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from the February 2017 issue

Comics and Graphic Narratives: A Global Cultural Commons

Since the turn of the twenty-first century, the world has witnessed a surge in the production of graphic narratives. The world has witnessed this surge—not just the US, though its dominance does continue in both comics practice and comics studies, innovating and influencing in equal measure. But the form has now migrated to writers and artists from all over the globe, presenting itself as a medium of expression that is particularly oriented toward the communication of stories across borders, be they cultural, national, linguistic or otherwise. As diverse formally as they are geographically, these graphic narratives all combine drawn and sometimes painted panels (the graphics) with the written word (though not always) to tell a story (narrative). This story might communicate an experience, document an atrocity, convey an emotion, educate and raise awareness, but more often than not, the form elicits empathy in the readerships that it reaches. Indeed, that it reaches you now is evidence of this evolving trend.

If the combination of these two terms—"graphic" and "narrative"—usefully foregrounds the key ingredients of this astonishingly versatile, agile, and inherently innovative medium, my immediate choice of the label "graphic narrative," rather than "comics," also points to the extent to which the form has evolved in the last thirty years. Throughout the middle decades of the twentieth century, "comics" were generally used to signify all kinds of sequential art ("sequential art" being yet another term for the form, one advocated by comics practitioner and later theorist Will Eisner). "Comics" was used to describe everything from two or three panel strips in newspapers to multi-volume collections of superhero stories. In the 1960s and ‘70s, especially in the US, the "comix" subculture developed, an explicitly radical and subversive movement that was indiscriminate in its satirical gaze and that showed how the form might offer new perspectives on all kinds of social, cultural, and political issues.

But it was in the late 1980s and early ‘90s that things really started to change, and many regard Art Spiegelman’s 1992 Pulitzer Prize for his comic Maus (serialized 1980–91), as a shifting moment of tectonic proportions for the form. Spiegelman’s sensitive treatment of his father’s memory of the Holocaust demonstrated the extent to which the co-mixing, to use Spiegelman’s own preferred phrase, of image and text could communicate a nuanced, deeply political and personal narrative, engaging with themes of history, memory, and trauma. Since then, comics production has proliferated, with formally experimental comics artists trying their hand at a whole range of genres set in multiple geographical contexts: consider, for example, the journalistic nonfiction of Jean-Philippe Stassen and Harvey Pekar, the travelogues of Guy Delisle and Didier Lefèvre, the autobiographies of Marjane Satrapi and Alison Bechdel, or the crime narratives of Brian Wood and Frank Miller, to name just a very few.

Though this history and terminology is a disputed one, I think it is important to reclaim the term "comics" for this proliferating body of work. If the pieces collected in this special issue of Words without Borders may not all be humorous—that is to say, they are not "comic" as such—they are still representative of the innovative developments in this remarkable medium. As readers, we should celebrate these developments, while not losing sight of the long tradition of co-mixing that came before them and to which they owe their existence. The small cross-section collected here demonstrates the ways in which the comics form melds different artistic and literary techniques to create new narrative modes that allow readers to view the world through a different frame of reference. Indeed, explicitly constructed through “framed” sequences, comics as a medium foregrounds its own self-referentiality, confessing the contingency of its own perspective. In so doing, comics offer a welcome antidote to what has been controversially called a “post-truth” world, where images circulate at lightning speed, are repeatedly taken out of context, and are often mobilized toward dubious political ends.

In the age of the Internet, we are trained on a daily basis to make sense of multiple images spliced with pieces of text, as we log onto Facebook feeds or scan through Twitter. Comics not only tap into this constant stream of information, exploiting our appetite for instant gratification. They also slow it down, the drawn image disrupting the photographic reality to which we have become accustomed. Meanwhile, that other fundamental component of comics, narrative, is constructed as much through what is not represented, in the gaps between panels, as it is through the drawn image. It therefore explicitly demands a participatory effort on the part of the reader. Readers are required to make sense of the images that are organized sequentially, the comics form forcing a cognitive engagement with the issues that it explores.

It is in this sense that comics might be thought of as an empathetic medium. Readers have to situate themselves in the cultural context inhabited by their authors in order to make sense of the story. The implication, then, is that comics, because they are constructed from borders and gaps of their own, are well-placed—if not unique—in their ability to communicate all kinds of stories across all kinds of linguistic, cultural, and geographical borders. Because comics are, one might say, comprised of words (and pictures) with borders, they allow readers to more easily identify those borders, before then moving beyond them in the very act of reading.

Importantly, however, the Internet has not only trained us to read comics. Given what are often the high costs of comics production and printing, the web and various other electronic drawing and reading devices have played a key role in facilitating the increased circulation and accessibility, not to mention the interactivity, of the form. Indeed, though comics are perhaps still most commonly associated with the "superhero" narrative, which were and continue to be produced by the large, wealthy corporate enterprises of Marvel and DC, these technologies have dramatically democratized the medium. This cheapening of the costs of production and circulation means that comics creators from across the globe, and often in the most unexpected places, now deftly use the form to represent, interrogate and communicate their local experiences, creating a huge and critically exciting, though still seriously under-read, body of work.

