Sneak comics into your dissertation with this one weird trick

Comics scholars recently have been dedicating much time to the consideration of comics as scientific discourse: not just writing essays about comics, but writing essays in comics form (regardless of their subject). More and more, I’ve seen some brilliant people use pictures in conferences, as a visual support to their presentation. These efforts to start a discussion on comics as an academic practice culminated a few months ago with the foundation of Sequentials, a platform for comics-as-scholarship. I’m convinced that the ability to express ourselves in drawing as well as writing would change the way we academics think, research, and teach what we’re leaned.

Therefore, this post is about my own very humble attempt at bringing comics into my doctoral dissertation, not in the analysis itself (that would have been impossible in the context of the degree I’m taking) but in the thank-you section of the volume. For those of us who cannot craft an entire comics dissertation (see Nick Sousanis’ Unflattening), be it because of their limited abilities or because of academic conservatism, this may be an easy way to get started and perhaps push the boundaries of what is considered acceptable in scholarly documents.

Although the form of comics-as-scholarship is beginning to develop and has has a lot of good press among comics academics (obviously), it is by no means an accepted way to “do science”. Platforms like Sequentials exist precisely because no self-respecting journal would touch comics articles with a barge pole. My good friend Nicolas Labarre experienced this first-hand when he tried to convince several journals to publish an article whose contents had been deemed scientifically valid by their own committee, but whose form was comics rather than prose. Disappointingly but unsurprisingly, he was turned down by journal after journal, until his article found a home in Sequentials. That’s too bad, because his article demonstrated that the switch from prose to comics demonstrated that you can be much more specific about certain things (visual details in film analysis, for example) and that the comics form actually clarifies the analysis.

Following Nicolas’ unfortunate adventure, I remained curious about the notion of using comics where it would not normally be expected, and eager to try and do my own bit of experimentation with the form. That’s when I decided a good place to start would be the thank-you section of my thesis. I have been drawing on and off for most of my life: I make comics for my friends, as announcements or as ways of expressing my feelings. I’ve never really shown my drawings in a professional context ; they feel amateurish, intimate and, yes, not “serious” enough.

But precisely because of that, they seemed like an adequate way to deal with the very specific exercise that is the thank-you section at the beginning (or end) of a dissertation manuscript. Now, for those who’ve never read a dissertation (lucky bastards !), it’s the place where you nominally thank all the individuals and institutions who’ve helped you, or were supposed to help, on your way to completing your thesis. On many levels it is a formal exercise: you are expected to thank your director of studies regardless of how much they assisted (or, in worst-case scenarios, hindered) your research. On the other hand, the thank-you section is also the place where you thank your friends and family who actually made it possible for you to survive the daily struggles of writing the damn thing.

So the thank-you section is a very weird thing to do; you’re expressing the same amount of gratitude for people you have widely different relations with. Not that I personally had anything to complain about: my director is amazing, and I loved the working relation I had with other colleagues. Still, I had other, deeper forms of gratitude to express : my friends who kept me going from afar, my husband who stood by me in the darkest days had nothing to do with the academic side of things, but still were necessary in a very real way.

That’s when I realised using comics would allow me to negotiate that strange mix of the formal and the private. The comics page uses the standard progression from working relations to friends and family, but the use of self-representation allows me to clarify how I relate to the people involved, through things such as clothes, hair, body language. Instead of just changing the way I address the person I want to thank (from “many heartfelt thanks to Professor X” to “cheers, bro”), I was able to change who I was as I said those sentences.

Sequentiality allows me to pretend that all the separate bits of my thank-you speech were uttered in widely different contexts. In the first panel, I thank my jury at the end of the defense, with the ubiquitous plastic cup; but in the second one I can thank my former teachers and colleagues in a more relaxed setting like a café or a bar, drinking a cup of coffee. In the third panel I raise a glass to my friends in academia who helped with the writing process. These three panels form the first strip: the point of view and the character remain the same, but the accessories and attitudes change.

In the second strip, the slight alterations in the drawing style becomes clearer, leaning more towards manga style as I thank my parents  (manga was an integral part of my teenage years and is associated with emotional turmoil and learning from older, more experienced people). The larger panel is a collective, heartfelt ‘thank you’ to friends wherever they are, and resonates with the relief of actually finishing a three-year endeavor. This is me as I hope my friends see me: chatty, relaxed, and inexplicably obsessed by bunnies.

The final strip begins with me taking my leave and announcing I am going straight to bed after this. Character proportion is all wrong here: I look smaller and slightly misshapen, which is, let’s face it, a sign of my very limited graphic abilities. However, I decided not to redraw the panel as I thought it echoed the mental state of the character. Then comes the obligatory metatextual joke: the grey panel pretends the narrative stops there, although the reader knows this is not the case. It honestly looked better in my mind than it does in the final version; the point was to create a break in the narrative, a boundary beyond which the narrative would only address the person closest to me, thus creating a fictitious “private space”. This final private space is where I thank my husband, hoping the mushiness of my speech is partially compensated by the levity of the form.


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