A New History of Laughter in China: An Interview with Christopher Rea (Part Two)

Part of what brought us together was your recognition of some parallels between what I had written in What Made Pistachio Nuts? about the “new humor” in the American context in the early 20th century and the kinds of developments your book documents. So, could you say a bit more about the similarities and differences in terms of what was happening around jokes in American and China during this period?

Ah, the “new humor”—same marketing strategy! In both cases, there’s this sense that the modern era calls for a new comedic sensibility. I see a lot of parallels, including in timing. Some jokes stand the test of time and are endlessly circulated. But, even as they make new conquests, jokes seem to have a built-in obsolescence factor. So we promise that this “new” one isn’t stale—actually, it just has to be new to you.

One major similarity is an increase in the volume of published jokes by several orders of magnitude. You have a rising tide of publications that lifts all literary boats, including humor’s humble sloops and dinghies. Writing jokes and amusing “filler” material for various periodicals became a means of livelihood. One writer, Zheng Yimei, was known to his colleagues as the Fill-in-the-Blank King, bubai dawang.

Another is that the rise of the periodical press overlapped with the popularity of a vaudeville culture of variety amusements. The Chinese word for magazine—zazhi, or “assorted records”—resonates with the new focus on miscellany in literary culture, and the choose-your-own-adventure ethos of the new amusement halls springing up in Shanghai, Hong Kong, and Singapore in the 1910s and 1920s. Funhouse mirror, floor one. Magicians, floor two. Comedians, floor three.

Finally, joke books, live performances, comic strips, slapstick films, and other forms of amusement became cheaper in the early twentieth century thanks in part to technological advances and urbanization, which created economies of scale. As it became cheaper, humor became more democratic.

As for differences, the main one was language. A new vernacular style of writing was just taking hold in the 1910s and 1920s, so you have humor collections appearing both in a written vernacular close to everyday speech, and in classical-style literary Chinese. The actual content of the jokes was not terribly different, though my impression—having not done a rigorous quantitative comparison—is that you find more puns in Chinese, a language of homophones.

Much of the debate about jokes in America had to do with their ties to a new commercial culture where the desire to make people laugh was divorced from the desire for moral instruction or critical commentary (or so the discourse of the period argued). Are these same criticisms directed against Chinese humorists and jokesters of this period? Why or why not?

In What Made Pistachio Nuts? you describe religious figures and members of the middle class decrying a new cultural force that would see any situation “thrown into the cauldron and cooked into some fashion of mirth.” Chinese critics voiced similar objections. One in the 1930s reminded advocates of “the so-called humor” that “laughter is like tobacco and alcohol: a little is a stimulant, but too much is narcotic.” China had just woken up from its dynastic lethargy—and now humor was putting it back to sleep.

Moral instruction (wen yi zai dao) and personal expression (shi yan zhi) are the two main writerly impulses—so says traditional Chinese literary theory. Either you set the world straight or you vent your own feelings. The moralists of the modern age weren’t just old fogies satirizing modern women in short skirts; you also have progressivists mocking their peers for wallowing in nostalgia for the glory days of the Ming dynasty instead of making revolution in the streets. So, yes, you see the same antagonism toward a new entertainment culture of pictorial magazines, comic strips, amusement halls, and movies. I would add that the “serious-minded” critics also often envied the entertainers’ commercial success.

There are many references here to “western jokes” being popular in China during this period and you also describe various ways Chinese jokes and other humor got exchanged across a diasporic community in the early 20th century. How might we understand humor and laughter as part of a larger set of cross-cultural exchanges during this period? It’s often said that humor is one of the hardest forms of cultural production to translate across national and linguistic barriers. So, what survived and what got lost through these exchanges?

“Laugh, and the world does not usually laugh with you, because the world generally fails to see just what there is to laugh about.” T.K. Chuan, an American-educated writer, also claimed that “it is not laughter that brings men together.” But he did so in an English-language Shanghai weekly, The China Critic, which played handmaiden to a humor craze in the 1930s, translating jokes back and forth with a Chinese-language humor magazine called The Analects Fortnightly. His colleague Lin Yutang, one of modern China’s most influential humorists, was more optimistic. On the eve of WWII, he facetiously suggested that if each nation were to send a representative humorist to a Peace Conference, all war plans would collapse because each would claim that it was all his own country’s fault.

Chinese humor was as internationalized as the Chinese press itself. Chinese humorists drew from any sources they could get their hands on. They read Tokyo Puck, Russian satirical plays, American comic strips like Mutt & Jeff (figure below) and Bringing Up Father, London’s Punch magazine. They translated Mark Twain and modeled magazines on The New Yorker. One Beijing-based periodical reprinted Chinese cartoons with translated French captions. Playwrights wrote comedies of manners channeling Wilde and Shaw. Filmmakers adapted Lady Windemere’s Fan and replicated gags from Buster Keaton.

A Chinese version of Mutt & Jeff in Shanghai’s Eastern Times Illustrated (ca. 1910s). Having cooled down on a hot day by strapping a block of ice to his head, A. Mutt is beaten by a sweaty companion when he dons gloves.

A Chinese version of Mutt & Jeff in Shanghai’s Eastern Times Illustrated (ca. 1910s). Having cooled down on a hot day by strapping a block of ice to his head, A. Mutt is beaten by a sweaty companion when he dons gloves.

As for “western jokes,” that was often a lazy marketing device like “new jokes.” In the 1920s, one writer claimed that Chinese jokesters were cribbing from old dynastic joke collections, changing the names to foreign names, and passing them off as “western jokes.” But you do have lots of translation and bilingual humor, literary and pictorial (figure below).

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Vermin make their home in the newly-established Republic, spoiling the fruit of earlier labors. From Shanghai’s The True Record (Mar. 1913)

My impression is that pictorial humor traveled wider and translated more easily than wordplay, but even still, China—then as now—had some remarkably talented translators who were able to bridge the language gap.

You have very interesting things to say in the book about the reception of slapstick comedies by Harold Lloyd and Charlie Chaplin in China and the ways they intersected with local slapstick traditions. Most of us know little to nothing about silent film comedy in China. Can you give us some glimpses into what was happening in Chinese cinema during this period and how it connected with the other kinds of humor you discuss?

The earliest extant Chinese film we have today is a slapstick comedy called Laborer’s Love (aka, Romance of a Fruit Peddler, 1922) (figure below). That’s pretty late in terms of film history, global or Chinese. But it’s no accident that it’s a comedy, which were then popular worldwide, or that it’s so fascinated with trick photography and gadgets. As Xinyu Dong has shown, the film was responding to American films made just a year earlier, like Buster Keaton’s The Haunted House (1921), which also features a staircase that turns into a slide.

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I show that trick camerawork in films like Laborer’s Love—such as a frame showing two images of a character dreaming of himself—can also be found in contemporaneous portrait photography. You could go to a studio and sit for a photograph in which you appear to be pouring yourself tea, driving yourself in a car, or begging yourself for money, thanks to the miracle of double exposure (figures below).

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Trick photographs using double exposure, ca. 1910s-1920s. The top one (with watermark) is printed on a postcard. The bottom one features a teenaged Puyi, the recently-deposed last emperor of the Qing dynasty.

These novelty photographs had been around since the 19th century, but their reception in China was unique. For example, in the Confucian Analects the Master twice advises that it is better to ask of oneself (qiu ji) than to ask of others—so they called the money-begging photo a “self-beseeching photo” (qiu ji tu). It’s a consumer product that’s at once allegorical, playful, and ironic.

Lloyd and Chaplin were extremely popular in China. Their films screened regularly, and they were both written about extensively in movie magazines (figure below). The handsome, friendly Lonesome Luke character was especially popular; Dong points out that the Laborer in Laborer’s Love even puts on Luke-style glasses at one point. Lloyd’s popularity plummeted in 1929 due to the Chinatown stereotypes in his first talkie, Welcome Danger (1929). Wisely, he apologized, and the brouhaha died down.

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Harold Lloyd on the cover of the first issue of Shanghai’s The Motion Picture Review (Jan. 1920)

Chaplin was revered as an “artist” and inspired local imitators as early as 1922 (figure below). His short visit to Shanghai in 1936 was a sensation. And by then, the Chinese film industry had been stable for about a decade, and you had actors specializing in comic roles, like the skinny Han Langen, who often paired with Liu Jiqun or Yin Xiucen as a Chinese Laurel and Hardy. Unfortunately, the 1937 Japanese invasion of Shanghai, where China’s film industry was centered, disrupted production for almost a decade.

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The King of Comedy Visits Shanghai (1922), a Chinese production starring a British expatriate


Christopher Rea is an associate professor of Asian studies and director of the Centre for Chinese Research at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver. He is author of The Age of Irreverence: A New History of Laughter in China (California, 2015); editor of China’s Literary Cosmopolitans: Qian Zhongshu, Yang Jiang, and the World of Letters (Brill, 2015) and Humans, Beasts, and Ghosts: Stories and Essays by Qian Zhongshu (Columbia, 2011); and coeditor, with Nicolai Volland, of The Business of Culture: Cultural Entrepreneurs in China and Southeast Asia. He is currently translating, with Bruce Rusk, a Ming dynasty story collection called The Book of Swindles.


