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The Journal of Multimodal Rhetorics

ISSN: 2472-7318

Words and Smiles: Making Comics During the Pandemic

Don Unger

Keywords: queer, art, loneliness, comics

Categories: Queer Responses to the Apocalypse; Arting/Crafting/Making in a Crisis

In Fall 2019, I rekindled my passion for comic books; I started by rereading my favorite comic book, Elfquest (EQ). I read the series on and off for the past 37 years. Growing up in the 1970s and 1980s, Elfquest was the first place I saw homosexuality and queerness, or maybe more accurately, polyamory and pansexuality, depicted as commonplace and not as a moral or psychological problem. In March 2020, just a week before the U.S. stepped up COVID-19 safety precautions and began social distancing, I attended the San Diego Comic Fest. Nope, not Comic Con. Comic Fest is a much smaller convention meant to evoke the early days of Comic Con when the event focused on comics and comic creators. I went to Comic Fest so that I could finally meet EQ’s creators, Wendy and Richard Pini. They were friendly. I mumbled something about how much the series meant to me. They thanked me, and I bought some sketches Wendy made that morning. Recounting the experience now, it doesn’t seem like much, but it had a lasting impact. After attending the convention, I started to dig deeper into comics fandom, particularly indie and small-press comics.

When teaching, meetings, and academic events shifted online and my face-to-face social interactions dwindled to nothing, the pandemic left me home alone in my tiny apartment in small-town Mississippi for months. I split my days among tracking the pandemic, keeping up with my academic work as best I could, and exploring what I had missed since leaving comic fandom in the mid 1990s. At the time that I stopped reading comics, I was in my early twenties, working my way through a string of minimum-wage, service-industry jobs: I couldn’t afford to buy comics. The pandemic prompted me to reconnect with comics. Diving back into them gave me temporary reprieve from the anxiety and anger provoked by the pandemic and the half-assed, often illogical response to it by national, state, and local “leaders.” Connecting to other comic fans helped alleviate some of the loneliness that I felt during the pandemic.

In the first six months of the pandemic, I started reconnecting with comics fandom by watching YouTube channels like Cartoonist Kayfabe and Comic Tropes and discussing comics on Facebook groups. But it wasn’t enough. I wanted to move from being a passive observer of the fandom to being an active contributor, so I started researching and writing about comics through my blog, Indie Creator Explosion. In turn, my research and writing prompted me to start drawing again: another hobby I gave up long ago. I started with what I knew from my youth: drawing characters from comics that I was reading, aka fanart. That grew tiresome rather quickly.

Inktober helped me focus on drawing original work rather than fan art. Inktober is an annual event where artists create and post drawings to social media platforms everyday throughout the month of October. Their work is guided by shared, daily, one-word prompts (e.g., raven, sprout, or helmet). I wasn’t ready to post my work to Instagram or Twitter using the event’s hashtag, but I posted my work to my blog. While I didn’t participate in Inktober in the traditional ways, the experience prompted me to look for communities of comics creators.

During the pandemic, universities and other institutions that offer classes in making comics and cartooning shifted their courses online. In December 2020, I decided to take some of these classes. I started with self-paced, asynchronous classes on story structure and inking comic art through the Sequential Artists Workshop (SAW) in Gainesville, FL. By Spring 2021, I had enrolled in classes at three different institutions: SAW, 92Y—a cultural and community center in New York City, and the School of Visual Arts, also located in New York. In the illustrations that follow, I present some of the pages that I created in these classes. I created the first page, “Why I am Punk,” based on that prompt during a two-hour SAW workshop where attendees were guided through the theme: we discussed what “punk” means, as well as what it looks like. I created the second page, “Gettysburg,” during a four-week class hosted by 92Y. The class focused on drawing comics that reflected our personal experiences. Finally, I created the last three pages in the School of Visual Arts’ “Comics Projects Class.” The instructor for the class, Carl Potts, ran it as a peer-review workshop where students presented and received feedback on one page every week from an ongoing story that they were working on. Here, I present the first three pages of my graphic novel project, tentatively titled Words and Smiles: A Graphic Intervention.

For me, making comics provided a creative way to process feelings brought on by the pandemic, as well as space to reflect on events that have shaped who I am. I started by creating single-panel diary comics recounting things about my day, but as the classes progressed, I moved on to telling longer-form autobiographical stories about some of my experiences. Making autobio comics allowed me to create something that I felt good about, even when I didn’t share my work widely. In contrast to my academic writing, creating comics helped me present my experiences without having to worry about whether or not I had grounded these stories in the trending critical directions of an academic field: something that has always felt more like a performance for industry gatekeepers than an earnest pursuit of “knowledge.” (I’m looking at you, “Reviewer 2.”)

