It’s the year 2052, and Nana’s not hugging anyone anytime soon.
She remembers the pandemic too well.
The look into the future comes from Seattle cartoonist and illustrator Marie Bouassi’s series “Future Hangups,” which chronicles a grandmother scarred by having lived through the coronavirus pandemic as she attends her grandson’s birthday party. His friends aren’t big fans of the face masks and hand sanitizer party favors she gives them.
Bouassi, who has published work in Seattle Weekly and in underground Seattle comics publications in addition to self-published comics, said she got the idea for her “Future Hangups” series from her own grandmother, who lived through the Great Depression and was forever affected by it.
If Bouassi left a hair tie at her grandmother’s house on a visit, it was only a matter of time before it was mailed back to her.
“We were like, ‘oh, Great Depression grandma,’” she said. “So I wondered, what’s that going to look like for me when I’m older, or anyone who’s been through this now?”
Bouassi is just one Seattle-area cartoonist making comics about the coronavirus pandemic, be it through imagining grandmas of birthdays future or documenting small, human moments and dreads amid unprecedented times.
Short Run, a Seattle-based nonprofit comics collective that provides events, education and more, has been collecting and publishing coronavirus comics on its Tumblr page. The 10th iteration of its Short Run Comix & Arts Festival was supposed to take place this year, but has been indefinitely postponed with hope that it can happen in 2021. Kelly Froh, executive director and co-founder of Short Run, said the work they’re collecting will go toward filling in the gap of what people’s lives were like in the middle of the pandemic.
Even though it started locally, the work goes beyond Seattle artists, too, with less than half coming from the Greater Seattle area and the rest coming from around the world.
“The pandemic has exposed how broken our systems are,” the postponement announcement shared on Short Run’s website for the festival read. “It has revealed truths about suffering that we have known all along. Comix and comix artists help us heal by expressing solidarity in both our shared and unshared experiences.”
Froh was listening to a history lecture the other day about the 1918 influenza pandemic. The lecturer said there were few pieces of art and literature about the pandemic afterward, as if it was deemed too terrible and swept under the rug.
“I was just thinking like, ‘you know, I really think we’re going to do better than that this time around,’” she said.
Part of what makes comics a good option for the historical record is that production costs can be relatively low. Artists can reach their audience directly by posting their work online. And if Bouassi wants her audience to see a grandma leap supernaturally high into the air to rain down a righteous mist of Lysol, she can just draw it herself.
But they’re also useful to document current events because they’re smaller looks at shared human moments.
One of those shared experiences getting the comic treatment: motherhood in a pandemic. As schools and almost everything outside the house became off-limits, some moms have had to adjust to new schedules and new stresses.
Robyn Jordan lives in Seattle and has been drawing comics for MUTHA Magazine documenting her life as a mother throughout the coronavirus pandemic. She draws the line for her under-eye bags prominently in every frame her cartoon self is in.
“The day-to-day is really a slog,” she said. “It’s hard on our relationships with one another. Drawing and writing about it has been a help. It gives me a different mental challenge to work on.”
After Jordan and her partner were asked to test their young son for the Seattle Coronavirus Assessment Network (SCAN) program, which allows volunteers to submit COVID-19 home-testing kits to a lab to analyze how the virus spreads, she drew the comic “Guinea Pig” about it.
Her son’s consolation for a swab being jammed up his nose? Jordan let her toddler tell her what to draw for two pages, which included: a garbage truck, a baby basketball, a family of dragonflies, a big basketball and “Dad’s foot-bot” — kid-speak for a foot massager — twice.
Amy Camber of Seattle has been drawing comics about being a mother for years. Under the stress of the pandemic, it’s become harder. In her comic “Nerves Officially Frayed,” she draws herself as her own shadow, as “a pile of dust, scattered each day in all directions.”
“This is going to be our life for a long time,” Camber said. “And it’s very unsustainable.”
But, like Bouassi’s and Jordan’s coronavirus comics, Camber’s were drawn before George Floyd was killed by Minneapolis police.
Froh said Short Run had a plan to cover postered poles advertising canceled concerts with work from local comic artists and the phrase “Stay Weird,” but that it doesn’t seem appropriate to be spreading messages that aren’t about the current moment and protesting police brutality.
She said they have now pivoted to bringing print materials to protests, reprinting open source protest zines, working to distribute Black Lives Matter posters, and using social media platforms to spread relevant resources and perspectives.
Camber, Bouassi and Jordan all said their energy is now more focused on supporting protests and elevating Black voices rather than documenting their own personal daily experiences.
Camber said that while art doesn’t feel like enough, it can be a chance to connect with others.
“It has always felt inadequate to make a cartoon about it. I think probably every artist feels inadequate right now, like they’re not doing enough,” Camber said. “Like I tell my students, just keep making stuff. It could take on a life of its own we can’t predict.”