A New History of Laughter in China: An Interview with Christopher Rea (Part One)

Christopher Rea’s The Age of Irreverence: A New History of Laughter in China offers an in-depth consideration of popular humor and popular culture more generally in China from the 1890s to the 1930s. This was a period of tremendous political and cultural change: many traditional forms of authority were challenged, and  various forms of westernization and modernization impacted the daily lives of the people. Comedy feeds upon such instability: as the anthropologist Mary Douglas has suggested, jokes provide us a way to say things that are widely recognized or felt but can not be expressed directly. Rea looks closely at a range of different comic genres as he describes the ways that Chinese culture entered “an age of irreverence.”

I should be clear that I am no expert on Chinese history or culture, but I have studied what was happening to American humor and comedy during this same time period. My dissertation and first book, What Made Pistachio Nuts?: Early Sound Comedy and the Vaudeville Aesthetic, described the ways that the emergence of mass media and waves of immigration helped to shape what made Americans laugh in the first decades of the 20th century. Rea contacted me about his book because he saw some important parallels between the developments in these two different cultures at the dawn of the 20th century, and for this reason, I found myself drawn into this richly detailed, carefully argued, and theoretically nuanced account. I believe that the insights here have the potential to spark larger conversations about the cultural analysis of humor and comedy, so my interview here is designed to pull out parallels and differences between the place of comedy in China and the United States. We are planning to do a public exchange about comedy and cultural change at USC next term, so this is a good dry run for further explorations.

Let’s start with the title. Stereotypes of Chinese culture often include the idea of a deep respect for tradition, for seniors and for ancestors, which all grow out of the Confucian tradition. Yet, you talk across the book about “irreverence.” How and why did China enter an “age of irreverence” and how might we understand what “irreverence” means in a Chinese context?

Respect for tradition and convention was still a strong part of Chinese culture at the turn of the twentieth century, but the top of the social and political hierarchy was breaking down. Qing armies had been defeated by the British in the Opium Wars, routed in the south by Taiping rebels (whom it took them 14 years to eradicate), and, in the 1890s, humiliated by the Japanese. Han Chinese resented the Manchu court, which was increasingly dysfunctional and desperate. Plus, you had a huge supply of frustrated, educated men who had trained for the civil service but had no chance of getting a government job. In the past they might have turned to tutoring for a living, but now many went to work for the expanding periodical press, which gave them a new platform to share erudite jokes, write doggerel verse, parody government proclamations, or trade insults. At the time, to express reverence for authority or for Confucian wisdom was anachronistic. You’d make yourself a figure of fun, cynicism, or even contempt.

The founding of the Republic of China in 1912 brought new hopes, but those soured immediately when the former Qing general Yuan Shikai pushed Sun Yat-sen aside and made himself president. Yuan sounds like “ape” (yuan) in Chinese, and a new crop of cartoonists and satirists had a field day with a strongman aping a statesman (figure below).

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“Dreaming of the Central Government.” Yuan Shikai as an ape reaching for a tablet that says “Long Live the Emperor.” Civil Rights Daily (ca. 1912)


This cover from the first issue of Free Magazine (Sept. 1913), a spinoff of the Shanghai daily Shun Pao’s “Free Talk” column, symbolizes a moment at which the press was celebrating the “freedom” (the word the boy’s holding) to be irreverent.

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Cover of Free Magazine (issue 1, Sept. 1913), a spinoff of the “Free Talk” column of the major Shanghai daily Shun Pao


Long story short, the outburst of irreverence was caused by a combination of disastrous national politics, uneven censorship, new mass media platforms, and people motivated to take advantage of these opportunities to change the tone of public discourse.


You talk about the book as a “history of laughter,” by which you seem to mean both a history of genres of popular amusement intended to provoke laughter and a history of the emotion and bodily reflex we call laughter. Can you say more about what it means to develop a history of laughter as opposed, say, to a history of comedy?


Xiaoshi, is a phrase I kept coming across while reading Chinese periodicals from the late 19th and early 20th century. “History of Laughter” is a literal translation of xiaoshi, which could also mean “laughable tale,” “funny story,” or just “funny stuff.” It was print industry shorthand for “Humor Here!” Editors called joke collections, novels, news items, stories, celebrity and political gossip all xiaoshi. They even applied it to a translated 1930s comic strip featuring the silent film comedian Harold Lloyd, who for a while was a bigger star in China than Chaplin. With “History of Laughter” we’re dealing with a genre of affect rather than of form. Part of my reason for using that term is to call attention to this Chinese convention, which predated but got a big boost from a boom in periodical publishing that occurred during the early twentieth century.


My subtitle is “A new history of laughter in China” because modern joke-writers tried to give their products a leg up in the print market by slapping on the term “new” or “modern.” (figure below) Be New was the big modern imperative, though a lot of the jokes that appeared under the New History of Laughter banner were recycled. This is no big surprise—you find the same thing going on in 19th-century Europe and America.

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Utterly Brilliant and Delightful Modern Jokes (1935)


But it does mark a cultural shift. Now you had a broad print culture that thrived on emotional payout. Historians of the era have tended to emphasize the prevalence of tears, sympathy, and other forms of catharsis. In China, this is partly because the Communist Party has, since the success of its revolution in 1949, promoted the Republican Period and the late Qing era before it (roughly, 1890s-1949) as an Old Society of pain and suffering. The era is also replete with laughter, much of which I see as expressing a modern attitude of open, even mocking, skepticism.


My main goal is not to answer the question “why do we laugh.” It’s to identify Chinese genres (including some we might call “comedy”) and sensibilities and show how they changed in the modern era. I focus on five Chinese terms that dominated the humor market in the early twentieth century: xiaohua (joke/humorous anecdote), youxi (play), maren (mockery/ridicule), huaji (farce), and youmo (humor). Starting with this basic lexicon, I show why, for example, the humorous curse became such a conspicuous part of 1920s literary culture, when the promise of a cultural renaissance was eroding due to warlord violence. Or why foreign-educated Chinese promoted a tolerant, worldly, empathetic sense of humor—they saw it as a way to purge their countrymen’s deep-seated cynicism. The Age of Irreverence is partly a history of the Chinese language, so I do pay close attention to semantics, but it also goes beyond that to look at the politics of being funny in a modernizing society.



Christopher Rea is an associate professor of Asian studies and director of the Centre for Chinese Research at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver. He is author of The Age of Irreverence: A New History of Laughter in China (California, 2015); editor of China’s Literary Cosmopolitans: Qian Zhongshu, Yang Jiang, and the World of Letters (Brill, 2015) and Humans, Beasts, and Ghosts: Stories and Essays by Qian Zhongshu (Columbia, 2011); and coeditor, with Nicolai Volland, of The Business of Culture: Cultural Entrepreneurs in China and Southeast Asia. He is currently translating, with Bruce Rusk, a Ming dynasty story collection called The Book of Swindles.

In Search of Indian Comics (Part Four): In Orjit Sen’s Studio

This is the fourth and final installment of a series of posts dealing with the current state of comics and graphic novels in India. It is based on my experiences in Dehli last summer, hosted by Parmesh Shahani from the Godrej India Culture Lab.

Cynthia and I parted company with Vartikka and head out to the outer suburbs, where we are going to visit Orijit Sen in his studio. I introduced Sen in passing a few posts back, but let me take a moment to give this man the props he is due. Sen’s The River of Stories is often cited as amongst the first important graphic novels to come out of India. It is currently out of print but will be coming back soon, so I am personally looking forward to engaging with it more fully in the near future.

Sen offered an account of its creation in the special issue of  Marg on “comics in India.” This is some of what he had to say:

“The universe is not made of atoms, it’s made of stories. Landscapes tell tales, geographies contain histories, trees express emotions, houses are characters, and rocks can be moody…When in 1991 I started work on River of Stories, my first graphic novel project, I travelled to the Narmada River Valley where my story was to be set. I had no clear notion of what I was going to do there but I knew I wanted to experience the land, meet the people who belonged to it, sit on the banks of the ancient and storied river, and watch it flow….Over several visits, I stayed variously at rest-houses, with Andolan activists in their offices in small market towns, with Adivasi families in their village homes, and sometimes in remote ashrams and schools managed by Gandhian organizations. I attended Baghoria festival fairs, wedding feasts, religious ceremonies and political rallies, journeying on trains, buses, jeeps, bullock carts, bicycles, and on foot. Everywhere I sketched, made notes, took photographs and listened to people’s stories. Gradually, the people, the river, the hills, forests, streams, roads, bridges, plantations, hamlets, houses, tools and objects became internalized as part of the visual vocabulary with which I sought to fashion the story of the Narmada Valley and the struggle of its people. I laboured to not just capture slives of life, but to absorb entire chunks of lived experience in the Narmada Valley. I felt this was the only way one could tell the truth about a place and its people.”

What emerged was ethnographic in its focus on a people and activist in its attention to their struggle for social justice.




Sen runs the People Tree shops from the front part of the studio, so it is piled high with fabric and clothing in various states of preparation, and there are people sewing away.

In the back of the shop, he has a team of young artists working on a very interesting project. They are designing a set of murals depicting the history and everyday life practices of the city of Hyderabad on commission for a local art gallery owner. The work is intricately detailed, combining aspects of the miniature painting, street murals, and especially comics. And there are surprising and compelling shifts in perspective which force you to continually reposition yourself in relation to the work.

