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from the February 2018 issue

Past, Future, Present: International Graphic Novels, Volume XII

Welcome to our twelfth graphic novel issue, and to our annual celebration of this endlessly expressive genre. Though much of the art here may be in black and white, the topics addressed are anything but. In settings ranging from the bowels of a 1960s German lab to an antiseptic future Sweden, and with characters as diverse as rural bigots and urbane aesthetes, the pieces here explore the challenges of life in a variety of locations and eras. Some revisit the past, both personal and political, and one constructs a chilling future; yet as they look to other times, these pieces also comment on issues facing our world today to striking effect.

In Scandorama, the Finnish novelist Hannele Mikaela Taivassalo, who writes in Swedish, and the Kenyan-Swedish artist Catherine Anyango construct a “perfect Scandinavian city.” This utopia, though, is achieved through dystopian means. The ideal population of Stohome (“The clean city. The beautiful people”) has been engineered by scientists at the evil Gentech corporation, with the undesirables—“the rubble of humanity”—banished to the dark side, the grimy, decaying city of Helsingy.  With their portrayal of technology in the service of prejudice, Taivassalo and Anyango also represent the social manipulation that needs no scientific intervention to ghettoize “others.”

Davide Reviati’s Spit Three Times illustrates that impulse, here represented by Italian anti-immigrant sentiment and generalized hostility toward the other in rural Italy.  European animosity toward Middle Eastern and African refugees has been well documented; the “outsiders” in this case, however, are not refugees fleeing Syria or other contemporary war zones, but Roma who settled in this small town over thirty years ago. Their long tenure in town does nothing to change the locals’ sneering intolerance: “They’re only gypsies.”

Yet another sort of bias informs “The I-Formula,” by the German team of Barbara Yelin and Thomas Steinaecker.  Their graphic novel, Der Sommer ihres Lebens, depicts an elderly physicist recalling key moments of her life. The chapter here takes place in the mid-1960s, when Gerda Wendt, fresh out of graduate school, secures a post in a physics research lab. Her boss refers to her as "little lady"; her (male) fellow student assistant addresses her as "little Wendt." The episode chimes with the current #MeToo movement: Gerda’s confrontations with the sexism of superiors and peers, and her success despite that opposition, remind us of the obstacles others have faced—and of the incalculable potential contributions lost to those impediments. Yelin and Steinaecker’s work was originally serialized on Hundertvierzehn, the online literary magazine of the German publisher S. Fischer, and their playful manipulation of form—see the winding extended page where Gerda literally starts “at the bottom”—demonstrates the marriage of text and image facilitated by the web.

Another brilliant pairing here brings us political, rather than personal, history. The great French graphic novelist David B. appeared in our February 2007 issue. Since then, among his many projects, he has collaborated with the Arabist and historian Jean-Pierre Filiu on the sprawling, multivolume Best of Enemies: A History of US and Middle East Relations. In this extract from the third volume, which covers the years from 1990 to 2013, the pair interrogate the official version of the US involvement in Iraq under George H. W. Bush.  David B.’s surreal illustrations—a ghoulish army of uniformed skeletons marches down “the road of death,” giant politicians each grasp one leg of a tiny soldier as if they’re breaking a wishbone—both represent and comment on Filiu’s sober chronological narrative to produce a nuanced chronicle of a fraught time.

And in our first Czech graphic novel, Lucie Lomová’s Knock ‘em Dead! stages a murder mystery within a theater company. When the leading man calls in sick at the last minute, his alternate takes on the role.  But someone’s interfered with the props, and instead of the expected “star is born” narrative, the melodrama turns tragic. Lomová’s work has appeared in French and Hungarian translation, but never in English. We’re delighted to present her debut.

Whether revisiting past conflicts or projecting an ominous future, these pieces comment directly and otherwise on the events of the day. They are prime examples of the continuing power of lines on the page.  

© 2018 by Susan Harris. All rights reserved.

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