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from the February 2016 issue

Graphic Novels at WWB: The First Ten Years

Ten years ago Words without Borders published our first graphic novel issue, presenting seven pieces by French, German, Polish, Spanish, and Russian artists. We were so delighted with the result, and with the response, that we made it an annual event, scheduled each February to coincide with the conclusion of the Angoulême Comics Festival, the most important in the field. As our fondness for the form and our awareness of its singular narrative ability increased, we also began including graphic pieces in other issues. With the guidance and inspiration of consulting editor Edward Gauvin, the translator of over two hundred graphic novels and a stalwart contributor to WWB, we expanded our initial European focus to include artists and writers from all over the world. This issue brings the total graphic pieces on the site to 174. We’ve selected new work by a few of these stellar authors to present this month.

Although we’ve published some authors on multiple occasions, we could more accurately be said to have not favorite writers but favorite themes, and the narrative threads that run through the last ten years tell a tale in themselves. Much of our graphic work is autobiographical, the intimacy of the personal essay and memoir made even more immediate through visual representation, whether of horrifying scenes of combat or quieter scenes of despair. History lends itself well to the graphic form, and we've published dispatches on the early days of Castro, the aftermath of the civil war in Rwanda, the brutality of the Shining Path in Peru, and more. In February 2011, Magdy el Shafee’s eyewitness report on the uprising in Tahrir Square appeared just as protests knocked Mubarak out of office.  Immigration also plays a major role here, as artists depict both the fraught journey from the homeland and the no less daunting quest for sanctuary on arrival.

Lest you think that graphic novelists spin only tales of woe, these sober subjects are balanced by droll, lighthearted explorations of the quotidian, as characters negotiate romance, families, work, and play. And sometimes the play informs both content and format, in the case of the Oubapo feature edited and translated by the comics artist Matt Madden. Those pieces, by the way, presented an exacerbated example of the challenges of translating these pieces: Madden had to maintain the constraints of the originals, which included a palindrome, an acrostic, and captions limited to a specific number of words.

Although most works are not quite so complex, comics translators do face particular challenges: they must not only find equivalents and preserve the author’s original tone and style, but must also fit the text into the available real estate of the dialogue bubbles. Further proof of the challenges endemic to translating graphic novels, one piece in this current issue posed particularly vexing formatting questions. Akino Kondoh’s episodic narratives of her life after moving to New York from Japan charmingly present her struggles adjusting to a new language. Like many Asian strips, her work presents the conundrum of placement of the translation vis-a-vis the original vertical text. We’ve retained the original structure to preserve the integrity of the illustrations, but also to mirror her disorientation.

With no relief in sight for the Syrian refugee situation, Jérôme Ruillier’s The Strange proves all too timely. The title is both a label for Ruillier’s forlorn immigrant, who faces rejection and fear as he attempts to find a home in a hostile France, and a descriptor of the situation before him. Edward Gauvin’s illuminating introduction draws out the multiple meanings of the title and imbues the piece with an additional layer of meaning.

Mana Neyestani was working as a cartoonist at a Tehran newspaper when a drawing inadvertently associating the Azeri population with cockroaches led to his imprisonment. Following his release (detailed in his Iranian Metamorphosis), Neyestani and his wife ended up in Paris applying for refugee status. His Short Guide to Being the Perfect Political Refugee details that equally Kafkaesque experience, as he endures an infinite loop of lines and incomplete documents in his application for asylum.

With Le Piano Oriental, winner of the prix Phénix de littérature 2015, Zeina Abirached returns to her Beirut childhood. Packing to move to Paris, she reminisces about her bilingual grandfather, who instilled in her not only a deep respect and love for both Arabic and French, but the assumption, and understanding of the value, of a dual perspective.

The brother and sister team of Galit Seliktar and Gilad Seliktar first appeared in our pages with an excerpt from Galit’s memoir, Farm 54, about Galit’s first evacuation as a young soldier in the Israeli army. Their contribution to this issue moves to the home front with a dreamlike tale of a noise in the night, a book with its own definition of shelf life, and a possible brush with the divine.

Mazen Kerbaj divides his time between comics and playing the trumpet. In “Flapflap Blues,” he strains to hear the music of the natural world, drowned out as it is by the commotion of city life. And he accuses the leering men who crowd the teeming streets of driving away another euphonious backdrop: the speech of women.

Translator and writer Heinz Insu Fenkl’s translations of North Korean comics double as decodings of this deeply propagandistic genre. Unpacking everything from the patriotic exhortations running vertically up the panels to the villains clearly identifiable as American, Fenkl exposes the government’s presence on every page. In this issue he passes the decoder ring to Bella Dalton-Fenkl. She brings us another deceptively simple piece, this one a fairy tale that looks like “The Little Mermaid” but turns out to be shot through with ideology, Disney rewritten as Soviet Socialist Realism.

As we were finishing the issue, controversy flared when the Angoulême festival announced a shortlist of thirty men and no women for their lifetime achievement award. Given that this is an international award, the response was swift and furious. BD Egalité, the collective of women graphic artists based in France, announced a boycott and called all artists to join. In the midst of the storm of coverage that followed, Julie Maroh, the author of Blue is the Warmest Color, observed not only the protest, but the media’s framing of it: it was only when a contingent of the nominated male artists withdrew that the press covered the story. Angoulême concludes today, but the conversation on sexism in the industry promises to continue and, we hope, lead to change.

We hope we'll bring good news on that topic in next year's issue. Until then: as always, we’ve worked to present a variety of voices and perspectives to provide informed insight on international culture and events. The artists in this issue represent only a handful of those we’ve published over the years, and while we can’t include them all here, their earlier contributions remain in our pages. We hope you’ll take this opportunity to revisit our graphic archives, enjoy this new issue, and continue celebrating with us as we move into our second decade of publishing this remarkable form.

Take a look back at the first ten years of graphic novel issues at Words without Borders

Read more from the February 2016 issue
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