I was fascinated by what he was producing, since it includes so many details of street life we had observed during our time here, but also manages to move back and forth through time, showing the layers of that city’s history and culture. These images are being developed digitally and will be printed out in huge sheets for the gallery space, but the hope is to use those images to pitch the city to hire his team to paint them onto actual walls and incorporate it into the geography of the city itself. Below are a few images I’ve found online depicting an earlier and similar mural project Sen oversaw, and they give you a sense of the scale and representational strategies involved with this project.






His team includes a Japanese manga artist who is otherwise trying to produce manga with Indian content, a woman who is a children’s book illustrator, and two guys, both of whom are part of the emerging generation of young comic book artists here. One of them mentioned having run the local 24 hours Comics event (this is a practice created by Scott McCloud where lots of artists pledge to produce a comic book in 24 hours). They are spending weeks at a time wandering the streets of Hyderabad taking photographs and drawing sketches – mostly sketches since Sen believes the simplification involved in drawing leaves more useful impressions for comics work.

We have a great conversation with Sen and Vishwajyoti Ghosh, both tracing the emergence of a graphic novel scene in India. Sen described how he had read and loved comics, but could get no interest in them as an art student, until Art Spigelman published Maus and this suddenly sparked an intense dialogue about graphic storytelling, out of which emerged, a decade later, River of Stories.

Ghosh was part of the next generation who was inspired by Sen’s work and together, they have edited several important anthologies of comics by contemporary Indian comics producers — most notably, PAO.


They seem to go around recruiting young talent and trying to connect them with publishers.  Sen explains in the book’s introduction:

“The Pao Collective is a self-funded and self-propelled group of very disparate individuals who have managed to work together over a very long time and put in a hell of a lot of collective effort to conceive, drink beer, create, drink beer, mentor, share smokes, edit, eat mutton rolls, agree to disagree, drink beer and put together this anthology involving some twenty artists and authors.”

Pao‘s contributors represent the core of the contemporary graphic storytelling movement in India, and the entries represent a range of visual styles,  from the highly cartoonish or dream-like, to the photorealistic, from photo-collage to more text-centered works, and from modernism to very traditional folk techniques, all of which convey the possibilities of what sequential art might become in this country.

This piece, contributed by Raj Comics, borrows from the Japanese manga tradition and captures something of the dynamic movement of people and vehicles across India’s densely packed urban areas.

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The above image comes from Sarnath Banerjee, whose work, Corridor, we discussed last time: it suggests his keen observation of the details of everyday life.

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“The Pink,” written by Salil Chaturvedi and illustrated by Priya Kuriyan, is a surrealist story about a business man who unexpectedly turns into a flamingo (albeit one who still wears a tie and is still stuck in his established ways of thinking).

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“The Afterlife of Ammi’s Betelnut Box,” Story by Iram Ghufran, Art by Ikroop Sandhu, with additional illustrations by Mitoo Das, gives us a glimpse into the Islamic culture of India.

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Lakshumi Indrasimhan and Jacob Weinstein’s “Tattoo” focuses on the expressive potential of ink and men’s bodies.

In Pao‘s introduction, Sen also discusses there the properties of his medium:

“One could talk about ‘engineering’ comics in the sense that there is a lot of planning, craft, precision and labor involved. First, the superstructure of the narrative arc needs to be constructed with the raw materials that contain a mix of characters, locations, rationales and perhaps some random ideas and images. I try to make this strong yet flexible — else the whole thing might collapse after I begin loading all of the other elements onto it. Then there is the building up of the chapters or sequences that determine the ebb and flow of narrative drama. Planning these bits is not unlike the way one would go about scripting a movie or a novel, I imagine. It is in the page planning and layouts that I feel I really begin to engage with the nitty-gritty of the medium. In comics, the turning of the page is the key act in the unraveling of the narrative. Hence, page break-ups and layout, text placements, etc., are aspects to which I pay a lot of attention. The final stage is the detailing of each frame, choosing angles and points of view, color, and light and shade. Though the entire process doesn’t usually unfold in such a net way, I rely heavily on a hands-on understanding of this inner engineering of comics to respond to the unique challenges posed by each project.”

Thinking of comics as a form of engineering strikes this former MIT faculty member as a very constructive way of thinking through both the production process and the challenges of conveying a narrative across words and images.

As an editor and community organizer, Sen clearly plays a central role in fostering the creative community in Delhi and in advocating on behalf of his medium across larger conversations in the arts world. I saw him struggle with what might be the best way for these artists to break out from their current ghettoization and command the kind of respect and impact enjoyed by their counterparts amongst alternative and independent comics creators in America or Europe. Sen argues that what they need to do is to produce a series of graphic novels, one after another, which can really put their scene on the radar of Indian readers. Right now, there are 1-2 books published per year on average, and so they are not getting the critical attention they require to become more firmly established. We joke about a “season” of comics, something that sustains the conversation across works and builds momentum and publicity over time.

They describe to me some of the comic-cons and comics festivals here in India, that place a strong spotlight on Indian comics.  Sen and his collaborators seem very well connected with other international artists, describing, for example, being visited by R. Crumb who came to India to acquire more early 20th century records for his collection, and they seem to go often to international comics events but not yet to San Diego. We have a great time, sipping chai, and talking about our mutual love of comics.

During the conversation, I also learned more about the grassroots comics movement in India. Here, artists work to help students, farmers, local residents, anyone who wants, to translate their insights about the world into visual stories that can be reprinted and shared with a larger community.  The emphasis of the grassroots comics movement is to help everyday people find their voice, to foster conversations around local problems and issues, by encouraging your friends, family and neighbors to look upon them in new ways.

The grassroots comics movement started in the 1990s and today, the World Comics Network, based in Delhi, runs training sessions and publishes some of the most promising output in newsprint for subscribers around the world. To date, the network has conducted more than 1,000 plus workshops in Asia, Europe, Africa, and Latin America, involving well over 50,000 participants, all of whom were empowered to draw the world they wanted to see.  This video gives some sense of the energy and excitement they bring to this work

Another glimpse into the cultural life of Delhi:

Parmesh, Cynthia, and I are joined by journalist Nikhil Pahwa, who I had met eight or nine years ago when he visited MIT. He has been at the helm of the campaigns here in support of net neutrality, working alongside AIB (the comic troope whose video was widely circulated across India). So far, they have been very successful at mobilizing the public here to write the regulators in support of Net Neutrality. He says that because they were following the debates in the U.S., they got net neutrality into the conversation quickly and they have largely been able to frame the debate with the result that few directly oppose the principle but many corporations are nibbling away at the edges looking for ways that they can charge different users different rates and provide them with more or less bandwidth while seeming to support a broader grassroots access to the media. We have an animated discussion as we drive comparing tactics used in the U.S. and in India to get the public educated about what’s at stake with these issues. He says the sharpest critiques leveled at his group is the idea that the public is supporting these policies without really understanding them or knowing what the alternative arguments are, so they are making real efforts to educate their supporters so they can respond to questions from others.





Nikhil is taking us to Old Delhi – the original city which was here before New Delhi was built. If New Delhi is highly ordered, a planned city, Old Delhi is one of the most chaotic and noisy places we’ve been in India (and that’s saying a lot). We hire two human-peddled rickshaws and we are ferried at a rapid pace down the street, weaving in and out of flows of traffic, involving motorcycles and auto-rickshaws, past little shops, piled high with goods or food stuffs.   I am impressed by these incredible tangles of electrical wires which hang all over the buildings, basically a jerry-rigged infrastructure, constructed – mostly illegally – on top of crumbling ancient buildings. Nothing here would pass a code inspection in the U.S., that’s for sure.




And then we climb up the stairs, shed our shoes, and enter into the Jama Masjid, what we are told is the largest functioning mosque in contemporary India.




IMG_8642By now, it is late afternoon and the mosque is teaming with activity. There’s a large pool of water in the center, and people are gathered around to wash their feet and socialize. Over head, we see kite battles taking place and every so often, a kite gets severed from its cord (thanks to the success of a rival) and goes drifting off into the sky. We see such a wide array of different kinds of clothing here as Muslims come from all over the country and beyond to worship here. We are not here at prayer time, but we are told on high holy days that the courtyard will be completely full of worshippers bowing towards Mecca. We exit the Mosque and walk around the shop district a bit, but we are running out of time and still have several more stops to make today, so it’s back to the rickshaws and then down the street as fast as our poor guys can peddle, weaving in and out of traffic.

In Search of Indian Comics (Part Three): I Mean, Really, Where Are They?

This is the third part of a series about my adventures in Delhi, which were largely structured around my efforts to learn more about comics publishing in India.

Here’s a bit more about my lunch with the comic artists at the Delhi Craft Museum, drawn from my travel diary:

“There are NO comic stores here. Comics are available through multiple other channels depending on what kind of cultural production we are discussing. So, there are comics in many of the regional languages which even people in other parts of India do not know exist. Amongst English comics, there are pop or low brow titles (such as the locally produced Raj comics which have the most sustained history of adventure comics in the country) which are sold only through news-stands.


