Not Just for Kids: Using Comics to Bring the Jalame Workshop to Life

John Swogger’s avatar in the comic book for Dig Deeper, as illustrated by the artist.

The Museum’s Publications Department typically publishes a book or exhibition catalogue to accompany the annual special exhibition. This year, Dig Deeper: Discovering an Ancient Glass Workshop exhibition curator Katherine Larson paired up with United Kingdom-based archaeological illustrator John G. Swogger to make a 36-page comic-style book about the glass workshop at Jalame and the archaeologists who study it. Swogger is an archaeologist who makes comics for museums and research excavations. He also works with local and Indigenous communities to tell stories about their archaeology, history, and heritage. 

For Larson, the question she was asked most often when telling people about the exhibition publication, was how she got the idea for a comic in the first place. Larson had come across Swogger’s work as she was starting to think about a publication to accompany the exhibition and immediately sensed it would be a great fit. There were not a lot of existing images that helped put ancient glass into a human context. Larson felt a comic could help fill that gap and bring these objects back to life to tell the story in a more fun, narrative way.

Swogger joined Larson for a special Connected by Glass event in April to discuss how they worked together to create Dig Deeper: Discovering the Ancient Glass Workshop at Jalame.  

Curator Katherine Larson is also represented in the comic book. Illustrated by John Swogger.

Katherine: When we first started working on the Dig Deeper comic, we discussed the project’s intended audience and ways we could use the comic format to talk about ancient glassblowing in more narrative ways. How do you approach making comics about archaeology? Who are they for? 

John: We have a tradition in English-speaking, Western countries, of categorizing comics as entertainment more than literature. Superhero and adventure comics are seen as light, trivial, even childish. Most people think they’re aimed at young readers. But what’s really interesting is that comics apply a sophisticated communications toolset to get this content across. They meld together images and text, and in a really interesting way, they use sequences to create narrative and to set pace. These stories are always very human-centric. They feature people, essential characters. They use first-person speech and dialogue to make the relationships between characters explicit. And as a consequence, comics have evolved to the point where they’re able to take on board really complex and sometimes difficult stories, and they do this by using very sophisticated and nuanced visual narrative arcs. 

When I was first asked to make comics, my boss was very clear: these are for children. And so that’s what was on my mind, that these were for children. And then I saw adults reading them, and realized, oh, well, you know, adults can read comics too. 

Katherine: One thing that appealed to me, as a curator and an archaeologist, about working with you to produce the images is how much information they contain. Something that takes me over 100 words to describe on a label (and still isn’t clear!) is much more simply conveyed with a good illustration. How do you see comics being used in museums and in more traditional forms of archaeological publication?  

Glassblowers work around a traditional wood-fired furnace. Illustrated by John Swogger.

John: Comics in archeology can do three really important things. The first is that they can visualize the context of archaeological finds. Second, they can structure unfamiliar and complex elements to do with archaeology, so that it’s easier for people to access that information. And third, they humanize and consequently ground archaeological practice in the real world. Therefore, you don’t have to be an archaeologist in order to understand an archaeological comic, whereas you do have to be an archaeologist in order to understand traditional artifact illustrations. 

Katherine: I know you put a great deal of intentionality into how you depict real people and people in the past. Can you tell us a bit more about that philosophy?  

John: I generally tend not to use made-up characters in the comics I work on. I want it to be the real archaeologists, who really look like that, who really wear red T-shirts and have dirt all over their faces. There’s already so much that’s made up about archeology out there in the world. I don’t want to be contributing to that, and it makes it difficult for the reader to judge if they’re looking at Indiana Jones and a real piece of glass. But which is fake, and which is real? So, as far as possible, the stories that I create are entirely based on the real stuff. 

I think in the Jalame story, if you have people whose careers are founded on doing this kind of work, and who’ve made really important contributions to the field, well, you want to know who those people are and see them represented. 

A bustling marketplace where merchants bought and sold glass. Illustrated by John Swogger.

Katherine: As the project evolved, we realized we wanted to include more people in the Dig Deeper story, in order to communicate that archaeological research involves dozens of people from multiple countries, and not just the foreign archaeologists coming into a space—even though theirs are the voices and words we tend to have recorded.  

John: I think archeology and museums are in alignment and both are thinking more about community-centered work and telling stories, and ensuring that members of communities, especially those who haven’t had a lot of voice in their own representations in museums and academic scholarship before, are represented. And I also think a nice thing about comics is they can represent diversity of people in different ways. So, I did try, as far as possible, to include people in the comic who would be representative of the range and diversity of people at the time. 

The front cover of the exhibition comic book. Illustrated by John Swogger.

Katherine: You’ve done many other archaeology and industrial heritage projects, but this is your first time working on glass. What was that like?  

John: This is actually the first project I’ve worked on where I have had no experience whatsoever of the subject matter. We worked on this all the way through the pandemic, and it was completely and utterly remote, so I was entirely dependent on video, on watching and rewatching over and over again what other people were doing. And there’s that curious flattening effect of video that actually makes understanding what people are doing in 3D quite difficult if you’re then trying to reproduce it in another medium. And so, in some of my early illustrations, I clearly had no idea of the scale of things, of the plasticity of glass for example. It never occurred to me that glass drips and drops when it gets molten. Well, of course, it does, but I was treating it like it was a vessel when it’s molten on the end of a blowpipe. I conceived of it as somehow more solid than perhaps it really is. It was only later on that I realized that everybody keeps twirling those pipes because if you don’t, it just falls. But it was stuff like that which would come to you in seconds if you were actually watching glass being blown, or if you had any experience of it, which took me much much longer to get to grips with. So, you have to use your imagination, but it can only take you so far. 

You can watch the entire conversation between Katherine Larson and John Swogger on the Corning Museum YouTube channel.

Visit The Shops to purchase your own copy of the Dig Deeper comic publication, browse the fun selection of Dig Deeper items, and so much more.

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