Being a student again, and in a field that overlaps with but differs greatly from Rhetoric and Writing Studies, helped me reconnect with the passion that brought me to the field in the first place. At the most basic level, this passion stems from a desire to convey to others what I think, feel, and have experienced through marks on a page and to understand why and how others have made their marks. After years and years of minimum-wage jobs and just struggling to get by, this passion compelled me to return to the university, to get my associate’s degree, then my bachelor’s, and on and on until becoming a university professor. Taking these comics classes and making comics got me thinking about when things had started to go the other way, how academe began to dull this passion or contain it within expected parameters. As the pandemic rages on—and as universities make minimal effort to protect students, faculty, staff, and neighboring communities, I begin to question if most academic institutions can inspire any passion beyond anger right now. As a teacher and comics creator, I feel compelled to try.

Why I Am Punk”


Page Caption: Created for a Sequential Artists Workshop event hosted by Josh Bayer and Hyena Hell

Panel 1

Medium shot of Don shrugging his shoulders. He has shaggy hair, and is wearing glasses and a flannel shirt. His dog, Spock, is in the left corner of the panel.

TITLE: Why I Am Punk

Panel 2

Close up of Don.

DON: Because I’m gay, and I took a job in the most conservative state in the country because fuck bigots!

Panel 3

Wide shot, medium angle of Don as a teenager. He is sitting down and leaning against the panel borders. He is wearing a hoody and his hair is cut into a Chelsea with long flowing bangs.

CAPTION: Because deep inside I’m still that angry punk rock kid with few friends who sits at home alone listening to records and dreaming of a different world.

Panel 4

Medium shot and angle of Don I present day squeezing the Earth between his arms. He is surrounded by shooting stars.

CAPTION: Because I make comics, zines, and art that challenge me to connect with the world in ways that aren’t always pleasant.

Panel 5

Medium shot and angle of Spock sticking his tongue out. He has one ear up and the other down and looks sassy.

CAPTION: Because my best friend is punk af.

Panel 6

Medium shot, and angle showing two women hugging. One woman has a mohawk and is sticking   her tongue out. The other has an afro and is wearing glasses. There is a heart in the background behind them.

CAPTION: Because “you think that punk means asshole, but I know punk means cuddle”—Tsunami. (The quote refers to lyrics from an early 1990s indie rock song.)



“Gettysburg, 1980”


Page Caption: Created for the 92Y class “Cartooning for Beginners” taught by Josh Bayer

Panel 1

Establishing shot of a campsite with a tent and a car parked next to it. There is a clothesline hanging nearby with some towels on it.

TITLE: Gettysburg, 1980

CAPTION: When I was growing up, family vacations meant camping trips.

Panel 2

Medium shot showing three men from the shoulders down. They are dressed in civil war era clothing and holding muskets.

CAPTION: Often times, we’d go somewhere with an historical site nearby. I don’t recall much of the history.

Panel 3

Wide shot of a middle-aged woman standing in a shop. She is holding a t-shirt that say, “I’m a little Yankee.” Standing next to her, a small child points to a t-shirt that read, “I’m a little Rebel.” In the background other t-shirts read “Another historical reference you don’t understand at 5,” and “Another one.”

CAPTION: I remember tiny pieces of the past. I remember my parents wouldn’t let me get a t-shirt at a gift shop in Gettysburg.

MOM: No, you cannot get that shirt. What about this one?

DON: What’s a Yankee?

Panel 4

Establishing shot of a battlefield. There’s a cannon in the center of the panel and a lone tree off in the distance. There’s a small, rock wall in front of the cannon.

CAPTION: The highlight of our trip was walking around the battlefield. I remember seeing a single cannon.

Panel 5

Medium shot from above of two small children digging in the dirt in front of the small, rock wall from the last panel.

CAPTION: My brother and I spent most of the time scanning the ground, hoping to find some bullets, bones, or some poor soul’s wallet.

Panel 6

Wide shot of the mother approaching the two children. She looks a bit stressed out. One child is turning to acknowledge here, and the other is holding something up.

MOM: Why are you kids digging?

DON: No reason.

MOM: Well, stop it!

BROTHER: I think I found a finger.