On the other end of the scale, there are the ACK comics – essentially the Indian version of Classics Illustrated, mythological tales or stories of national heroes; these are sold mostly through the children’s section of bookstores. Unfortunately, most of the graphic novels with more mature content (not sexual, never sexual, but, as we saw last time, often highly political content) are also most often sold through the children’s book section at bookshops, because there is still a perception that comics are aimed exclusively at children, even when they are not. There are certain bookstores whose managers get graphic novels and treat them appropriately – they gave me the names of several – but these are few and far between and the most reliable place to buy comics would be through online bookstores such as Amazon or its India-based rival Flipkart. The creation of graphic novels in India, accordingly, moves in fits and starts.

One of the folks at lunch – Orijit Sen – published River of Stories which is credited as the first graphic novel to come out of India (now  out of print). There have been a smattering published since, mostly by traditional book publishers, especially those which deal with art books. None of the folks I met live off of their work on comics per se, each works in other corners of the graphic arts world, including doing advertising work or commissioned art pieces. They are seeing shifts in the cultural status of comics, though, as parents and educators have come to accept that “at least the kids are reading” and that these visual forms may be effective at reaching those who the system might otherwise leave behind. Sen talked about being commissioned by a textbook company to create graphic stories about the history of India that would be part of the textbooks; he jokes that it was the same publisher that produced the textbooks he used to hide his comics within when he read in class as a child.

And then there is a new wave of comics being produced for the web, and so they were especially interested in the web comics movement in the west and intrigued by the role Kickstarter now plays in crowd-funding the production of independent comics here. They seem to be familiar with many U.S. based artists – Aparajita told me that she learned to draw as a child by copying pictures from Mad magazine (and we both wax nostalgically about the glory days of Mad). I am invited to come to their studios for more conversation and so they can show me more of their work, an invitation I have accepted for Monday.”

What follows are some segments from my travel notes for that following Monday, a day spent somewhat fruitlessly trying to track down contemporary graphic novels via local bookstores, following the suggestions we had received.

I had met Vartikka Kaul, a PhD student doing work on Indian superheroes, after a talk I gave at Jawaharial Nehru University a few days before. Vartikka grew up in Kashmir, an area which is on the border between Pakistan and India, and has been contested space, basically a war zone, for decades, and her ancestors come from  Central Asia.  Here’s a picture of Kaul and myself exploring Hamayun’s Tomb.


Her project straddles film and print versions of these characters, though she says that nothing like a franchise system has emerged here. I am reminded of the curious history of the export of American comics in this region: how American superhero comics were slow to be imported but that some U.S. comic strips, such as The Phantom and Mandrake the Magician, which have long fallen from view in their home country, continue to be published and avidly consumed in India and across Asia. These stories offer some of the core building blocks of the superhero tradition, but most of the DC and Marvel characters only became visible here through film and television, belatedly creating a market for the comics themselves. I was amused that during my stage in Delhi the local paper showcased a cosplay party on the Society page, where various local celebrities came dressed as American superheroes.


With the exception of Raj, Indian publishers of pulp comics are short-lived, so few characters have developed much continuity or history, and the films have tended to be one-offs, at best with a sequel, often star vehicles for particular performers and thus the superhero becomes an extension of their larger star persona (in an industry which still has a star system much like Hollywood in the 1930-40s). She is interested though in shifts between mythological origin stories  and more scientific/rational explainations of the sort more typical of western superheroes (i.e. scientific experiments gone awry). She’s interested in the superhero as a focus for transmedia storytelling and to some degree, on the gender dynamics of male and female versions of the superhero.

We discuss the phenomenon of regional filmmakers who actively remake western superhero stories for their local markets, a theme beautifully explored by Superman of Megalon, a 2012 documentary by Faiza Ahmad Khan. Here, a young Muslim man and his friends put all of their money and creativity into making their own Superman epic,  localized to respond to the tastes and experiences of the residents of his economic depressed area.

I had been told by Orijit Sen that People Tree may be the best place in Delhi to buy graphic novels. (I learn later that this is because Sen is the owner of this particular shop). It is a small little boutique where the entire front half is taken over by clothing, nick-knacks, and local crafts, while there’s a very small back room area dedicated to books.


When I ask the staff about Indian comics, they refer me to the children’s book section, though there was not much to be found. I did find two newspapers full of what are called here “grassroots comics,” that is, educators go to work with children in the villages or the slums, and help them to translate their experiences into comics. So, these are amateur comics, produced through charity organizations.


And then we continued on to Oxford Books, where we have lunch in the café (highlight was a sweet beverage flavored by almonds and pistachios) and then some more searching for graphic novels. Here, the selection is almost entirely international – they have all of the volumes of Osamu Tezuka’s Buddha, and they have a large selection of French comics (Tin Tin and Astrix), far fewer American comics, and almost no Indian comics – I get a graphic novel version of a popular children’s cartoon series and a book by an Indian cartoonist designed to help visitors from the Indian diaspora make sense of the local culture (Indian by Choice).

We go to several other book shops – most of which are very narrow stores, where books are piled into floor-to-ceiling mounds, and only the proprietor can help you find anything. What they have in stock at any given moment is almost entirely random. No wonder online book dealers have had such a huge impact here, even despite the desire for cash-based transactions. This is not a very good culture for book lovers.

Ironically, these Connaught Place book dealers are the focus of one of India’s most acclaimed graphic novels, Sarnath Banerjee’s Corridor. Here’s how the stores are depicted there — more or less accurately.






The graphic novel’s protagonist Jehangir Rangoonwalla is described on the book’s cover as “enlightened dispenser of tea, wisdom, and second-hand books,” and there are memorable panels of him groping around amongst the mounds of books and putting his hands on just the right title for the right customer. The graphic novel sprawls outward from his shop, developing glimpses into the lives of various book collectors and wisdom-seekers, who are trying to make meaning of contemporary life in Delhi through sexual discipline, obscure collectibles, Marxism, religious sects, and vegetarianism, among a range of other world views. Banerjee’s subsequent books, The Barn Owl’s Wonderous Capers and The Harappa Files show a consistent fascination with contemporary and historical print culture, and seem designed to introduce the graphic novel (in various permutations) into this same book culture. But, ironically, the dealers depicted in Corridor did not, on this particular day, know how to put their hands on any of Banerjee’s books.

Vartikha tells me about a chain called Leaping Windows, with branches in Banglore and Mumbai, which is set up like the comics cafes in Tokyo. You pay an entry fee and then can come inside and read any of the comics they have on the shelves, as you sip your coffee. This store also home delivers comics – but again, on loan rather than for purchase. We’ve since learned that the shop has closed in Banglore and perhaps in Mumbai, so even this is endangered. Vartikha asks me about the comics specialty shops we have in the U.S., like she’s seen on The Big Bang Theory, as if this possibility was beyond imagination, and shares her dreams of making it to San Diego Comic Con some day.

So, here’s the bottom line: India has a new generation of gifted graphic storytellers, who are doing comics that speak in direct and powerful ways to the country’s politics, comics that experiment with new visual languages for comics, often drawn from the country’s rich and diverse folk traditions. These artists are slowly but surely producing work that people should be paying attention to. But, you can’t really find them in Indian bookstores when you go looking and they are not making their way into comics specialty shops in the United States. If you want to find India comics, you have to look online.

Next: Inside Orjit Sen’s Studio

In Search of Indian Comics (Part One): Folk Roots and Traditions

So far, my account of my trip to India this summer has centered on time spent in Mumbai (which was our home base) and its surrounding cities. I want to return to my travel narrative over the next few posts — first focusing on Delhi and later on some of the other cities in India we visited. My time in Delhi was especially preoccupied with trying to understand the current state of comics and graphic novels in India, given that many key artists and authors are based in that city. I am going to use the next few posts to share what I learned.

Parmesh Shahani from the Godrej Indian Culture Lab, my host, had arranged for a meeting at the Crafts Museum for lunch with a mix of some of the country’s top creators of graphic novels.  The Museum itself is a great institution. It showcases living crafts traditions from across the country. The museum is open air: you walk around and look at, for example, a massive display of terra cotta sculptures, wall paintings and carvings representing different traditions, and stalls where craftspeople are producing and selling their work. The Crafts Museum proved to be the ideal location for this gathering, since it allowed me to place contemporary graphic practices in India in the context of a much larger tradition of pictographic wall art from various local cultures.

The following are some examples of what these wall paintings look like: it is not hard to find here forms of local practice that display principles of juxtaposition and sequence, stylization and expression, and simplification and exaggeration, that could provide the cornerstones for more contemporary forms of cartooning, and indeed, as we will see, some contemporary artists are beginning to build upon these practices to create distinctive kinds of graphic practices. The mural below represents a Muriya painting from Bastar, Chhatisgarh.


Below, in red, are figures drawn by Warli artists, who come from Maharashtra.




Below is a mural representing the traditions of Patachitra artists from Odisha, which is striking because of its use of panel boxes, unlike almost all of the other folk art styles we saw.


And these are Gond paintings from Madhiya Pradesh.


