Life After COVID-19? These Comics Come to the Rescue

A bookshop in New York City asked people to imagine a utopian world after the pandemic. Hundreds of comic artists across the world wrote back, forming the Instagram art project, ‘Rescue Party’.  
Life After COVID-19? These Comics Come to the Rescue
Comics Courtesy: Christina Lee (left), Jolos Carsé (right)

Hong Kong-based cartoonist Kaitlin Chan’s future—more specifically her post-pandemic utopia—is peppered with these images: a vow to not judge PDA-ing couples on the metro, to make time to ogle hot waiters who smoke outside, and a world where her fellow Hongkongers can go back to having their enemies cursed (in a traditional local ritual). Once again.

On the other side of the world, Peruvian illustrator Jolos Carsé draws a future full of huggers, where we hug so frequently and fiercely that it’d be common for our arms to be afflicted with a condition called ‘hugsored.’ “People will start hugging with any limb they can grab,” he wishes, “until everyone becomes a twirly mass—of care and affection.”

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Comic Courtesy: Kaitlin Chan

Art, Shared Freely

“In April, I was alone in my quarantine cabin, feeling somewhat despondent, missing other people and wishing for connection and positivity,” says Desert Island’s founder, Gabe Fowler. He hoped the prompt he sent out into the world would return with comforting thoughts through art, shared freely on the internet. At first, entries trickled in slowly, but a week later Fowler’s inbox was flooded daily with 10 or more wishful, cheeky, heartwarming comics. Like little haikus of hope, they brought to him stories of a shared reality that regular folk living in Goa, Lisbon, Argentina, Indonesia, Tokyo, and beyond were experiencing; and a feeling that they were all holding the same wishbone for the future.

I begin scrolling through Rescue Party’s Instagram page, an Aladdin’s cave of ideas and endearing quirks of people trying to find their balance as the world pirouettes out of control. Keeping in line with the theme, many comics are about hope—Jane Demarest’s bold, jaunty characters yearn for “stuff to go back to normal” already, like when people bumped into each other at the sidewalk and swore, bad dates with bad kisses, or times when we felt tongue-tied when someone knocked on our bathroom stall. Some ‘hopes’ are a hoot. Noah Pierce imagines a future where birds rejoice the death of humans, those “flightless dopes who think they’re so cute and clever, but really they’re f***in everything up.” The Earth belongs to the birds—they can finally write their memoirs in peace, grow trees on highways, and burn cities down as they see fit.

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Comic Courtesy: Ida Hartmann

I chuckle at the ways in which Rescue Party’s theme branches out in the hands of different people, how some strips let you crawl into wacky inner worlds of artists. Somewhere in Germany, Amelie Stute, with her scratchy neon blue-green lines, mulls over dressing her house plants in spiffy jumpers and hats like that of the friends she can’t meet. Tana Oshima revels in a world gone quiet, because she can now hear “the smack of a distant kiss… the squeak of a loving bed on the other side of town.”

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Comic Courtesy: Tana Oshima

Comic Relief, and Critique

A large number of comics hold a mirror up to the flaws in our society. For all their warm colours and eclectic styles, they’re penetratingly critical of climate change and capitalism—two factors that continue to determine our fate in this pandemic. Gabrielle Bell’s comic is emblematic of this anxiety. Distressed about a dying friend, she hopes that people will realise how governments are failing them. Her utopia involves change at all levels. Wars would end, empathy would prevail, and people would realise how pointless it was to hoard toilet paper when all they could have done is help each other.

Rescue Party is an exciting space precisely because it is so democratic—anybody from anywhere in the world, at any stage in their art-making, can participate; you don’t pay a fee to showcase or view the artwork. Fowler doesn’t play gatekeeper: an ethos very much in line with how he views the relationship between comics and readers.

