COMICS, in the last 20 years or so, have increasingly been used to tell stories about real-life wars, revolutions, and political upheavals. The first graphic novel—that’s what book-length comics are called even if they are non-fictional or autobiographical—that was taken seriously by English-language critics was the two-volume opus Maus (1986 and 1991) by Art Spiegelman. It was also the first graphic novel to be read widely in American colleges as literature, and the first to win a Pulitzer Prize. Spiegelman won that acclaim by weaving his father’s oral history of persecution by the Nazis into a deeply personal present-day story of family relationships and tensions. Nine years after Maus came Persepolis, Marjane Satrapi’s memoir, originally published in French, of growing up in Tehran during the Islamic Revolution and the Iran–Iraq war. This book, too, was widely acclaimed, and eventually turned into a successful movie. Then there is the comics journalism of Joe Sacco. His oeuvre includes Safe Area Goražde (2000), Palestine (2001), The Fixer: A Story From Sarajevo (2003) and Footnotes in Gaza (2010). In these books, the author draws himself interviewing the residents of the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and Bosnia about their experiences under occupation and siege.
In Japan, with its more mature manga industry, this tradition dates back at least to 1973, when Keiji Nakazawa began writing Barefoot Gen, his loosely autobiographical account of surviving the bombing of Hiroshima. Art Spiegelman credited this series with being an inspiration for Maus.
These books use a mix of text, image, dialogue and self-portraiture to convey the experience of living through major conflict with a stark, brutal honesty, in a way that even the best prose journalism, television news reporting, novelisations, or films can’t quite manage. A comic—especially when one person acts as both author and artist, and when that person draws him or herself into the narrative—has an intimacy that is impossible for a video crew, with their different specialisations, to achieve. And, of course, a comic has the advantage over prose of being able to show us pictures—pictures that can be realistic or impressionistic or dreamlike, as the story requires.
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