Below are some of my impressions of a contemporary graphic novel, Bhimayana: Incidents in the Life of Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, which was inspired by Gond art.The story was written by Srividya Natarajan and S. Anand and illustrated by Durgabai Vyam and Subhash Vyam. Ambedkar was an important spokesman for the rights of the Dalits (or “Untouchables”), and this book deals with the politics of the caste system in India, attempting to bridge from historic events and struggles in the early 20th century with some of the still horrible conditions and prejudices confronting the Dalits today. As an American, I had a high school geography class level understanding of the caste system, but this was a really powerful account of how caste worked on the level of basic human needs, especially focusing on access to water and shelter, and it was chilling to read accounts of very recent incidents of violence directed against the Dalits by upper caste Indians, when they crossed informal lines about whether or not they can draw water from a particular pond, even though they had been granted basic human rights some decades before. Ambedkar sounds like a remarkable political leader, who the comic suggests has often been left out of many contemporary accounts of the country’s history, except insofar as he is credited with helping to write the nation’s constitution upon its independence from Great Britain.

As powerful as the content of the graphic novel is, what really blew me away was the visual style: it is unlike any comic I have ever read before (and that’s increasingly difficult to accomplish). The artists are Gonds, that is members of a tribal community in Central India, which maintain a very traditional culture, and have developed their own art style known as Digna. According to the explanation in the back of the book, the artists had never encountered graphic novels before and found some aspects of the form philosophically troublesome: “We’d like to state one thing very clearly at the outset. We will not force our characters into boxes. It stifles them. We prefer to mount our work in open spaces. Our art is Khulla (open) where there’s space for all to breathe.” We can understand this position better looking at the example above and this one below of their traditional wall art, where there are no formal boundaries between figures. And when you see these huge, intricately entangled, wall paintings, you get a fuller sense of how they have had to reimagine this style for the printed page.


An account of their art in the back of the graphic novel explains, “Tiresome photorealism was out of the question. Nor would the Vyams [Traditional bards and artists] offer cinematic establishment shots, close-ups or extreme close-ups (of tense hands, surprised eyes, furrowed brow), mid-shot, perspective, light and shadow, three dimensionality, aerial views, low angles, etc., that have come to constitute the muse-en-scene of graphic books. The same character might not appear similar throughout the book.”

Below are a few examples of the pages from Bhimayana, showing the ways  the artists  organize the page, beyond traditional grids, boxes, panels, and gutters.




Here they use blocks of texts to separate out two opposing groups of characters and hint at the segregation created by the caste system.



And from there, they decided to draw more on their tribe’s visual traditions, which include the use of different kinds of word balloons to symbolize the character’s moral philosophies often through analogy to different animal forms. The result is stunning, forcing you to rethink so many of the ways that comics in the U.S. functions as, in Scott McCloud’s terms, “an invisible art” because it relies so heavily on shared visual conventions.

For example, in the panel below, speech bubbles take the shape of birds, and appear “only for characters whose speech is soft, the lovable characters, the victims of caste — men and women who speak like birds.”


Some of the word balloons below have stingers and are “full of words that carry a sting. Characters who love caste, whose words contain poison, whose touch is venomous.”



In addition, you see a third kind of balloon here — one which depicts thoughts that occur within “the mind’s eye” — “words that cannot be heard but can be perceived.”



You can also see throughout the book the use of traditional forms of representation to depict more contemporary settings, so this image depicts the characters on a railroad train.


Here’s a link to a review of the graphic novel which appeared in Comics Journal. Like most of the books I discuss throughout this series of posts, it is written in English and is available through Amazon and other online bookstores, but does not seem to have penetrated very far into the comic shops of the United States. Part of my goal in writing this series is to call attention to work that has largely passed unnoticed by American comics fans.

MARG: A Magazine of the Arts devoted its December 2014 issue to “Comics in India.” I was struck by a series of images by Manjula Padmanabhan, who attempts to represent popular western comics characters, including Calvin and Hobbes, Archie and Veronica, Garfield,and Modesty Blaze, through the traditional language of Mithila paintings. As the artist explained, “I found it quite liberating to use a different standard of aesthetics to create these drawings, such as the checkered borders used for separating one scene from the next.”


This special issue includes a rather interesting discussion of the ways Indian comics are building on traditional arts practices, written by Vidyun Sabhaney, including not only visual forms (such as the wall art discussed above) but also performance traditions (such as puppetry). As Sabhaney explains:

“While in a comic image and word are both graphically represented to enact a story, these traditional storytellers perform images through oral narration and/or song.  For example — practioners of Bengali Patachitra (West Bengal) unfurl a scroll composed of sequentially arranged images and bring them to life through song. In the case of Chitrakathi (Maharshtra) a potha or loose collection of painted images is revealed page-by-page while the narrative is sung…Coming from a predominantly oral society, rarely do performers rely on any written text — in fact, most improvise the dialogues in the course of the performance. Every time a story is performed in these traditions, the telling is different, the artist being at liberty to develop the narrative as pleases him — within certain boundaries which are defined by the version of the epics that is traditionally performed.”

Sabhaney notes that the translation of these techniques for the printed page in terms of contemporary graphic storytelling projects raises a range of questions: “Is there anything to be learnt from these traditions? What is the role of the image in the telling of the story? How is the role of the image in a performance-based practice relevant to us?… Is the unique graphic novel format allowing for the emergence of new voices that have previously been unheard?”


A key point here is that the visual style is not only traditional, but the stories most often told are grounded in India’s mythological traditions, especially stories drawn from the Mahabharata, the Ramayana, and various local legends. These stories have long been expressed across a range of graphic forms. For example, below are two examples of art we encountered during our visit to the 13th century Konark Sun Temple in Odisha: the first shows the stone carvings, often highly erotic, found within the temple itself, the second a more recent painting depicting Jagaannath, who has a round, expressive faith, which in many of the drawings, seems a bit like a black-faced minstrel. He is often described as “Lord of the Universe” and especially characteristic of this area. He is one of many personifications of the god Vishnu.



At the gift shops around the outskirts of the Sun Temple, you can find many crudely painted versions of Jagaannath, as rendered on bottles or coconuts, suggesting that, like a good cartoon character, his face can be reproduced quickly, in a range of different contexts, and still draw a smile.

And here are a few more examples of the decorative dimensions of contemporary and classical Indian culture — on the one hand, pretty much every truck we saw in the country had hand painted patterns on the sides, and on the other, part of the experience of staying in a high class hotel in India is to see elaborate floating flower arrangements created afresh each morning.






One of the few things I knew about Indian comics prior to this trip was that they relied extensively on India’s mythological traditions. Perhaps the best known Indian comics, around the world, are the Amar Chitra Katha books.



Across several decades, this publishing house sought to introduce Indian youth to their history and traditions via comics, not unlike the Classic Illustrated books published in the United States. Altogether, they did stand-alone comics which told more than 384 stories and reached 86 million readers. These comics have been translated into an incredible 38 languages and thus have been widely read world-wide. Abhimanyu Das, one of my students at the MIT Comparative Media Studies Program, produced a thesis looking extensively at the ACK comics in relation to the role of graphic storytelling in developing a public culture in India.



The ACK tradition still exerts a strong influence on contemporary graphic novels in India — while they are often framed in terms of a critique of the traditional values embraced by the earlier publisher, it is striking how many of the graphic novels I encountered there still take as their core subject matter either aspects of the Hindu mythology or key historical figures. In America, the underground comics artist had to work through the legacy of funny animals and superheroes before they could tell a broader range of stories, often inverting or subverting the previous values expressed through such stories. Something similar is happening in India today, and we can see Bhumayana as a prime example of this process at work.


Next Time: The Political Dimensions of India Comics

Informing Activists: A New Video Series

From time to time, I’ve showcased here the work being done by my colleagues within the MacArthur Foundation’s Youth and Participatory Politics Research Network, headed by Joseph Kahne (Mills College). Today, I wanted to direct my readers towards a really rich set of resources recently produced by one of the network members, Jennifer Earl and her Youth Activism project team, and shared with the world via the Center for the Study of Social Movements at Notre Dame University.  I asked Earl to share with us some insights into what motivated this project and what it hopes to achieve:

The Informing Activists video series is a collaboration between the Youth Activism Project at the University of Arizona and Mobilizing Ideas, a premier blog about social movement scholarship.

Our mission in developing these videos was to connect social movement scholars, and the insights they have about how movements work, with the activists on the ground actually doing the social movement work.

We hope these videos can help individual activists understand some of the bigger processes and structures in which they are working, and use the research social movement scholars have produced to become better activists.

The series features top social movement scholars from around the world discussing how research in their area of expertise speaks to activists. Scholars describe what they know about how social movements work, and how activists might use that knowledge to be more effective at mobilizing for change.

Topics covered include social movement outcomes, participation and mobilization strategies, navigating political contexts, messaging and media, choosing effective targets and tactics, and dealing with repression.

Each video is framed as a question a young activist might have about what they should do to lead a successful campaign, so the video on framing is framed as “How do I talk about my cause?”

The intended audience of the video series is activists, particularly young activists, who are just starting out working on a campaign for change or who are trying to figure out how to improve an effort they are already involved in. The videos aim to help activists think through the kinds of decisions they will need to make as they mobilize, and provide guidance on how to make those decisions.


If you go to the Informing Activist website, you will find more than twenty videos, featuring some of the country’s leading scholars on social movements, addressing core questions about their research in terms that are designed to be applicable to activists working on a range of different causes. Each video is accompanied with a reading list identifying other sources where they can learn more about the research around this particular topic.  This is a first rate example of how public intellectuals can use new media platforms and practices to speak directly with groups who are involved in everyday struggles to change the world. Taken as a whole, these five-to-six minute videos constitute a master class on how to form a social movement in today’s media environment. Below are a few samples that speak to issues I thought were especially pertinent to those of us interested in understanding politics in relation to media and culture, but you need to go here to have the full Informing Activists experience.

