Interview with Ernesto Priego, creator of The Lockdown Chronicles
Hi Ernesto. Thanks a lot for talking to us! Let’s start by asking how The Lockdown Chronicles came about: in the early days of Covid lockdown, what was it that particularly inspired you to make comics about it?
I started working from home in March 2020; the lockdown had not been mandated yet but I remember that, being aware of the situation, me and a colleague decided that we would have a PhD viva online instead of on campus. So my lockdown started a bit earlier than the official one, and when the whole country went into it things got very busy for me and all of us working in higher education, essentially reinventing our modules for online delivery.
Early on I felt frustrated with the government’s “delay” strategy and reticence to impose firm physical distancing measures, and being a bit overwhelmed with the extra workload caused by the emergency response mode in which we found ourselves in I thought I would start a series of videos called “The Coronavirus Diaries” of which I only published one (hahaha), on 19th March 2020. It can be watched here (I did not have a pandemic ‘haircut’ yet!).
Rewatching it now it’s apparent to me that my concern with what’s been going on in the UK started quite early and in a way how little the government has changed its essential attitude to pandemic (the yo-yo-ing, the delayed and lukewarm intervention, the lack of urgency and seriousness). But soon enough I realised that videos would be time-consuming and that I would need to do at least some minimum editing, and preparing online lectures at the same time the whole thing was going to be overkill. In that video you can see how I was interested in the data, (early on, closely following the Johns Hopkins University Covid Dashboard), and since the relationships between data science, data visualisation and comics is something that interests me very much one thing lead to the other and suddenly the idea of The Lockdown Chronicles came up, as an attempt to connect the dots between the storytelling affordances of data- and of comics as an essentially graphic/visual storytelling medium, to try to communicate issues around the experience of lockdown/quarantine, public health, etc.
I have been making my own ‘comics’ or more precisely photo-comics for a while, and, for me it was just a natural thing to seek to express myself by documenting what we were experiencing through comic strips and blogging.
Let’s talk a little about your creative process. The images you used all come from historical and literary sources, all of which are meticulously referenced in the book. How did you find these, and how did you decide which ones to use?
This was one of the most enjoyable part of the work behind the Chronicles. In a way the whole process was designed with constrained creativity at the core, as it was meant to be a rapid response to quickly-evolving developments (I also had in mind OUBAPO). Though the topics were complex, the only way to make it feasible was to stick to the four-panel comic strip format, with a couple of exceptions, but always sticking to the same size. The process was also designed to allow for both serendipity and premeditation, as well as being responsive to the Covid news/developments/data of the day. I have for a while been an advocate for creative commons licenses, copyright reform and open access, particularly within the arts and humanities and cultural heritage sectors, as a researcher, practitioner and just a member of the public interested in culture. (See for example my Mutatis Mutandis series, which I did reusing content from the British Library’s Mechanical Curator project). When I published the first strip I did not necessarily think I would be able to maintain a whole series, but I did have the reference of the failed ‘Coronavirus Diaries’, and the whole idea of comic strips is that they would be periodical, so I guess I kind of was hoping it would become a longer-term thing, even if what I hoped was that the pandemic wouldn’t last too long (but knew that it would very likely do).
Readers may note how the very first strip is not as thoroughly referenced, and less specifically topical, than most of the strips I did later on. This is because at first I mostly wanted to communicate a sense of hope and optimism. I asked myself: who else has gone through a similar experience of being locked down? How did they cope? So I referred back to my readings, to the authors, stories, characters who have made me who I am. I have to say that this also happened within the specific context of me working in a University and considering myself an ‘academic’, within the current landscape of disinformation and mistrust in expertise. So I gradually increased the level of source referencing, not only because it was a question of communicating the importance of attribution for reuse practices, and as a means to hopefully contextualise why I had chosen such or that character or situation, but because I did want to make transparent that what I was trying to communicate were not just random personal opinions, or made-up stuff. I am a strong believer that referencing sources is a key tool in the battle against online misinformation.
My process started normally with the main Covid news of the day, with my main sources being (but not limited to) the Guardian, the New York Times and the BBC for headlines, and the Johns Hopkins Covid Dashboard and the UK Government Coronavirus data summary for daily data. I would not really write anything at that point, but would compile the links and the passages I wanted to quote, and then as a following step I would think of (or look for when I did not have them in mind already in advance) historical figures who would have either experienced social isolation, illness or previous pandemics or similar situations, searching for images of them I could reuse that were of good quality (usually I would start at Wikipedia- Wikimedia Commons is an amazing resource).
And once you’d decided on the images, what was your process like for writing the accompanying text?
I think it all happened simultaneously in my head, because I would normally repeat the same images, just varying things like size by zooming in and out. Eventually for some strips I developed a pattern of setting the scene, then showing the characters and staying with them. There is not much ‘action’ in the traditional sense- the characters kind of resembled the way I thought of myself sitting in front of the computer for long hours, thinking out loud or talking to others online. What I tried to do was to bring these historical figures to the present, purposefully creating anachronisms, as an attempt to place myself and hopefully the reader in their situation and by trying to show that things they did or said resembled or were still relevant today in the context of this pandemic. So it was a question of juxtaposing the news and the data with the historical or literary fact, putting words sourced from the news in the voice of historical figures long departed, and recontextualising those news by placing them in that ‘past-brought-back-to-the-present’. Like some kind of quick, evidence-based, data-driven historical speculative fiction in comic strips. A lot of my work and what makes me tick is based on this premise, that digital research and open digital heritage resources are an invitation to reconsider our present and our past to be able to construct a better future, or at the very least to gain a new perspective on the present.
