Why graphic novels could be an antidote to 'doom scrolling'

Graphic novels and comic books have a long history of dealing with tough subject matter — from war to genocide. With traumatic imagery appearing on news feeds every day, this unique medium can provide a way of developing a better understanding of violence, experts say.

With social media delivering images of violence at a rapid pace, graphic novels can allow us to slow down

In the last few decades, comic books have emerged as a serious topic of study for many scholars in the field of trauma studies. Vanni, left, by Benjamin Worku-Dix and illustrator Lindsay Pollock, covers the civil war in Sri Lanka, while Maus, right, by Art Spiegelman, who has won a Pulitzer prize for his work, is about the Holocaust. (Penn State University Press, Pantheon)

*Originally published on June 7, 2021.

With so many of us forced indoors during the pandemic, social media is more dominant in our lives. Over the last two years, we have watched traumatic events and their aftermath unfold through our screens — from the murder of George Floyd to the more recent events in Gaza and Israel. 

While these images have helped to heighten peoples' awareness of social issues, the continued dissemination of tough news has culminated in a new term: "doom scrolling" — or peoples' desire to seek out bad news and scroll through their news feeds on social media without pause

In this new term, there is a suggestion of a kind of numbness at the core of encounters with trauma — the idea that the rapid distribution of images of disaster runs the risk of creating desensitization in some cases.

"We've got a particular penchant, I suppose, for disaster, and we're talking here about primarily people or primarily audiences in the global north who tend to ... scroll through their phones looking at news stories from all around the globe," said Dom Davies, a senior lecturer in English at City, University of London.

But Davies believes that comics — or graphic novels — can offer an antidote to what he sees as the contemporary barrage of images.

In 2020, Dom Davies co-edited a collection of essays with Candida Rifkind about how comics have been used to retell traumatic stories. (Submitted by Dom Davies, Palgrave Macmillan)

Davies studies the representation of trauma in comics and graphic novels. He argues that we need to devise new visual strategies in a digital landscape saturated with horrific imagery, and that comics might provide a new way telling traumatic stories. 

"What we have is too many pictures of our people without names: pictures of trauma that are deprived of that context, and that actually we need to devise new visual strategies for … seeing differently," Davies said. 

Davies argues that comics help to resist a digital environment saturated with traumatic imagery. "Comics really do slow that down and break apart that visual system," he said. 

The architecture of comics

In her famous essay collection On Photography, philosopher Susan Sontag claimed that photographs deprive people of the before and after of their experiences. 

"To take a photograph is to participate in another person's mortality, vulnerability, mutability," Sontag wrote in 1977. "Precisely by slicing out this moment and freezing it, all photographs testify to time's relentless melt."

In so doing, as Sontag claims, photographs have a perceived objectivity that is so often negligent toward the contexts surrounding an event or a person's story. 

But, by offering up illustrated still frames in sequence, experts say comics can offer something different. 

"What always fascinated me so much about the form of comics in contradistinction to a photograph, for example, is the way it could put different time frames or temporality, as I like to think of it, together in one space," said Hillary Chute, a professor of English, and Art and Design, at Northeastern University in Boston. 

Hillary Chute's books, including Disaster Drawn: Visual Witness, Comics, and Documentary Form, have been influential in comics studies. (Kris Snibbe)

"A reason that comics have seized the popular imagination in the way they have in the past handful of decades is because they acknowledge the inadequacy of their own representations through, for example, the whitespace of the gutter or through the transparency of a little two-inch-high drawing box sitting next to another little two-inch redrawn box," said Chute, who is also a comics and graphic novel columnist for The New York Times Book Review

The "gutter" refers to the white space between comics panels. Comics theorist Scott McCloud argues that the gutter is where the reader inserts themselves into a narrative — they have to assemble the images as they read. 

The reader has to actively communicate with an artist's creation. It's through their own awareness that their representation is not necessarily objective that observers say comics have an advantage over other mediums. 

"I think the fact that we have a relationship … between the artist and the thing that's being witnessed inscribed in the page in the very form of the hand drawing is particularly powerful protection against that kind of voyeuristic consumption of traumatic or traumatised culture," Davies said. 

Transcending constraints

More and more, comics are becoming a means of telling traumatic stories from across the globe — and can so often transcend the constraints of traditional media, such as photography, videos or print reporting. 

Benjamin Worku-Dix founded an organization called PositiveNegatives. Between 2004 and 2008, he worked as a communications and liaison manager for the UN in Sri Lanka. 

After escaping from the wartorn region, he returned to England, where he experienced PTSD. 

