In her comics rendition of the planet earth, Emily Steinberg’s Ring The Bells evokes a sense of optimism that should serve as a glimmer of hope during the Covid-19 pandemic. The questions, targeted towards the reader, are calls to action: “Can we reboot?”; “Can we be smarter?”. The premise is that the lack of human locomotion has somehow made the earth greener and a much better place to live in.

But Susan Sontag begs to differ. Though not alive, she is enlivened by the deft artistry of Eric Kostiuk Williams in his COVID & Its Metaphors comics. Such notions, Sontag educates us, are not only unhelpful in curing those infected by the virus but also advances faux ideals. These two comics, published within a month of each other, offer divergent views, suggestive of the vast range of opinions about the pandemic through comics.

Unlike the limited responses to the influenza scare of 1918-19, such as in Bud Fisher’s Mutt and Jeff and Edwina Dumm’s Cap Stubbs and Tippie, responses to Covid-19 in the form of comics are burgeoning on both traditional and non-traditional platforms. While comics reflects social mores, through subversion, irony, and gallows humour it also exposes the cultural biases that structure the very social fabric that we inhabit.

There’s more: comics have been at the forefront in educating, edifying, and documenting the way we deal with this humanitarian crisis. They have been capturing the intricate stories, the agonies of existence and the new terms of engagement in immediate and visceral ways. Unlike other media, comics are engaging, colourful and compelling,which is why they have been grabbing attention relatively effortlessly.

The iconography of Covid-19

A grey sphere with red spikes – an image published by America’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention – is the coronavirus for many of us. In striking contrast, comics have imagined the virus as a hero, as an otherworldly creature, as an alien, and, predictably, as a villain.

Sample this: in Randall Munroe’s xkcd comics, the viruses are stolid creatures suspended in air. In Jen Sorensen’s Coronavirus Spring Break, they are imagined as pack hunters, preying on the naivete of some who have defied safety measures for political reasons. And in Nagraj Strikes: The Attack of Coronaman, Covid-19 is imagined as a monster invading an Indian city.

An Indian spin on the superhero motif, this particular comic restates the importance of quarantining, social distancing and washing hands as the only superpowers which will vanquish Covid-19. Such creative imaginings of the virus are a product of – and express – the broader cultural anxieties and debates concerning the pandemic.

Straightening the record

To many, the coronavirus is “the Chinese virus.” In particular, the Chinese city of Wuhan has been the victim of racist misinformation. To dispel such notion, Laura Gao’s autobiographical web comic, The Wuhan I Know, presents the rich history and the unrivalled street food of her city, Wuhan.

Gao weaves a visual tapestry highlighting important events in the history of the city, such as the Wuchang Uprising of 1911, and landmark architectural sites. The comic later delves deeper into the unparalleled street food of Wuhan (from hot dry noodles to “insanely spicy” duck necks) to resist the idea that the coronavirus originated from the wet markets in Wuhan.

In the process, Gao, a product developer for Twitter, persuades her readers to move “beyond the blur of headlines,” as she puts it. Similarly, the hashtag #IAmNotAVirus created by French Asians is aimed at spurring artwork and comics to fight racism against Asians.

Diagnosing metaphors

Medical professionals are the new superheroes. Consider a comic where Superman, a symbol of strength, compassion and hope, presents his cape and his “S” insignia to a baffled medical worker. Or sample the one by Norwich comics artist MJ Hiblen, Our Avenger, where a medical worker is reimagined as a combat-ready superhero equipped with a shield, courageously facing the monstrous coronavirus. Although such metaphors motivate the frontline workers, they also, on the flip side, create huge and perhaps unnecessary expectations from medical professionals.

War is another prominent metaphor. Alice Bellchambers’ poster comic titled Your country needs you to stay at home revives the “Your Country Wants You” poster of Lord Kitchener, the British Secretary of State for War during World War I. However, the very idea of ideal citizenry stands transformed here: it is the inaction of citizens that will win the war.

New terms of engagement

Comic artists have tapped into gallows humour to reflect the upside down world created by Covid-19. Their work dives into the new normal, highlighting everything from hoarding to video-calling applications. Famed cartoonist Roz Chast has drawn a house where an unusual number of toilet paper rolls along with other essentials are stocked in large numbers, suggesting panic buying and hoarding.

The panic that permeates through the comic resonates with what the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek discusses in his book PANDEMIC!: COVID-19 Shakes the World: that this panic has a logic of its own which even normalises hoarding toilet paper rolls. A similar sentiment of adapting to new ways is expressed by Grace Farris in her Instagram comic, where crafting, watching TV and horoscopes has become the new coping mechanism for wading through the pandemic.

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On a different note, Gemma Correll’s hilarious Creativity in Captivity describes her personal experiences during quarantine. In one particular panel, her goal of reading more novels during the quarantine is derailed owing to her incessant refreshing of her mobile news app “every 30 seconds.”

An Indian tale

In India, comics have become a crucial medium for information, entertainment, coping via humour and political commentary. A comic booklet released by the Indian Government titled Kids, Vaayu & Corona: Who wins the fight? targets children below the age of twelve who may not be “able to comprehend the talk” among adults about Coronavirus.

In a lighter vein, an episode of Brown Paperbag’s That’s My Queue To Leave shows how a protagonist’s attempt at complying with public safety protocols when shopping receives a jolt. The comic invites attention to the need for increased collective effort towards ensuring social distancing. From documenting the lack of travel facilities for migrants to the inadequate stimulus package, many of the cartoons published during the pandemic in India are quick-witted, biting and stone-smart.

Sathyaraj Venkatesan is an Associate Professor and a comics enthusiast teaching at National Institute of Technology, Tiruchirappalli. His forthcoming book, his fifth, is on comics and medicine.

S Yuvan, an alumnus of NIT Trichy, works in the education industry.

This series of articles on the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on publishing is curated by Kanishka Gupta.