You published them all on your blog, which you update regularly with other creative work. How important is it to you that this work is collected in print? Do you think it’s important to have physical objects when responding to things like a global pandemic with art?
This is a great question. I am honestly not sure. Seeing it now on print, being able to touch it, having worked on things like iterating several designs with designer and comics artist Francisco de la Mora, creating different prototypes with different binding and paper types, sizes etc. has brought it home how my passion for digital creation and research is rooted in a fascination with print and material culture. It’s been a big disappointment for me (one that I am gradually recovering from) that even digital humanities circles tend to see the born-digital and purely digital as some kind of second-rate product. We keep calling digital objects and online phenomena and events ‘virtual’, as if they were still, as the etymology dictates, ‘in potency’, on the way to becoming something the digital is not yet. It’s an old phrase now but I think it’s been demonstrated that ‘content is king’ is not always true: conversion is king. Culturally, we are still pretty much centred on physical matter. So I am very happy this little compilation of the first 40 online comic strips is now available in print, and it is pretty clear already that it is being received in a different way to the way the series was originally received when posted on my blog and shared on Twitter, LinkedIn etc. It’s also that I don’t have that large an audience, and that getting anyone to pay attention to anything these days is really, really difficult. So hopefully this release can give this work a new lease of life and a new audience too.
Martin Paul Eve’s introduction to the book highlighted the fact that these strips ‘speak truths that others are unwilling to hear.’ How important is it to you that you do this with your art and your work? Is this something that drives you?
What drives me is to find new ways to communicate matters that I consider socially important. It’s all essentially meta because, indeed, in the case of The Lockdown Chronicles ‘the medium is the message’, or at least an important part of the message, at least regarding the ‘artistic’ component of the work. But if we were to abstract ‘the truths’ that I am hoping the strips communicate, I suppose they would be those that continue to be unheard, the facts, the scientific evidence, the data. I continue to think that we have all been gaslit, and that we essentially live in times where the struggle continues to involve having to demonstrate again and again that the Earth is not flat, or that Covid is airborne, and that basic interventions like working from home, masking, physical distancing, ventilation and vaccination do work.
This book collects the first load of strips. Do you plan to do more, perhaps if we end up in another lockdown, or if there’s some other global event to comment on?
After the first 40, I continued the series with a second season if you will, but now focusing on the data charts or even featuring me as a character. I never thought they were as effective, and in a way I feel like after June 2020 there was a bit of a ‘loss of innocence’ regarding Covid for me; I guess that at some point I thought there would be hope of eliminating the threat. The process was very laborious, and intellectually, physically and emotionally draining. It was when I was completing the 40th strip, featuring Daniel Defoe, I got a sense that I was completing a cycle, and if you look at the UK daily deaths data at that point it did look like the death rate was going down significantly (it would only go up again as we were all paid to go out, literally). The word quarantine comes from quarantena or quarantaine, meaning ‘forty days’, and indeed these 40 strips were made on 40 days of lockdown. So that seemed like a nice way of rounding the series down. Making comics strips like this, researching them, creating them and publishing them online in one day in only a couple of hours max, was really demanding. It was something I just felt I had to do then, but I am not sure if I could gather that level of urgency again. Having said that, yeah, I will continue making comics using this technique I hope.
Finally, is there one of the strips that’s your particular favourite and why?
That’s a tough question. I think the one originally published on 25 May, featuring Arthur Conan Doyle, who lived with his family in South Norwood, South East London, between 1891-1894. We spent the first lockdown in South Norwood, and like most people we were limited to taking walks in the area. We enjoy walking to find London Blue Plaques (I have another comic, made before the Lockdown Chronicles, about going to find Sylvia Plath’s last address, for example). Anyway, since we were living in the area we walked to see Conan Doyle’s house, and I took a photo of the house. It fascinated me that it was still here, that someone lives there now, and that someone like Conan Doyle would have been someone like us, working from home, thinking about the issues of the day. Reading more about Conan Doyle, I just had to do a strip with him as a protagonist, showing him blogging from home before lunch, and discussing the news of the day (Dominic Cummings breaking the lockdown rules and driving to Durham Castle) with his first wife Louisa, who I learned was sometimes called ‘Touie’ (she died in 1906). [Wikipedia entry]. It was fascinating to learn that Conan Doyle was a doctor as well as a writer, something I did not know then or had forgotten about. Preparing the strip I read that according to The Conan Doyle Estate, “the success of Sherlock Holmes made Conan Doyle a public figure in the 1890s, along with stories about medical practice’s social and ethical issues.” Also as part of the research for the strip I learned that the Boer War (1899-1902) “crystalized his thinking about public issues, and role as a public man.” So I just thought it was very possible to imagine him reacting to what was happening in the UK at the time. As I make him say in the second panel of the strip:
“What I was writing just now, Touie, is that during the Boer war, we lost 22,000 british soldiers. This is worse. It is very hard to provide scientific advice to a government which doesn’t want to listen to science.” And that still sums it up, doesn’t it? It’s just amazing that it’s been 17 months since I created that strip, and we seem to find ourselves in a position, right now where that is still relevant.