Quilting Comics

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This is the seventh installment of an ongoing series written for the blog by Richard Graham. Richard is an associate professor and media services librarian at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, where he studies the educational use of comics and serves as the film and art history liaison. His posts examine UNL’s, Nebraska’s, and the larger literary world’s connections with the comics medium.

Recently, the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum at the Ohio State University asked for help identifying a myriad of comic book and strip characters that were embroidered onto a donated textile. Though it might be strange to think that such a thing exists, would it blow your mind that many comics scholars consider some textiles as comics themselves, regardless if a talking animal appears on it?

It’s true. Starting with Scott McCloud’s very definition of comics; as images deliberately sequenced to convey an emotion or tell a story, many forms can suddenly be thought of as comics–stained glass windows, for example. Even the Bayeux Tapestry. So, how about quilts?

Quilt artist Ai Kijima includes many elements of comic books in her work, and Mark Newport, famous for his knitted superhero costumes, incorporates actual comic books sewn together. Ryan Claytor, a comic book artist and instructor at Michigan State University, detailed his relationship with his grandmother by making a quilt using the traditional paneled layout of a comic book. “The practical use of quilts is to warm and comfort the subject. The memories I have of my grandmother are very fond and close to me and I don’t think another medium could have captured our relationship quite so accurately,” he says.

Textiles collide with comics in other ways. The University of Nebraska’s International Quilt Studies Center is currently hosting an exhibition curated by Nancy Bavor. One of the pieces Ms. Bavor highlights is titled “Barefoot & Pregnant or Senator van Dalsem,” which incorporates a quotation from a 1963 speech made by “the barefoot and pregnant senator” Arkansas state legislator Paul van Dalsem. Text from his sexist speech is printed on the quilt, one line per block, giving the immediate impression of comics panels. Senator van Dalesem’s comments evidently rankled Laury, who felt strongly enough about women’s rights and reproductive freedom to make sure van Dalsem never lived those words down. Jonathan Gregory, Assistant Curator of Exhibitions, pointed out that Jean Ray Laury had a wicked sense of humor and she used a comic format to talk about a difficult subject in a humorous way while also attracting a wider audience.

Initially, it may seem that quilts and comics couldn’t be any more different as forms of artistic expression. Yet both mediums consist of a series of panels which convey a story or emotion. In the case of comic books, the story is direct and contains images and words that move sequentially from panel to panel. In a quilt, the story might also be direct, specifically in the case of “story quilting,” in which images and sometimes words are used to tell a story. Even in more abstract quilts, a story is still told in that the chosen fabrics and designs can say a great deal about the quilt’s creator. In particular, both comic book and quilts have often been used to tell stories that have emotional significance for the creator. I encourage you to discover this for yourself.