I am a community college educator, and write comics and cartoons about a variety of education, medical, political and personal subjects in collaboration with amazing artistic collaborators which have been published The New Yorker, The Boston Globe, The Los Angeles Times, The Nib, Truthout, The Believer, Project Censored and more. My forthcoming book Going Remote: A Teacher’s Journey (with Peter Glanting from SEVEN STORIES and CENSORED PRESS) combines all these areas, along with my love for sci-fi! You can also see me on film in LONG LIVE MY HAPPY HEAD (click the menu above)
BC (Before Cornavirus), I ran 20 miles a week, and our lovely bay trail had some walkers, maybe a runner or two, and I recognized most of them. We waved, and went on our way. But really, it was mostly an empty run — which is the way I like it, especially after a long day teaching. Running is an integral part of my self-care — it’s not just about physical fitness, but spiritual balance, a practice especially vital during the last year, dealing with a recurrence of the brain tumor I’ve lived with for 11 years, along with 8 months of oral chemo (which is now complete, thankfully).
Read more on my relationship with exercise and the culture of the “Perfect Cancer Patient” here, in a graphic essay from a few years ago.
Indeed, running is my meditation, my daily spiritual ritual, one I turn to during hard times — like now. And now, more than ever, as a person with a chronic condition, trying to keep myself and family safe while teaching online for hours in a musty garage, I need that practice more than ever — that time alone, to run in nature, to regain balance, composure.
AC (After Corna), during lockdown, the whole community seems to be out walking — whole families, couples, little kids on bikes. On the one hand, it’s beautiful to finally see our community out enjoying nature together, away from the lure of the screen, holding hands, smiling, playing, taking advantage of the joys of the Great Outdoors.
On the other hand (which has been throughly sanitized), it’s a flippin’ pandemic!
Thankfully, it’s not nearly as packed in my neighborhood as this cartoon jests — and, folks are generally very respectful, great with social distancing. It’s nothing like the absurd outing on Stinson Beach last weekend, which got all of Marin trails closed. And in truth, if an area was as packed as this toon, I wouldn’t go there at all — and if I happened upon that crowd, I’d just turn around, rather than play Virus AvoiderTM.
And while the cartoon shows my perspective as a runner, trying to maintain 6 feet the whole way, it’s not just about me. I’m a big, hairy dude, and while speeding along the trail, sweating and heaving as I do, I imagine else on the path is performing the same calculation —
How the hell do I get away from that Bigfoot?
As a runner, I think it’s my responsibility to watch out for others — not the other way around. We are the faster traffic, and more likely to come up quickly on folks who don’t have a chance to react, or prepare mentally. Thus, now I map out my runs in advance to make sure I’m in empty areas, and ones without “choke points,” where we are less than six-feet apart. I try to find the widest paths possible, especially ones without any blind corners. Further, if I see people that are on a path I want to take, I’ll just wait for them to go by, or find another path, rather than having to rush past their social distance bubble.
Overall, I work to be a good citizen of the trail — including waving and smiling! — so that the new folks enjoying the outdoors feel safe, and after this is all over, while maybe want to stay outside!
Please stay tuned right after this comic for a reflection on how a whole nation’s teachers are going remote for the first time, including me for the first time.
The last week has been a bit like building an airplane while it’s taking off. I converted all 4 of my classes online in the last week — and I’ve never taught online. Sure, I’ve used course management systems, and have students have online discussions, and upload their essays to the cloud. But I’d never taught online — and this was by design.
Since I started teaching in 2002, I’ve been a face-to-face instructor. I was drawn to teaching by the live energy of the classroom. Teaching has always felt a bit to me like jazz, a work of educational improvisation. I’d come to class with a plan, with a composition for the day, a script. But this script was only just a means to get to the real work of the day — the music, the music of students real, live voices actively engaging in learning. The sopranos, altos, the laughter, the silence, the scratch-skritch of pencils and pens. Every day is different, no lesson exactly the same, no music the same.
Will there still be this music remotely?
Sure, there are many fabulous online instructors, those who have chosen that medium, and worked on it as a craft. But what of the rest of us, those teachers whose craft and talents are working in a live community?
Right now, I write these words at the kitchen table next to my son, who would normally be at recess right now, running with his friends, together, face-to-face. Instead, he is on a laptop, doing a series of standardized math exercises, and blowing fart sounds in my face.
My wife and I are homeschooling, as all Californians will be now. We grieve this, as we love our son’s local public school, and its vibrant community. My wife is also a public school teacher, and for the first time is working online. (Right now, as I write, she is on Google Hangouts with her AP Euro students). We share our garage — which we hastily converted into an office — to work with our students remotely. We’re taking trainings from our tech-savvy colleagues who have been working online for years, all the while having Zoom meetings with our departments, sharing tips and tricks with each other, all while actually meeting with the students remotely (who themselves are often taking online classes for the first time). I imagine our son’s teacher, Ms. B, is doing the same thing in her own remote teaching bunker, as millions of teachers are across California, across the US, across the world.
