Q&A with James Scorer on Latin American Comics in the Twenty-First Century

Q&A with James Scorer on Latin American Comics in the Twenty-First Century

Given comics’ ability to cross borders, Latin American creators have used the form to transgress the political, social, spatial, and cultural borders that shape the region. New in our World Comics and Graphic Nonfiction Series, James Scorer’s groundbreaking and comprehensive study Latin American Comics in the Twenty-First Century documents how these works move beyond national boundaries and explores new aspects of the form, its subjects, and its creators.

Latin American comics production is arguably more interconnected and more networked across national borders than ever before. Analyzing works from Argentina, Chile, Colombia, Mexico, Peru, and Uruguay, James Scorer organizes his study around forms of “transgression,” such as transnationalism, border crossings, transfeminisms, punk bodies, and encounters in the neoliberal city. Scorer examines the feminist comics collective Chicks on Comics; the DIY comics zine world; nonfiction and journalistic comics; contagion and zombie narratives; and more. Drawing from archives across the United States, Europe, and Latin America, Latin American Comics in the Twenty-First Century posits that these comics produce micronarratives of everyday life that speak to sites of social struggle shared across nation states.

Latin American Comics in the Twenty-First Century came out on June 11, and is available to order now! Grab your copy here, and learn more about other comics studies titles in our list here.

Your book puts comics from different national contexts into dialogue with each other and moves away from seeing comics as the domain of national popular culture. What was particularly challenging about undertaking the transnational approach you take in your book?

The first answer is logistical. Reading the variety of comics that I did required travelling to lots of different places. In Latin America, most publicly accessible holdings of comics are in national institutions and are, understandably, national in focus. If you want to look at Argentine comics, say, then visiting the Center for Comics and Graphic Humor at the National Library is extremely helpful, particularly when looking at historical publications. But they don’t hold many comics published in other countries. And even the National Library is limited in what it can buy in terms of contemporary publications—budgets are limited, recently published graphic novels tend to be expensive, and comics are not always a priority. So, you also need resources and time to visit independent bookstores (I mention my visit to the store Punc in Buenos Aires in the book, for example). A similar pattern can be seen in many countries across the region.

A partial solution is to visit institutions in Europe and the US, which have much larger budgets, even for comics, and where you can find more regionally diverse collections. The Ibero-Amerikanisches Institut in Berlin, for example, has an excellent collection of historical and contemporary comics publications. The University of New Mexico has a large collection of graphic novels and many Mexican magazines and zines in its special collections. The University of Iowa has an excellent collection of zines from across Latin America, many of which include comics or are entirely comics focused. But all these trips require, of course, various kinds of support, not least financial.

The second answer is conceptual. The tradition within Latin American studies has been to see comics in terms of popular culture, which has long been tied to ideas of national identity via concepts such as “the people.” There is a great deal of excellent scholarship that addresses comics in terms of national traditions, national canons, and national identities, often, as it happens, highlighting how comics destabilize the boundaries of those ideas (even though such destabilizing gestures rarely occur outside the parameters of the national). And it would be naïve to suggest that the national has become irrelevant, that national contexts don’t matter, or even that recent publications in Latin American comics are creating some kind of transnational manifesto or aesthetic. But reading contemporary comics transnationally does highlight how production is more networked across the region than ever before, and that the resulting gatherings and dialogues are addressing shared social concerns. Striking a balance between these approaches was sometimes challenging.

Can you give some background on the politics of the turn of the millennium and the Pink Tide of the ’00s and ’10s? How did the fluidity and values of these movements mirror the porousness of Latin America as a whole, which, in the world of comics, functions as a transnational state?

The term “Pink Tide”—also known as the “Left Turns”—in Latin America is the name given to the wave of left-wing governments that came to power near the start of the new millennium. The success of these governments in national elections was a strong response to what many people saw as the failure of neoliberalism in the region. The extremities of the neoliberal project, with widespread privatizations, a collapse in the welfare state, and significant negative impact on national industries, including cultural production, produced a huge wealth divide and growing social inequality. The new governments made some hugely significant improvements in these areas and others, increasing state support to more sectors of society and redistributing wealth. Of course, not all aspects of these governments were successful—some were criticized for restricting the dynamism of economic markets, others for not being radical enough. I talk about one of the major criticisms of these governments in the book—that they turned a blind eye to the huge negative impact that large, multi-national agricultural and mining corporations have had on the environment as long as those businesses were providing increased tax revenue that could be used for social welfare and infrastructural projects.

On the one hand, these governments were not dissimilar to earlier manifestations of populism in Latin America, in that they often developed strong anti-colonial, anti-imperial critiques of foreign investment and imports. As part of that approach, they mobilized national cultural traditions by funding (and founding) cultural institutions, festivals and events, and publications. Alongside this national dynamic, however, the Pink Tide also created something of a transnational feel in Latin America, insofar as many countries were experiencing similar political transformations. In terms of comics, those connections did support some of the networked nature of production—artists travelled between countries to participate in government-sponsored comics festivals, for example. That said, the transnationalism that I see being manifest in the comics scene was driven predominantly by other forms of politics to that of national political parties—a kind of micropolitics of the everyday, for example, or a politics related to transformations in gender politics, or solidarities related to pushing back against the devasting impact of environmental extractivism. Moreover, though I also emphasize in the book how physical publications underpinned some of this transnational dynamic, there is no doubt that the digital turn and the huge expansion of accessibility to digital networks in many sectors of society also played a huge role in the development of this transnationalism, particularly via blogs and other social media platforms.

