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from the February 2019 issue

Conflicting Stories: Our Graphic Issue

Welcome to our thirteenth graphic novel issue, and to our annual celebration of this endlessly expressive genre. The graphic form is consistently urgent, addressing social and political issues with an immediacy that draws readers into lives and settings far from our own. Reflecting our current combative era, the pieces here depict conflicts both personal and political. In settings ranging from the teeming streets of São Paulo to the hermetic lair of a publisher, and with characters ranging from impoverished Korean peasants to Tunisian college students, these works reflect a striking range of existential challenges shaping lives across the globe.   

In GrassSouth Korea’s Keum Suk Gendry-Kim records the harsh life of a Korean girl forced into sexual slavery for the Japanese Imperial Army during the Second World War. Our excerpt details the fatal decision during the Japanese occupation that sets Ok-sun’s fate in motion. Lured by the promise of the education she longs for, Ok-sun happily accepts her impoverished parents’ decision to send her to another family. Her “adoptive parents,” however, turn out to have grimmer plans, and the only schooling she receives comes in the form of the unthinkable. In the section here we see her depleted mother’s dilemma—if one’s child can have a better life elsewhere, is it better to give her up?—and her desperate justification: “Isn’t it a good thing she won’t starve?” Neither Ok-sun nor her sorrowful parents anticipate the brutal results. Gendry-Kim has published several graphic novels, as well as illustrated books for children; her work focuses on the lives of the marginalized.

Hélène Aldeguer’s After the Spring transports us to Tunisia in 2013, as two college students grapple with political instability, unemployment, and disillusionment. Two years after the Arab Spring, the young women witness a violent throwback to the spark that led to the uprising. Aldeguer’s characters struggle with the divisions within Tunisia, and with their own ambitions in the context of their homeland’s upheaval. When the traumatized Cheyma cries, “He was only twenty-seven! Barely older than we are,” she implicitly challenges her own political stance. And when Meriem pulls her headscarf back on before stepping onto her balcony, while Cheyma remains bareheaded, we sense the possibility of yet another clash. Known for her work on political and social topics and foreign affairs, Aldeguer won the Prix de la Fondation Raymond Leblanc for Après le printemps: une jeunesse tunisienne, from which this excerpt comes.

Families are also torn apart in Didier Kassaï’s “City of Fear,” from the author’s two volumes of reportage chronicling the conflict raging in the Central African Republic. Since François Bozizé's government fell to the Séléka rebels in 2013, the country has been ravaged by battles between the predominantly Muslim rebels and their majority-Christian opponents. The excerpt here documents the atrocities committed by the bloodthirsty rebels: “Those who cooperate come out unscathed. Those who fight back, don’t.” Our first writer from the Central African Republic, Kassaï divides his time between his graphic documentaries and work for aid agencies disseminating crucial information to the largely illiterate public. With “City of Fear,” he joins our other graphic depiction of civil war in Africa, "A Whim of the Gods," Hippolyte and Patrick de Saint-Exupéry’s portrayal of Rwandan carnage. 

On the lighter side, we’re delighted to present the English-language debut of the Czech team of Vojtěch Mašek and Džian Baban with “Scenes from Schlechtfreund.” In a series of identical meetings, an elderly publisher, head of the house that bears his name, rejects the tepid proposals of a timid short story writer. The writer invokes Chekhov; unmoved, the publisher counters with Kafka and a startling proposal of his own. Mašek and Baban’s earlier collaborations have snared multiple Czech comics prizes, including the most important, the Muriel; just a few days ago Mašek added another for his collaboration on Svatá Barbora (Saint Barbara). 

And Brazil’s André Diniz confesses his ambivalence about a longterm relationship. Given his laments (“She’s beautiful, then she’s hideous. I love her, and I hate her”), you might assume he’s conflicted about a romantic partner, but his mixed emotions are directed to his decidedly unsentimental adoptive city of São Paulo. Diniz, who hails from Rio, catalogs the things he likes (“the people, the urban culture, Republica Square . . .”), then turns around and snipes, “Though I could never explain why I liked them, because they epitomize everything I hate.”  Diniz, a Brazilian now living in Lisbon, is the author of Morro da Favela (Picture a Favela), a portrait of Rio and the Morro da Providência published in Brazil, France, England, Portugal, and Poland.

We wish our experience of conflict could be restricted to what we find in books. But if you’d like a break from more familiar battles, do take a look at the ones we’re presenting here. We think they provide singular insight into the lives and minds of others. And we hope you’ll have no argument with that.

© 2019 by Susan Harris. All rights reserved.

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