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COVID Comics, Cubed


“COVID Comics, Cubed” explores the unexpected power of comics to promote health and data literacy across populations, representing scales and dimensions of the COVID-19 pandemic lost on official public health briefings and mainstream media. Bringing immersive technology together with interactive data about COVID, “COVID Comics, Cubed” seeks to “raise the power” of pandemic-era comics made and shared on social media—to “cube” them, so to speak—through the unique resources of VT’s Cube. The project places comics and data, art and scientific technology into a mutually generative circuit: a coded “COVID comics” database reveals how comic storytelling can help us tell better data stories about public health, while the scientific technologies afforded by the Cube pioneer new possibilities for interacting with a medium many do not associate with sophisticated knowledge. The result: new avenues both for experiencing comic art—and comics as art—and for engaging with data. In an effort to capture the pandemic paradox of extreme isolation within global connectivity—of “being alone together,” as one cartoonist put it—the project features immersive digital experiences mediated by individual headsets alongside interactive, site-specific displays shaped by user contributions.


Schematic of Cube experience, both physical and virtual.
Schematic of Cube experience, both physical and virtual.
Moodboard of Precedents
Moodboard of Precedents


Description of updated problem space 

Our team—a literary scholar, a graphic designer and theorist, and a scholar of HCI—had to find some conceptual and methodological common ground in order to get our work underway. We found it somewhat unexpectedly in the concept of “affordances,” although we didn’t dwell on the term at the time. The notion of “affordances” comes from design theory, where it describes the potential uses or actions in materials and designs. In her important book of literary criticism, Forms (2015), Caroline Levine retooled the notion of affordances for literary and cultural studies, using it to ask questions about how forms work across aesthetic and other domains. The language of affordances is native to Rachael and Doug; it is familiar to Emmy in translation, as a new critical concept in her field. Nonetheless, having found our lingua franca, we set out to ask: what does the comic form afford during a pandemic? What is the lowly medium of comics, as a narrative form with particular features, capable of doing? What potentialities lie latent in comics, and how did COVID-19 bring those potentials out? How did comics that circulated about the pandemic impact other forms—arrangements, rhythms, patterns—of human experience during COVID-19 on a global scale? 

We came up with three major affordances, which will guide our exhibition and provide the major takeaways of the final exhibition: 1) health literacy; 2) coping; and 3) connection. Our first area of emphasis examines how the wealth of comics about COVID-19 that began to circulate on social media helped promote health and data literacy on a massive scale. These comics filtered and flagged misinformation that seemed rampant on the web and in the air, and they also broke down unfamiliar or complex medical information in an accessible way. Second, we want to highlight the function of these comics—making them, reading them, sharing them—as a form of “graphic medicine,” or a means of coping with the trauma of a global catastrophe. This second affordance takes us from the realm of data and public communication to the more private spaces of feeling and psyche. Finally, we will stress how comics provided a means of connection and community at a time of forced distance and isolation. Ultimately, we want the final experience of our exhibition to dramatize these three capacities of engaging with comics.

Progress to date 

During the Fall 2023 semester, we conducted weekly meetings during our introductory brainstorming phase. We developed an extensive collaborative brainstorming document and a conceptualization document where we collectively formulated the concept for our piece. Our progress to date is as follows: 

  • We developed initial plans for the user experience (general walkthrough/screen setup; see below).
  • We developed initial plans for the storyline.
  • We chose a professional artist (Kay Sohini) as a partner, and collaborated with her on style and story.
  • We determined the main themes and goals of the exhibit: To focus on health literacy, coping, and connection as a means of navigating the art of comics circulated during the pandemic. 
  • We hired two students from different disciplines to work on the project: Levi Shoates from the School of Visual Arts will create assets (3D models, animations, imagery, audio), and Bharathi Ganesan from Computer Science will work on AR/VR development.
  • We met with Tanner Upthegrove twice to discuss Cube layout and technology options.
  • We met at the 3D Interaction Lab to experience and evaluate different head-worn display technology options. We decided that using the passthrough mode of a modern VR headset such as the Meta Quest 3 will provide the best experience for the virtual portion of our project.

The user experience of the exhibition 

  • The user within the space will enter the Cube and be led through a series of physical screens where the storyline will unfold. We anticipate having three screens, two of which will have projections on both sides. The scenes are as follows: 
  • opening urban landscape
  • using social media/doom scrolling 
  • hospital room
  • Highline in NY
  • families separated by travel restrictions

After the user experiences the physical screen portion of the exhibition, they will be given a head-worn display and led into the virtual portion. While we are still determining what the whole experience of the virtual portion will be, we have discussed story screen overlays and data visualizations. We have discussed the unique affordance of comics within VR/AR as the possibility of characters and moments breaking out of the traditional drawn frame.