Reporters of War and Refugees - Review of The Photographer, A.D., We Are On Our Own and books by Joe Sacco

An old piece of writing, circa 2009:

Reporters of War and Refugees

Reporting in graphic novel form (an inexact term, but one which seems to be sticking) is a fairly new development in mainstream media, though visual artists have certainly been commenting on and from war zones for centuries. From Goya’s series of etchings, Disasters of War (about uprisings after Napoleon attempted to install his brother as King of Spain) to Winslow Homer’s etchings of the American Civil War, to Bill Mauldin’s Willie and Joe, single panel cartoons composed in Europe during World War II and printed in Stars and Stripes , artists have often been there, or have been called upon, to document -sometimes not without propagandistic intent- the wars of their culture.

The recent surge in reportage and memoir graphic novels has been paved by Art Spiegelman’s Maus , a memoir of the author’s father’s experience during the holocaust. Having won the Pulitzer Prize in 1992, Maus is now widely known and is found in bookstores, libraries and schools around the world.

Since Maus, other artists have gone to find and report the stories of people in wars, and of the refugees fleeing them.

By Joe Sacco
Published by Fantagraphics
ISBN: 978-1-56097-844-2

Joe Sacco’s Palestine, a collection of dozens of short stories reporting from the occupied Arab areas of Israel during the early 1990s, cemented the genre. Palestine was slow to take off; at the time people didn’t understand this type of reporting. Mainstream media thought that comics was a childish format for serious subject matter and as such didn’t even notice the prodigious accomplishment Sacco was achieving beneath their radar.

In Palestine, we were shown stories, interviews, places, events and reactions in rich visual detail. Sacco is an artist with great attention to detail. He cross-hatched and rendered every rivet and every wrinkle, and drew faces full of flesh, fatigue and emotion. Sacco’s own curious and excitable voice was never absent, the comics were always filtered through his unique sensibilities. He had a robust sense of humor that came across in his narration and self-caricature. He played himself as warm and understanding, fully aware how lucky his own situation was, and humbled before the stories of the people who were hosting him. He draws himself slightly odder than the people around him, a sort of homunculus amidst a cascade of real human stories.

In Palestine, we watched him make his way from ravaged villages to broken factories to floorless living rooms to Israeli cafes, interviewing Arabs and Jews-anyone wanting to share. Sacco, trained as a journalist and is always the listener, always looking at all sides and presenting what he understands the story to be.

Eventually, ten years after Palestine’s initial published serializations, the mainstream media were won over and Sacco had popularized, if not created a new form of direct graphic novel journalism. His 320 page hardcover collection of the Palestine stories, recently republished in 2007 with sketches and notes and an introduction by the late historian Edward Said, is a touchstone for anyone doing similar work since, including Sacco himself.

Safe Area Gorazde
By Joe Sacco
Published by Fantagraphics
240 pages
ISBN: 978-1-56097-392-8

In 1995, presumably while taking a break from finishing the drawings for Palestine , Sacco visited Gorazde, a UN-created “safe area” in eastern Bosnia during the Bosnian War.

While Bosnian Serbs were ridding their country of Muslims , these areas were supposed to be enclaves of safety for the Muslims living there, protected by the U.N. Instead what happened was that these difficult-to-reach areas were instead where some of the fiercest exterminations happened. Of the three safe areas, only Gorazde was left with inhabitants standing at the end.

Sacco arrives, and the book begins, when a permanent peace settlement is about to be announced. Will Gorazde be given to Serbia in exchange for more of Sarajevo? Would these people who have endured years of living on the run and in whatever shattered buildings they could find be forced out of the town they grew up in?

In Gorazde, Sacco shares the townspeople’s stories, histories, opinions, framing his book around the waiting during these peace talks. Like in Palestine, Sacco divides and titles his chapters according to themes, stories or characters. Each chapter is a little human essay, on history, on war stories, on state of electricity, or on one particular character. One image returns over and over: the shell-damaged main road through town. The road, where the Serb tanks roll through, the road along which the citizens of Gorazde run to escape into the forests, the road on either side of which they wait for the U.N. convoys after the cease-fire.

He recounts grim war stories told the inhabitants. Months of hiding in woods, watching their town and possessions burn and be looted. Stealing food, swimming upriver beneath the watch of the Serbian enemies on the riverbanks. Other times he shows the people light-hearted, ready to begin living again. The teenage girls want jeans from America, college students begin going back to classes, and when the U.N. convoys begin delivering flour, people begin to cook their favorite dishes again. For comedic relief, Sacco treats us to several portraits of a soldier named Riki, who loves to party and belt out American pop songs.

