Fear, Climate Grief, and Comics About Climate Change

This post comes from the Artists and Climate Change Blog

When my friend emailed me a link to that New York Times piece about a growing crack in an Antarctic ice shelf in February, I saved one of the images from the article to my computer. In it, the crack is a long, gray line on the white ice, like mechanical pencil drawn with an unsteady hand. An impossibly thin line, a few miles wide in real life, splitting the ice in two. The crack has grown in the months since I downloaded that photo, and soon it will break off entirely. The shelf will crash into the sea. The very old glacier behind it will begin to melt.

I open the file and look at it so often it feels like the crack is in my mind: widening, terrifyingly persistent, snaking deeper and deeper into the ice.
Six months ago, I began organizing an anthology of comics by some of my favorite experimental cartoonists to describe something that I’ve felt in myself and watched my friends experience, but haven’t always seen reflected in art: climate change grief. That hairline crack in consciousness, knowing that the earth is changing and dying. The emotion of the rift in the ice.
I’m a cartoonist. I make poetry comics—comics that use the motion of the panel and sequential image to make poetry. They’re not always narrative, often not linear. I’m interested in pushing comics forward into stranger, deeper waters, to see how the form can express human experience more precisely.
Warmer, open to a piece by Alyssa Berg.

The nuances of poetry comics are well-suited to take on climate grief. It’s a strange kind of grief, so big it’s almost impossibly abstract. Miles and miles of ocean, rising! Massive icebergs, melting, cracking, crashing into the sea! Entire species, crashing into extinction! Entire ecosystems, thrown off balance! A grief as big as the planet.
But it’s also small—a hairline crack so far away it’s nearly imaginary; small enough that I can sometimes go a whole day forgetting that anything has gone wrong. I go to work and come home again, forgetting for eight or twelve hours that anything is out of the ordinary.

Then I remember. In March, when the flower beds of Boston’s South End bloomed a little too early, only to be bitten back by frost. In February, when the weather was unseasonably warm, like a premature spring, and the sun was hot on my neck.

What are we supposed to do with this existential heartbreak, knowing that our world is dying?

What are we supposed to do with this unshakable feeling that our world is Good, and it is Good for people to live here; it is Good for ecosystems to continue on as they have; it is Good for families of humans and families of all sorts of animals to live, as they have done, since the beginning of creation? What are we supposed to do with all of this enormous, inexpressible beauty, and the enormous, crushing reality of the ways we are destroying it?

Caitlin Skaalrud

A great deal of art and design produced around climate change is created with the unconvinced or uninformed in mind. And while I am deeply grateful for the hard work of those who educate, and plan, and organize—and I do a little of that myself—I think that there is a deep grief, profoundly physical and spiritual, that comes with knowing what is happening to the world; a grief that needs to be addressed.

Out of all of this—the grief and confusion and half-willful forgetfulness—I decided to make an anthology called Warmer: A collection of comics about climate change for the fearful & hopeful.

Because here is the truth: I am confused, and I am scared. Most days I am tentatively hopeful, and most days I would prefer to forget all of this and never think about it again. I am angry at those in power, and I am angry at myself. I am grieving, abstractly, for people in nations I will never visit, full of families whose homes will be underwater soon. I am grieving for my hypothetical children, and their hypothetical children, and their hypothetical children. I am grieving for myself.

For the last six months, I’ve worked with my friend and co-editor, cartoonist Andrew White, to curate a collection of comics that engage with what we’ve felt ourselves as we’ve tried to come to terms with climate change. We gathered nineteen writers and cartoonists from around the world (and contributed work ourselves) to make a book of comics full of pain, and fear, and hope, and grief. Some are funny, some are mournful, all are strange and honest.

Maggie Umber

I decided to make an anthology because climate grief is difficult to face by yourself. It is a communal grief, a communal fear, a communal guilt. I brought eighteen other artists around me because it is easier to walk into a dark place when you’re with other people, even when you’re not sure what lies in wait for you.

One unexpected delight of making an anthology—bringing together a group of people from all different continents, with different lives and thoughts and ways of drawing—has been the diversity of expression.

Denmark-based cartoonist Tor Brandt and Minnesota-based cartoonist Caitlin Skaalrud both made apocalyptic comics that imagine a strange, difficult future. Others, like Virginia-based Andrew White (also my co-editor), and Washington-based Jonathan Bell Wolfe, crafted dreamy, meditative pieces that overwhelm with their quietude. And a few approached the enormity of the impending tragedy by looking very closely at a specific species—humpback whales and bees in particular (pieces drawn by New York-based Alyssa Berg and Minnesota-based Maggie Umber).

Madeleine Witt

To be clear: I don’t have any answers. And answers are certainly what we need now, badly—answers about what should be done, how we ought to live, how we ought to deconstruct and rebuild our societies and governments and industries, to save our world.

What I do have—and part of what I need—is a book of gorgeous, scary, sad, strange, hopeful comics that remind me of my place in the world, and make me feel a little less alone.

We’re publishing the book with the help of Kickstarter. You can pre-order a copy, and help us make sure it gets to print, HERE.

(Top image: Cover art by Madeleine Witt.)


Madeleine Witt is a designer, illustrator, and cartoonist. She is one of the co-editors of Warmer: A collection of comics about climate change for the fearful & hopeful. She lives in Somerville, Massachusetts. You can read her comics in Guernica Magazine, or on her website.

About Artists and Climate Change:

Artists and Climate Change is a blog that tracks artistic responses from all disciplines to the problem of climate change. It is both a study about what is being done, and a resource for anyone interested in the subject. Art has the power to reframe the conversation about our environmental crisis so it is inclusive, constructive, and conducive to action. Art can, and should, shape our values and behavior so we are better equipped to face the formidable challenge in front of us.

Go to the Artists and Climate Change Blog

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.