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Watching History

The 5th/60th Rifles at Whittington Castle.

Britain at war with Europeans over the future of a continent-sized polity? No, not the slow-motion car-crash of Brexit – but a Napoleonic re-enactment at Whittington Castle at the weekend. British and French armies met below the battlements, giving firing demonstrations, showing off their kit and uniforms, doing parade drills and – to wrap the whole thing up – re-enacting part of the siege of Almeida. It was a spectacular display: big enough to make the volley fire really echo around the village, but with groups small enough so that you could walk around and talk to everyone who was taking part.

Re-enactments like this are part of the whole idea that history can be “brought to life” – that past lifeways and behaviours can be reconstructed in the present. Archaeology is often a lot more interested in the material remains themselves than this phenomenological engagement, but the process of archaeological interpretation now owes a fair amount to such ideas. Experimental archaeology validated the logic of re-enactment by demonstrating that archaeological features and artefacts are understood differently when the life-histories of structures or items of daily use are replicated and studied. Construction, use, re-use, discard and deposition take on new meanings when observed first-hand.

Watching history “come to life” – whether a Napoleonic siege or a neolithic flint-knapper – is part and parcel of public interaction with “the past”. Most non-archaeologists engage with the past much more readily when seen as a series of lived moments and used objects. Allowing artefacts, features, sites and monuments to tell their stories by making their life-histories visible is key to successful engagement with public and non-specialist audiences. Even when those narrative life-histories are incomplete or compromised, they importantly still communicate the past as real and lived – more present and more relevant.

For more on Whittington Castle events, check out their Facebook page.
For more on the 5th/60th Rifles, check out their website, and find photos from the Whittington siege at their Facebook page.

Bio-Energy: The Comic

Swogger - Visions of the Future - final 6

A Vision of the Future? Page from my section of Supergen’s bioenergy comic.

This week sees the launch of another project I’ve been working on since Christmas – an informational comic about bioenergy, sponsored by Supergen Bioenergy, an industry research consortium.

The project is the brainchild of James McKay – engineer and 2000 AD comics artist (not often those two descriptors feature in the same biography). He’s probably best known in the comics world for his work on the 2000 AD series Flesh, but he’s also the creator of the bande-desinée La Cité des Secrets (Mosquito, 2007). James is also the man behind the Dreams of a Low Carbon Future (I & II) project – a two-part illustrated and comic book exploring the technologies and social changes necessary to create a sustainable, low-carbon way of life in the twenty-first century. I drew several large illustrations for the second volume, and through that was invited by James to contribute to the bioenergy comic.

The Bio-Energy comic is a similar project – but focused primarily on providing good, solid background information about bioenergy – What is it? How is it used? What does it cost? etc. – and combining that with some future scenarios to show how different ways of adopting and using bioenergy technology might shape the next 60-80 years.

Five comics people were involved: myself, James, comics illustrators Corban Wilkin and Emma Chinnery, and comics writer Ben Dickson; I found myself in the company of some very talented people! The project has been extremely interesting – not least for the complexity of the subject matter, and the long, workshop-based back-and-forth that was required to turn that into something more accessible and engaging; but also the process of working with four other creative minds all of whom have very different backgrounds in comics to myself, and consequently approach both the drawing and the writing of them very differently. It has been a hugely rewarding experience, and if anyone out there making a start in the world of comics has an opportunity to work on a collaborative project – don’t let it slip away! You’ll learn far more than you ever imagined. Making comics can be a very solitary enterprise, and seeing how other people do it is invaluable.

The Bio-energy comic is being launched this week in Manchester at a special Supergen event, and will be generally available soon.

NAGPRA & Comics

NAGPRA Page 12

Page from “Journeys To Complete The Work” – a comic about NAGPRA.

Later today, my most recent archaeological comics project – a comic about the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act – will be the subject of a presentation at the Indigenous Storytelling and the Law symposium being held at the Center for Native American and Indigenous Studies at the University of Colorado, Boulder.

