aja includes throughout the series, for example, evokes beehives and the anxiety surrounding declining pollinator populations. Despite the dark comic’s portrayal of apathy, it is also a love story. Nocenti’s heroine, Aja’s artwork, and the bees refuse to dwell in total indifference. —Molly Barnewitz
Hayao Miyazaki, Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (English edition, Viz Media, 2004)
While Hayao Miyazaki is probably best known in the U.S. as the creative force behind Studio Ghibli, the Japanese animation studio responsible for such critically acclaimed films as Spirited Away (2001) and Howl’s Moving Castle (2004), the celebrated animator has maintained an equally successful career writing manga. In Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (a series that was also adapted to film in 1984), Miyazaki tells the story of a future land ravaged by pollution and war. The heroine, Nausicaä, has carefully studied the Sea of Corruption—an enormous, creeping forest filled with deadly fungi and insects—and demonstrates an ability to empathize with some of its inhabitants. As she begins to realize that the monstrous forest is not all it seems, she is called to fight in the looming war that threatens her tiny city-state. Evidently inspired by decades of pollution in Kyushu’s Minamata Bay that caused widespread mercury poisoning in the 1950s and ’60s, Miyazaki uses his story to draw attention to industrial overreach, the plight of climate refugees, the ethics of environmental engineering, and the relationship between patriarchy and environmental disaster. —Carl Thompson
Warren Ellis and Darick Robertson, Transmetropolitan, Vol. 1 (Vertigo Comics, 2009)
Reaching a few centuries into the future, Transmetropolitan follows journalist Spider Jerusalem through The City—a polluted dystopia marked by cracked streets, exposed pipes, and neon signs. Spider, a punky tattooed nod to the gonzo-esque era of journalism, despises The City with its two-headed cigarette-smoking cats, poisonous run-off, and stark class divisions that relegate some to the slums while the 1% live in luxury. In this beautifully ugly comic series, Warren Ellis reminds us that the environment of The City is inseparably intertwined with the corruption of the state. Reigning president “The Beast” epitomizes exploitation, and Spider tells him so: “You pissed in the economy, you shat on the law and wiped your ass on the truth.” Spider is the outspoken, anti-establishment pot-stirrer many of us wish we could be as he asks questions we have yet to answer: Can we ever escape the destruction of capitalism? How, and when, do we even begin to fight against social and environmental injustices wrought by the beastly upper echelons of the state? In the spirit of Spider, we might only have one (figurative) bullet, but that doesn’t mean we can’t figure out a way to make it count. —Tori Yonker
What’s Left When We’re Gone
Martin Vaughn-James, The Cage (Coach House Press, 1975)
A surreal fusion of poetry and comics, Martin Vaughn-James’s 1975 The Cage pictures urban ruins, the flux of time, and humanity’s hubris in the face of mortality. The Cage reduces our species’ legacy to the landscapes and the objects that we’ve left behind—crumbling pyramids, a decaying gas station, and chaotic, ink-soaked bedrooms with chairs suspended mid-air. Vaughn-James’s intricate architectural images and fragmented, repetitive language create an alternating sense of lethargy and urgency as the remnants of human existence fray. The graphic novel avoids true horror, but images of cracking walls and frozen furniture overtaken by plants, as well as the menacing barbed wire cage itself, give The Cage an uncanny, Kafkaesque atmosphere. Vaughn-James meditates on the ephemeral, proposing that humanity’s drive to record our existence is futile. The desolate space hints at a quickly approaching time when human life on Earth will no longer be sustained, which gains new resonances for readers in today’s rapidly warming world. —Molly Barnewitz
Richard McGuire, Here (Raw, 1989; Pantheon Books, 2014)
Influential for generations of comic artists because of its groundbreaking approach to time and narrative structure, Richard McGuire’s Here is also noteworthy for its depiction of environmental change, loss, and regrowth. Originally published as a short comic strip in 1989 and later expanded into a book-length full-color edition and an interactive e-book, Here experiments with panel arrangements to create overlapping timelines within a single frame. The images record the transformations of one spot in what is now, what was once, and what will be New Jersey, the site of McGuire’s childhood home. The environmental resonances of this time travel become especially clear in the newer editions, which frequently broaden the horizons of the stories told to include thousands of years before and after humans inhabit the area. The imaginative chronology of Here promises both disasters that may mean the end of our existence and, in 22,175 AD, brilliantly colorful hummingbirds. —Laura Perry
Featured image: A page from Thunder & Lightning: Weather Past, Present, Future by Lauren Redniss. Image appears courtesy of Lauren Redniss.
Molly Barnewitz graduated with an M.A. in Comparative Literary and Cultural Studies from the University of Utah in 2016. Their thesis, “The Animal As Queer Act in Comics: Queer Iterations in On Loving Women and Nimona” underscores the potential for comics to portray LGBTQ+ identities. Molly is a currently staff writer for ComicsVerse.com where they focus on queer representation and ecocriticism in pop culture. Contact.
Laura Perry is a Ph.D. candidate in Literary Studies at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, a graduate associate at the Center for Culture, History, and Environment, and a member of the Edge Effects editorial board. Her research focuses on animals and suburban development in twentieth-century American literature. Her article about environmental graphic novels, “Anthroposcenes,” was published in C21 Literature in February 2018. Her most recent contribution to Edge Effects is “The Animals’ Guide to History: A Conversation with Stephanie Rutherford and Shari Wilcox” (August 2018). Twitter. Contact.
Carl Thompson is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of English at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. His research interests are in nineteenth-century U.S. American literature and the environmental humanities, and his dissertation project examines the role that land surveyors played in shaping discourses of sustainability, land use, and citizenship into the present day. Contact.
Tori Yonker is a Ph.D. student in the Department of English at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. Her work focuses on the haptic interplay between the sonic and the visual through the formal lens of comics studies. Tori is particularly committed to injecting the theoretical lenses of black feminist studies and Asian American studies into her readings of 20th-century American comics. Her firsthand experience in curatorship and studio arts allows for a combining of theory and praxis, an essential exercise for our contemporary moment. Contact.