The Latin American Comics Archive: An Online Platform For The Research And Teaching Of Digitized And Encoded Spanish-Language Comic Books Through Scholar/Student Collaboration

Felipe Gomez (fgomez@andrew.cmu.edu), Carnegie Mellon University, United States of America and Scott Weingart (scottbot@cmu.edu), Carnegie Mellon University, United States of America and Daniel Evans (djevans@andrew.cmu.edu), Carnegie Mellon University, United States of America and Rikk Mulligan (rikk@cmu.edu), Carnegie Mellon University, United States of America
Overview:

This short paper looks into the process of developing the Latin American Comics Archive (LACA), a project created by our team at Carnegie Mellon University. LACA combines ongoing research in the Humanities with digital technologies as a tool for enhancing access and analysis capabilities for both scholars and students of these materials. The curated digital archive includes representative samples of Latin American comics digitally encoded in Comic Book Markup Language (CBML), while a technical foundation combining the open source content management system Omeka with TEI Boilerplate offers a customizable front-end for public or restricted access to the individual items and curated collections of the comics. This allows students and researchers access to source materials and possibilities to collaborate in their exploration, definition, tagging, and annotation for the analysis of visual and verbal language, cultural and linguistic characteristics or themes, and a variety of formal categories.

Statement of the problem:

Despite the overdue growing recognition of the genre of comics in academia, the study of foreign/second language comics within the United States has encountered specific obstacles. Primary-source research of Spanish-language comics has often proved to be challenging. Among other difficulties, collections are most often housed in the source countries, and a desired piece of documentation may sometimes be in libraries hundreds or thousands of miles away. Items may be both in public and private hands, and access to certain items is often highly restricted due to their fragility, rarity, and value. Oftentimes, specific documents aren’t cataloged in the archives’ container lists, making the identification, location, and access of relevant materials problematic. When using traditional research methods, these challenges have to be confronted and resolved by the researcher, who works in isolation with the source documents. Many of these issues also generate constraints in the realm of teaching, where the limitations to the access of sources restricts course conceptualization and implementation, and where students don’t usually have much agency or opportunities to engage in larger debates and conversations with other students or scholars of Latin American comics.

Digital tools have the potential to facilitate or solve many of these issues for research and teaching of this important cultural and literary medium. Indeed, they have the ability to address precisely the core values that Spiro (2012) associates with work in the Digital Humanities -- openness, collaboration, diversity, experimentation, collegiality, and connectedness. These tools can, for instance, create optimal opportunities to view and use some of these sources online, thus granting access to an audience who may never have had the chance to see them in the “analog” era, and opening and expanding the possibilities for a richer and deeper type of collaborative research. Our goal is to expand the possibilities of using Spanish-language comics by identifying and piloting the use of digital tools with which digital copies of representative Latin American comics can be made, accessed, and annotated in collaboration with students and scholars. Our focus is on developing an archive of sources that scholars and students can use for analysis, interpretation, and research employing digital tools.

Critical ContextLACA seeks to insert itself in the broad scholarly landscape created at the intersection of comics scholarship (e.g. Priego, 2016; Walsh, 2012), visual ontologies and comics (e.g. Bateman et. al., 2017; Turton, 2017), work done to encode comics elements (e.g. Dunst et. al., 2016; Haidar and Ganascia, 2016; Kuboi, 2014), and work on the value of comics as a pedagogical tool (e.g. Brooks, 2017).
Methodology

Given the team’s expertise in Digital Humanities (DH) and Digital Scholarship, and with the support of an institutional Mellon DH seed grant, the project was initiated in the summer 2016. LACA was modeled after existing specialized collections such as MIT’s Comics and Popular Culture archive, UNAM’s specialized online resource http://www.pepines.unam.mx/, and the Grand Comics Database (GCD) with the purpose of combining the PI’s ongoing research and teaching experience on Spanish-language Latin American comics with the use of DH tools to create an environment enabling students and scholars to have access to and collaborate in the analysis of the digital materials. At the current stage, LACA includes a small digital sample of Latin American comics produced throughout the last century, provided through a combination of previously digitized materials, materials we scanned, and those provided by authors themselves. 

The presentation will detail three parts of the project:

  1. Curating the comics and creating the archive;
  2. Creating the online Metamedia platform to house digitized sources for the research and teaching of Spanish-language comics through student/scholar collaboration;
  3. Piloting and implementing the digital archive for research and teaching.

Insights/

Results

LACA was piloted at CMU over the past year as an instrument in courses for undergraduate students of Spanish language and culture. Students and faculty collaborate in the analysis and CBML coding of the comics. In the process, students learn the basics of TEI and CBML, as well as critical approaches to Spanish-language comics, and their work contributes to the availability of comics on the site. Students are also able to develop integrated textual and visual competence, knowledge, and skills. The pilot courses provide initial evidence that coding the comics facilitates students’ attention to details, notice of patterns, and, in general, collaborative advancement in the analysis and understanding of the linguistic and cultural elements contained in the comics. At the same time, it also helps students keep in mind communication to a wide public audience. The PI has benefitted from the additional opportunities afforded to glean information about students’ progress toward cultural, linguistic, visual, and digital literacy. Thus, it is suggested that LACA could be of use and applicable to other courses in Hispanic studies, Modern Languages, and the Humanities.

We intend to make LACA publicly available for use as a hub where students and scholars interested in experimenting with the inquiry of Latin American comics can interact. This would help transform and expand the scale of traditional research methods used, and could open new modes and possibilities for text analysis that can be employed into the realm of student agency and learning. However, as we advance in the process to attain this goal, we acknowledge that IP/copyright permissions remain a challenge. Some creators have granted permission to distribute their works; others will only be used as part of course materials. Despite this, we think it is important to keep in mind Walsh’s (2012) point that “nothing prevents a scholar from applying CBML markup to any text as part of a strategy for reading, interpretation, and analysis. The end goal of markup is not and should not always be publication of a digital surrogate. The encoding of a text may be a rigorous intellectual activity that has great value as process, not just as product.”


Appendix A

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