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Covid-19 and comic art: Capturing a graphic state of mind

Chintan Girish Modi | Updated on April 03, 2020 Published on April 03, 2020

On record: Sayan Mukherjee’s comics on the Covid-19 pandemic reflect the many ways people struggle for survival   -  IMAGE COURTESY: SAYAN MUKHERJEE

A recent spate of comics and cartoons on the Covid-19 pandemic from artists across the globe captures the incessant anxiety as well as the resilience of people coping with the crisis

Comics were a large part of my life as a child when I felt out of place on the playground, but they are only just beginning to enrich my adulthood. Over the past few weeks, as nations shut down in response to a global pandemic, comics have shown me that though the world right now is indeed topsy-turvy, laughter can be healing, and that we can care about social justice even in moments of personal fragility.

Sayan Mukherjee (whose Instagram handle is @sayanart) is a Kolkata-based illustrator whose comics on people dealing with the Covid-19 lockdown stand out for their simplicity.

Whether it is an image of a man whose wings are being clipped as he is forced into a lockdown, or a father whose son refuses to get off his back during the mandatory work-from-home situation, or a man struggling to keep his mask in place while balancing heavy bags of groceries in both hands — the artist presents his subjects with an affectionate gaze.

He acknowledges their struggle for survival and desire for freedom. The use of text in Mukherjee’s comics is minimal, adding to the impact of his visuals. There is an immediacy to them, an absence of cleverness, and a light-hearted look at what constitutes the new normal.

He does not shy away from criticising police brutality, or of citizens who do not follow safety guidelines about physical distancing. The subtlety in his approach brings the point home without belabouring it.

Ah To, a comic artist living in Hong Kong (@ah_to_hk on Instagram), has a style that is more biting in its satire. My favourite comic is the one that shows toilet paper being preserved in a safe, along with gold bars and surgical masks.

However, the illustration that has drawn more attention because of its explicitly political stance is one that mocks the World Health Organization’s decision to change the name of the Wuhan coronavirus to novel coronavirus in what was largely seen as a bid to delink the name from China.

Though it is common knowledge that the Chinese government suppressed crucial information, and endangered many lives all over the world, the economic might of China has led many international leaders to shy away from holding the countryresponsible for the global pandemic.

The object of ridicule in this comic is WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, and the one challenging him is a chicken with a spray-can making graffiti on the walls. The images are ingenious and hard-hitting.

While the authoritarian regime in China continues to flex its political muscle, it’s the citizens and those of Asian origin living in other parts of the world who have had to bear the brunt. Unfortunately, the global ire against China has provided fodder for racism against Asians who ‘look Chinese’.

In India itself, people from the Northeast have been subjected to verbal abuse and hate crimes because they are mistakenly viewed as carriers of the virus.

The comics created by Swedish-Korean illustrator, comic book artist and activist Lisa Wool-Rim Sjöblom (@chung.woolrim on Instagram) challenged sinophobia or chinophobia — terms used to designate discrimination against Chinese people and prejudice against Chinese culture.

She lives in New Zealand, and her comics give a human face to the violence experienced by these racial minorities in predominantly white countries where it has become unsafe for many of them to even use public transport.

The most poignant image from Sjöblom’s comics that has stayed with me is that of a mother telling her children, “Because of this virus, there’s a chance that people may say or do mean things to us.”

She wants to prepare them for a society that will dehumanise them because of the way they look. While the virus can be tackled with medical treatment and perhaps a vaccine in the future, one wonders if there is any cure for bigotry.

Compassion seems to be the only antidote, as articulated by Mumbai-based cartoonist Hemant Morparia in a recent work. The pocket cartoon was published following the communal violence inflicted on predominantly low-income Muslim communities in North Delhi late last month.

In the illustration, a little girl holds her mother’s hand and asks, “You think there will be an outbreak of Karuna (compassion) in Delhi, Ma?”

Chintan Girish Modi is a Mumbai-based writer, educator and researcher

Published on April 03, 2020

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