Words and Smiles: A Graphic Intervention (excerpt)




Page Caption: Created for the School of Visual Arts’ “Comics Projects Class” taught by Carl Potts


Panel 1

Long shot, low angle view looking up a woodsy road on a steep hill. The street is dotted with street lamps that are still on. There’s no one on the road. On the horizon, the sun peeks through clouds, casting an orange and pink glow.

CAPTION: Oxford, Mississippi, 2021

Panel 2

Long shot, high angle view looking down the same road; a full moon glows through wispy clouds.


Panel 3

Medium shot/angle of Don walking his dog, Spock, down the hill to the left side of the road. Don is middle-aged white man with long black hair, a beard, and glasses. He is wearing baggy khakis, a zip up hooded sweatshirt, and a snapback. Spock is a beagle shepherd mix.


Panel 4

Medium shot/angle from Don’s point of view of a deer cowering next to an apartment building located along the road. The deer favors its right front leg.


Panel 5

Long shot with Don in the foreground. In the background, a middle aged white woman with her hair pulled back into a messy bun and dressed in sweatpants and a sweatshirt is standing in front of the same apartment building. She’s waving her arms and calls to Don.

WOMAN: Be careful. There was a deer that was attacked by some dogs. The city wildlife people are coming.

DON: Thanks. I saw the deer.

Panel 6

Long shot, medium angle of Don walking his dog toward an apartment building in an apartment complex.


Panel 7

High angle from Don’s point of view: he and Spock are walking close to the building, past apartment doors. There’s a garbage bag that’s been ripped open on the ground in front of them. Garbage has been strewn everywhere.

DON: Neighbors...

Panel 8

Two gun shots in rapid succession. Close up of Don’s face looking stunned.




Panel 1

Medium shot/angle of Don sitting in his living room. He’s leaning forward in a chair looking at something on his laptop computer, which rests on the coffee table in front of him. Spock is seated behind him in the same chair, wrapped around Don. The dog’s head and paws are rest on the edge of the chair next to Don.

            CAPTION: It’s been ten months, but there’s no sign that things will change soon.

Panel 2

Close up of computer screen from Don’s point of view: he’s looking at the COVID-19 numbers for Mississippi on the state’s Department of Health website.

            CAPTION: At first, you try to stick to a routine.

Panel 3

Medium shot/angle of Don working out on a recumbent exercise bike in his living room near the front window.

            CAPTION: The loneliness creeps in despite your best efforts.

Panel 4

            Medium shot/angle of Don coming out of the bathroom after his morning routine.

            CAPTION: It doesn’t hit you all at once like a bullet.

Panel 5

Medium shot/angle of Don sitting at a desk and working on his computer. The room is lined with fully stocked bookcases.

            CAPTION: It grows slowly, day after day, like cancer.

Panel 6

Close up of Don sitting in the front seat of his car as a grocery store employee loads groceries into the trunk.

            DON: The substitutions are fine. Thanks.



Panel 1

            Close up of Don on his smartphone.

            DON: I have some class prep to do, but I have plenty of time. Too much.

Panel 2

Medium shot/angle of Sherri holding her phone in one hand and her baby in the other. She’s in her living room. Sherri is a Black woman in her early 30s with an asymmetrical haircut that frames her face and glasses.

           SHERRI: You’re finally getting starting the comic. That’s great!

           SHERRI: Where will you start?

Panel 3

            Over the shoulder shot of Don drawing at a drafting table.

CAPTION: When loneliness gets big enough that you can’t avoid it any more, it becomes a companion of sorts.

Panel 4

Close up from Don’s POV of the page he’s working on. His hand and the edge of the paper are visible. The page shows a one panel with a group of young people sitting in a lounge on a university campus.

CAPTION: You can start to talk to one another, but you’ll find that the only thing you have in common are the underlying conditions. 



A comic-drawn picture of the author wearing glasses and a baseball cap. He's in a thoughtful pose and says, Wow, that's a lot.

Don Unger (he/him/his) is the McCullouch-Greer Assistant Professor of Civic Writing in the Department of Writing & Rhetoric at the University of Mississippi. Also, he is affiliated faculty with the Gender Studies graduate certificate program and the Community Engaged Leadership undergraduate minor. His work focuses on community writing and publishing and includes serving as an editor of Spark: A 4C4Equality Journal. The journal focuses on activism in writing, rhetoric, and literacy studies. His academic work has been published in Computers and CompositionConstellations: A Cultural Rhetorics Publishing SpaceCommunity Literacy JournalTeacher-Scholar-Activist, and various edited collections. Finally, he serves as a steering committee member of United Campus Workers-Mississippi: the first higher-education union in the state.