Graphic Ecologies: Aesthetics of Environmental Equity in Postwar American Comics
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In the postwar era of the United States, as military-industrial chemicals leak into airways, waterways, and foodways in unprecedented plumes and cancer clusters, comic art forms generate diverse environmental imaginations. Though historically disparaged as disposable ephemera, comics provide unique access to environmental expression in this critical period. This dissertation analyzes the formal registers of two independent newspaper strips and four graphic cancer narratives for an aesthetics of equity: a set of verbal-visual moves that chart awareness of environmental devastation as determined by privilege and power. The iconicity of the drawn body--its lines, shape, and movement--grapples with complex legacies of environmental harm and exclusion. Maps of environmental risk perception generated through game board motifs, collages, and icon repetition rely on the capacity of sequential art to engage readers in recognizing and analyzing postwar risk. In form and theme, an aesthetics of equity in comics deploys environmental knowledges subordinated and sharpened by interlocking social inequities. This aesthetics revises the elisions and assumptions of mainstream environmentalisms. Ultimately, comics demand a literacy particularly well suited to environmental justice (EJ) ecocriticsm. The dissertation comprises three chapters of analysis. The first examines competing environmental discourses in Alison Bechdel's Dykes to Watch Out For (1982-2008). This newspaper strip coincides exactly with the start of the contemporary EJ movement. In examining three character arcs across a quarter of a century, I track the emergence of EJ discourse in Bechdel's distinctly lesbian environmental imagination. The second chapter examines the heteronormative limits of the EJ story arc in Jackie Ormes' midcentury romance strip Torchy in Heartbeats (1953-4). Published weekly in the Comic Section of the Black newspaper the Pittsburgh Courier, Torchy chronicles its eponymous heroine's quest to end environmental racism in the fictional small town of Southville. Torchy's affect and body language revise romance genre conventions and expose sexism and racism as intersecting environmental oppressions. The third chapter examines transcoporeal exchange in four contemporary graphic cancer narratives from the early 21st century. This chapter examines the extent to which graphic cancer narratives "move out," to use Diane Herndl's phrase, to form coalitions with disparate environmental communities.