"I was completely disorientated," he said."I left on the evacuation on the 16th of September 2008, and by the 21st of September, five days later, I was in London and I could just hear the screams, the explosions of what I had left."

In 2019, Benjamin Worku-Dix and illustrator Lindsay Pollock published Vanni. It's the story of a family's struggle through the Sri Lankan civil war. (Submitted by Benjamin Worku-Dix, Penn State University Press)

His experiences led him to found his organization, which creates comics out of the traumatic stories from people all over the world. The organization interviews survivors, creates comics out of their testimony mostly using artists that share the interviewee's cultural background and then sends them for approval from the interviewee.

In 2015, Worku-Dix went to Norway to interview a Syrian refugee called Khalid. PositiveNegatives went on to collect three stories from refugees in a trilogy called A Perilous Journey. (PositiveNegatives)

"With the illustrated form ... you can transcend time and space and emotion, so you can actually go inside someone's head," Worku-Dix told Ideas' Nahlah Ayed. 

"All that trauma you can draw kind of looming in a cloud above their head, which is really interesting when you're dealing with such topics like conflict and migration."

Images and revolution

But these observations are not to say that photographs or videos have no utility whatsoever. With scores of people worldwide forced indoors because of the pandemic, digital media have come to govern our lives more — and in some cases has inspired movements. 

More than a year ago, Floyd's murder at the hands of Minneapolis police roused worldwide protest. 

The video of Floyd's death, where former police officer Derek Chauvin was captured kneeling on the man's neck, was circulated rapidly online and through broadcast outlets. 

"We only have to point to the events of last summer with the death of George Floyd to be quite clear that images or videos can start revolutions still," Davies said. "The idea that somehow photography and video, and visual culture more generally, has entered into a kind of banal, redundant stage is not correct."

More recently, tensions in Gaza and Israel have produced images that have galvanized condemnation — with many taking to social media to voice their views of the conflict. 

Yet, for Davies, the endless barrage of traumatic images from different disasters worldwide so often deprives the viewer of context, leading to political inaction. 

"That kind of cultural milieu ... taken as a whole doesn't give us any sort of political grounding. It doesn't say to us, 'this is what this means, this particular act of violence,'" he said. 

'Serious' comics

Comics or graphic novels have long been a medium through which to discuss traumatic events. 

I Am Alfonso Jones, written by Tony Medina and co-illustrated by Stacey Robinson and John Jennings in 2017, explores themes of systemic racism in the United States through the fictional account of a boy's death at the hands of the police.

In the 1990s, comics journalist Joe Sacco published his work Safe Area Goražde. It follows his reporting and exploration of the Bosnian War. (Jonathan Cape)
Tony Medina is an American poet and academic. His work I am Alfonso Jones is aimed at younger readers, and explores themes of systemic racism and police violence. (Lee & Low Books)

In North America, the origins of comics about traumatic subjects can be found in Art Spiegelman's Maus, which was serialized between 1980 and 1991. It was the story of his Polish parents surviving Auschwitz anchored in the broader narrative of Spiegelman's troubled relationship with his father, Vladek.

Spiegelman became the first, and only, comics artist to win a Pulitzer Prize. Famously, Spiegelman chose to portray the Jews as mice and the Germans as cats.

Throughout Maus's narrative, the character of Art Spiegelman interviews his father, a survivor of the Auschwitz death camp. The narrative flips between time periods, exploring the rise of fascism in 1930s Europe to Art's life in New York City in the 1970s and 1980s. (Pantheon Graphic Library/Penguin Random House)

For Spiegelman, comics offer a means of dealing with his family's traumatic past. 

"Reality is just too complex," he said to Ayed. "I find that it's possible to deal with some of that complexity by the rigours of what comics offers as a medium, which is that the drawing has to be rather stripped down in order to fit in little boxes."

Art Spiegelman's Maus had a profound impact on trauma studies. (Enno Kapitza, Pantheon)

Through creating Maus, Spiegelman has been able to be in touch with a past for which he was not present. 

"I think it puts me in touch with the actual catastrophe, because the amount of visualization necessary is pretty high," he said. "One has to invest it with emotion, with personality, with the specifics of the objects and the world that it's taking place in."

WATCH | Art Spiegelman recounts memories of his mother:

Art Spiegelman recounts memories of his mother

1 year ago
Duration 1:18
Pulitzer Prize winning comics artist Art Spiegelman's mother was a prisoner in Auschwitz. He remembers a moment from his childhood where she talked about one of her experiences.

About the author

Oliver Thompson is producer at CBC Radio, and a writer and musician.


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