Sacco’s drawings are detailed- he draws every muddy rock, every tree, every piece of bombed out rubble and broken lumber- but they’re not lush. Drawn with cold lines in stark black and white using coarse cross-hatching for most lights and darks, the effect is fragile, coarse, and brittle. When he draws faces harried and haunted faces, he draws them as he saw them, noting each line, brow and muscle of every expression. The drawings are clearly full of affection, but become filled with a grim resignation too. A permanence. Young women seem old, even children’s faces seem haggard.

Sacco lets his drawings loosen for parties and fun. Faces flushed, teeth and gums joyously about to fly out of mouths, bodies loosened and pressed up against one another, or tautly marshalling energy to belt out a song into a toy microphone. Sacco allows himself more cartoonish freedom in these instances, the instances where the people of Gorazde give in to hope and joy.

The book teems with Sacco’s humanity in fact, even though most of the stories are grim. At the book’s core are a handful of first person accounts of the war. “Disappearance” details the night that the Serb residents of the town (it was once almost half Serb, half-Muslim) disappeared in the night. The military attacks on the Muslim population began from the outlying hilltops the next morning. “The First Attack” picks up a couple weeks later. Already, people who lived too close to the hillsides have abandoned their homes and found shelter where they could. The chapter shifts between five narrators, all trying to escape enemy fire as the attacks escalate. What was once a town is now an outpost, with everyone using whatever they find shelter, to fortify the defenses, and to keep themselves warm and fed.

Life under occupation, life under threat, life on the run, life renewed with glimpses of hope, all of this is in Gorazde, as the people in the book try to put their lives back together. Sacco’s books, his essayistic style, his narrative inclinations like the richest documentaries, his detailed cartooning, and his verve and love of people make his books the strongest in the genre.

We Are On Our Own
By Miriam Katin
Published by Drawn and Quarterly
ISBN: 9781896597201

Not a book of journalism, We Are On Our Own instead is a Katin’s recounting of her time as a young girl, running with her mother from the Nazis in Hungary. Katin is an animator by trade, and she draws her story with a quick soft line, all the drawings lasting only long enough to get to the next image. This is a book about fleeing and it makes sense that her book, in fact her career, would be about movement. We Are On Our Own is quick book, a book on the run.

Katin’s mother Esther is a sophisticated Jewish woman in Budapest, with a husband in the war. It’s 1944. She is told to hand over her dog to the authorities, to catalog her personal items and to leave the list with her landlord. She is forced out of her apartment and turns to black marketer for false papers to help her escape to the countryside.

In the country, in the guise of a servant, she finds shelter with a family of grape farmers. A German Commandant stops by to steal wine, and taking a fancy to Esther, returns frequently to rape her while offering her lavish gifts.

When the Russians move in and the Germans have been kicked out, she is raped too by a Russian soldier who then dies at her side. Esther and Miriam are forced to go deeper into where another family takes them in. This family has grown to be expert in trimming the goods from dead soldiers. They take boots, bloodied uniforms, and Esther spends time sewing, and repairing these garments until she soon realizes she is pregnant.

World War II piled it on; situations went from bad to worse. Esther is now in search of an abortion. Meanwhile, Esther’s lost husband returns to Budapest and begins his search across the country for his family.

The title of the book comes from Esther’s loss of faith during this turmoil, and young Miriam’s misunderstanding of those ideas about God and faith. The book occasionally shifts briefly to present rendered in colored pencil, where Miriam and her husband and children discuss faith and God. After the book’s experiences, adult Katin is a secular non-believer.

Katin’s quick animator’s pencil sometimes renders the drawings in this book so quickly that they are clearly designed to be glanced at, like any horrible situation. Who wants to draw the rape of their own mother? Who wants to linger while reading that? Like fleeing the Nazis, you flee through Esther’s story. Esther is a strong and fearless character; Miriam’s drawings are fearless, but fleeting. We Are On Our Own is the story of flight in the face of great horror.

