Going Graphic!

Jessica Van Horssen, Assistant Professor
York University, Toronto

What is the role of the historian in society? Are we simply charged with teaching undergraduates about the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, year after year, or is there something more? We all know the oft-repeated mantra, that we study history in order to better understand the present and avoid the mistakes of the past, but is this mantra merely theoretical, or can we apply our historical knowledge to present day situations?

Artwork CC BY-NC-SA 2012 Radha-Prema McAllister. Used with permission.

In my research and teaching, I have always kept JR McNeill’s wise words from his article, “Drunks, Lampposts, and Environmental History,” in mind: “…the most urgent duty of environmental history is to abandon the shelter of ivory towers for the blood-spattered arena of public discourse and the dangerous task of infiltrating the corridors of power.”

Now, I know the ivory tower of academia is often lovely and safe and warm, and the things we do within it do have integrity and use, but I hope to share with you my experience bringing my academic work outside of it, to encourage you to consider new options that can be enriching for your own research, the academy, and perhaps, society as a whole.

When I write about “going graphic,” what I’m referring to mainly is bringing historical research to graphic novels. I’ve done two historical graphic novels thus far, and the one I’m mainly going to focus on is the one I did based on my doctoral dissertation, on the town of Asbestos, Canada, home to what was once the largest chrysotile asbestos mine in the world (http://megaprojects.uwo.ca/asbestos/).

This project evolved out of another digital project I had done with Joy Parr (http://megaprojects.uwo.ca/morton/) and an intense need within me to shake up my dissertation, and to look at the topic from a new perspective. Parr and I had just discovered Pascal Blanchet’s White Rapids/Rapide Blanc, which focuses on the history of a community in Quebec that was built around the province’s hydroelectricity industry. Inspired by this work, Parr and I developed the idea of a digital graphic novel that focused on the town of Asbestos for her Megaprojects website. As a new scholar within the field of environmental history, I found this to be an exciting opportunity to relate the history of Asbestos not from an omnipotent, omnipresent observer, but from the ground up: the graphic novel would tell the community’s history from the perspective of the Jeffrey Mine.

I found the graphic novel form to be ideal for three main reasons:

  1. The population I study is largely French Canadian, and my academic work is in English. Through the process of doing my doctoral research, I felt I was taking from this somewhat marginalized community, learning things about past community members that they themselves were not aware of, and giving nothing back; the graphic novel would be in both French and English, and its online location meant that anyone, anywhere, could access it.
  2. My friends and family had no idea what I was doing. At this stage in my research, I loved my topic and wanted to share it, but it’s more difficult to convey how exciting the history of Asbestos is to people outside of academia than I first believed. Writing a dissertation, an article, or a monograph can be incredibly isolating. Taking my study beyond traditional publications was a way I could break this isolation. My mom now understands—to a degree—what it is I do, and my research no longer exists in an academic bubble.
  3. The history of Asbestos is both fascinating and relevant to today. Researching this community made me laugh, made me cry, and made it clear to me that the more contemporary issues surrounding Canada’s asbestos trade had deep historical roots. With the graphic novel, I really wanted to relate a different story than one many assume of this community by bringing historical context to a complicated subject.

Artwork CC BY-NC-SA 2012 Radha-Prema McAllister. Used with permission.

The process of creating the graphic novel was an amazing experience. I got to share my research with one of my oldest friends, Radha-Prema McAllister, who was the artist for the project, and who came with me to Asbestos on several research trips, absorbing a sense of the community, and helping me see it from a completely different perspective. Radha and I met in Grade 9 art class and bonded over my inability to draw a shoe/banana/triangle. I created a storyboard and supplied her with hundreds of archival photos of the town, the mine, and community members. As she brought the history to life with her drawings, I wrote the text to accompany them, and upon seeing the first draft, Parr encouraged me to embody the Jeffrey Mine more fully in the text; to really try to tell the history of the community from the massive opencast mine that so defined it. We had a vernissage at Concordia University in Montreal to launch the site, and then…it was out there!

