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The Power of Comics

So last night, Kevin and I went to a reception/dinner for the Iraqi sculptor and journalist, Ahmed Fadaam.

For those of you who don't follow NPR obsessively, he was an artist, a native of Baghdad, who saw his studio and life's work destroyed in the looting following the overthrow of Saddam, and began working as a journalist and translator, reporting the collapse of Baghdad and the attempts at rebuilding for NPR and the New York Times. You can read a much more detailed account than I can give--it's a fascinating, frequently painful story, and his first-hand reports from Baghdad, "Ahmed's Diary" would wake grief in a heart of adamant.

When Kevin found out that he had come to the US and was having an art reception, knowing how much I admired the man's work, he got us tickets. I have mentioned before, I think, that Kevin is a keeper.

It was a lovely dinner, and--well, "moving" doesn't even cover it. He was speaking about his latest sculpture, a copy of which is now on my bookcase, called "Grieving Woman." The inspiration was simple--on his beat, he would often see between sixty and a hundred dead bodies a day, and most of them were men. He said that at the morgue, or at the site of the car bombs, he would find their wives grieving, an image that got burned into his brain week after week, and which he tried finally to excise by sculpting it.

At one point in the dinner, as various people on the staff were chatting with the various guests, it came up in the usual fashion that I did comic books, and one of the producers said "Oh! You have to talk to Ahmed--he just got a deal with DC to turn the diaries into a graphic novel!" So when an opportunity presented itself, I went up and introduced myself, and congratulated him on the deal with DC.

This may sound like an insipid conversation starter, given the man's life, but it's very hard to fangirl over someone's pain. Besides, I don't know crap about war, or atrocity. Nobody has ever wanted to kill me. I make a living as an artist, but my hamsters-wearing-hats is so far from the sort of art this man is doing that calling them both by the same name is a tragedy of language.

Comics, though, I know. Comics I can talk about with anybody, anywhere, with enthusiasm.

And this quiet, soft-spoken man, who had been telling us matter-of-factly, without emotion, about the horrors of life in occupied Iraq, cracked a huge grin and practically bounced on his feet, and began telling me how excited he was, because he'd grown up on Superman and Batman, and to be working on a comic for those people...!

Here's a guy who slept with an AK-47 next to his bed, in anticipation of somebody breaking into the house at any moment to kill him and his family. Here's a guy who has seen more death and ruin come to his home than any human should see in a dozen lifetimes. Here's a guy who had to flee his country because of death threats against him as a Western collaborator, who had been speaking about the resentment Iraqis feel towards Americans, who hasn't seen his family in months, and cannot go and visit them because he will be denied reentry to the US if he leaves.

And he was excited to be doing a comic.

More than excited, he was suddenly animated, telling me about his art submissions for the proposal DC had sent him, and how he had taught figure drawing and how they were having to work out the art style for the comic, and then there was much mutual commiseration over illustration deadlines. "A hundred illustrations? Brutal!" "Eighty in six weeks? How could you see afterwards?"

This is the power of comics.

I have said before that readers will give you more and forgive you more, and feel with you more in comics than any other medium. And I still don't know why that is. I'm an artist, even if most of it IS hamsters wearing little hats, and I'm a writer, and I have stared at the process from both ends, and three volumes of Digger* and an Eisner nomination and a graphic novel for kids with Penguin later, I still don't know why. Whatever bizarre alchemy occurs between the word and the art, I cannot point to it and say "There. That bit. That's why it works."

All I know is that it works, and comics have power. I gave up believing in magic--mostly--long ago, but if I had to point to something in the world that's magic, it would be comics. They shouldn't have such power. They shouldn't be able to change the world. But they do.

Thank god.

*Four, once I get everything mailed off...

You know, if the only thing written on your grave was : "Ursula Vernon - she drew hamsters with funny hats", that would be a big achievement anyway. There are lots of people who can't claim as much.

Meh. Comics are one of the weakest artforms, uncomfortably straddling the unwanted wasteland between film and books. They're books without enough words, or films without scores. I agree with the above poster than Maus is good - but there was only one short bit of it that I thought worked better with pictures than it would as words (that's the bit where he's a human in a mouse mask). I suppose the graphic form is easier to pick up if you don't like reading, but that's only a reason why comics are useful (to get people into reading who otherwise wouldn't) not why they're good in themselves. [Nobody goes on about their great mountain-tricycles, but the tricycle is a good introductory stage for children].

