The world is full of dark, difficult and complex issues that need to be sensitively and appropriately discussed. War, genocide, abuse, loss and our hopes of building a better life for ourselves are all incredibly difficult conversations that need to take place: but how? Is there are right way to talk about these things? How can we ensure that we get the greatest insight into the emotional and critical upheaval when unimaginable things happen? This is where art and literature have always been important. Film, visual art, poetry and novels have always helped to expand our understanding of what it means to experience life and all of the social, political and archetypal challenges that we face. Representation of experience is crucial in helping us to understand the world around us, but when what we are talking about is so traumatic or challenging, it is even more important to think about how these are presented.
Graphic novels, otherwise known as comics, are an almost niche area of textual production that are, in my opinion, some of the best media for representing conflict and its fallout. Edward Said, in his tribute to Joe Sacco’s Palestine wrote that:
‘In ways that I still find fascinating to decode, comics in their relentless foregrounding […] seemed to say what couldn’t otherwise be said, perhaps what wasn’t permitted to be said or imagined, defying the ordinary processes of thought, which are policed, shaped and re-shaped by all sorts of pedagogical as well as ideological pressures. I knew nothing of this then, but I felt that comics freed me to think and imagine and see differently’.
Graphic novels help us to ‘see differently’ because they are a hybrid form that combines accessible, but no less wonderfully ambiguous and complex, art with punchy storytelling. They give an imaginative and, at times, extremely personal telling of stories, bringing drawings and language into conversation. Fragments of images, language and spatial organisation on a page builds an almost compulsive narrative that can at once expose and explode systemic injustice and power structures (what are complicit with Said’s ‘ordinary processes of thought’), whilst also attempting to make sense of the personal experience within them. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that some of the most famous graphic novels are autobiographical memoirs, which focus on the experience of the individual against the backdrop of something much greater and, oftentimes, misunderstood or difficult to represent. We have two confusing and compelling worlds clashing, the public and the private, and the graphic novel attempts to navigate us through both.
I find reading graphic novels to be an incredibly immersive and compelling experience. I recently finished reading Malik Sajad’s Munnu and had to share my thoughts on this text and some of my other favourite graphic novels. These texts take us to the depths and fringes of human experience, re-write what we think about the world, countries within the world, and the people within them. They blow open preconceptions and stereotypes that we are fed, and my understanding of conflict and world history, is all the more rich and nuanced as a result.
Maus, Art Spiegelman, 1980
Maus is one of, what I consider to be, the Holy Trinity of graphic novels. It portrays Spiegelman as a young cartoonist, interviewing his father Vladek about his experiences during the Holocaust. The comic charts Vladek’s survival of Nazi atrocities, but also portrays Spiegelman’s oftentimes strained and difficult relationship with his father. The two regularly butt heads in ways family members often do when a deep amount of love and respect is patched over with trauma, neurosis and unrealistic expectations. Notably, the characters in Maus are all presented as animals to represent their different ethnic groups: Jews are depicted as mice, Nazis as Germans and Americans as dogs. One of the panels that stood out most to me is one that presents Spiegelman himself wearing the mask of a mouse, sat at his desk, talking about the opportunities that have come with his novel’s publication. Around him are littered the bodies of Holocaust victims.
This panel suggests that through the production of Maus, Spiegelman has assumed almost unwanted ambassador status for his presentation of Holocaust testimony. The artificial mouse mask, tied at the back of his head, points to the idea that in the telling of this story, he has almost performed his Jewish identity, and become a spokesperson for Holocaust victims and survivors in the process. He has achieved acclaim and appreciation off the back of so much death and horror, signified by the cadavers gathered around him and his drawing desk, yet still struggles to maintain his sticky relationship with his father. As a result, the dissonance between his success and the emotional burden his success has become weighs heavily on him, entangled as it is with feelings of guilt, misplaced responsibility and fraudulency. The Holocaust is such a difficult and upsetting subject to discuss and represent, and Spiegelman demonstrates great sensitivity and self-awareness in his handling of such a traumatic and barbaric event. The novel is not only a historical document of his own father’s survival, but also provides a platform for conversations about how we successfully represent the un-representable, and all the responsibility that brings.
