Is ‘Lissa’ a Trailblazer in Bridging Academia and Comics?

Lissa: A Story about Medical Promise, Friendship, and Revolution
Sherine Hamdy, Coleman Nye
University of Toronto Press
Nov 2017

The word Lissa, in Arabic, translates as ‘not yet’ or ‘still’, we are told by a new comic that bears its name. The eponymous sense of ‘becoming’ applies equally well not just to the content of this fascinating comic set largely in revolutionary-era Egypt, but also to the medium and genre in which it is expressed.

Lissa is an interesting sort of comic: a variant on the educational genre but one that aspires to more than most teaching comics. No simple history or bio-pic, Lissa is the first in the ethnoGRAPHIC series of anthropological comics, a project of University of Toronto Press. The aim is to communicate anthropological research in comic form. In the case of Lissa, it’s a slice of medical anthropology.

Two researchers engaged in medical anthropology – Sherine Hamdy (anthropology professor at University of California) and Coleman Nye (Gender Studies professor at Simon Fraser University) – wrote the story while a team of comics artists and developers (Sarula Bao, Caroline Brewer, and Marc Parenteau) tackled the art and translation of the Hamdy-Nye narrative into comic form. The crowning achievement of the book is its extensive post-narrative material: copious notes and references, reflections, interviews with the authors and illustrators, teaching guides, and more. This material helps one make sense of the graphic narrative and offers a rewarding insight into how academics and anthropologists have found unique advantages to be gleaned from communicating their insights through the graphic narrative form.

The basic narrative follows the lives of two young girls: Anna, daughter of American ex-pats living in Cairo, and Layla, a young Egyptian girl who becomes Anna’s close friend. The experiences that shape their lives are ones that the two authors research in their academic careers. Anna’s mother develops breast cancer, and Anna eventually learns (thanks to genetic testing) that she too possesses the rare gene mutation that predisposes her to cancer. She faces an immense personal choice: preventive mastectomy in the hopes of averting a future cancer?

Meanwhile, Layla’s father develops kidney disease (in part as a result of the toxic environment and poverty-stricken conditions in which he lives and works) and his suffering inspires her to aspire to become a doctor. Her studies are interrupted by the Tahrir Square protests and the revolution that will topple long-time dictator Hosni Mubarak; Anna, struggling with her own medical decision, returns to Egypt at the same time in the hopes of rekindling her close relationship with Layla.

The key characters are what anthropologists refer to as ‘composite subjects’: fictional identities developed to encapsulate various traits and lived experiences the anthropologists have identified in their research. Their situations and the ethical dilemmas they face in regards to treatment options reflect the difficult choices and dilemmas, the hopes and fears and regrets and adjustments that the authors have documented in their own research subjects. It’s a teachable comic, and the reading guide included within is designed to promote its use as such.

Much of the discussion around the book — which won the prestigious PROSE academic publishing award in February — has centred on how the book is to be located within academic, and especially anthropological, literature. From this perspective it’s seen as a breakthrough on many levels; a new form of presenting research and of engaging research questions and insights with a broader public. While it’s true that anthropological and ethnographic comics may be a limited field (certainly not a new one), this discussion underscores the differing frames of reference in which academic comics can be considered. On the one hand, the comic can be evaluated from the vantage of how it contributes to anthropological literature. But on the other, there’s the question of how it contributes to the broader field of comic and graphic narrative work.

The narrative doesn’t disappoint, but does it hold its own as a stand-alone narrative?

Yes and no. One follows the story with interest; there are even a few moments of actual poignancy that can’t help but evoke an emotional response. That said, when a comic is framed and branded as a research dissemination and learning tool, it has an interesting impact on the reader. Suspension of disbelief is at times difficult; one can’t really divorce the visceral experience of the comic from its avowed identity as a teaching tool. This is no fault of the artists, but it underscores the complicated nature of modern comics and of framing them — in this case, should it be branded and judged as literature? Or as a medium for presenting research? Or both? There’s something about the fore-knowledge that this comic is meant to teach that renders total immersion in the narrative a bit more difficult, especially when one is accustomed to comics serving as pure unadulterated narrative; as simply beautiful storytelling.

But that isn’t a fair judgement, either. It would be unfair to say that Lissa is not simply a beautifully told narrative, because it is. Many, if not most, comics are the products of intensive research on the parts of their authors, and many comics — like literary products in other mediums — are developed by their authors with particular end-goals or lessons and messages in mind to convey.

