Comic Education

This summer, I am creating an educational comic series designed to engage younger students in environmental and ethical discussions. These comics will cover topics such as the Anthropocene and climate communication with an emphasis on ethics and environmental justice. I’m going to draw my comics by hand, refine them digitally using Adobe Photoshop, and then upload my work onto a website where it can be accessed by educators and students for classroom use. I also plan on posting follow-up discussion guides that will challenge readers to further reflect on the ethical questions that arise in each comic.

I’m drawn to comics as a medium because I grew up reading them almost every day. I remember how much their stories, heroes, and morals inspired me as a kid, and they quickly became my creative passion. Though comics are often dismissed as a frivolous art form designed to elicit giggles and goofiness, I believe they have the power to convey social messages and change minds. The “x factor” of comics, as I see it, is the storytelling rhythm that is created by fusing text and visuals; the reader’s journey is often equally informative and emotional. This summer, I’ll be asking myself: How can I use comics as a tool to prompt student reflection on ethical issues? What is my duty, as an artist and communicator, to make my work understandable to younger readers?

This project is also inspired by my personal “Why” on climate change—essentially the question, why do you care? It’s a difficult question to answer concisely! I care about climate change because I see the living world as its own work of art. The complexity, intricate beauty, and sheer improbability of Earth’s biological systems are as awe-inspiring to me as the fine details on a masterpiece painting; it’s something I can’t imagine losing. I also believe that the environment is very human; it includes every single one of us, and so keeping it livable is not an issue of tree-hugging and polar bears but an issue of human rights and justice. The comic-book superheroes of my childhood remind us that justice is worth fighting for! 

Though I haven’t even put my pencils to paper yet, I’m diving straight into the most important unseen phase of any comic project: the research and ideation phase. This week, I browsed through publications on themes I want to address in my project, including the concept of the Anthropocene, environmental intergenerationality, concentrated solar power, Indigeneity, and environmental justice. Additionally, I started reading through a guidebook on Self-Publishing Comics in order to fine-tune the delivery of my project. One publication format that interests me is the zine, which is a mini-magazine styled comic book that is cheap to print and easy to distribute. From an ethical perspective, I’m drawn to zines because they align with the concept of democratizing art and making it accessible to as many people as possible. Zines are so easy to make that I can envision a “build-your-own zine” component to my project, so that students can leave the classroom ready to share their own messages.

When it comes to sharing my message on climate change, I recognize the challenges of discussing the topic with non-technical audiences. How can I craft an issue of such enormous magnitude into a 5-page comic or a 20-page zine? What are the ethical implications of doing so? My choices as an artist will matter. Who am I choosing as characters and why? Am I leaning into climate alarmism or climate optimism, and does it sound too much like an oversimplified sales pitch? And, in each of the discussion question sheets following my comics, how can I encourage students to fill in the gaps where my concise storylines may have fallen short?

From all of my early research, I’ve laid out a thematic direction for my comic series, along with considerations I want to keep in mind:

  1. Anthropocene citizenship—Living an ethical life means opting for small changes—such as a low-waste or flexitarian lifestyle—not because it will make an enormous, quantifiable impact on the planet, but because it shows principles of respect and citizenship on the smallest scale. One issue that’s come up in my research is the agency of the Earth—for instance, what responsibility do we owe to plants and animals? Alternatively, what are the benefits and drawbacks of assigning a value (in human terms) to life forms, biodiversity, and natural resources? It’s impossible to avoid these questions during the Anthropocene, and I hope to discover new ways of asking students these questions.
  2. Land, place, and language—I want to bring in the concepts of Indigeneity and the invisible (or ignored) legacies every landscape holds. Living an ethical life, especially as an outdoor recreationalist or lover of natural spaces, means acknowledging the Indigenous land you hike/bike/climb on, understanding the violence of colonization, and taking policy-based or financial action to support local tribes. The language of land is also a significant ethical discipline. In my comics, I hope to examine how ethics play into semantics, such as capitalizing the word “Earth”, referring to animals and plants with human-like pronouns as opposed to “it,” and hesitating to call oneself an “environmentalist” due to the exclusive connotation of the word. Between the racist history of the Environmental Movement and the stereotypical images of a Prius-driving, mountain-climbing, animal-saving “environmentalist,” there are so many passionate people and hardworking activists who are left out of that definition. I want to explore how I, as an artist/science communicator, can fulfill my duty to uproot that connotation and portray environmentalism intersectionally (realistically)!
  1. Grassroots/collective action—I’m drawn to the idea of strength in numbers. Building off of topics from my book, Growing Up in the Grassroots, I aim to design a short digital guide to youth action that underscores the importance of inclusivity in the Environmental Movement; in this movement, there is a place for everyone.

Overall, I feel enriched by this first week of reflective research. Having read publications, viewed seminars, and studied the art of self-publishing, I have a much fuller creative reservoir to work with as I begin scriptwriting and storyboarding my comics. Then, the cartooning will begin! In a way, I’ll communicating my personal “Why” on climate change through visual art. I look forward to bringing that “Why” to life on paper.

Joy Reeves is a rising senior studying Environmental Science and Policy with a minor in Visual Media Studies. She is interested in exploring the intersections of creative science communication, climate justice, and environmental ethics.

Bringing Comics into Environmental Education is a virtual comic project that aims to engage younger students on climate issues during the challenges of COVID-19. This summer, I will generate a 3-part series of 5-10 page webcomics (online comics) featuring characters designed to teach younger students about complex environmental issues ranging from solar technology to permaculture farming systems, with an emphasis on ethics and environmental justice. I will gear the majority of my comic episodes towards 2nd-6th graders. As an Environmental Science & Policy major and Visual Media Studies minor, I see this project as an opportunity to culminate my academic career and give back to online learning communities during COVID-19. Through environmental research and visual storytelling, these comics will bring to life characters who are underrepresented in STEM fields, encourage ethical discussion, and make environmental science more accessible to all. I hope to explore what it means to be an ethical artist and environmentalist, particularly analyzing “sense of place,” colonization, and the Anthropocene through comics. Comics and cartoons are often dismissed as a frivolous art form designed to elicit giggles and goofiness. I believe that their value transcends humor alone. Comics have the power to convey social messages, awaken heroism, and change minds. As an artist, I believe that living an ethical life means using art as a tool to meaningfully engage an audience on social justice issues. Art is not merely a quiet, relaxing hobby; it is a purposeful, powerful way to pursue good and expose injustice. I hope to generate a comic series that fulfills this definition of art!

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