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Why a portrait artist from Ireland started making comics about U.S. police brutality

Irish artist Pan Cooke combines his love of graphic storytelling with a passion for education and advocacy to create comic strips highlighting prominent cases of police violence. Here, one of his latest strips tells the story of the beating death of Tyre Nichols, who died on Jan. 7 in Memphis, Tenn.
Pan Cooke
Irish artist Pan Cooke combines his love of graphic storytelling with a passion for education and advocacy to create comic strips highlighting prominent cases of police violence. Here, one of his latest strips tells the story of the beating death of Tyre Nichols, who died on Jan. 7 in Memphis, Tenn.

After Minneapolis police killed George Floyd in the summer of 2020, the entire United States watched as protests against police brutality rocked cities from coast to coast. And while the U.S. was grappling with questions of race and justice, the rest of the world looked on, too.

That included the Irish illustrator Pan Cooke. As a white man who lived thousands of miles away from the ongoing protests, the racial reckoning gave him the chance to educate himself about why police brutality had been dominating headlines.

"It was a topic that I was very ignorant to and wanted to learn more about it," Cooke said.

While researching cases of police violence, he came across the story of Eric Garner, a Black manwho was killed by Staten Island police in 2014. Learning about what happened to Garner, Cooke began to create and share cartoons illustrating Garner's story, as well as other cases connected to police brutality and racism, on his Instagram page.

"I did it only with the intention of just for self-education," he said. "And then, I shared it with a few friends in my WhatsApp group who said they themselves actually learned something from it."

With the recent murders of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd on his mind, Cooke began to create comics about their lives, and how they'd been cut short by violence.

"It was just something I was doing for myself because I'm more of a visual learner," he said. "I felt that I learned a lot myself just by doing this."

Cooke has had a longtime passion for art

Throughout his 20s, Cooke worked as a portrait painter, illustrating portraits of celebrities that were commissioned by customers. But portrait painting was something he eventually lost passion for, he said.

It wasn't until the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March 2020 that he felt the opportunity to shift in a different direction.

"I got a break and decided to do something else. I started focusing on drawing cartoons," Cooke said.

Each of the single-panel illustrations drawn by Cooke tells the story of a specific police violence-related incident that occurred. Throughout each panel, Cooke recaps what happened during the encounter, while avoiding graphic depictions of the event.

So far, Cooke has drawn comics telling the stories of Atatiana Jefferson, John Crawford III, Amir Locke and Daunte Wright, among others.

Cooke has even drawn a comic to tell the story of Eugene Goodman, the U.S. Capitol Police officer who diverted rioters from the U.S. Senate chamber during the January 6 attack.

Once he devoted his time to the drawings, Cooke quickly realized how much of an impact he was making, as his following on Instagram grew from under a thousand to over 300,000 in a matter of weeks. The response, he says, has been overwhelmingly positive.

"It kind of became apparent that people were learning from it ... it's almost like we were learning together. It grew quite quickly," Cooke said.

And while the comics began to take off across social media, Cooke says he's still continuing to learn about police violence — emphasizing that he's in no way trying to be a subject matter expert on this.

"I try not to speak too much on the actual subject of racism, as I am a white guy in Ireland...all I can do is use my talents and skills to help raise awareness," he added.

Staying informed with less exposure to graphic images

Irish artist Pan Cooke combines his love of graphic storytelling with a passion for education and advocacy to create comic strips highlighting prominent cases of police violence. Here, one of his latest strips tells the story of the beating death of Tyre Nichols, who died on Jan. 7 in Memphis, Tenn.
/ Pan Cooke
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Pan Cooke
Irish artist Pan Cooke combines his love of graphic storytelling with a passion for education and advocacy to create comic strips highlighting prominent cases of police violence. Here, one of his latest strips tells the story of the beating death of Tyre Nichols, who died on Jan. 7 in Memphis, Tenn.

Since creating the comics, Cooke says the reception of his artwork has been more positive than negative.

"One of the main [pieces of] feedback that I get is that, through the comics, you can kind of get more a visual idea of the story without having to view the violence directly," he said.

With videos containing violence and death being incredibly stressful to watch and process, Cooke's artwork serves as a bridge between staying informed on the cases without having to directly watch the footage.

"I'm just using art to tell a story that's already available, just in a different way," he said.

The art is something he hopes to continue doing in the future, as he's balancing drawing comics and writing a memoir called Puzzled, which details his experiences growing up with obsessive compulsive disorder and anxiety.

Cooke says he hopes his work will continue to bring attention to police violence.

"I just want to be a stepping stone towards people doing positive action," he said.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Jonathan Franklin
Jonathan Franklin is a digital reporter on the News desk covering general assignment and breaking national news.