Of course, most authors disguise their research and motives, burying them deep within the narrative. Comics artists for the most part (certainly not all) try to avoid seeming didactic, just like many (again not all) novelists, poets, and other literary practitioners. Lissa puts it all up front; at the same time, that’s part of its remarkable achievement, complementing the narrative with transparent research and authorial self-presentations.

Perhaps then it’s the broader project that generates questions in the mind of the reader. The medium of comics should not simply be tapped into because it’s trendy and vogue; there are certain stories best told through comics and others best told through prose, and use of any medium requires a thorough understanding and embrace of that medium’s particular capacities. This is not a criticism of Lissa, because it accomplishes its purpose and offers a beautiful comics narrative most handily. The integrity of the authors and artists is made clear in their fascinating and revelatory interviews and reflections at the end of the book. Lissa achieves a superb blending of complex anthropological research with the uniquely beautiful and inspired qualities of graphic narrative storytelling. But if other academics get the idea to follow suit, let’s hope they put as much work and thought into it as the team that produced this book.

Making Research Accessible

One important aspect of Lissa that is less thoroughly explored than it could be is that of accessibility, and the quite profound challenge that graphic narrative presents to traditional forms of academic writing. The book is certainly more accessible than prose academic text; or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that it’s accessible in different ways. This is worth considering on two levels.

First, there’s the level of content. On the one hand, it’s impossible to convey as much scientific and analytical data through the graphic medium as through the medium of academic prose. As co-author Coleman Nye explains in an interview included as an appendix, “For example, the concept of political etiologies that took Sherine roughly 30 pages to describe in an academic article can be graphically illustrated in a two-page spread!”

The comment illustrates the differences inherent in the two mediums: academic prose is denser in terms of terminology, data, theory; but the strength of graphic narrative lies in clarity and communication. One might argue that graphic narrative doesn’t permit the same density, quantity and complexity of information to be shared as in an academic prose article, but the fact that an idea can be succinctly and clearly conveyed in a two-page spread (that requires 30 pages in academic prose) demonstrates that graphic narrative is the stronger medium when it comes to communication and comprehension.

Nevertheless, that doesn’t necessarily translate into credibility. Would, for instance, a graphic novel like Lissa be valued equally alongside an academic article on a doctoral comps reading list, or as the primary source for an undergraduate academic paper? One could certainly argue that it should be (I would argue that), but the stronger likelihood is that many academics would value prose verbiage over graphic clarity and communicative power. Works like Lissa underscore the need for a reevaluation of what is valued in academic research. What a graphic narrative like Lissa achieves in terms of conceptual and communicative clarity should surely be valued equally alongside what a journal article written in academic prose achieves in terms of terminological precision and density of data. Whether — and when — both mediums are acknowledged as equals will be an interesting question.

The second level on which to consider accessibility is a more visceral one. Lissa is a more intimate work than an article in academic prose because it appeals on a creative and emotional level. There’s a warmth to the colourful cover and artwork; an attraction to the imprecise and fuzzy lettering that contrasts sharply with the uniform angularity of prose letters and rigidly enforced style guides of academic journal articles. The comic communicates in visual metaphors; panels in which individual characters experience pain — grimacing, wiping teary eyes — or in which social bonding occurs (friendships renewed in tearful embraces) exist explicitly to register with the reader on an emotional level. The authors don’t just produce an emotional response; they actively seek one.

Academic prose, grounded in masculinist and positivist literary traditions, continues to aspire toward fictions of neutrality and objectivity, which can be alienating to read. Readers of academic prose (students, researchers) are often actively discouraged from dwelling on emotional responses to intellectual ideas. Yet whole panels and entire pages exist in Lissa whose sole purpose is to function on an emotional register. The intimacy and unabashed emotionality of the comics medium promotes its accessibility to a broader range of readers who would otherwise be alienated by academic prose. It’s worthwhile noting that not only might it appeal to a broader range of readers, but its appeal to academic readers might produce different and unexpected responses as well. Insofar as academics are still broadly trained and discouraged from engaging emotionally in the intellectual sphere, academic work that is explicitly designed to produce emotional response — in which the academic knows there is nothing wrong with allowing their emotions and their imagination free play — is likely to produce a different, fuller and more creative degree of insight and comprehension than an intellectual exchange in which the emotions and imagination are kept tightly in check from the outset.

Lissa — and the ethnoGRAPHIC project more broadly — is an exciting initiative whose successful first edition offers a lot to think about. Whether this is the beginning of a new comics genre, or a superb contribution to an already emergent literary form, it’s off to a great start.

RATING 8 / 10