Arts

Coping with COVID through comics

Keeping a visual diary helps these artists fight anxiety and stay connected, now more than ever.

Keeping a visual diary helps these artists fight anxiety and stay connected, now more than ever

From "Isolated but not Alone" by Gracey Zhang. First appeared in the New York Times, Op-Art. (Gracey Zhang)

Whatever happens to Gracey Zhang, she draws — and long before COVID-19 was a thing, the Canadian illustrator had packed up her sketchbooks for Europe. The plan was to produce four new children's books while living abroad. By March, however, she was quarantined in Lisbon, and though she's since made it safely back to Canada — where she'll ride things out with her family in Vancouver — her sketches from Portugal became a mini graphic novel late last month, appearing in the New York Times as part of their ongoing "Art in Isolation" project.

In "Isolated but Not Alone," Zhang's ink avatar ponders the situation while tumbling through scenes that are intimate and banal and completely familiar. These are days counted out in Zoom calls and sofa naps — middle-class vignettes that could be happening in Toronto or London or her mom's house in B.C.

"Being forced to stay inside, you realize how similar everyone is, and how people are coping within their own spaces," says Zhang. And comics are one of those self-care strategies, as countless artists like her are documenting their own slices of socially distant life.

From "Isolated but not Alone" by Gracey Zhang. First appeared in the New York Times, Op-Art. (Gracey Zhang)

Keeping a journal is a pretty classic tip for maintaining mental hygiene. And as pandemic projects go, making sense of fear and anxiety— the usual maelstrom of human emotion — is a practical endeavour, more helpful, albeit significantly less delicious, than attempting a DIY sourdough starter. 

"Journalling is just a nice way to get your thoughts out on paper — to kind of see things from the outside so it's not all swirling around in your head," says Zhang, who started her own visual diary as a kid. (Now, it's more of a notebook for developing future projects.) And like other people who make comics about their lives, she's brave enough to occasionally publish those inner thoughts, with the artistry to make an audience think and laugh and see themselves in her observations. That's a gift — perhaps especially right now. 

Feeling lonely and anxious? Make comics

Like Zhang, artist Rebecca Roher made a rushed escape from Europe last month, pulling out of a comics residency in Angoulême, France. "Being in isolation, and I'm in quarantine by myself — I don't have other people around — it's actually been such a comfort to have comics to be working on," says Roher. She made it home to Toronto in mid-March. Since then, she's been Instagramming her daily sketches.

Being forced to stay inside, you realize how similar everyone is.- Gracey Zhang, artist

"It's a pretty natural way for me to document stuff," says Roher, talking about comics. She points to some of her previous non-fiction projects by way of example: her Doug Wright Award-winning graphic novel, Bird in a Cage, and her ongoing series, One Hundred Year-Old Wisdom. She's a character in both of those — though more of an observer than a player.  

"It's been a way for me to be productive a little bit," she says, talking about her isolation diary. "I feel like I'm putting something out in the world rather than just being in that catatonic state of trying to process the news."

"Definitely, art-making is a way of processing things, and trying to have some sort of control over what I'm going through," she says. "It's a way for me to feel like I have some kind of control over things or to share and connect with others."

From Rebecca Roher's Isolation Diaries. (Rebecca Roher)

And beyond that, she's found the COVID crisis curiously inspiring. "At this point, we've got wifi. We've got food from the grocery store. Like, we have everything, but we're also in total fear," she says. Life's silly and scary all at once, and that mix is made for comics. 

"There's a lot of material here about humanity and how people handle crisis," she says. "I think there's something neat about comics where it presents as humour but actually gets really deep. It's approachable because it's goofy, but you can go deeper into the seriousness." It's the ennui of shopping for "party mix" when there's no one at home to steal the ringolos.

Need a fresh perspective? Make comics

All the "choose joy" posts on Instagram make it seem so easy, but finding the lighter side of a bad day — or a bad month — can feel impossible. For illustrator Sandra Dumais, it's a skill like any other. You've got to practise looking for good things and good material. Making comics, she says, can re-train your powers of observation.