The Photographer
By Emmaunel Guibert
Didier Lefevre
Colored and designed by Frederic Lemercier
Published by First Second

Most recently, we’ve seen The Photographer, a riveting, vivid book by Emmanuel Guibert and Didier Lefevre. This book is ostensibly a documentation of the activities of Medicins Sans Frontiers (Doctors without Borders) in Afghanistan in 1986. But more than that, it is also a moving, terrifying story of the man who sought to provide that documentation, Didier Lefevre, The Photographer. What Lefevre and Guibert have collaborated to do is to present the full range of Lefevre’s documentation, entwined with the story of his many physical and emotional trials during the mission to create what seems like an entirely new genre, an entirely new form: the photo/comix mélange.

In 1986, Lefevre was a photographer still in his 20s when he got the opportunity to document an MSF mission in Afghanistan. His story starts there. On page 1 he is packing his things, he takes photos of the surroundings he says good-bye to his mother, and he boards a plane to what will be his home base: Pakistan.

Over the course of the next few months, Lefevre will endure terrible travel conditions. He will be endangered over and over again, he will meet strong people, sickened people, secretive, powerful people, spies, war-ravaged villagers, war-wounded and war-strengthened Mujahideen.

And he will take over 4000 photos. Hundreds of these photos are woven into this book and his story, and it is in this way that I say Emmanuel Guibert and Didier Lefevre have created an entirely new genre. A book that is both read and stared at; a story that is experienced and presented in anecdote, event and character, but also glimpsed via the windows and lenses through which the protagonist himself literally once looked.

Without the photos, it would be a powerful travelogue. A story about a man traveling outside his boundaries, outside his comfort zone to summon the fortitude to be better than he was before. With the photos intertwined via the fabulous design work of Frederic Lemercier, the book and story is a precipice the reader will always feel on the edge of. A tunnel into another world, a book to be involved with, so penetrating and serious that I scarcely believed my heart was still beating when I finished reading it.

The story follows Lefevre as he meets his MSF crew in Peshwar in Pakistan, moves around the subculture of expats and NGOs there, and prepares for his mission to Afghanistan. He and the MSF crew join a caravan which will take a month on horse and mule over mountain passes to get to the small villiage where they will serve the Afghani people for three months, and then will return to Pakistan before the mountains become unpassable in the winter.

He is properly clothed, is hazed while packing supplies, meets people who might or might not be spies in western bars, and spends time documenting an aimless month in Peshawar.

Guibert has done a superb job of giving us the details of Lefevre’s story and then letting the photos amplify or punctuate those details. Often those story events are new cultural scenarios, strange to western readers, which the photographs give us a better glimpse into. Sometimes those events are surprising or shocking, sometimes they’re absolutely tragic. In many of these circumstances, Guibert’s habit of allowing pictures to comment after the fact allow us as readers to deepen our experience with the story at our own pace.

Lefevre spends a month in Pakistan awaiting the departure of his group. This aimless, almost luxurious month is a gift to us: we are treated to three pages of photos: a city few people have ever heard of, teeming with people and commerce and life of all kinds. We see the streets, we can look into the eyes of children on this side of the world, in this part of the story.

Out of necessity, the MSF group must attach itself to a weapons caravan consisting of more than 100 horses and donkeys and 40 armed fighters. The group is woken in the middle of the night and smuggled across the border to meet their caravan in Afghanistan.

The crossing is hard and takes a month. Lefevre struggles hard and is strengthened by the arduous trek over the mountains. In this time, the caravan struggle against fatigue and hunger, they lose a member of the caravan, Lefevre is shot at by other members of the caravan, they meet warlords, and visit the grave of a man who didn’t make it the last time. The doctors treat villagers along the way while Lefevre takes photographs. Guibert (with Lemercier) strings this all together, combining his own drawn renditions of the trip with the photographer’s, Lefevre’s exact record.

Slowly Lefevre learns something of this strange culture, as his Western guides inculcate him and his Afghani guides inspire him. His body acclimates, his heart widens, his photographer’s eye remaining alert and active, his shutter always clicking. By the time they arrive in Zaragandara, their goal, he has seen and recorded enough to last a lifetime.

It’s in the primitive hospital/shack of Zaragandara where MSF get finally down to the work they came for, the treatment of Afghanis wounded by war. Children arrive with burns, maimed soldiers in excruciating pain are tended to. The Photographer presents dozens of these cases, documenting via photo-montage entire operations, including a man having his jaw resewn, another having shrapnel removed from his eye, and another having his leg amputated above where his foot fell off. The effect of these silent extended photo sequences is harrowing, severe and saddening.

