Columnist Miguel Cima, director/host of the award-winning documentary Dig Comics, looks at what makes comics so great, and what’s holding them back.
This week’s insane almost-banning of Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis by some dingbat school principal in Chicago once again put into spotlight the banal efforts of the prudish class of officials who have threatened the arts. And rightly so. The short-sighted, narrow-minded policy against exposure to the arts is not only stupid, it’s counter-productive. Now every kid will want to read Persepolis if only to read Marji’s tirade of naughty words hurled against the rotten people of her life. This is a good vehicle to raise the profile of comics in America and brings to mind a wave of works we have seen over the last decade which cover the seemingly endless conflicts in the Islamic world. While this notion almost always conjures up visions of “East vs. West” or religious war, the more honest truth is a look at nations and peoples struggling internally against one another to define what they want their part of the world to be. And fortunately, comics are providing some of the greatest windows into these lives.
The aforementioned Persepolis is a great place to start. The uber-popular autobiographical work follows Satrapi’s life from a decent middle class lifestyle as a big city gal living in Tehran, sharing how her family and friends nervously watched their international metropolis degrade into the seat of a theocratic power. Watching otherwise normal modern cosmopolitan urban dwellers having to morph into purveyors of secret liquor parties and veiled second class citizens was disheartening enough, but following Marji’s journey as an expat in Europe, where her parents send her as a teenager to escape oppression in the land they love is simply devastating. Satrapi’s style is simple and expressive, falling easily into a traditional cartooning style, yet always delivers explosive moments which border between scary and absurd. Far from fitting the almost uniform stereotype of the jihad-crazy suicide bomber, Persepolis offers a window into the far more unsettling reality: most people in Iran feel as trapped by madness as anyone fearing a terrorist attack might be.
More recently, the less known Zahra’s Paradise, originally a webcomic, offered a fictional account via real-life composite of the recent 2009 “Green Revolution” uprising in Iran, where a true grass roots popular democratic movement rose and fell with a stunning and brutal crash. Co-creators Amir & Khalil tell the harrowing stories of a cross-section of Iranians trying to find friends and family caught up in the arrests, jailing, tortures and disappearance of a multitude of activists during that time. Harrowing and sometimes incredibly harsh, the story is a no-holds-barred look at a despotic oppressive regime whose very bureaucracies seem engineered to chew the population up (one stunning image of the Ayatollah literally being fed Iranians directly into his mouth via conveyor belt totally captures it). Evoking elements of Carol Lay, Nate Powell and even Art Spiegleman, the line between realism and artistic license is balanced in such a way to make for a grueling and rewarding read.
Meanwhile, over in Lebanon, things aren’t going much better for the characters in Zeina Abirached’s A Game for Swallows: To Die, To Leave, To Return. This lovingly-told tale of how life in the 15-year civil war dominating Beirut somehow became “normal” for the young author becomes a testament to the human spirit. Caught in the carnage of bombs, snipers and demilitarized zones – defined literally block by block in this former “Paris of the Middle East” – the cohesion of the family and neighbors evoke the deepest sense of humanity as they struggle to survive the most uncertain of futures. Abirached’s heavily inked whimsical images push the mind into giving the characters a degree of animation which seems to pull the reader closer in. Then there are the powerful early panels where a schematic of the neighborhood is laid out like a perverse board game, showing the different places you have to run, jump, hide and duck in order to make it down a few blocks without being shot, bombed, or otherwise killed or wounded. But even the idea of a whole apartment building combining resources to keep a single refrigerator running becomes an epic triumph of the spirit. It’s really quite eye-opening.
Finally, there’s The Photographer: Into War-torn Afghanistan with Doctors Without Borders, the posthumous fumetti/graphic novel by the late photographer Didier Lefevre and artist Emmanuel Guibert. Working in the 1980’s in post-war Afghanistan, Lefevre had joined Doctors Without Borders to chronicle their efforts to bring medical aid to the poor rural victims of war deep in the heart of that nation. His personal written account, combined with his photos of the events as they happened, are cleverly paired as panels alongside Guibert’s original art to help graphically fill in the gaps of the photographer’s story which he was unable to capture on film. The final work provides a gripping chronicle of conflict made all the harder to feel detached from because you actually see the faces of the injured, the sick, the dying. The juxtaposition of the artist’s drawings telling an emotional tale against the stark images of impossible moments in time create a uniquely haunting picture of what it means to live ever under the threat of violence and death.
