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Living in Japan in the late 1990s, I was struck by the sheer number and variety of manga or comic books. You could go to a manga store and find an entire aisle devoted to your particular genre: golf manga, comics about the Japanese yakuza (mafia), mecha that focus exclusively on giant robots. Name your interest – or your fetish – and there was a manga series for you. Unlike the United States, where young people were the primary audience for comic books, a huge number of Japanese manga appealed to adults, who read the thick books on the subway or in coffee shops. During the prolonged economic crisis in Japan, it was not uncommon for downsized salarymen to pretend to their families to go to work and instead spend the entire day at the manga cafes, mangakissa, reading comics about, among other things, salarymen.
Comic books for adults have taken a bit longer to find an audience in the United States. The publishing industry first had to create a new, and presumably more respectable, marketing niche by promoting the term “graphic novel.” Although not the first graphic novel, Art Spiegelman’s searing account of the Holocaust, Maus, firmly established the new genre in the mainstream when the first volume appeared in 1986 (it went on to win a Pulitzer in 1992). Ever since, graphic novelists have not hesitated to tackle a wide range of sober topics, including foreign policy.
In what might qualify as cosmic compensation, our politicians have become more cartoonish – witness the recent Republican debates or the congressional scandals – as our cartoons have become more substantively political. Post-Maus, an era that future historians may well dub PM, graphic novelists have published accounts of the siege of a Bosnian city, life in the Iraqi army, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Actually, these are all topics addressed by a single journalist/artist, Maltese-American Joe Sacco. In Safe Area Gorazde, for instance, Sacco visits the Bosnian city in the mid-1990s, near the end of the war, and encounters a town full of grim storytelling. Sacco is a compelling narrator who doesn’t shrink from exposing his own foibles or describing in graphic detail the horrors that he hears. Because they are visual and yet not so real as documentary footage, the images of mayhem and murder command attention and we dare not turn away our eyes. There are moments in Safe Area Gorazde of painful triumph as well, of individuals somehow managing to survive forced marches and snipers and killing sprees. Graphic novels, in putting faces to names, supply a stubborn specificity that can anchor foreign policy abstractions such as “ethnic cleansing” and “responsibility to protect.”
Sacco is not the only graphic novelist to address international affairs. Guy Delisle, a French-Canadian cartoonist, has spent the last decade or so in a series of Asian cities. These experiences have produced three graphic novels: Shenzhen, Pyongyang, and Burma Chronicles. In the last, he describes with bemused detail the challenges facing NGO expats, in this case Médecins Sans Frontières, where his wife works as an administrator. Denied travel permits, the doctors can’t travel to the areas in the country where they are most needed; there only on the sufferance of the government, NGO workers worry that their work helps to strengthen the regime. At one point, Delisle begins to teach several Burmese the art of animation only to discover that, under a dictatorship, there are no safe areas, and friendships with foreigners are by definition a risky proposition.
As Delisle’s work suggests, graphic novels lend themselves well to describing places that are difficult to visit or film freely for a documentary. We don’t just want to read about North Korea or Burma or Gorazde, we want to “see” these places. With their ability to provide cinematic juxtapositions and explanatory annotations, graphic novels provide the armchair traveler with a multi-layered tour filtered through highly personalized narratives. This desire to travel through pictures across time and space stretches back to the age of cave paintings. Before writing, our progenitors daubed pigment on walls to transport their audiences to other places, other times.
Iran is another difficult-to-visit locale that has generated its share of graphic novels. The most famous are the two volumes of Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi, which tell the poignant tale of a girl growing up in Iran just before and after the 1979 revolution and her transnational life thereafter. This Iranian story, written originally in French, became a bestseller in America. In our globalized world, graphic novels perhaps translate across boundaries more easily than novels or memoirs, for the text is almost always subordinate to the pictures, which need little or no translation.
Amir and Khalil’s new graphic novel Zahra’s Paradise is set in Iran after the disputed 2009 presidential elections. Zahra’s Paradise chronicles the search for a missing protester named Mehdi. The protester’s mother and brother go to extraordinary lengths to find Mehdi and thereby reveal the labyrinthine, Kafkaesque world of contemporary Iran. It is a tale of frustration and fury, a story that must be seen to be believed.
Graphic novels provide what television so rarely does, for TV must entertain above all. Graphic novels, on the other hand, can occupy that middle territory between the sober analysis of a text and the flickering hyperbole of the idiot box. Graphic novels can explain, not just entertain. Consider the 9/11 Commission report, a dense document that Sid Jacobson and Ernie Colon turned into a comic book for adults. The original report was a bestseller, but most buyers did not likely wade through the entire document. The comic book, on the other hand, is compulsively readable, complete with a pull-out timeline and a report card postscript that fails the government on its response to the commission’s recommendations.
Of course, not every graphic novel successfully explicates the headline news. Bluewater Comics, which has garnered attention for its dubious project of turning Michele Bachmann and Mitt Romney into superheroes, recently released Where’s Muammar?, a “mini-graphic novel” about Muammar Gaddafi patterned after the famous Where’s Waldo puzzles. I made the mistake of downloading it to my phone, for there was no other way of evaluating it. The series of poster-like images ends in the White House with the Libyan dictator in bed between the Obamas beneath a banner reading “Terrorists Welcome.” Graphic novels are a format, with their advantages and disadvantages, and they can just as offensively stupid as any novel, poem, or film.
Where’s Muammar? notwithstanding, graphic novels have numerous virtues in their ability to tell stories that can sustain interest. They will never entirely replace traditional foreign policy analysis if only because most pundits can’t draw, most academics need to publish, and most journalists have to produce a deliverable during their year-long sabbatical fellowships. But increasingly, in our globalized world, we want to see what we’re getting into. And graphic novels can take us there.
John Feffer is the co-director of Foreign Policy in Focus, where this article originally appeared.