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Sketch me a revolution
A graveyard in Iran. Despair in Palestine. Hitler in manga. Comics Journalism is in a unique position to capture the darkness and the detail.
A sharpened pencil and an imagination to match can chronicle the murkiest chapters of human history with unforgiving accuracy. Comics, and their more studious counterpart, the graphic novel, can reveal through the familiar simplicity of voice blurbs and boxed-in graphics, the wickedness of war and the despair of nations built on the rubble of tortured citizenry and young death.
Comics Journalism is the morbidly funny language of incisive reportage. At the annual Indian Comics Convention, organised by Comic Con India at Dilli Haat, grim titles like Palestine by Joe Sacco, Deogratias, A Tale of Rwanda by Jean-Philippe Stassen and
The Photographer by Emmanuel Guibert, Didier Lefevre and Frêdêric Lemercier, stacked up for attention, against the usual tales of puffy superheroes and freckled redheads.
"I chose to tell the story of 'the missing', a sadly universal story, " says Amir, the Iranian-American writer of Zahra's Paradise, a graphic novel that unfolds in Tehran, after the presidential election of 2009 is settled in favour of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and the streets are swarming with protesters. The book, whose title is borrowed from the name of a cemetery on the outskirts of Tehran, tells the story of a nation whose dissenters vanish without a trace and anonymous graves proliferate. Inspired by a grainy YouTube video of a mother who is about to bury her son in Zahra's Paradise, the narrative trawls through hospitals, morgues and prisons to recount the horror of losing a loved one to a totalitarian state. "In a thousand small ways, the Iranian people resist daily, the possibility of fading into oblivion, " says the writer, "Anyone who dares question the state - student, scholar, citizen - is accused of propaganda. People disappear. "
Zahra's Paradise is also the irrepressible voice of a blog. "When the Islamic Republic wiped out the media, people turned to blogs and used their cell phones to record what was going on. The truth, the facts were at stake, " says an impassioned Amir, on the spurt of Internet activity and videos that documented the revolt against a fraudulent election campaign.
The graphic novel has been illustrated by Khalil, with an attention to detail that captures even tiny logos on laptops and mobile phones, in a subtext that upholds technology as a conveyor of defiance. The narrative recalls the death of Neda Agha Soltan, a musician and student of philosophy, on the pavements of Tehran. The murder went viral, and instigated public sloganeering against the fundamentalist regime. "Our Neda is not dead, the government is dead, " raged the public, holding aloft their mobile phones as banners of freedom that told the world their story.
Self-determination and an urgent need to dispatch an eyewitness account, with every detail carefully sketched for posterity, define most of Joe Sacco's political reporting via comics. The Maltese-American journalist and author of comics like Palestine, Safe Area Gorazde: The War in Eastern Bosnia 1992-95, Footnotes in Gaza and more recently, Journalism, has travelled to conflict zones around the world, to amass vivid tales of war crimes, dispossession and an all-pervasive uncertainty.
In the preface to Journalism, Joe Sacco describes the legitimacy of comics as a medium of credible journalism: "There will always exist, when presenting journalism in the comics form, a tension between those things that can be verified, like a quote caught on tape, and those things that defy verification, such as a drawing purporting to represent a specific episode, " he writes, emphasising that while a cartoonist must aspire to authenticity, he or she has a responsibility far deeper that factual accuracy: "To my mind, anything that can be drawn accurately should be drawn accurately... However, there are drawings - particularly in scenes that take place in the past that I did not see myself - for which I must necessarily use my imagination, or rather, my informed imagination. By this I mean that whatever I draw must have grounding in the specifics of the time, place and situation I am trying to re-create. "
The cartoonist isn't absolved of conscientiousness and must necessarily adhere to the mainstream journalist's checklist of authenticity in word and picture, for the comic to become a disseminator of history. Zahra's Paradise, for instance, is appended with an extensive glossary, as well as a list of 16, 901 people assassinated in the Islamic Republic of Iran. The list forms the 'The Omid Memorial' - a community of the dead who now inhabit a silent city named Omid (' hope' in Persian). The Photographer, created collectively by Guibert, Lefevre and Lemercier, documents the war in Afghanistan by using a combination of sketches as well as pictures taken by photojournalist Lefevre during a Doctors Without Borders mission in 1986.
Even unabashed flights of fantasy are reignedin by the truth of the epoch. Message to Adolf, a manga series created by Japanese artiste Osamu Tezuka, popular as the 'godfather of manga', is the story of three men named Adolf. Adolf Kamil is a Jewish resident of Japan, his best friend Adolf Kaufmann is of Japanese-German origins, and the third Adolf is Hitler, dictator of Germany. The narrative dwells on the rumour that Adolf Hitler had Jewish antecedents. And while the manga series does not claim historic accuracy, traces of the Holocaust give the imaginative narrative a starkly real form. "Comic readers are looking for substance, " says Ed Chavez, marketing director of Vertical, publishers of Message to Adolf. And while comics will always remain stalwarts of a cheeky subculture, their growing interest in political history has turned them into brazen interpreters of a milieu.
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