Here’s Bert Klandermans from the University of Amsterdam explaining why people participate in social movements.

Here’s Lissa Soep shares some principles for how social movements should tap online media for their cause.

Here’s David Snow on how activists might best speak about their causes.

And here’s Deana Rohlinger (Florida State University) speaking about what activists need to know about the media environment.


One Conversation Begat Another: Howard Rheingold and Henry Jenkins

Over the last two installments, I’ve shared a short exchange between myself, Mimi Ito, and danah boyd, the three authors of the newly released book, Participatory Culture in a Networked Era. Today, I want to share the video of an interview I did with Howard Rheingold about the book. The video was originally circulated via the Digital Media and Learning blog, but I thought there would be people here who had not seen it.

Howard and I have been engaging with each others work for more than two decades. You can read the interview I did with Howard about his own most recent book, Net Smart: How to Thrive Online here, here, and here. Appropriately, Howard sent me his response to these questions on the very day that Mimi, danah, and I had sat down to conduct the exchange that became the foundation for the new book, so these interactions are completely stitched together in my mind.

Howard is an incredibly generous person, not to mention a generative thinker, who has been responsible for getting people thinking about such topics as virtual communities, smart mobs, and net smarts, through the years.

Henry Jenkins on Participatory Media in a Networked Era, Part 1 from Connected Learning Alliance on Vimeo.

Henry Jenkins on Participatory Media in a Networked Era, Part 2 from Connected Learning Alliance on Vimeo.

Now, that’s the end of the free stuff around the book I am sharing on this blog. Go and order a copy, and let us know what you think.

The Conversation Never Ends: Participatory Culture in a Networked Era (Part Two)

The following is the second part of an exchange between myself, danah boyd, and Mimi Ito, intended to mark the occasion of the publication of our book, Participatory Culture in a Networked Era, which is being released this month by Polity.

Henry: All three of us are finding ourselves collaborating more and more with quantitative researchers, so in what ways might the findings of more humanistic research help to inform the kinds of data we collect and publish about young people and their media use?

Mimi: I’ve enjoyed increasing collaboration with quantitative researchers over the years, and I find it a useful corrective to contextualize my local, in-depth cases with broader trends that you see in national surveys and the like. And the stories that we tell from a qualitative and humanistic lens are often taken up as ways of putting a human face to the numbers. At the same time, I find it very challenging for the qualitative evidence to punch through some of the underlying preconceptions that are often reinforced by large scale surveys. For example, what gets categorized as “making” versus “passive consumption” is culturally defined, and how a young person might answer a question of this sort doesn’t necessarily track to what adults conclude based on a set of survey findings. For example, one of the case studies our team did of fan fiction on Wattpad showed that young people don’t necessarily describe their publication and writing on the platform as “writing” or “reading” because it doesn’t conform to the genre expectations of what gets called reading and writing in school. Reducing consumption and production to a binary set of participation genres misses the fact that the majority of what kids do these days sits between these poles of activity. These are an outdated set of metaphors in an era where even “consumption” involves searching, querying, downloading, rating, and sharing of media. This more youth-centered perspective is harder to communicate than a raw percentage number coming off a survey.

danah: I recently read Sarah Igo’s The Averaged American, which was a brilliant reminder of the politics that underlie all discussions of data and research. I’ve been fortunate enough to be surrounded by researchers of all stripes who are really passionate about moving past methodology and theory to work collaboratively to understand what’s at play. But I also realize how rare this is. All too often, research is produced, disseminated, and framed for political agendas. One of the things that I relish about the scholarly community in which we operate is that when we disagree – which we sometimes do – we’re able to challenge each other in a productive and constructive way. But I’m definitely struggling with the ways in which research is positioned to mislead and fear-monger, especially statistical and quantitative research.

Henry: I have been lucky to spend a good deal of time over the past six plus years interacting with the members of the MacArthur Foundation’s Youth and Participatory Politics Network, a multidisciplinary group trying to understand the political lives of American youth. This research is discussed throughout our book, but is also the focus of another book coming out early next year. The focus of the work on my side was qualitative and ethnographic, but we worked in conversation throughout with researchers who were using more quantitative methods, including large scale surveys. By doing this work collaboratively, some of my team’s framings — such as the emphasis on circulation as part of what it means to participate in the new media environment — found their way into the agenda of questions for the survey research and has resulted in important findings, suggesting that there has been a significant increase in young people spreading political news through their social networks and that this process is an important part of finding their voices as citizens. Such results would have been invisible if participation was defined entirely on the basis of media production, for example.

The challenge of this kind of work involves the development of shared vocabularies, which works better if everyone sheds some of the established jargon, and the recognition of conceptual differences. For example, throughout the process, we kept bumping up against the focus of some of our home disciplines almost exclusively on individual agents and the emphasis of other fields on various forms of collective agency (or social constraints on individual action). We’ve reached a point where we are all aware of these different methodological starting points, acknowledge them, and try to incorporate them into our analysis. But this worked because everyone came in with mutual respect and was able to take the time to listen and understand where we each were coming from in our research.

Mimi: On the qualitative/quantitative axis, the other interesting development is the rise of data analytics, another thing we discuss in the book, and something that has become the focus of danah’s work. While there are a lot of new risks associated with the big data movement, I do find it interesting that it has broken the methodological linkage between quantitative and reductive approaches. Big data is quite unlike the sequestered and reductive methods you see in traditional surveys and psychometrics, and is more like ethnography and fieldwork in the sense that it is “in the wild” and about capturing behavior in context. I’m still early in incorporating data analytics in my own work, but I am finding it a fascinating space to play in.

danah: Most people who hear about “big data” don’t realize just how nuanced you have to be to do analysis in this space. Asking questions of data – especially semi-structured and unstructured data – is extremely hard. Cleaning data is hard. Analyzing and interpreting data is hard. As a result, doing data science is often more art than science. But the iterative nature of working with complex datasets – especially highly dimensional networked datasets – is so refreshing. It allows you to look at a problem from a radically different perspective.

Because I started out in computer science and came to anthropology and qualitative methods later, I always felt as though I needed to convince people that I was a “real” ethnographer. In seeking legitimacy in a scholarly world defined by method, I often downplayed the different technical work that I used in my research. I did a lot of large-scale random sampling of MySpace and a lot of network analysis of different social media services. Although I published a few papers on Twitter and Friendster analysis, most of what I did when scraping and using technical tools to analyze data was to help me better understand what I was seeing in interviews and observations.

In all the hype around “big data,” I hope to see more integration of qualitative methods with statistical and machine learning methods because it’s amazing how these can feed into each other. The key with both is learning how to formulate a question and be reflexive about what you’re seeing and what you’re not.

Mimi: I feel the book does a pretty good job of giving expression to our different disciplinary dispositions and generational identities, and the methods we have brought to bear to our research. All three of us have studied overlapping and related topics and trends, but have different lenses on the phenomenon. The book reminds me a bit about the proverbial blind men and the elephant, but with a more positive outcome. When the three of us are in conversation I do feel like we are able to piece things together into a still imperfect, but somewhat integrated bigger picture.

danah: As we dive into this conversation, emulating the kinds of conversation that we produced for our book, what do you hope people get from reading our book?

Mimi: Writing this book as a three-way dialog was a new experience for all of us, and I’m really curious what people will make of it. Although it was challenging to work through a new genre of book writing, in a lot of ways the process mirrored how the three of us have actually worked together over the years, sharing partially formulated ideas, arguing with one another, and putting things out there in public for broader engagement. I’d love it if this book gave folks a window into this kind of dialogic knowledge production. I hope people leave with positive view into the way that ideas and theories are socially and relationally constructed as other people and the changing world pushes up against our theories and preconceptions. This kind of openness and flexibility seems to me critically important especially for those of us who take up topics like technology and youth culture which are very dynamic, require us to be methodologically innovative, and collaborate across geographic and disciplinary boundaries.

Henry: There’s lots of core insights to be found in the book about the themes and topics we all care about. This really was an honest period of reflection for all three of us, looking back on the past few decades of change in a networked society, trying to assess what we believe to be true and important, trying to qualify early claims both by us and others that may have simplified our understanding of the current situation. I was struck rereading the book about how much we had to say about inequalities in access and participation, a theme which seems urgent for us to address, but was sometimes pushed aside by our excitement on new and emerging opportunities and the amazing things young people were doing within their online communities. We each bring in examples of the kinds of communities which we’ve focused on through our research and the comparison across those cases is illuminating.

