This month we review a series of documentary comics explaining the major philosophies of our time, and look at two very different ways the Western media can approach the Third World.
Editor: Anuradha Vittachi
Eggheads for Beginners
Mao for Beginners
by Rius and Friends
Trotsky for Beginners
by Tariq Ali and Phil Evans
Writers and Readers Publishing Cooperative UK: £1.95/US: $3.95 (each)
Translating some of the world's most complex ideas into cartoons is a very democratic concept; comics are, after all, accessible to everyone. Children have been known to read them.
It can be a service to thinkers of all ages. No longer need that house of cards that forms your fragile picture of the struggles between Lenin and Trotsky be swept away yet again by more immediate concerns. There it is, fixed on the page in black and white. Fetch the kids from school, kick the dog, look for your other sock and then back to the action where the comrades are still waiting to battle it out.
Mexican cartoonist Rius started the series off with his highly entertaining Cuba for Beginners (see NI No. 80). The explanatory bubbles have already settled round half a dozen or so thinkers from Marx to Freud and are at present hovering threateningly over Charles Darwin and Jesus Christ.
Reducing their seminal thoughts to neat packages makes a lot of marketing sense. But a disadvantage of High Street merchandise also applies: the excitement recedes after the point of sale. Actually using your digital pencil sharpener is considerably less satisfying than drooling over it. And for all their attractive simplification the books still have to be read - and that can be a wearing business.
For the `documentary comic' is a medium that is difficult to keep under control. It usually has a very disjointed story which is so dry that it needs the pictures to give it a bit more flavour. When the media are artificially mixed like this you have to work hard to keep them in balance and ensure the blend is acceptable. A good cartoon can be easier to take in than a book, but a bad one is many times more difficult.
Trotsky for Beginners suffers from visual overkill. Collages of photographs, engravings and cartoons explode on every page and rapidly stun the brain. The text that is squeezed between them comes in mercifully small mouthfuls but is actually no more appetising than most other trotskyist writing. I cannot say that in the end I have retained a great deal of it; the temptation is to jump from one visual to the next and only take in such words as stray into the field of vision. It is certainly very good to look at. But I think more likely to be a coffee table book for the cognoscenti than a crutch for the ignorant.
Rius is a rather older hand at this game and in Mao for Beginners the words and pictures work much betterintandem. I found his version of Marx, produced a few years back, a terrible struggle and I suspect that he did too. But here he is on much firmer ground, probably because Mao's story has all the sweep and cast of a Hollywood epic and will doubtless appear as one some day. Here in advance we have some of the stills from this heroic tale, illustrating a light and comprehensible text.
Ironically, in productions like this it is the words which turn out to be the critical component. The same is true in other media. J. K. Galbraith at the outset of his economics television series was surrounded by a terrifying array of audiovisual supports. He looked around at all the flashing models and diagrams and shrugged his shoulders. `If all else fails,' he said, `I could always explain things.'
Well, if comics don't work you could always try books.
Has anyone here been raped and speaks English?
Index on Censorship
by Book author
Writers & Scholars International Ltd
Annual Subscription: UK 9/US $18
Has Anyone Here Been Raped and Speaks English?
by Edward Behr
Hamish Hamilton (hbk) £7.95
Edward Bahr's memoirs, entitled Has Anyone Here Been Raped and Speaks English? was a disappointment despite its promising title. A foreign correspondent for Time-Life and then Newsweek, Behr seems unable to decide when to drop the hard-bitten image of the world-weary correspondent and reveal a more cony passionate heart. The book suffers from many of the problems visible in much of the western media's foreign reporting: a lack of cultural sympathy, an unremitting search for a scoop that grossly over-simplifies political and social problems and a lack of general analysis. Even an historic meeting with Mao Tse Tung seems to be savoured more for its sensationalism than for its content. Basically an anecdotal autobiography, it lacks the passion of a Cameron or Bloodworth.
Index on Censorship performs a unique service to the cause of free expression. As well as chronicling details and case studies of banned and imprisoned writers, film-makers and artists, this excellently produced periodical provides an opportunity to read the works that have incurred the wrath of repressive governments. It has become a showcase for some of the finest and most powerful writing from the Third World and eastern Europe: essays, poems, satire and songs that are almost impossible to find elsewhere in print.
When asked how intellectuals in Africa view the future, one prominent writer replied that it was usually through prison bars. Despite enormous cultural differences, the struggle is often essentially the same whether it takes place in Africa, Latin America or Asia. By their special role as interpreters and transmitters of culture, writers can find themselves at the forefront of official persecution; censorship is evoked rarely to protect progressive policies but to hide mismanagement, ideological poverty and, above all, bureaucracy. At least in the pages of Index, which appears six times a year, the voices of those protesting against injustice and abuse can be heard and their work can be appreciated. For anyone who wishes to broaden their knowledge of the arts world-wide or to understand better the psychology of repression it is essential reading.