By Antonio Aiello

We launched the Illustrated PEN in the spring of 2015 with the graphic novel Baddawi, by Chicago-based Palestinian artist and organizer Leila Abdelrazaq. The series aspired to be at the intersection of literature, journalism, and visual storytelling, where images and words come together in an ever-emerging and essential creative form. Since beginning the series, we have published works from every corner of the globe covering important issues, from corrupt judges in Egypt to gun violence in the United States to the murder of Russian Journalist Anna Politkovskaya. All of this was made possible by a talented roster of guest editors and dedicated intern staff.

This fall, Meg Lemke joins current editors MariNaomi and Robert Kirby as our newest guest editor on the Illustrated PEN. Mari and Rob have guided the series with brilliant insight, deep connections in the graphic narrative community, and infinite patience as the series came together. I first met Meg at the 2015 PEN Prison Writing celebration, and was immediately captured by her passion for graphic narratives. Meg draws on over fifteen years experience with comics as an agent, a book editor, a magazine editor, and in publicity and event programming. At Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, she launched the Best American Comics series, and has continued to seek ways to bring comics to a broader audience across all her publishing roles—recognizing graphic narrative as a literary form that crosses genre. Currently she’s the editor-in-chief of MUTHA Magazine, which features “some of the finest comics about modern motherhood” (Nat. Brut), including recent Ignatz-winning and Eisner-nominated stories.

Meg says she “hopes to bring to the Illustrated PEN exemplars of the form that showcase the power of comics to tell stories in surprising ways. We talk often about literature letting us ‘see’ a new perspective. Comics can do that quite literally, and when it’s done well, there is a magical interaction between the visuals and text that stimulates a different part of our thinking. In our lives lived online, as readers we are inundated with imagery on the Internet, much of it advertising in margins (or popping up mid-screen). But comics can skillfully interrupt this oversaturation, as it necessitates we slow down and take in visual narrative, for example to parse a plot carried in background scenic details. Reading comics has been compared to reading poetry—they both invite play between the reader and the text on the page (be it broken into stanzas or word balloons).

“In how I approach the mission of PEN in my selections, I hold onto the truism that “the personal is political.” MUTHA is a feminist site; we focus on women and genderqueer voices, on the health concerns of maternity, and the political concerns/diverse lived experiences of motherhood. Certainly this will influence what comics I select for the Illustrated PEN—but I admit I’m also pleased for this opportunity to share different ‘stories I loved’ in comics form, which don’t necessarily have to do with the having of children (but maybe still have to do with the having of bodies/sexual desire/dreams of a better world). In particular I’d like to examine censorship and the influence of commercial forces on visibility in comics, both through pieces that directly approach these issues and by sharing artists who put out their work DIY or rise up from micro indie publishers (like MUTHA) because they haven’t been considered marketable enough for mainstream houses.”

Meg has already jumped in with both feet, helping to put together a comics and graphic narrative driven Banned Books Week feature in September that included a project on censorship by Anne Elizabeth Moore, original work by Jennifer Camper, an open letter on censorship in school settings by Mariko Tamaki, and a featured excerpt from Mariko and Jillian Tamaki’s This One Summer. Her first official post for the ongoing series is live today, with PTSD: The Wound that Never Heals, by Leela Corman.