“There has always been a cultural divide between art people and comics people, and I wanted to bridge the gap and bend art people towards comics and comics people towards art,” he explains. Fowler founded Desert Island in 2008 to help provide access to difficult or obscure material in comics and illustrated books, published by artists and small publishers around the world. He is an adventurous stockist who likes to “mix things up, dig deep, find work that is being made outside of the familiar pathways of brooding post-apocalyptic vigilante superhero comics.”

Little wonder Desert Island is most beloved for its zines—small-press publications made in limited quantities. Fowler welcomes any illustrated publication by any artist. “Just today, for instance, Brooklyn artist Wren McDonald brought his new risograph book, Resort on Caelum, which is a good example of a random acquisition, and an incredible artwork in its own right,” he says.Life After COVID-19? These Comics Come to the Rescue 9

Comic Courtesy: Amelie Stute

Shifting Perspective

Over a couple of days, I re-read at least 250 Rescue Party comics to understand their allure (many are also on the Desert Island’s Instagram page, @desertislandcomics). There’s the truism that art is an exceptionally gentle salve in trying times, but with these comics that feels just the start of it.

A copy of a beloved graphic novel, My Favourite Thing is Monsters by Emil Ferris, catches my eye. It has lain on my bed for a straight year, never seen the inside of a drawer. Sure I’ve loved other books before, but the reason I cling to this one as if it were some talisman is because Ferris’s crosshatched drawings have an urgency that dunks you deep into where she wants you to be. Chicago of the late 1960s, sociopolitical tumult, amid families full of secrets. But most remarkably, inside the mind of a monster-loving 10-year-old out to solve the murder of her neighbour who had survived the Holocaust. Ferris’s figures are a hat-tip to B-movie horror imagery and pulp monster magazines. A beast of a treat.

Rescue Party’s comics—perhaps like all good comics—exert a similar visceral force that shapes and shifts perspective: its panels are kaleidoscopic roadmaps into a collective inner journey at a time we feel we have nowhere to go. Forceful brushstrokes and nuanced writing place our reality in context. There are detailed diagnoses of our troubles, but also joyous proof of all things we deem vital while living through a pandemic. I particularly love Sasha Hill’s comic (below) where a woman in an orange polka-dotted jumpsuit hands her ‘Boss Office’ over to someone else so she can tap into other skills and be of service; 2021 goes down as “the year humans revolutionised work and society.” Jim Schuessler’s panels feature a man covered head-to-toe—mask, goggles, gloves—re-emerging into the world after a long time, only to find empty streets and proof that “nature had begun to reassert itself…technology had adapted to work in harmony with nature.” He meets a lone kitten, takes off his mask and goggles, and the panel reads: “In the end, it wasn’t technology that moved humanity forward…it was compassion.”

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Comic Courtesy: Sasha Hill

Dystopia or Reality?

Some comics are dystopic, but I can barely pin them as imaginary because they uncannily resemble aspects of life under some authoritarian governments. Oliwia Ziebinska’s (@oli.comic) imagines that borders will close permanently and the government will track our temperatures through chips implanted in our bodies. Life will move online. People will take decades to earn enough to buy their escape to live with the “last free people.” Another one that haunts me is by Kana Philip (@radioethiopia), whose first panel features a round-faced child’s sketch (below), with the words, “Only Kids Will Be Left.” It sees the post-Covid world as one where the adults don’t make it, which strikes me as a grim reference to how cavalier many people and governments have been about Covid guidelines. It also reminds me of the politicised debates over reopening schools in parts of the world.

There seems to be no aspect of life in a pandemic that Rescue Party’s comics don’t touch upon—sourdough experiments, protests, vaccines, existential dread—and to read them is to feel utterly cathartic. For Fowler, this visual diary is an act of larger hope. It’s never too late to visualise a positive future as a goal, he tells me. “And the first step is to first conceive the preferred outcome… I’m interested in conceiving positive futures so we can then travel there together.”

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Comic Courtesy: Kana Philip

 

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  • Kareena Gianani is Commissioning Editor at National Geographic Traveller India. She loves stumbling upon hole-in-the-wall bookshops, old towns and collecting owl souvenirs in all shapes and sizes.

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