This project is a collaboration between myself, Sonya Atalay (U.Mass Amherst) and Jen Shannon (U. Colorado), and focuses on explaining NAGPRA law through the experiences of tribes, museum workers and scholars who have been involved in repatriations – both successful and less so. The comic is a demonstration of the way in which a visual narrative approach can not only make the complex legality of NAGPRA comprehensible, but provide a meaningful context for some of the preconceptions, public perceptions and prejudices that further complicate the issue of repatriation.

The comic that’s being presented by Jen and Sonya at the conference is ten pages which cover some introductory explanation about what NAGPRA is and how it works, and tells the story of a repatriation of material back to Anishiaabek tribes from museum collections held by the University of Michigan.

It’s something of a departure for me in terms of the focus of the story – less about explaining the process of excavation and research, and much more about how material is treated once it becomes part of a collection. But it focuses very much on things which I think comics can do exceptionally well in archaeology – issues which are difficult to explain without visual storytelling; issues which mix science, professional conduct and public response; issues which are shaped by – and shape – personal experience. I have long argued that these are exactly the kinds of stories which can be told in a particularly effective way through comics.

I’m sorry I can’t be at the conference myself, but I will be interested to hear the response to our project. We’ve got lots of ideas about how this comic could be used, etc. – and we’ve even got an interesting launch venue possibly lined up! I’ll be discussing all that and much more about the project in more detail as it evolves over the coming months.

“Journeys To Complete The Work” – A Comic about NAGPRA. Sonya Atalay, Jen Shannon, & John Swogger will be published this autumn.
“Indigenous Storytelling and the Law” symposium – Friday, March 17th, 1pm-5pm at UMC 235, Saturday, March 18th, 9am-6pm at Wolf Law; March 18 Special Session 4-5:30pm, reception to follow: Indian Country and the Trump Administration: Law, Policy, and Activism 
Page from my forthcoming "Comics in Archaeology" - to be published by Berghahn Books sometime in 2018.

Page from my forthcoming “Comics in Archaeology” – to be published by Berghahn Books sometime in 2018.

The start of a new year is the perfect time for big announcements – so here’s mine:

I’ve just signed a contract with the publishers Berghahn Books to write a book – a comic book! – about comics and archaeology. I’ll be working on it through the course of 2017, and – all being well – it should come out sometime in the first half of 2018. The book will be titled: Comics in Archaeology: How to use them and how to make them. It will be it two parts: the first about what comics can bring to archaeology, and what they can do for publication and presentation; the second will be more practical tips on how to approach writing and drawing archaeological comics. The idea is to make the two sections complementary, so that the book is useful both to people who are interested in commissioning and using comics in museums, visitors centres, publications, etc., as well as comics creators interested in making comics about archaeological subjects. The focus will be primarily on informational comics – in all their aspects and permutations – and draw heavily from my own experience over the past ten years.

It’s a big project, but I can’t wait to get my teeth into it. It’s a chance to really bring together the published comics I’ve done over the past decade with the ideas that I’ve been working through in published papers, conference posters, lectures, etc. Hopefully it will both summarise what I’ve found comics can already do for archaeology, as well as suggest ways in which the medium might open new and exciting doors for the visualisation and communication of archaeology. As ever, I’ll post updates here through the year.

Harassment, SAFE and Comics

Panel from "Disarticulated" - an archaeological comic about sexual harassment in the field.

Panel from “Disarticulated” – an archaeological comic about sexual harassment in the field.

In my TAG paper, I talked a little about how the authorial visibility that comics permits can allow the medium to approach subjects which have traditionally been very much beyond the remit of archaeological visualisation. The SAFE study into sexual harassment in the academic fieldwork, published in 2014, is part of a growing openness about the prevalence of sexual harassment, intimidation and discrimination within disciplines such as archaeology and anthropology. One of the notable features of studies such as this is a lack of awareness about methods of reporting such incidents.