As this Words without Borders issue itself suggests, then, the ability to read comics online allows for a large body of sequential art to circulate across national, cultural, and linguistic borders, communicating local stories to a global audience or, conversely, tackling global issues for local readerships. For example, in Francisco de la Mora and Jose Luis Pescador Huerta’s self-translated comic “Joe,” a suited, politician polar bear represents the threat posed to the Arctic icecaps by climate change. The anthropomorphized polar bear’s numerous cross-cultural experiences, in which he learns of the suffering of the world’s poorest due to the effects of climate change, dramatizes the very process that the comic itself is undertaking—that is, the communication of local stories to global readerships and, perhaps more importantly, politicians. Concluding with the polar bear’s resulting condemnation of the UN’s participant nations, which fail to see the importance of fighting climate change because they lack a holistic worldview not constrained by the borders of the nation-state, the comic implicitly suggests that comics themselves have a role to play in the construction of a more globally aware social consciousness.

Monika Szydłowska’s "Heniek," translated by Sean Gasper Bye, is concerned with a different kind of border crossing. An aspiring Polish emigrant, the faceless Heniek gazes out of the window of his house at the "faraway countries" in a panel that conflates the window frame with the frame of the comic. Here, Szydłowska uses the bordered comics form to highlight the both the intervention and transgression of national borders. By juxtaposing Heniek’s dreams of working abroad with a sarcastic depiction of the realities for migrant laborers, the comic runs against the grain of mainstream anti-immigrant media discourse, especially in the US and UK.

Meanwhile, Gianluca Costantini and Elettra Stamboulis’s comic, "An Endless Green Line,” is again about national borders and identities, but as they manifest in a very specific, local, and physical border that runs through and divides the Cypriot capital city of Nicosia. This geographical division signifies much deeper cultural splits, with football teams and even types of beer segregated along political lines. As one panel testifies, just as "Nicosia is divided [. . .] our lives were divided, too." Straddling both sides of this division, however, in its later panels the comic also begins to explore the complex processes of reconciliation and the reconstruction of divided lives—perhaps here, too, we see comics using their architecture of panel and gutter to build bridges across borders.

While these comics mostly document lives shaped by national and political events beyond their protagonists’ control, Ilana Zeffren’s three shorts, translated by the author and collected here as "Urban Tails," takes readers across another border or threshold, from the public to the private sphere. Here, Zeffren’s truly "comic" pet cats repeatedly challenge and satirize their lesbian owners' exploration of sexual and gender identity, complicating the borders of normative heterosexuality.

Meanwhile, in their exploration of the private lives of South Africa’s impoverished urban communities, André and Nathan Trantraal’s "Coloureds," which they translated from Afrikaans, highlights the structural prevalence of alcohol addiction, domestic violence, and child abuse in the country’s poorer townships. By relating the experience of these issues through the innocent gaze of their child narrators, the Trantraal brothers reveal the absurdity and desperation of the township’s cyclical violence, showing how it is exacerbated and perpetuated by wider structural issues, ensnaring its youth and limiting their life opportunities.

Daniel Sixte’s comic "Men and Beasts," translated by Edward Gauvin, turns from Southern to Central Africa, but continues a similar critique of the structural and other kinds of violence that discriminate against the world’s poorest populations. Shifting between issues of local corruption and international exploitation, Sixte’s comic foregrounds ongoing corporate resource extraction in the Democratic Republic of Congo, communicating stories from a part of the world that so often falls into the blind spot of mainstream media coverage.

And finally, Naz Tansel's comic "The Minibus," translated from Turkish by Canan Marasligil, uses a richly colored, cinematic style to document one woman's tumultuous journey through Istanbul. As different characters board the bus on which she travels, arguing with one another and competing for space, a radio is heard intermittently covering political events in the background. Readers are invited to view the bus as a microcosmic allegory of contemporary Turkey's increasingly sensitive, and censored, political climate, while the comic itself sidesteps these new oppressive measures.

The production of comics, especially in their online format, is exploding. This special issue offers a small cross-section of the exciting work emerging from a variety of different geographical locations, and is in many ways just a taste of what is out there. But the collection is also indicative of, and testament to, the important role that comics are now playing in the transmission of stories across borders in the twenty-first century. In a world in which borders are becoming increasingly marked, regulated, and even violent, the comics creators collected here, as well as the hundreds of others working in various places around the world, are all contributing to an imperative project that creates a global cultural commons comprised of words and pictures without borders.

© 2017 by Dominic Davies. All rights reserved. 

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