How Penn State University Press tackled the coronavirus pandemic through comics

With the term “comics,” one might think of superheroes saving the day or the Sunday strips in the local newspaper.

But Penn State University Press has ventured into deeper comic territories with its “Graphic Medicine” series, which covers an array of health topics depicted in comic book form — from what it’s like to suffer from Parkinson’s disease to what being on life support is like.

Susan Merrill Squier, Brill professor emeritus of English and women’s, gender and sexuality studies, said she saw the impact of comics in the medical field after coming across the work of cartoonist Ruben Bolling.

After reading Bolling’s “Bad Blastocyst,” which teaches readers about stem cells, Squier said she saw an appeal in combining the medical field with comics.

“I think there’s a real appreciation of how comics reach different audiences, much broader audiences,” Squier said. “You can deal with subjects that are serious and deep and profound, as well as occasionally being funny.”

After seeing success with “Graphic Medicine,” the Penn State University Press announced the creation of “Graphic Mundi,” a new imprint that would encompass “Graphic Medicine” along with other heavy subjects, according to a Penn State news release.

Due to the coronavirus pandemic, however, the debut of “Graphic Mundi” was pushed back.

This hindrance would end up being the inspiration for the imprint’s debut release, “COVID Chronicles.”

Kendra Boileau, assistant director and editor-in-chief of the Penn State University Press and the publisher of “Graphic Mundi,” serves as one of the primary volume editors for “COVID Chronicles.”

Boileau said “COVID Chronicles” goes beyond the virus and covers many of the events that occurred in 2020.

“We were trying to include a range of experiences and not just focus on quarantine habits,” Boileau said. “We wanted to make it a bigger project too to match the scale of what our lives have become.”

Boileau said taking on a topic like the coronavirus pandemic was “a little uncomfortable” and, at times, “overwhelming.”

Despite the difficulties, Boileau said her experience with “COVID Chronicles” was an enjoyable one.

“Working on this project was a very nice focus for me because I was in lockdown,” Boileau said, “and this was a way for me to channel my attention into working with all of these creators collaboratively to create something out of the mess.”

Brendan Coyne, sales and marketing director for the Penn State University Press, said he has been impressed with this anthology from the get-go.

“As a whole, I think it’s a remarkable project from conception to finish,” Coyne said. “It’s the quickest project we’ve ever done here, and I’d hazard [to say] it’s one of the quickest projects ever produced by a university press.”

With 64 total comics from about 70 different contributors, Boileau said there are “a lot of heavy comics” in “COVID Chronicles.”

“The collection includes some fantasy works of fiction, sci-fi, but also some deeply personal narratives,” Boileau said. “One artist did a comic about losing his mother, and that’s entirely true. Also, [there have been] some very hopeful ones. There’s a section about kids and how kids have responded to the pandemic — that’s an uplifting section.”

Squier said “COVID Chronicles” will be used as a reference for other bodies of work. She is using one of the comics for an article she is writing about One Health, which she described as a combination of “human medicine and veterinary medicine, and then environmental awareness.”

“I think people are not only going to be reading the ‘COVID Chronicles’ and enjoy what they expressed about the experiences we’ve all been having in COVID, but scholars are going to be using them in their work, too,” Squier said.

Coyne said the feedback for “COVID Chronicles” has been nothing but positive so far.

“We’ve received great reviews for feedback from the comics world, from the public health world,” Coyne said. “Pretty much, I haven’t heard a negative thing about this book at all.”

A portion of funds from “COVID Chronicles” is donated to the Book Industry Charitable Foundation. The foundation helps support book sellers, retailers and comic book stores, which, according to Boileau, have all been affected by the pandemic.

For the future of “Graphic Mundi” and “Graphic Medicine,” Squier said there has already been development beyond comics, with the addition of zines, which are “self-created mini magazines,” traveling exhibits, and a conference coming this summer sponsored by the “Graphic Medicine” Collective.

Coyne said the main goal for “Graphic Mundi” is to continue to tackle more serious subjects.

He said Penn State University Press’ most recent release “Twister” details the experience of the author becoming quadriplegic.

“I think the ‘Graphic Mundai’ imprint has got a remarkable lineup,” Coyne said. “We’ve had a very exciting start to it — it’s been a ton of work, a lot of fun and it all feels very rewarding… Everyone I’ve dealt with has been very excited and very collaborative with us.”

Boileau said comics seem to be a strong choice in conveying complicated concepts as compared to other mediums.

“Graphic art basically is able to convey things that… prose simply cannot,” Boileau said. “It’s the interplay of the wording image that maybe speaks volumes… compared to just prose. So I feel like this medium is really well suited to these kinds of difficult topics.”