We’re all working together to keep the music of the classroom alive, the music that has been silenced by this pandemic.
I leave you with these final thoughts from one of my comics, as we all consider what will be the legacy of this remarkable moment, when the world’s classrooms all went silent, and we all escaped into the cloud:
Journalism will again become what it was more than a century ago – a form of art. –Chris Hedges
The teens did not bring Hedges’ words to fruition — mainstream journalism did not return to a golden age of revolutionary truth-telling, but quite the reverse, with our “post-truth” world, full of filter bubbles flowing with “fake news.” Yet, despite the grim state of contemporary journalism in general, Hedges prophecy has come true in the teens — for graphic journalism.
Hedges words also opened my 2011 Truthout report “Warning: This Article Contains Graphic Journalism“, a time when I found myself writing solely prose essays (the title is inspired by Rocco Versaci’s ground-breaking work of comics scholarship This Book Contains Graphic Language: Comics As Literature). Then, also, I was still making the case that comics are literature, an appropriate medium for study in college classroom. I interviewed the some of the key figures in the “new” wave of comics journalism:Sarah Glidden, who had just published the fantastic graphic memoir How to Understand Israel in 60 Days, Matt Bors (who had just published a remarkable comic on his travels in Afghanistan in a series “Afghan Life“, and hadn’t yet gone on to create The Nib),Ted Rall (who had already a long-track record of hard-hitting comics journalism), and Dan Archerwho effectively defined the field in a comic and speech (click here). Indeed, graphic journalism was already heeding Hedges’ call — it was art, in every sense of the word.
And I wanted in.
A decade ago, I was a comics scholar, educator, and journalist — but what I really wanted to do was to make comics. And after meeting Dan Archer at San Francisco Zinefest, I got that first break, with our series for Truthout The Disaster Capitalism Curriculum (2012), a three part series exploring the privatization and standardization of education in the United States. I knew that as a pure-text essay, as I’d been writing for years, it would get a narrow audience of folks who already knew the issues and generally agreed. However, with this report, I hoped to broaden and diversify the audience involved in the education reform conversation.
At that time, few mainstream outlets seem to understand comics as a form of serious journalism — not only did I have to make the pitch for the story, but provide an explanation of comics as a legitimate medium (it was the same kind of argument I had made countless times in the academic setting). Truthoutgot it right out — thanks in large part to Anne Elizabeth Moore, co-editor of the first Best American Comics (with Harvey Pekar). Anne was also producing a fantastic series for Truthout “Ladydrawers,” and so Truthout understood comics as journalism. Thus, when we pitched the project, I didn’t have to explain why Dan and I were using comics — they were excited by the opportunity, and immediately grasped how such a project could drive active engagement over a wider and more diverse population.
Now, in 2020, you can find comics journalism in most major outlets — indeed, Wendy Macnaugthon found her “drawn journalism” (as she dubs it) on the cover of the New York Times recently. This rising tide of interest in non-fiction comics is also reflected by the popularity of graphic memoir — such asRainaTelgemeier’simmensely popular series, including most recently Guts. Further, and most personally as a cancer survivor, the emergence of Graphic Medicine has created space for patients like me to tell their stories in a vivid and humanizing form.
This comics movement of the teens — built by incredible, and often ill-compensated work by countless creators, editors and publishers, some of whom I’ve shouted out here — created the space that allowed me to not just write, but actually get a number of scripts produced and published in a wide variety of outlets, including The New Yorker, The Boston Globe, The Atlantic, The Los Angeles Times, and The Nib (Matt Bors‘ outlet truly created a platform to usher in this new era of comics journalism). I feel immensely grateful to have been able to join the field during this exciting time, and be surrounded by such incredibly talented and hard-working artists, writers, and editors, who continue be driven to illustrate the truth in a dark time — and do so artfully.
As we move into the 20s, I’m optimistic about the state of non-fiction visual storytelling. I plan to continue my work with comics journalism. However, I’m focused on my memoir It’s All In Your Head, a book-length hybrid comics/prose story of my journey living with a brain tumor while balancing being a parent, partner, and professor.
Here are my ten of the teens (with links). For all my comics, click here
Here are my current works of graphic journalism and memoir which have appeared in The Atlantic, The Boston Globe, The San Francisco Chronicle,The Los Angeles Times, Pacific Standard, FUSION.NET, The Nib, Narrative.ly and Truthout. Thanks to all the wonderfully talented graphic journalists/artists I’ve worked with thus far: Josh Neufeld (cover image by Josh!), Jason Novak,Marc Parenteau, Dan Carino, Dan Archer and Arthur King. CLICK ON THE TITLE TO ACCESS THE COMIC!
Here is an EXTRA SCENE from my comicTHE PERFECT CANCER PATIENT (with co-author medical sociologist Gayle Sulik and co-author/illustrator Marc Parenteau). This is the concluding scene that we decided to leave out for this version at Narrative.ly.