Palestine by Joe Sacco, 1996
The second graphic novel in the Holy Trinity follows a Joe Sacco, an American journalist, travelling to Palestine and the Gaza Strip to witness and interview oppressed Palestinians during the Intifada. In the West we are given a very limited idea of the history and lived experience of Palestinians under Israeli occupation on the West Bank. This graphic novel has been hugely influential in its multi-dimensional perspective of conflict; and especially those conflicts that receive little traction in the news or are obscured by global and media power players. Sacco gives voices and faces to the seemingly unending hardship on the West Bank and in the Gaza Strip that easily bypasses the consciousness of many in the West. The violence and terror that Palestinian men, women and child experience on a daily basis is front and centre of Sacco’s novel, as he tracks his own journey from bystander and objective interviewer, to witness.
Persepolis, Marjane Satrapi, 2000 and 2014
This novel is the third graphic novel in the Holy Trinity. Persepolis blew open what I knew and understood about Iran and Iranian history. As far as I was aware, when I first read this novel in 2010, Iran was a rogue bogeyman country, intent on making nuclear weapons to blow everyone up and destabilise the Middle East permanently, and that was the way things were and the way things always had been. As with my original perceptions of the Palestinian conflict, this graphic novel proved this idea of Iran to be completely limited and short-sighted. Through the story of her family and childhood, Satrapi presents Iran as a vibrant, secular country before the Islamic Revolution, and depicts the horror of war as Iran and neighbouring Iraq are drawn into a deadly conflict. She presents the oppressive practices and rules enforced in school and in public, in particular regarding women’s rights, whilst struggling with her own direction in life, with her time in Europe marred by racism and homelessness.
Persepolis is a coming-of-age story like no other, offsetting universal teenage angst and confusion (the start of The Vegetable chapter with panels of Satrapi’s face changing through puberty spoke to me like little else) with religious extremism and Western xenophobic bigotry. The novel provides both creative freedom for Satrapi to explore her own personal story and to shine a critical light on the injustices and pervasive power structures that successfully control people in both the East and West. At the same time, the graphic novel, with its black and white colour scheme and regular panels, successfully conveys the claustrophobia of living in a world where you are penned in by cultural expectations, conflict, bigotry and your own demons.
Munnu: A Boy from Kashmir, Malik Sajad, 2015
In the tradition of Maus, Persepolis and Palestine, Munnu follows the coming-of-age of the eponymous Munnu, the youngest member of a family living and hailing from war-torn and devastated Kashmir. In a similar vein to Maus, Sajad uses animals, specifically Kashmiri deer, to highlight Kashmiris’ endangered status as a free and independent people. The novel balances the intricacies and tensions surrounding the conflict and hypocrisies between Kashmir and India, Kashmir and Pakistan and amongst Kashmiri resistance groups, whilst also exploring family, existential anxiety and trauma as a result of conflict, and the power of cartoons to grant personal freedom. The final panel is particularly unnerving and unsettling, and I was most touched by young Munnu grappling with his fear of death. Munnu also critiques the West’s seeming inability to comprehend the severity of the conflict in Kashmir and its ineffectiveness in using diplomatic pressure and might to bring about a resolution. I recently discovered that Munnu has not been published in India, which is very telling about the current tensions unfolding in Kashmir as a result of the occupation and how powerful, and thereby threatening, this graphic novel has been in exposing them.
Red Rosa: A Graphic Biography of Rosa Luxemburg, Kate Evans, 2015
Rosa Luxemburg is a giant of the Left and nowhere else has her life and work been so beautifully presented and so articulately explained than in this graphic novel. Luxemburg’s philosophy that Marx was not beyond criticism, even though she took her political and economic position from his work, is a lesson for us all: nothing is beyond critical interrogation, especially the people we most admire and whose thinking has been the most influential for us. The concise and accessible exploration of Luxemburg’s philosophy includes her radical pacifism: my favourite panel coming with Luxemburg’s response to the First World War: head bowed, she is disturbed and weighed down by the destruction and wanton chaos of a war that will end nowhere and will result in the deaths of millions of working class people. Evans also gives us an insight into Luxemburg’s personal life, the incredible obstacles she overcame to become a writer and political leader, and her relationships with close friends, family and lovers along the way. This graphic novel, and its subject matter in Luxemburg, is absolutely inspiring.
Other graphic novels to explore:
Dragonslippers: This is what an abusive relationship looks like, Rosalind B. Penfold, 2006
Diary of a Teenage Girl, Phoebe Gloenecker, 2002
Threads: From the Refugee Crisis, Kate Evans, 2017
Tamara Drewe, Posy Simmonds, 2007
 Homage to Joe Sacco, http://journeyofideasacross.hkw.de/anti-narratives-and-beyond/edward-w-said.html [accessed 22/05/2019].