I will refrain from giving away more of the plot, because amazingly, in a book which seemingly at first seems to serve as documentation of the astounding altruistic work that MSF does, in fact, what happens is that Lefevre himself becomes a major protagonist in a story that is shocking, vivid and terrifying.

That The Photographer manages to have so few photographs of its main character (3, by my count) allow what should be a strange mixing of comix and photography to become a perfect blend. I was originally annoyed that the book was called The Photographer; it seemed a boring title, but I now see that it’s perfect. The main reason the photos work is because it offers you a way to experience the main character through another point of view, through his own non-literal point of view.

Photographs have occasionally been used in comics, often as source material, back-up material, or the stranger merging of fumetti, where dramas are staged and photographed; word balloons added on top. Rumor has it that Harvey Kurtzman would give any student in his cartooning class an A+ who tried such a bold form.

The Photographer sometimes reverses the traditional order of importance, by allowing drawings to comment on sequences of photographs, not the other way around. Lefevre’s eye is all through out this book. His desires, his fascinations, his hunger. We see traces of his thoughts on full contact sheets as he identifies the photos most worth developing further. He is a man who lived through his camera, and with The Photographer, readers get to live a portion of his life.

The Photographer, in a way similar to Joe Sacco’s work because of Sacco’s dedication to drawing every single line, is a book that is meant to be read but also forces you to look. Most graphic novels, Maus and Persepolis, and Katin’s book included, are designed to be read. The Photographer is multi-layered. You’ll read it, but you’ll also stare at it, faces will stare back at you. You’ll look deep into the story. You will be transported.

A.D.: New Orleans After the Deluge
By Josh Neufeld
Published by Pantheon

Josh Neufeld’s A.D.: New Orleans After the Deluge, is designed to be read, maybe even seen. The story telling is cinematic, the shots and sequences designed to be experienced like one would experience a modern movie; even the characters look and act like indy movie actors. It almost comes with an orchestra. You are expected to sit back and take it all in.

A.D. is about Katrina-ravaged New Orleans in 2005. It starts before the storm, focusing on seven main characters preparing themselves and their belongings for the oncoming storm. Three of the characters evacuate, two stay to guard their convenience store. One sticks it out in his home, and another goes from evacuation zone to evacuation zone Neufeld documents all their stories thoroughly, in a straightforward, sometimes melodramatic way.

A.D. is a seamless reading experience. Weaving from one story to another, your main thread is the storm that ripped and destroyed an entire city. In Neufeld’s book, we see the storm from many human angles: from the dead center, from the horrific Superdome, from the protected French Quarter, from the highways, from the outskirts, from the rooftops.

What sticks about A.D. is the tremendous story of those who stay in New Orleans. The dramatic center is the story of the two men, Abbas and Darnell, who aim to guard their store, and wind up soon on top of its roof with water, warm beer and a couple of handguns. Abbas loses his Mercedes to the flooding, and Darnell’s asthma worsens as he is stung by mosquitoes while sleeping on the roof. Their story sticks because they they have contributed to their own experience, their decision-making effecting their situation as their tender friendship seems to deepen in this crisis.

This contrasts with Denise’s story. Denise, though a strong personality, is a victim and her story couldn’t have turned out any less tragic than it did. She is shipped from one part of the story to another, from one evacuation route to another, ultimately winding up in the horrific tragedy that was happening in the Superdome.

If anything weakens A.D., it might be Neufeld’s overly-straightforward way of drawing and storytelling. Never shooting for the poetic heights that Joe Sacco or Emmanuel Guibert shoot for, it’s the "Law and Order" to those creators’ "The Wire". Where the stoicism of Guibert’s photographer and the shell-shocked determination of Sacco’s characters serve to allow the reader a little room to imagine their emotional insides, Neufeld’s characters never fail to indicate their feelings, never fail to act for the camera or the pen and brush. Thus, the music always seems to be swelling or falling, the camera always going in for the dramatic close-up.

The most powerful moments in A.D. come from the horrific sequences in the Superdome. When Denise and her family first arrive there, in a single illustration spanning two pages, a word-balloon from the bus asks “Why is everyone outside?” No attendant music is needed. The remainder of Denise’s story is the horrible answer to that question, shown it in desperate, terrifying detail; detail that Denise and no citizen of this country was in any way prepared to witness. A.D., for this documentation at least, should be required reading for every American, as it prods these details of this suffering back into the public consciousness. “Never Forget” perhaps should not refer to not to the attacks on the World Trade Center. but to the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. A.D. is a public service.


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