Memoir and reportage-based comics, particularly those evolving out of the “underground” tradition, have long been used as a way of “starting a conversation” about difficult topics. The medium allows writers and artists to remain very firmly identified with their story and their authorial position, while at the same time exercising choice and control over the degree to which they are identifiable. It is a unique feature of comics to be simultaneously highly individual and wholly anonymous. At TAG, I showed a panel from a comic called “Disarticulated” which I’ve been working on for a while. It’s based on the experiences of a colleague, and written in collaboration with them. The comic allows us to make the truth of these particular experiences very clear, but the identity of the people, sites and places to be obscured.

How this comic will ultimately be published is not clear. But I hope it suggests ways in which comics might be used in archaeology: to give voice to situations and experiences which are important, and which deserve to be talked about.

Digging Drunk

"Digging Drunk" - Not very funny tales of alcohol, anarchy and archaeology.

“Digging Drunk” – Not very funny tales of alcohol, anarchy and archaeology.

You often hear it said that archaeologists work hard and play hard. When archaeologists say this, what they usually mean is that they work hard and then drink a lot. There’s no denying it: archaeology has a fairly – shall we say – “robust” drinking culture. Most of the time, this isn’t a problem – but what happens when it is?

Where do we go in archaeology to talk about things like this? Where do we have a chance to tell those stories which, perhaps, don’t show us in the best of lights? Where can we talk honestly about things about our profession which can become seriously damaging to ourselves and the work that we do? I’m not sure if comics is the only place we can do this, but it is one possible place. Over the past sixty years in particular, comics have evolved into a medium where it’s possible to tell these kinds of stories. Traditions of graphic memoir and reportage that have grown out of the “underground” comics of the 1960s give today’s comics writers and artists tools with which to tackle difficult and sometimes highly personal issues.

One of the projects I’d like to find time for this year is a series of stories about archaeology and booze. I’m not entirely sure how best to approach the idea – I don’t want this to end up like one of those weird, quasi-public service comics. I’m genuinely interested in how the medium can serve as a way to articulate experiences that don’t get an airing elsewhere.

What if Grace Huxtable had drawn comics about Catalhoyuk.

What if Grace Huxtable had drawn comics about Çatalhöyük? (John Swogger, 2016)

Thank you to everyone who made this year’s TAG an extremely interesting conference. Thank you to all the people I got to talk to about comics and archaeology, thanks to all the people who visited the Sightations exhibition, who came to the workshop Hannah and I lead, and thanks to everyone who came to one of the last sessions of the conference to hear my paper on authorship in archaeological comics.

Comics and other forms of narrative visualisation are gaining traction in archaeology, if only because the needs and requirements of archaeology are changing. Twenty-five years ago, when I first became an archaeological illustrator, the biggest concern in the field was what size Rotring pen to use on what sort of illustration. Nowadays, we’re being asked to provide front-line support as archaeology fights an increasingly fierce battle for survival. Comics has a role to play in that battle: not just in communicating discoveries made in labs and fields – but in communicating the underlying and fundamental reasons why the study of the material past matters. Comics has a role to play in humanising our disciplinary practice by articulating both its triumphs and its problems. Comics has a role to play in connecting us with non-specialist and public audiences who may be able to contribute skills and perspectives we lack. And comics has a role to play in helping us articulate the things we, as practitioners, feel are important about our work and our experiences.

I’d like to think that I can put some of this into the book I’m currently producing for Berghahn Books on comics in archaeology. It’s going to be a graphic work about how to use and how to make archaeological comics – a how-to guide for those commissioning and those creating comics for museums, excavation projects, outreach and peer-to-peer communication. I’ll be working on this over the course of the coming year, and – all being well – it should see print sometime in 2017. It’ll be a chance for me to pull together some of the thoughts I’ve been putting into the various papers, lectures, workshops and presentations I’ve been doing over the past few years; doubtless some of the material I talked about at TAG this year will be included as well. If anyone’s interested in reading that paper on authorship and comics, I’ve posted it here.

 

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