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Derek Mueller - Pandemic Bestiary

The Pandemic Bestiary is a series of 30 illustrations begun as the COVID-19 virus spread in early 2020, and then developed as its effects fanned out in the forms of public health advisories, stay-at-home orders, hasty adaptations to remote working conditions, and widespread sociocultural upheaval. Each drawing features a focal beast who is augmented with flits and blinkerings indicative of the moment: the spikes of the COVID-19 spherical particles, paraphernalia expressing gratitude for Dr. Anthony Fauci, reminders of food comforts or entertainment asides, and an inventory of secondary challenges from disrupting scholarly research productivity to discontinuing crowded gatherings at sporting events. Initially, I planned to draw just twelve figures and to send them via text every couple of days to my son, Phillip (29), and my daughter, Isabel (14), both of whom live in southeast Michigan. The first twelve drawings were finished between April 5-24, but as the virus continued to spread, so too was there more to process and more to say about it with these playful, experimental digressions. I continued to draw them and send them every few days via SMS text as good morning messages for Phillip and Isabel. I have no background in drawing to speak of; these in the Pandemic Bestiary are my first. Each drawing is numbered and named with a simple verb. The last, #30 Fly, went to them on July 22, and by that time I'd begun working on a off-spin set, the Poolside Series, which has each figure from the bestiary drawn from above as if floating alone in a swimming pool. 

As a series the Pandemic Bestiary expresses hints of lightness and joyfulness in the context of a serious and challenging public health crisis. The images reached across a distance made strange by the onset of the event, from Blacksburg, Va., to Ypsilanti, Mich., with the heartfelt goals of okayness check-ins and parental reassurance in stressful, uncertain times. They functioned as phatic communiques, in the sense that phatic communication seeks to confirm social presence, saying, in effect, here we are. Ordinarily, phatic communication is less concerned with conveying information as it signals connection through verbal gestures (e.g., hello; good morning; what's up; all's good, yeah?). Digital and social media have subsumed and also expanded phatic communication to include passive, casual approval (emojis and likes are familiar examples; the posting of a food photograph is another for the way it shows what someone is eating without sharing a recipe or inviting anyone to share the meal). The Pandemic Bestiary served—at the scale of family—as an ongoing, extra-discursive (visual, non-verbal) communication practice, a small, familiar touch to say I am here, I am thinking of you, and we're okay. 

The Pandemic Bestiary was created using Procreate on an iPad Pro, along with a Penoval stylus. The complete set of drawings is available online at

About Derek Mueller

I am Associate Professor of Rhetoric and Writing and Director of Composition in Virginia Tech's Department of English. My teaching and research attends to the interplay among writing, rhetorics, and technologies. I regularly teach classes in visual rhetorics, writing pedagogy, first-year writing, and digital media. My drawing practice started in 2020; the Pandemic Bestiary is the first of it. In terms of other scholarly activity, I continue to be motivated professionally and intellectually by questions concerning digital writing platforms, networked writing practices, theories of composing, and discipliniographies or field narratives related to writing studies/rhetoric and composition. Fore more, visit

#05 Snap sent April 13, 2020

Snap #5. A tortoise whistles and snaps while riding a unicycle up a sidewalk chalked with a Coronavirus sketch. The tortoise's orange t-shirt has on its back a version of "I love Fauci," referring to Dr. Anthony Fauci, Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, an epidemiological hero and beacon of hope.

#06 Repose sent April 15, 2020

Repose #6. An anteater rests in a hammock strung between two trees, as a few ants (and a grim reaper) are making way from the tree along the anteater's elongated tongue. The figure expresses a restful, passive state even while participating in the death march of others.

#08 Collect sent April 19, 2020

Collect #8. A sloth in tight-fitting swim trunks (inspired by the launch of a new emoji) reaches glove-handed in an attempt to capture a colorful butterfly. My daughter, Isabel, requested the sloth. "Collect" resonates with research practices whose timely activities began to feel intensely mismatched with the pandemic's remade structures of time.

#11 Pace sent April 23, 2020

Pace #11. A snail waffle-plated and subject to butter and maple syrup, smelling sweet drizzle, luxuriates in comforts indulgent for April's jokingly doubling as Waffil. Because of the intense administrative demands in the month, Waffil/April stands as an inside joke of sorts with a colleague-friend at another university who directs a large-scale first-year writing program, expressing the timeliness of comforting indulgences.

#12 Play sent April 24, 2020

Play #12. A tiny horse (or is it a pony?) frolics and fetches a deflated yoga ball in high winds; the ball is on all sides. Inspired by an August 2019 video that continued circulating as a source of joy and distraction during the pandemic.

#13 Disobey sent April 27, 2020

Disobey #13. My daughter, Isabel, sent me a crudely finger-drawn chimera-like creature I doodled maybe eight or nine years ago; she was cleaning off her old Gen 2 iPad. I used the crude form as a forgotten shape due for revival, here a kind of haggard dragon-dog-bunny with a shaft of plant sticking out its mouth, red bandana, dirty feet, scruffy.

#16 Punt sent May 4, 2020

Punt #16. I'd considered this first as "The Coronavirus Also Rises," the sun-positioned threat overshadowing an emu, which hearkens to the university where I used to work, and an empty football stadium, which I suppose hints at the ominous prospect of thousands of football fans gathering for tailgate brewskis and head-pounding gladiatorial spectacle, packed in shoulder to shoulder in the autumn months.

#18 Write sent May 16, 2020

Write #18. A colorful wild turkey hunches over a computer keyboard, surrounded by bookshelves. A riff on Hokies Write, or This, too, connects to the complications in maintaining productive reading and writing habits during the pandemic.

#21 Blend sent May 24, 2020

Blend #21. A monocled elder (inspired by Groot, from Guardians of the Galaxy) sits portraiture next to a mandala out the window or what may be a coronavirus-like painting, hard to say definitively, but then a not-yet-metamorphosed caterpillar mustaches the larger figure. Tomorrow, a cocoon and the day after that, a butterfly.

#22 Glow sent May 25, 2020

Glow #22. A caterpillar holds a salmon-pantsed doll as a purple glob early 1980s intergalactic mandala-traveller is within view out the window (or is it through the picture frame).

Alternate #3 Strum sent April 11, 2020

Strum #3. A pangolin bearing a bandana and tattoos strums a mandolin as a bat flits above, some combination of these two suggested as culpable for COVID-19's transference impulse. Inspired by Anna Hirtenstein's Vice article, "I Accidentally Ate the World's Most Illegally Trafficked Animal."

Alternate #7 Ply sent April 17, 2020

Ply #7. An anguished starfish raises an axe to hack at a long roll of what may be paper towels, dividing it into toilet paper-sized rolls as coral reef-figures observe.

Alternate #26 Bend sent July 5, 2020

Bend #26. A snow monkey bends to smell a plant rising from an icy well, onlooking koi, peculiar stem knotted, quiet and still in snowfall.

Alternate #29 Dream sent July 21, 2020

Dream #29. An ogre dreams of its next tattoo--waves from Lake Superior and pines from Northern Michigan, paired large and small to suggest intergenerational water-land stewardship, each looking out for the other.