But, like Mimi, part of what I really value about Participatory Culture in a Networked Era is the ways the book may illustrate the power of critical conversations, even among people like us who start with somewhat similar positions. Our thinking evolves over the course of the book, as we listen to and respect what we learn from the others. We need more of this kind of academic dialogue — not reading papers to each other at high speeds at conferences, not throwing out messages in bottles (or journals, which can take even longer to reach their recipients), but in sitting down in real time, sharing thoughts, responding thoughtfully to others, and challenging established wisdom. I’ve recently been rereading a somewhat more contentious exchange between Cornel West and bell hooks about the role of the public intellectual and it has made me wish we had so many more scholarly works in this genre. What I’d love to see happen is for people to sit down with colleagues, across disciplines, across perspectives, with the book, and talk through together how they react to what we say there, or simply take the intersections of their own research trajectories as a starting point to see where this leads them. Such conversations do not happen enough.

danah: I think we’re all in agreement that the key value of this book is exposing how ideas become ideas.  I love “Advanced Reader Copies” or galleys of books because I like to be reminded of the imperfection that happens before we get a book in its completed state.  When I was first entering graduate school, everything about research seemed mysterious.  Ideas appeared to just come down on high and get magically polished by brilliant people. But as we all know, that’s not how scholarship happens.  It’s indeed socially and culturally constructed. More than anything, I hope that this book gives people an insight into the process and practices of research. This book is definitely the backstage of research into participatory culture and I hope it helps people see our work and struggles from a new light.

Henry Jenkins is Provost Professor of Communication, Journalism, Cinematic Arts, and Education at the University of Southern California

Mizuko Ito is Professor in Residence and MacArthur Foundation chair in Digital Media and Learning, University of California, Irvine

danah boyd is a Principal Researcher at Microsoft Research, the Founder of Data & Society, and a Visiting Professor at New York University

In Search of Indian Comics (Part Two): The Politics of Indian Comics

Today, I continue to narrate some of my adventures in search of a better understanding of comics and graphic novels in Contemporary India. Last time, we considered the ways that contemporary artists are building upon India’s folk art and mythological traditions. I ended with some reference to the importance of Amar Chitra Katha, a publisher that for some decades produced comics teaching Indian boys and girls about their legends and history. These comics helped to establish the public’s expectations about what a graphic novel from India might be like. I also discussed Bhimayana: Expereicnes of Untouchability, which depicts incidents in the life of Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, a civil rights leader who spoke on behalf of the Dalit people: this book taps the folk art traditions of the Gond people, as well as seeking to tell aspects of Ambedkar’s life that are traditionally left out of the history books about the founding of the Indian nation, where Ambedkar is mostly known as the author of the country’s constitution.

Aparajita Ninan, part of the group of graphic artists who joined me in Dehli’s Crafts Museum, worked on Bhimayana. She’s best known for her work on A Gardner in the Wasteland: Jotiba Phule’s Fight for Liberty, written by Srividya Natarajan (one of Bhimayana‘s two co-authors) and also published by Navayana Press. Phule was another important critic of the caste system in India who wrote a key book — Slavery (Gulamgiri) in 1873 — who challenged Brahmanism and critiques the enslavement of the “lower” castes, a work inspired by and dedicated to the Abolitionist movement in the United States. Many of Phule’s ideas remain controversial to the present day, including his sharp critiques of the ways that the Hindu tradition was structured to insure that the Brahmin caste continued to dominate over everyone else. Ninan’s art  is rendered in an inky black and white style that has the brute force of agit-prop. She draws imagery and symbols from around the world in part to link Phule’s arguments back to their historical roots, including his intense engagement with American abolitionism  and the French revolution. Here, for example, is a two page spread which links Phule to a range of other freedom fighters and Civil Rights leaders from around the world and across history, all of whom marched, the books argues, behind the cause of Liberty, Fraternity and Equality.


Another spread compares the brutal techniques deployed to keep the castes in place with the role that lynching in the deep American south.


And this page sums up the contrasting perspective that Phule brought to Hinduism.



Keep in mind that the current government actively promotes Hindu nationalism and conservative ideology and takes a dim view of those who critique or challenge those traditions.



Vishwajyoti Ghosh, another member of our little gathering, is the author and illustrator for Delhi Calm, a graphic novel about a group of rock musicians touring the countryside, and what happens when Indira Gandhi declares a national State of Emergency and imposes martial law on India.  Or perhaps not. The book works hard to establish a state of plausible deniability: “Nothing like this ever happened. If it did, it doesn’t matter any more, for it was of no interest or relevance even while it was happening. Any resemblance to persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental. This is a work of fiction. Self-Censored.”    The female dictator is described throughout only as Little Moon; her supporters are often depicted wearing happy masks, implying that a forced smile is really the only safe way to respond to the political turmoil that surrounds them.



Signs of propaganda, police violence, and political imprisonment run across the book, often in the background of panels. Paranoia infuses every social interaction in a world where the rights of citizens have been suspended and no one knows what is going to happen next. As an American reader, trying to process it with the help of Wikipedia entries,  I did not get all of the layers of allegory and allusion  here, but the work was nevertheless compelling.



Ghosh also curated an important anthology of “graphic narratives”, This Side That Side?: Restorying Partition, convening a diverse range of South Asian artists, writers, illustrators, filmmakers, and other storytellers, to reflect on the political forces that separated off India and Pakistan. Ghosh writes in the book’s introduction:

“Restorying Partition can never be easy. If one wants to avoid the usual revival of Mass Memory, one has to look beyond those maps lodged in our nervous systems that make nervous headlines on our televisions. To listen to the subsequent generations and the grandchildren and how they have negotiated maps that never got drawn. This Side, That Side is a tiny drop in the river of stories that must be told before the markers run dry.”


The range of perspectives and techniques included makes its own political statement. Nina Sabnani, an animator, tells the story (“Know Directions Home?”) of her family’s displacement using stitch work, a technique she also deploys with great effect in her animated film, Tanko Bole Chhe (The Stitches Speak).

Malini Gupta and Dyuti Mittal contributed “The Taboo,” adopting  a visual style that engulfs the page in intertwined art rather than break it down into panels.

This side that side. Restorying Partition, An anthopology of graphic narratives. Curated by Vishwajyoti Ghosh. Photo: Darshan Chakma

This side that side. Restorying Partition, An anthopology of graphic narratives. Curated by Vishwajyoti Ghosh. Photo: Darshan Chakma

“I Too Have Seen Lahore!”, a collaboration between Salman Rashid (in Lahore) and Mohit Suneja (in Delhi), conveys some of the horrors and brutality of this historical upheaval.



The following comes from my travel diary:

After our lunch with the comics artist at the Crafts Museum, my host Parmesh Shahani takes us to Hauz Khas Village (which locals tend to call HKV or simply the Village). It is hard to describe the vibe of this place. On the outskirts there are dozens of little food stalls and carts, each selling street food, and a constant zip of the motorcycles and autorickshaws, which we have seen everywhere on this trip. As we pass through the gates, and past a local deer park, we enter an environment which represents a series of temporal and cultural layers. The original layer are ruins, going back to the 11th century (or there-abouts) of what was once a great Islamic university and a cluster of palaces. Much remains left behind – buildings with huge domes, crumbling columns, decaying steps, which stretch out for as far as the eye can see. Amidst them, people are sitting and having the street food, playing games with balls and rackets, posing for selfies, and otherwise getting on with the business of life.


On top of this was built an urban village – traditional houses and shops which could have been built at any point in the 20th century. We later learn that this area was a kind of criminal underworld in the early 20th century – a tribe of bandits were located here and the city constructed walls to keep them away from the rest of the population, assuming anyone who ventured into this space knew what they were getting themselves into. This is what gives the area its thuggish charm. And now, the area is undergoing a process we might describe as gentrification: it got discovered by hipster youth and has been transformed into their playground. So, they have built, without building permits in most cases (Parmesh says), cute little clothing stores, poster shops, record stores, bakeries, coffee shops, and night clubs, on top of the structure of the older village, often in a very ramshackled or haphazard fashion.


It’s dusk and music is already blarring out of speakers all around us. We pass young people with eccentric hairstyles and cool clothes, doing some early evening shopping, and looking forward to an evening of clubbing. We see more white youth than we’ve seen elsewhere – and almost all of them are wearing traditional Indian clothing – while the Indian youth are almost all wearing western garb. (I wonder if either notices that their cultural fantasies are not exactly aligned here.)

The whole effect is something from a cyberpunk novel – Neo-Delhi rather than Neo-Tokyo, with a healthy amount of the kipple and chaos of something like Blade Runner. Parmesh shares with us a few of his favorite shops including a really cool poster shop which has all kinds of brightly colored vintage paper products: I want, but there’s not enough time to look and process. As we are leaving, though, the manager gives us a business card and says you can order online and he will ship to the U.S. Big smiles.




And here, as elsewhere across India, there is spectacular street art, itself suggesting the graphic storytelling potential of this amazing country.


Next Time: Where, oh where, can you find comics in India?

The Conversation Never Ends: Participatory Culture in a Networked Era

Over the next few installments, I am going to celebrate the publication of a new book — Participatory Culture in a Networked Era — which I developed over the past few years in conversation with danah boyd and Mimi Ito, both names that should be familiar to regular readers of this blog. For those of you who don’t know, Mimi Ito is Professor in Residence and MacArthur Foundation chair in Digital Media and Learning, University of California, Irvine and danah boyd is a Principal Researcher at Microsoft Research, the Founder of Data & Society, and a Visiting Professor at New York University. All three of us have been part of the MacArthur Foundation’s Digital Media and Learning initiative over the past decade.

