Jonathan Clode & Ryan Prout Q&A

All Is Not Well editors Jonathan & Ryan spoke with each other about their experiences of homelessness in social care, comics research and the aims of the project in this new iteration.

RP: How does supporting homeless people differ from working in other care settings, in your experience? 

JC: I think the hardest thing is accepting people’s decisions and the repercussions of them. Whether we like to admit it or not, we have more influence over people’s choices in other care settings and this helps maintain a sense of control. Not of people per se, but of their situations, and trying to steer them from harm. The term ‘vulnerable’ has become so easy to throw around in relation to the people in our society who require support, but the structures we operate within, and their attitude to those most in need, creates more vulnerability than it prevents. So much of the work I see in homelessness is a reaction to a larger social problem.

RP: What do you think are some of the biggest misconceptions we have, as a general public, about homelessness? 

JC: I think perhaps that homelessness, addiction, rough sleeping, whatever you choose to focus on, there’s a notion that it’s a choice or some kind of lifestyle. Nobody aspires to be in these kinds of situations. I think another problem stems from a lack of empathy that is born from the notion that people feel entitled to something and are trying to somehow con the system. Anyone who has these notions has almost certainly never observed, let alone experienced, the reality of homelessness. If they had they’d see that there is no gravy on this train. It’s got one wheel and the engine is on fire.

RP: What has it been like for those working in the care sector during Covid-19? 

JC: While it’s obviously been a challenge, it’s almost been a case of things carrying on as normal, or at least as normal as can be. There’s been an increase in provision for homeless services, but then as things have returned to more pre-pandemic levels, some of the emergency provisions have been withdrawn, and these were things that people had come to rely on. Anxiety levels for staff were naturally quite high at first, but it’s testament to their resilience that the vast majority have turned up every day and just got on with it. I don’t know if this is a direct correlation, but the percentages of people I know who have had Covid and work in a social care setting are pretty high. Most care services can’t just close, so the strain on staff to keep going is immense.

RP: Do you think there is now a greater appreciation of the role that care workers and care givers play in British society than there was, say, two years ago? 

JC: I think people have started to realise to some extent, that the value of social care workers is relative to the number of people who need care and support, and those numbers are growing. It’d be easy to say that’s down to the pandemic, but it’s not. To have real value in care workers we need a social standard that values the people they care for, which in my view is not a standard set by our government. Showing gratitude is fine, but the claps for NHS workers soon wore thin when it had no actual benefit to the lives or working conditions of the people we were cheering.

RP: What is PIE and how can it shift the way in which we think about vulnerable and homeless people? 

JC: PIE stands for Psychologically Informed Environment. It stems from research that showed that the majority of people who become homeless have experienced multiple traumas in their lives, often from a very young age. These traumas have affected their emotional and cognitive development and led to a higher likelihood of substance misuse and mental health issues. So in terms of the way we support people, a psychologically informed environment is one that takes into account the psychological makeup – the thinking, emotions, personalities and past experiences – of the individuals we work with, in the way that we operate. The focus is on building relationships, altering the physical environment and staff well-being and resilience.

RP: If there were only one thing that you could change about the approach to support for homeless people, what would it be?

JC: The biggest issue is that there isn’t enough service provision beyond frontline services that can help people move forward. Services are reduced and constrained across the board and this is where the greatest need lies. I think that trying to tackle homelessness isn’t a straight forward case of giving people somewhere to live as if it’s a silver bullet. There are invariably multiple issues that people need support with, be it mental health, substance misuse, or in many cases the reality of living independently, and the help just isn’t there on the scale that’s needed. The Housing First model, which was developed in Finland, is one where people are moved swiftly from homelessness to a flat of their own, and then the support needs are assessed, provided and sustained from that point on. That is the best example of any real endeavor toward solving homelessness that I’ve seen. It all stems back to the question of misconceptions; we’ll never solve homelessness if we don’t understand the causes or care enough as a society to prevent them.

JC : What is it about Spanish Comics and the way they capture social issues that particularly appeals to you?

RP: I enjoy reading graphic novels, and if I can learn something from them that’s relevant to my research and teaching, so much the better. There’s enough activity in Spanish comics and graphic novels for the range of styles and issues to be fairly broad: there’s something to suit most tastes. The titles that tend to capture my attention are ones that distil into a sequential narrative some aspect of what’s happening to contemporary Spanish society. For example, Ana Penyas’s Todo bajo el sol (Everything Under the Sun), which came out last year, uses a really creative mix of original art work, collage, and pastiche forms to involve the reader in a story about the dispossession of people along Spain’s eastern coastline, as a result first of mass tourism and then of landlordism, speculation, and the mining of living space as a source of extractable value that’s been brought about by parasitic web platforms like Air BnB. Other graphic novelists in Spain have also tackled issues such as the spate of evictions that followed the peak of the financial crisis, and the effects of the conservative government’s land reforms on the housing sector.

Comics and graphic novels are taken fairly seriously now in Spain. They’re reviewed in the press, and there are several podcasts on Spanish national radio that discuss new publications, for example. I like the fact that there’s some critical context in which to be a reader of Spanish comics. The creation in the mid-2000s of a national prize for comics possibly contributed to a trend that saw comics cross over into the human interest and political sections of journalism in Spain. The publication in 2007 of Wrinkles (Paco Roca, 2007) and María and Me (Miguel and María Gallardo, 2007), about care for the elderly, and children with autism, respectively, was instrumental in Spanish comics making that cross over into social and political forums. Paco Roca talks more about this in an interview I organised with him (and also translated).

