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Don't laugh!

Last week, my fellow New Internationalist campaigners and I went for a meeting at HQ to discuss the Copenhagen magazine. One of the issues we discussed was the decision to include a lengthy comic as a central element to that month’s issue. During the discussion it became clear that the issue was fairly divisive, with some happy to see graphic work appearing in the magazine’s pages and some arguing that comics have little place in a serious publication. These twin reactions tend to sum up general critical discussion of the medium in a wider context. I personally am a firm believer in the power of the format and have to say I’m glad that the New Internationalist is experimenting with a greater prevalence of drawn reportage.

Whatever you call them – comics, graphic novels, visual diaries – the medium has been around since time immemorial, from ancient cave paintings, to crude doodles found on the walls of Pompeii, via the pages of Punch and the New York Times, to a ‘serious’ rebirth in the 1960s in the form of Comix, and on to the present. The combination of words and pictures has a long and rich history, yet as a form of serious political or documentary reportage the reaction from the mainstream has been relatively muted. 

There have been some major successes of course; the Pulitzer Prize-winning Maus by Art Speigelman is a harrowing yet redemptive Auschwitz survivors’ tale; Palestine by Joe Sacco is a journalistic report on the Israeli/Palestinian conflict; Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi tells the story of a young girl growing up in post revolutionary Iran, and Waltz With Bashir by Folman and David Polonsky centres around the massacres of Palestinian refugees in the Sabra and Shatila camps by Lebanese Phalangists during the 1982 Israeli invasion. These are all examples of the format’s success, yet the spotlight of widespread acclaim has been fleeting. This is truly a shame. I feel that visual language has the power to deal with large, complicated issues, such as those described above, with a poignancy and delicate human touch that is barely achievable in any other format. 

The effective use of comic art can bring a conflict or political process to life and can provide both serious dialogue and discussion, whilst retaining focus upon those most directly affected by issues: one of the New Internationalist’s primary goals. Comics can be used to effectively explain and map out issues to those new to an area in an accessible and empowering way. For instance, in Safe Area Gorazde, another work by Joe Sacco on the siege of Gorazde during the Bosnian conflict, the artist uses a series of flashbacks and metaphors to explain the political causes for the war creating a pictorial history of the conflict for the reader and also illustrates all the key figures on both sides; thus when Radovan Karadzic speaks, you know who is talking and the narrative remains simple to follow, allowing you to enter the world of the besieged Bosnian Muslims. What more powerful a call to action can you imagine?

So there we go. I love this stuff basically and so should you! Don’t listen to those who say that comics aren’t a ‘serious’ enough medium to deal with serious political messages. There seems to be a belief that as ‘comics’ they should concentrate on the lighter side of life and stick to what they do best. I say, rubbish! Comics provide an excellent way into issues for the uninitiated, offer intensely personal accounts of major events, provide a call to action to would-be activists and allow an escape from convention that no serious book or film can manage. As the eponymous Harvey Pekar (writer of the incredible American Splendor series) stated: ‘Comics are words and pictures with no boundaries. What can you not do?’

As well as those listed above, I recommend:

Burma Chronicles by Guy Delisle. A roaming animator provides an insightful peek from the inside of the Junta.
Deogratias by Stassen. A harrowingly personal account of one young man’s destruction during the Rwandan genocide.
Barefoot Gen by Keiji Nakazawa. Recounts the tale of a survivor of the Hiroshima bomb
In the Shadow of no Towers by Art Spiegelman. A deeply personal, politically charged, graphically and emotionally stunning account of the events and aftermath of September 11.
Dropsie Avenue by Will Eisner. The drawn writings and musing of early-century New York provide a comment of the unstoppable force of capitalism.
The Rabbi’s Cat by Joann Sfar. In this beautiful book the cat of an Algerian Rabbi learns to talk and wishes to convert to Judaism. Cue some lengthy theological debate.
Louis Riel by Chester Brown. Retells the tale of mostly forgotten hero of the Metis people, who shared both French and Native American blood and who were ruthlessly persecuted by the British in Canada. Provides insightful commentary on the beliefs and practices relating to indigenous people at the time.

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