The key word here is conversation. Literally, we started our book with the three of us sitting down in Mimi’s living room and having a several days long conversation about the intersections between our work, reflecting on the past several decades of digital and social change, considering what we know now that we couldn’t have known a decade ago and how this might force us to rethink some earlier claims about participatory culture, connected learning, Web 2.0, the new activism, fandom, and a wealth of other topics we hold near and dear. As we did so, we solicited questions through various social media, and we made sure to address as many of them as we could. And then, we worked through the transcripts, again and again, clarifying our concepts, refining our arguments, shuffling the pieces to insure greater clarity and accessibility. And the result is a book, which is being released this month by Polity Press.

danah and Mimi were ideal thinking and writing partners for this ride. It wasn’t easy since we are probably three of the busiest people we know and so coordinating time to make this work was challenging, and there were many points along the way when we almost pulled the plug. I am so glad we didn’t because I am very proud of what we produced in the end.

Here’s what danah had to say about the process of writing the book on her blog:

I couldn’t think of anything more awesome than spending time with two of my mentors and teasing out the various strands of our interconnected research. I knew that there were places where we were aligned and places where we disagreed or, at least, where our emphases provided different perspectives. We’d all been running so fast in our own lives that we hadn’t had time to get to that level of nuance and this crazy project would be the perfect opportunity to do precisely that…Truth be told, I never wanted it to end. Throughout our conversations, I kept flashing back to my years at MIT when Henry opened my eyes to fan culture and a way of understanding media that seeped deep inside my soul. I kept remembering my trips to LA where I’d crash in Mimi’s guest room, talking research late into the night and being woken in the early hours by a bouncy child who never understood why I didn’t want to wake up at 6AM. But above everything else, the sheer delight of brainjamming with two people whose ideas and souls I knew so well was ecstasy.

I didn’t want it to end, either, danah. There were times when our exchanges felt like a tag team with each of us adding to what the person before had said as we made common cause against shared frustrations in the discourse about, say, “digital natives.” There were times when our interactions were like Truth and Dare as we ended up pushing each other to spill the beans and address core criticisms of our work. And there are a few places where some fundamental disagreements surfaced — such as an exchange about Mimi’s term, Connected Learning, and my term, Participatory Learning — which people might not have recognized from the outside. I think this book poses more questions than we can address, but it is intended as a conversation starter, so literally, the conversation doesn’t have to end but may spark many subsequent exchanges with many more people. So, as they used to say on Saturday Night Live, “talk amongst yourselves.”

So far, the book has been enthusiastically received by Howard Rhinegold, who had most flattering things to say about the project:

My single strongest recommendation to you: if you want the best and latest evidence-based, authoritative, nuanced, critical knowledge about how digital media and networks are transforming not just learning but commercial media, citizen participation in democracy, and the everyday practices of young people, my advice is to obtain a copy of the new book, “Participatory Culture in A Networked Era,” by Henry Jenkins, Mizuko Ito, and danah boyd. This book is the opposite of so much sound-bite generalization about “digital natives” and “Twitter revolutions.” Jenkins, Ito, and boyd seek to unpack the nuances behind the generalizations of digital media enthusiasts and critics alike, rather than to reduce them to easily digested phrases. And, they articulate their knowledge clearly. They not only know this subject matter as well as anyone on the planet, they know how to talk about it.

Here are a few more reactions to the book (these blurbs solicited by Polity, our publisher):

“Jenkins, Ito and boyd offer us all a wonderful gift in the form of this book — it’s as though one gets a chance to listen in on a great dinner party conversation between three brilliant scholars, reflecting on more than twenty years of trenchant scholarship on culture, play, identity, and the emergence of the digital world.”
John Palfrey, Phillips Academy

“These authors practise what they preach! To unlock the promise of participatory culture, Jenkins, Ito and boyd invite us to join their intellectual conversation as they puzzle over the dilemmas, insights and challenges of living in a networked era. This is an exciting way to engage with a fast-developing field of research, knowledge and experience.”
Sonia Livingstone, London School of Economics

“The idea of scholarship as dialogue is one that lies buried deep within the humanities. In the pages of this engaging and accessible book, Jenkins, Ito and boyd have brought the ethos of dialogue very much to the surface. Their conversation is an entirely apt technique for reflecting on what is by now a sustained history of collaboration on questions of informal learning, participation and power in the evolving digital media environment.”
Jean Burgess, Queensland University of Technology

In the spirit of keeping the conversation going, danah, Mimi and I had a new exchange via e-mail this past week, tackling a few recent concerns around participatory culture, as a way of sharing a taste of the book.

Henry: Last week, Common Sense Media announced a new report, based on a survey with 2600 tweens and teens, that they say depicts the current state of media usage in the United States. Among their findings are several which are likely troubling to one or another of us:

“Low-income kids lack access. Children growing up in lower-income homes are far less likely to have access to computers, tablets, and smartphones than their wealthier peers, but when they do have access, they are more likely to spend more time on their devices….

Social media use is big, but maybe not very enjoyable. Social media is an integral part of most teens’ lives (45% use “every day”), but only 36% of teens say they enjoy using social media “a lot” compared to 73% who enjoy listening to music “a lot,” and 45% watching TV.

Everyone can be a maker, but not many are. The vast majority of children’s engagement with media consists of consuming media, with only a small portion devoted to creating content.”

So, first, are these findings consistent with other current research you’ve seen? If so, should we be concerned about these findings? How do they fit within our own accounts of the ways media is impacting how youth learn and live today? And if these are indeed problems, what do we see as effective steps forward from these situations?

danah: Let me begin by tackling the middle finding on social media. When I interviewed teens, they repeatedly told me that they’d *much* rather get together face-to-face but then went on to cite all of the reasons that they couldn’t get together in person. It was deeply frustrating to them. They saw socializing through social media as less ideal than hanging out with their peers in person, but didn’t feel as though they had a choice. But that’s the comparison for them – social media vs. face-to-face. Music and TV are a totally different category and should not be compared to social media. Music and TV can be used socially (and you’ll often find teens listening to music or watching YouTube videos when then get together in person). They can also be used passively, to veg out at the end of a long day. As Henry often argues, there are active ways of consuming media, but the reality that I see on the ground is that there are many times when teens simply want to be passive consumers of media that makes them feel good. Then again, same is true for adults.

Mimi: I’ll jump in on the first finding and like danah also try to add some perspective on this that nuances the broad quantitative findings. Our team has also found important gaps in access and participation, but the differences are quite nuanced and aren’t about a straightforward “digital divide.” Access to computers, tablets, smartphones, and Internet connectivity don’t always go hand in hand, though privileged kids might have access to all of the above. One example is that we found that for low income teens in LA, they may have access to an Internet connected computer or laptop through shared device at home or at a library, but they but lack smartphone-based Internet access. What this means that they are not able to use mobile app based social media like Instagram and Snapchat. Many of the teens said they “don’t use social media” because they are not part of today’s dominant social media platforms. They use text messaging, and may dip into Facebook, because it is more accessible through shared devices like computers and laptops, but they are non-participants in the mobile social media space. And because these patterns tend to track along peer groups in schools, when they attended majority low income high schools, even the kids who did have smartphones were not heavy social media users because their peers were not part of the ecosystem.

Henry: I will tackle the final finding here. All of us have been excited at one time or another by the recognition that an expanding number of American youth have access to the means to produce media and we’ve contributed to projects designed to encourage young makers and hackers to find their voice and develop skills at producing new content. But, we need to recognize that participation in the new media environment can take many different forms and that measuring media making by itself creates a very high bar for mapping the public’s changing communication capacities. Making media may be a special event for many youth — part of a school project, for example — but contributing to the media environment in other ways may occur much more commonly. So, for example, we need to recognize that much more casual acts, such as forwarding or retweeting or otherwise spreading a piece of media content or signing an online petition may, in fact, have an impact on larger societal debates; often local acts of contributing to social media don’t count as “making” media, but do impact the local community where a discussion is taking place, representing forms of participation that would have been hard to achieve in another historical era. In many ways, forms of media participation have become so mundane and everyday that they do not “count” and are often taken for granted. Yet, when this broader range of activities are taken into consideration, it is clear that more young people are “participating” in the media environment than ever before and even if we narrow our focus to things like political and civic participation, there are signs of steady increases, and not just restricted to the “usual suspects” of white suburban middle class kids.

danah: One thing that bothers me about how we talk about media is that we tend to lump it all together. We treat TV as equivalent to video games, social media as equivalent to music. All because it involves electronics at some level. At best, we talk about passive versus active engagement but as y’all know, that’s fraught. I’m curious how y’all would break out different types of media so that people don’t always compare apples to oranges.

Henry: I would start by identifying specific functions and the choices people make about what media tools and platforms are the most appropriate ways of achieving them. So, in The Breakup 2.0, Ilana Gershon asks young people how they would “break up” with a romantic partner, and she gets a wealth of different stories that show choices people are making about when and where certain forms of media are appropriate and useful. Chris Evans, as part of the Youth and Participatory Politics Network research, has asked young people what strategies they would follow to address particular community problems. There, she can chart their movement across a range of different tools and platform, though she notes that many young people do not immediately think of digital media in this way, even though they use it often for other everyday functions. So, I would love to see research that asks about a) a broader range of forms and genres of participation and b) the range of tools and platforms used to achieve everyday social functions.

Mimi: I agree that it is very challenging to make general statements across media types and genres of participation in an era when the defining trend is towards niches and personalization of media environments. We talk about the various gaps and diverse genres of participation at some length in our book. I feel like in different ways, we have each taken on the challenge of adding some texture to blanket proclamations about “kids these days.”