"Writing and drawing is always a way for me to process my day, process ideas I have brewing," she says. Since going into isolation with her husband and school-aged kids, she's put her visual diaries on Instagram. "I love adding humour, even in the darkest times. Even in this!" 

It makes you collect all these perfect moments in the day and put 'em in your pocket till you sit down and draw.- Sandra Dumais, artist

Every night, Dumais draws a "fast and loose" comic about the little things she observed that day. It's something she picked up from Syllabus, a 2014 book by American comics legend Lynda Barry. Since reading it, she's made that exercise a ritual.

Sandra Dumais posts a new diary entry to her Instagram (@moonandsparrow) every day. (Sandra Dumais)

"What I love is that throughout the day I notice everything," she says. "It makes you collect all these perfect moments in the day and put 'em in your pocket till you sit down and draw."

The ugly stuff still makes the cut: panic attacks at 4 a.m., tears in the tub, endless piles of laundry. "It hits me at different times of the day," says Dumais. "Oh my god, this is happening. And I'm bringing up kids in this!"

"But I find, sometimes, by looking back at my journals I can see a pattern," she says. "Generally, we are pretty happy."

"What was great? What made us laugh? Let's do more of that."

Miss community? Make comics

She's doing more comics, for instance, and teaching people how to make their own on Instagram Live. When social distancing went into effect, Dumais started her own virtual art school, and though the class is technically for kids, she attracts students of all ages. (She goes live Tuesdays and Thursdays at 2 p.m. ET.)

Through Instagram, she's even networked with other artists doing quarantine diaries. She and another Montreal illustrator, Julie Prescesky, are both posting their journals under the hashtag #thestayathomeclub. It's a buddy system that keeps them linked across the distance.

My job as a cartoonist is to entertain people, and just make the situation a bit more lighthearted.- Cassandra Calin, artist

Connecting with people is something Cassandra Calin takes seriously, especially right now. The Montreal artist writes for an audience of 2.2 million on Instagram alone. (The full version of her comic strip appear on Tapas. They're gentle, autobiographical gags — like a sort of evolved Millennial Cathy.)

Says Cassandra Calin: "Sometimes we feel like we need a short escape. So that's what it feels like to me when I draw my comics, like I'm in my own universe." (@cassandracalin/Instagram)

"I want people to acknowledge that the situation is serious and that it's important to be aware of what's going on and to take all the precautions," she says. "But I'm trying my best to make the situation a bit less scary."

"My job as a cartoonist is to entertain people, and just make the situation a bit more lighthearted." And her audience is reciprocating the favour.

"I'm not going to lie. There's a lot of anxiety; there's a lot of what ifs," she says, but being able to interact with a community of readers is extra comforting when you're in isolation. "I draw about my life. I talk about topics that interest me and I share my experiences with others. And what's really nice about it is that I can feel connected to my audience. It's like connecting to a friend and then getting their reaction on what I have to say."

Read these comics, too

Reading quarantine comics, not just writing them, is reassuring for all these folks. Though Calin's been weaning herself off social media lately, she keeps up with a long list of cartoonists. (Christine Rai is a favourite.) Dumais and Roher are both dedicated fans of Gary Clement, a long-time political cartoonist for the National Post. Zhang's been following Roher. "Her hand, the way she works: it's really charming. I'm just a fan of her voice when it comes to how she sees things."

From Rebecca Roher's Isolation Diaries. (Rebecca Roher)

"I just think there's something really amazing happening right now where everybody is going through the same stuff," says Roher. "It's kind of like a beautiful gold mine — being able to kind of connect with other people and their experiences. It's become a sort of universal experience just because we're all going through it."

"If you're a famous comic artist, if you're a stay at home mom: every single person is experiencing this," says Dumais. "Comics are another way to connect."

CBC Arts understands that this is an incredibly difficult time for artists and arts organizations across this country. We will do our best to provide valuable information, share inspiring stories of communities rising up and make us all feel as (virtually) connected as possible as we get through this together. If there's something you think we should be talking about, let us know by emailing us at cbcarts@cbc.ca. See more of our COVID-related coverage here.

About the Author

Leah Collins is the Senior Writer at CBC Arts.

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