There’s a great back catalogue of Spanish comics too, with a tradition that plugs into a deep seated Spanish cultural notion of deleitar enseñando, which conveys, more or less, the idea of learning and having some fun at the same time. For my research on housing in Spanish comics, Ana Merino, a colleague at the University of Iowa, recommended that I look at Francisco Ibáñez’s 13, Rue del Percebe. A couple of years ago a compilation of all the strips in the series, that started in 1961, came out. It’s about an apartment block in Madrid and Ibáñez uses it as a microcosm of Spanish society. And it’s laugh out loud funny. I wish it was available in English so that I could share it with people who don’t read Spanish.

JC: When it came to funding this project, what were the commissioners looking for?

RP: For the funding stream that’s supporting this project, one of the criteria was approaching an issue in light of Covid 19, and the post-pandemic situation. There’s very obviously a resonance there with the issues around homelessness: a stay at home order is hard to comply with if someone has no home or lives in terrible or squalid circumstances. And what will be the long term legacy of the very rapid moves that were made to address street sleeping at the start of the Covid-19 situation? Obviously, I can’t speak for the commissioners but I think they may also have been looking for the sort of collaboration that we’re facilitating through this project, i.e., coworking between researchers, practitioners, and creative artists. Situating the activities in a Welsh contest is also important, I think, and so are the ideas of innovation and impact. Comics have potential here, as we both believe, I think, since they have some capacity to cross over between creative practice, the visual arts, and public debate. I imagine that the commissioners were looking for projects that develop the University’s civic mission, too. By drawing attention to the important work that Huggard does in supporting some of the most vulnerable people in Cardiff, and doing so  in an innovative way, I think the project may be able to contribute to this goal.

JC: Have you noticed any trends in storytelling or subject matter when it comes to researching comics about social issues?

RP: That’s a really good question. I’m not sure my answer will be as good! I guess there’s a very clear tendency in comics and graphic novels to approach issues and stories that come under the loose banner of graphic medicine. I imagine this has to do with several factors. Firstly, the comics form is well suited to first person and testimonial narratives, and, secondly, comics allows for an element of embodiment that works effectively with stories about living with a neurodiverse or non-normative physical condition.

In Italian and French comics, and to some extent in Spanish comics, there’s a tendency to adapt biographies as graphic novels and you can find a comic version of the life stories of subjects from Agatha Christie to the latest pop stars. But biographies that are native to the sequential art form, are fewer and farther between. The ones I’ve read that fall into this category, for example, Ángel de la Calle’s graphic biography of Tina Modotti, Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, and Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home have been really satisfying to read, and I wish there were more comics like these. For example, Farough Farokhzad would make a great subject for a comics biography, in my humble opinion.

I don’t have the answer to this, but I wonder if changes in the way comic art is being created are having an effect on the narrative form. I would love to know more about how artists combine digital and non-digital materials and techniques when they are creating art work now. I invited Marta Alonso Berná to the 2017 British Hispanists’ Annual Convention, which was held in Cardiff, and she started to talk a little about this in her presentation. It was fascinating.

Curiously, given that comics and graphic novels are visual as well as textual, they seem to be resisting the migration to screens more than some other print publications. The digital comics utopia that Scott McCloud was predicting doesn’t seem to have come about. Comics and graphic novels make really nice physical books, when they’re well produced, and I think that’s part of the appeal. And there’s something about the sequential nature of comics that doesn’t fully translate to a screen. Proper Design have made the All is Not Well strips work very well on the website and I’m also looking forward to seeing the strips from AINW 1 and AINW 2 in a book.

Let’s hope the backlash against Maus in some school districts in the USA isn’t the start of a trend. That really puzzles me and I can only think that somewhere along the line someone has misunderstood what Art Spiegelman intended to do in this comic, and why he was motivated to create it.

JC: How do you think comics as a medium can contribute to education, be it academic or just in terms of awareness?

RP: Using comics as part of an inclusive curriculum can be a good thing, I think, because it allows someone designing a course to include material that caters to a variety of learning styles. For example, in my course on marginal voices in Spain and Latin America, for the section on Ana Mendieta I include in the reading list Who is Ana Mendieta?, a graphic novel about the artist, by Christine Redfern and Caro Caron. It covers all the key details about her biography as well as some of the critical opinion and controversy generated by Mendieta’s work. And since the story also has a visual channel, the strips can combine the more factual parts of Mendieta’s story with recreations of some of her most distinctive art works.  It’s not in any way a second rung or substandard resource.

On the same course I use the Gallardos’ comic María y yo and since we look at this alongside a documentary film based on the comic, this opens up discussion about the relative merits of telling a similar story, and of raising awareness about autism, in different media. I ask students to read the comic in Spanish and believe that comics can support language learning just like any other material that originates in the second language culture.

Miguel Gallardo remarks at the end of the comic that the greatest source of support he received when figuring out how to adjust to raising a daughter with autism came from the informal support networks across Spain created by families and by people with autism. In turn, the comic gave this networking additional momentum. Maybe that’s an illustration of the sort of impact and awareness that a graphic novel can have.

As Nicholas Mirzoeff (How to See the World) and others have noted, our societies are becoming more visual and the growing appeal of comics and graphic novels responds in some sense, I think, to this development. For an issue to be noticed, people have to be able to see it, and on the same terms and through the same visual story telling techniques that advertisers and other propagandists are continually using to try to make us think about anything except what matters. In this respect, visual artists who are good storytellers are in quite a powerful position, I would say.

Salvador Dalí predicted that comics would be the culture of the year 3794. I won’t be around that long, but I’d still be interested to know if he turns out to be right.

March 1, 2022