While the politics behind the events these books all touch upon are obviously part of the story, what really binds them is the humanity behind what all-too-often is treated in an abstract way by those of us living a world away from these conflicts. I can easily see how in another dimension not far removed from our own, these could easily be tales from New York, Miami, and Kansas. Reading these works, I often forgot all the religious and political issues driving the conflicts, and just thought – man! That could be my family. That could be my street. These people were not Arabs, or Persians, or folks of the rugged Asiatic steps. They were people. It is a testament to each of the artists that their books have brought to the reader the reminder that there is a universality to the human story. I hope these wonderful works help bring that sort of understanding to us all.
Argentinean-born New Yorker and NYU film school graduate Miguel Cima is a veteran of film, television and music. He has worked for such companies as Warner Bros., Dreamworks and MTV. An avid comic book collector since he could read, Miguel began writing stories in 4th grade and has not slowed down since. He is a world traveler, accomplished writer, filmmaker, and comics creator. He is the writer, director and host of the award-winning documentary Dig Comics. Follow Dig Comics on Facebook. Read more of Miguel’s comic book recommendations.
A touching and funny memoir about a strained mother/daughter relationship, an examination of the complicated history between the United States and the Middle East, and a psychologically twisted dark comedy about young love – if you’re looking to experience the human condition, both intimate and global, you’ve got three great options this week.
Wednesday is New Comics Day! Each week, The Comics Observer picks three brand new releases worth checking out that should be suitable for someone who has never read comic books, graphic novels or manga before.
If you like what you see here, click the links to see previews and learn more about them. Then head to your local comic book store, or check out online retailers like Things From Another World and Amazon. Let us know what you think in the comments below or on Facebook.
From the best-selling author of Fun Home, Time magazine’s No. 1 Book of the Year, a brilliantly told graphic memoir of Alison Bechdel becoming the artist her mother wanted to be.
Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home was a pop culture and literary phenomenon. Now, a second thrilling tale of filial sleuthery, this time about her mother: voracious reader, music lover, passionate amateur actor. Also a woman, unhappily married to a closeted gay man, whose artistic aspirations simmered under the surface of Bechdel’s childhood… and who stopped touching or kissing her daughter good night, forever, when she was seven. Poignantly, hilariously, Bechdel embarks on a quest for answers concerning the mother-daughter gulf. It’s a richly layered search that leads readers from the fascinating life and work of the iconic twentieth-century psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott, to one explosively illuminating Dr. Seuss illustration, to Bechdel’s own (serially monogamous) adult love life. And, finally, back to Mother—to a truce, fragile and real-time, that will move and astonish all adult children of gifted mothers.
Best of Enemies: A History of US and Middle East Relations Part One: 1783-1953
Written by Jean-Pierre Filiu
Illustrated by David B.
Published by Selfmadehero
Genre: Non-Fiction, Political History
The first volume of a ground-breaking graphic novel series on US-Middle East relations.
David B. and Professor Filiu draw striking parallels between ancient and contemporary political history in this look at US-Middle East relations. The reader is transported to the pirate-choked Mediterranean sea, where Christians and Muslims continue the Crusades, only this time on water. As the centuries pass, the traditional victims of the Muslim pirates – the British, French, and Spanish – all become empire-building powers whose sights lie beyond the Mediterranean.
Jean-Pierre Filiu is a world-renowned expert on the Middle East. David B. is an Eisner Award-nominated artist.
The Flowers of Evil
Written and illustrated by Shuzo Oshimi
Published by Vertical, Inc.
Genre: Romantic Comedy
One of the most popular manga series in Japan today makes its U.S. debut with The Flowers of Evil, Volume 1. In this romantic comedy featuring a teenage boy obsessed with a beautiful classmate—and with the poetry of Beaudelaire—award-winning, best-selling author Shuzo Oshimi pens a coming-of-age tale that will appeal to girls and guys alike.
The story opens as middle school student Takao Kasuga receives an F on a math test. But he doesn’t even seem to notice because he’s too engrossed in surreptitiously reading Beaudelaire’s The Flowers of Evil. And the day goes downhill from there. In a moment of weakness, he finds and takes home the gym clothes belonging to sweet, pretty Nanako Saeki on whom he has a major crush. Unfortunately for Takao, there’s a witness to the theft: Nakamura, who has a huge chip on her shoulder and a sadistic streak.
As the saga unfolds, we see Takao struggling to decide whether to confess or cover up his misdeeds at the same time that he tries to win over the girl of his dreams, and avoid the blackmail attempts of Nakamura, his new ”BFF.”
Smart, funny, and emotionally engaging, The Flowers of Evil introduces a character who’s not a hero, but just an ordinary teenager in search of true love and real friendship.