The texts you examine in your book—graphic novels, comics magazines, zines, online comics, and blogs—engage with borders broadly and specifically. Are there specific texts you recommend readers check out if they’re interested in stories related to contagion, sexuality and gender, and urban rights?

The book thinks about borders in multiple ways, including territorial borders (national boundaries, social borders, borders of the body, etc.). And it also thinks about borders in relation to cultural production and comics themselves, which are constructed out of the borders of the panels on the page but also come to life as readers make their way across those borders, not least via hybrid transgressions between word and image.

There are many comics in the book that address the themes flagged up in the question. But for stories related to contagion and disease, which I principally think about in relation to zombie narratives, readers could compare Infestación: The Mythology, which is a fairly traditional zombie narrative set in and around Ciudad Juárez and the Mexican border with the US, with what I would see as more inventive refashionings of the zombie genre, such as Colombian Joni B’s story “Los evasores,” which is a sort of a comics equivalent of a slacker zombie movie (if there is such a thing!), or the Silva Brothers’ Prócer zombie series, which revisits Uruguayan heroic traditions and particularly the figure of the liberator José Artigas.

For comics related to sexuality and gender, I’d recommend looking at the work of non-binary artist Femimutancia, who has produced some very interesting work relating to bodies and gender rights. Ignacio Minaverry’s Dora series, which is ostensibly about Nazi hunting, also includes a strong narrative thread related to sexuality and gender. And Jazmín Varela’s work—I look at Cotillón in the book—is also very powerful in terms of its approach to sexuality.

Varela’s book is also great for thinking about the right to the city because it explores various forms of urban transgression, whether via drug consumption, clubbing, graffiti, etc. In terms of graphic cityscapes, I also have a personal affection for Juan Sáenz Valiente’s La sudestada. Having lived in Buenos Aires for several years, I’m always struck when I open that book by how well it captures mundane views of the city. It’s not a work that sets out an immediately obvious rethinking of urban politics, but the way it highlights how different kinds of quite ordinary encounters can be hugely transformative is an important reminder about the power of friendship and everyday life.

Tell us about your AHRC-funded research project on Comics and Race in Latin America and how that experience informed your book.

Comics and Race in Latin America (CORALA) is a three-year project funded by one of the UK’s national funding bodies, the Arts and Humanities Research Council. The project team comprises four researchers: myself (Principal Investigator), Peter Wade (Co-Investigator), and Abeyamí Ortega and Malena Bedoya, who work full-time as postdoctoral research associates. The project has two principal strands.

On the one hand, the project looks at different representations of racialized groups in Latin American comics, with a particular focus on Argentina, Colombia, and Peru. Here we have undertaken extensive research in a range of different libraries and archives, looking at newspapers, magazines, comics publications, zines, blogs, etc., from the late-nineteenth century to the present day. On the other, CORALA explores how race impacts contemporary comics practices in Latin America, and, moreover, how contemporary artists respond to issues of race in their work. For the latter part of the project we have collaborated with comics artists based in the aforementioned countries, working alongside them to create a corpus of comics zines that address different aspects of racialized identities and racism. We also recently commissioned them to produce short comics that respond in some way to archival images that we found during our research—a way of thinking about how contemporary artists might “draw back” against the archive.

Working on CORALA certainly made more me aware of issues related to racialized identities that appear in the comics that I analyze in the book. That influence is particularly evident in the chapter on nonfiction comics and forms of extractivism in Latin America. That said, much of Latin American Comics in the Twenty-First Century was drafted before I had done much work on CORALA, so I would say that the former also had considerable influence on the conceptualization of the latter. Either way, there is a great deal more work to be done on the history of race in Latin American comics, something that will no doubt happen as the profile of comics artists, comics work, and comics researchers continues to diversify.

What are you working on now?

Currently, I am involved in completing several outputs for the CORALA project. For example, I am involved in cocurating an online exhibition that highlights some of the key themes that have emerged from the project (once live it will be visible here). The exhibition, which includes the work commissioned from the artists who worked with us, posed us with significant challenges about how to present racist imagery without reproducing the violence embedded in these works. Otherwise, I am coediting the project’s book on comics and race in Latin America and writing an article about the depiction of Indigenous populations in Argentine comics during the 1950s and 1960s.

In the longer term, I am starting to think about possible new pathways for my research. I have been researching and writing about Latin American comics for many years, and while I have lots of ideas about future projects and writings, I also want to develop my interest in other aspects of Latin American cultural production, particularly photography.

James Scorer is a senior lecturer in Latin American cultural studies at the University of Manchester. He is the author of City in Common: Culture and Community in Buenos Aires, the editor of Comics Beyond the Page in Latin America, and the coeditor of Cultures of Anti-Racism in Latin America and the Caribbean and Comics and Memory in Latin America.