10 May 2023

Crossing Lines: Using Comics to Tell Stories about Human Migration


    By Frederik Byrn Køhlert, Associate Professor of Media and American Studies, UEA

    In the context of rising anti-immigrant populism across the globe, there is an urgent need to provide counter-narratives that complicate such rhetoric and humanize the people at the centre of these debates.

    The creative research project Graphic Narratives of Migration, which is a collaboration between myself and several migration researchers from Canada, is a direct challenge to the black-and-white narratives of the populists that invited academics and non-academics to collaborate on making comics about the complexity and many different circumstances of human migration.

    Image from To/From by Kathleen Gros
    Sample page from “To/From” by Kathleen Gros (artist) and the Displacement & Refugees story group


    Far from being just a way to increase accessibility through the inclusion of visuals, comics and graphic narratives are sophisticated narrative constructs that combine visual and verbal elements to create meaning and tell powerful stories that can engage audiences in transformative ways. In this way, graphic narratives are an ideal way to raise difficult questions and complicate existing ideas, and unusual and unexpected combinations of words and images can also help to unsettle entrenched perspectives and create new ways of seeing and relating to the world.

    Image from Crossing Line by Jonathon Dalton
    Sample pages from “Crossing Lines,” by Jonathon Dalton (artist) and the Borders & Human Rights story group


    The main event of the project was a two-day workshop organized by myself and my colleagues that was held at the Centre of Migration Studies at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada. The workshop brought together 39 migration scholars (both faculty and graduate students) from across Canada with Vancouver-based community practitioners and nine graphic artists. After a morning of learning about comics creation, the participants spent the remainder of the workshop in nine working groups that developed storylines related to different aspects of human migration, and the artists then took a few months to create the final comics. We are now in the process of compiling these into a book manuscript that will also include a lot of supplementary pedagogical material intended to help students, teachers, and other readers make the most of the book.

    Image from The Waiting Room by Scarlet Wings Kaili
    Sample page from “The Waiting Room,” by Scarlet Wings Kaili (artist) and the Migrant Well-being & Health story group


    Our hope is that the book will help counter the current wave of anti-immigration populism by presenting humanizing, empathetic, and scholarly-informed short narratives about the lived experiences of migrants internationally. Although the narratives we have created are not first-person accounts of migration, we hope that by presenting larger contexts and critiques, we are helping to capture complexity and promote dialogue on a broad range of migration issues.

    Although the workshop was a great success, the project was always intended as an experiment in creative collaboration, and as such we have definitely learned a lot along the way. Getting scholars and artists on the same page, so to speak, certainly presented some challenges, but because everybody involved approached the project with an open and explorative mindset, it was an immensely rewarding experience that also shows how capacious and impactful the comics form can be.

    For more information, including videos, photos, and examples of the comics, visit the project’s website at the University of British Columbia.