“I got the virus” are the first words of Jason Chatfield’s “Covid-19 Diary,” a brief, intimate comic that recounts 12 days in the life of the artist as he grapples with illness and finds unexpected humor while facing deadly fears. It’s the first of 64 powerful stories in COVID Chronicles: A Comics Anthology, edited by Kendra Boileau and Rich Johnson (Graphic Mundi, Feb. 15), a collection that explores the impact of the pandemic in both deeply personal and broadly universal terms, employing a diverse range of styles. The book is the first offering from the new graphic novel imprint at Penn State University Press.
Boileau, assistant director and editor-in-chief at the press, and Johnson, a publishing consultant and comics veteran, put out a call for submissions on April 6—just a little more than a month after much of the world went into lockdown. They commissioned work from established artists and sought permission to republish work they discovered online. All contributions were donated, and proceeds from the sale of the volume go to the Book Industry Charitable Foundation, which supports independent bookstores, comics shops, and their employees. The long list of contributors includes Thi Bui, Sarah Firth, John Jennings, Rob Kirby, Janet K. Lee, and Terry Moore, among others.
I recently spoke with Boileau and Johnson about COVID Chronicles on a three-way Zoom call; the conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
First off, tell me about Graphic Mundi.
Kendra Boileau: Graphic Mundi is a trade imprint of graphic novels and comics anthologies. It arose from aline of books we were publishing called Graphic Medicine, which came about from some academic connections with people at Penn State who are working in this [field] called “graphic medicine.” We were expecting [Graphic Medicine] to be more of an academic, analytical approach to the topic rather than actual comics and graphic novels themselves. But it turned out that we ended up publishing more graphic novels in that series than we had anticipated, and so for practical marketing reasons we decided it was time to take all of those trade books and put them in a new line. A lot of those graphic novels were either set in health care settings or pretty narrowly connected to questions of health, medicine, and disability. In Graphic Mundi, we’re scaling up, looking for topics that get away from those narrower health care settings and look at things like environmental justice and social justice.
Rich Johnson: The Covid book was the perfect bridge. While it is obviously about a pandemic and a medical crisis, it’s also about politics, about personal lives, about emotions, and the economy, and everything else rolled into one. That is the heart and soul of what Kendra wants Graphic Mundi to be.
For many readers, the pairing of Covid and comics will be unexpected.
KB: This amazing group of people who work in graphic medicine—artists, practitioners, academics—what they’re doing is promoting the value of the medium of comics to tackle really difficult topics—losing a loved one to Covid, for example. Comics are so good at expressing the ineffable, what you just can’t put down in words.
RJ: There’s a quote (and I’m going to butcher it) from Brian Fies, who did Mom’s Cancer, something akin to “The combination of words and images are more powerful than either one standing alone.” When I was at DC Comics, we did the 9-11 anthology. And Dark Horse [did] a companion volume. And then when I was at Lion Forge, we did a comic anthology about the aftermath of Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico [Puerto Rico Strong]. Going to the comics community, which was also very affected by the pandemic, just seemed natural. It was almost a no-brainer.
Speaking of Sept. 11, I was struck by the fact that at least two of the comics in this anthology reference that day.
KB: In Shelley Wall’s comic [“Grief Changes”], she had lost a partner before Covid. Her point was that every new trauma resuscitates past traumas, and so Covid was resuscitating the loss of her life partner and the fact that they met around 9/11. As the Kirkus review said, not only do these comics show what it was like to be in the moment, but also the extent to which this is affecting us all and causing us to revisit past traumas. It will be something that stays with us for a long time, I think.
Many of the comics are surprisingly funny. Is humor a way that the artists cope with a dark situation?
RJ: I go to the very first piece [Chatfield’s “Covid-19 Diary”], which is just sadly funny and beautiful, where an artist is literally drawing himself maybe dying. But it’s funny. He adds humor to it. With any horrific situation, there’s always some type of humor, just to release the pressure of what’s really going on.
KB: I’m not sure if he did that [comic] after the fact, after [he and his wife had] recovered, or if that was a true day-by-day [account].
RJ: I mean, if he was able to draw like that while he was sick, God bless him.
In Comic Nurse’s “Quarantine Week 10,” the artist describes feeling “sad, stressed, and fatigued. Also guilty.” But then: “Drawing always does seem to help.”
KB: The graphic medicine people, when this pandemic started, actually started doing virtual get-togethers where they would sit down and draw together and share drawings. And much of that was not only trying to maintain a sense of community and stay in touch with friends, but also to express a sort of cathartic process. There is definitely a school of thought that “drawing helps,” as MK [Czerwiec] or Comic Nurse said. That’s part of the ethos of graphic medicine.
Were there particular challenges to doing an anthology like this in the middle of a pandemic?
RJ: For us the biggest challenge, because of how this kept evolving, was where do we stop? We would have these talks once in a while, like, wait, this just happened, we should add that. Honestly, not to give Kendra a heart attack, but there could easily be a second volume because of everything that has happened since this one was put to bed. I mean, with a spike again, with the further politicization of it, and now the vaccine. It’s another volume.
Anything else you’d like to add?
KB: “Impassioned” is one of the words that came up in the Kirkus review, and everyone who contributed to this brought a lot of passion to the task. That was very affirming and helpful to me personally. I think this volume sets the stage for what’s to come in the imprint—the way comics can help us make connections, whether that’s across racial divides, across class divides, across cultural divides. We hope that Graphic Mundi fulfills that mission as we go forward.
Tom Beer is the editor-in-chief.