This was both thrilling and terrifying. The thing about putting your work online, is that once you do so, it has a life of its own. To my knowledge, the graphic novel has been used extensively in high schools to teach history, especially in alternative schools for at-risk youth. It’s part of reading lists for environmental literature courses at several universities. It is certainly on many of my course outlines, and those of others teaching environmental history. Most surprisingly, it’s on a lot of union websites in Canada and the United States, and Lung Associations have used it in their anti-asbestos trade campaigns.

Artwork CC BY-NC-SA 2012 Radha-Prema McAllister. Used with permission.

These are forums where my more traditional scholarship, wouldn’t have reached, and the process of “going graphic” with my dissertation, especially from looking at the history of Asbestos from the perspective of the mine, really added to the approach I have since taken in my more traditional scholarly activities, including writing.

Writing the graphic novel was so rewarding that it’s something I include in my courses as an option my students can take to accompany their more traditional writing and research assignments, which is an opportunity many embrace, even when they discover it’s more difficult than they first believed.

Again, this is something perhaps more tangible than the traditional research paper, which students can show their friends and families, post to social networking sites, and which can be placed on departmental websites to draw new students in, and create a general excitement about history.

However, as inspiring and productive as I have found digital projects like the graphic novel to be, it still doesn’t count as a publication. I understand why, of course, because of the lack of scholarly debate or reference in the medium, but as a new scholar, knowing how much research was put into the project, this was frustrating. Despite this frustration, I do know these types of projects are appreciated by departments, especially those looking to address the tricky issue of student retention and engagement.

Furthermore, the reach of the graphic novel, as well as my other digital projects, keeps surprising me. This past winter I gave a talk in Montreal on Quebec’s asbestos industry, and I was reminded of McNeill’s motivating words. While there were some historians at my talk, the room was packed with people from a wide range of departments, as well as members of the Montreal community and press. My topic was interesting to them, but more than this, they knew of my work because of the graphic novel and the short web-based documentaries I did as part of the EHTV series Sean Kheraj and Lauren Wheeler run on the NiCHE website.

Asbestos is a big issue in Canada today because the government continues to subsidize the collapsed industry and market it to places like India, Mexico, and China, where health and safety regulations are almost nonexistent. After my talk, I was swarmed by scientists and medical professionals who had devoted decades to trying to get the Canadian asbestos industry closed for good. They had seen my graphic novel and short documentaries, which led to an incredible conversation with one epidemiologist about how the water balloon demonstration in part 2 of my documentary didn’t accurately convey the tennis-court size of the pleural lining of the lungs. What an amazing discussion to have!

My digital work has a reach I continue to underestimate, and it did more than draw people to my talk: after the questions, many of these scholars thanked me for making this issue so public, acknowledging the importance of history and the complexity of the local-global asbestos industry, and insisting that with my work, I was contributing to political-environmental change. It is not all positive, of course, and I have received complaints that my work is too sympathetic towards the community, which continues to export the deadly mineral to developing countries. Again, this is all valuable feedback that I can bring into my traditional academic work. Further to this, my graphic novel has been printed in a special issue of Women and Environments International Magazine and distributed at the UN’s Rio+20.

The experience of “going graphic” with my academic research has convinced me that JR McNeill was right: environmental historians should engage with the outside world, and even if it doesn’t result in a sweet tenure-track job, we can only imagine where it will take us, and our work is all the better for it.

About the author:

Jessica Van Horssen is Assistant Professor at the Department of History of York University in Toronto. Her Twitter handle is @historiamagoria. She specializes in in environmental and health issues in Canadian history. Art CC BY-NC-SA 2012 Radha-Prema McAllister.

This article has 2 comments

  1. Kate Reply

    Hello! I’m a history grad student, and in one of the classes I’m auditing, we read a chapter of your dissertation and viewed the graphic novel. Of course, both were excellent! As someone who is interested in academics but also reaching in a wide audience, it was really inspiring to see your work in two mediums. Thank you for trying something new and hopefully making a difference in the world!

  2. Pingback: Asbestos, Quebec: Digital Public History Inspiration | wunderplatz

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