The one published comic I've read [and my housemate is obsessed so I've read a fair few and seen hundreds more] that actually benefitted overall from being a comic was Sandman. In my opinion, this is mostly because the graphic novel format slows the work down massively. As Sandman is basically a series of very short stories with interludes of prose poetry, in purely written form it would be a quickly-done-with thing. As huge tomes of painting, it takes a lot longer to read, you dwell on each sentence longer, and the overall tone has the time to sink in and affect you.

The same, I think, is true of Digger. Digger also benefits from having far better art than any other comic, acting as an auxilliary source of beauty. [The exception I'll make here is that I've seen some excerpts from Sin City, and they also look gorgeous - and from the film I'm sure it works better as a comic than as a book. On the other hand, I suspect it works even better as a film...]

I also admit that comics can work better at dealing with tedium. I'm a fan of several webcomics than heavily feature light-hearted dialogue and silly happenings - and in a pure written form they would become tedious very quickly. I think they have an advantage over film in that their tiny episodes hammer home the punchlines better.

[And finally, I'll make an exception for 'comics' that are actually artworks. A Lesson Is Learned But the Damage Is Irreversible, for instance, can be seen a a series of sometimes-linked drool-inducingly beautiful thought-provoking individual 'plates'.]

So certainly there are advantages to graphic forms, and there are great examples. But there are also great short stories - and a graphic novel is ultimately just a short story with a lot of illustrations. But I don't believe that any graphic novel, or any short story, can ever be as soul-shatteringly powerful as a great novel can be. A good book makes you doubt whether your awake or asleep when you've finished it, and makes you unsure whether you're you or not, and makes you certain that its characters are more real than the people you know, and makes you, albeit perhaps only for a short time, care more about them than the real people, and it makes you confused every time you wake up. I don't believe comics can do that. It's a more limited art-form [mostly, I suspect, because there aren't enough words, but also because the two-dimensional picture reinforces the fictional nature of what it depicts].


Oh my, are those harpoons flying towards me? Sorry chaps...


If you were moved by his account of Baghdad, have you tried reading Baghdad Burning, by Riverbend? I've not read all of it, but what I did read was deeply affecting.


Lastly, just to be contrary - I think that had you been talking to someone whose work had just got a hollywood deal about films you would have got a similar reaction. Or perhaps modern american music would have a similar effect. Or literature (except that publishing houses aren't as closely related to their stable in people's minds as comics publishers or music producers). All american art is hugely powerful around the world.

They're books without enough words, or films without scores.

No, they are comics. They are a self-contained medium and are an original form of literature because the artist and the author can transform them in whatever way they want. I've seen comics written entirely without words, and those in which the illustrations were barely a doodle under the text. The presentation of comics is a treatment of theme and the content of comics is done to achieve a specific purpose, both of which are entirely under the command of its creator. Books and television are something very, very different.

I'm very sorry for you that you don't understand the medium, but hey, we all have our hurdles. I personally have no idea what's going on in interpretive dance.

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It is REALLY hard to find a Fine Art professor at my school who doesn't go "PFLUH!!" at the mention of comics. Can I share this story with them?

Please do! The more people know about this guy, the better the world is.

From a local television interview show:

ANDREW DENTON: It does work. You said that as a child you loved reading comic books. When you got into prison there they were again. Can you tell me about John James and the power of Spiderman?

CHRIS ABANI: Here’s this 14 year old boy who one of the things that particularly military regime would do at the time was if a family member was being sought after and they didn’t find him they would arrest somebody and hold them as ransom and someone had gone after his father who’d fled the country and they took John James and held him as ransom. So here was a kid who’s essentially in prison on death row with a bunch of killers and rapists who has no business being there. But who had the most cheerful disposition and the guards, it’s one of those moments where I think, you know, some of the guards must have recognised their own sons, cause he was the only one allowed reading material and he had three comic books with him. You know, The Green Lantern, Spiderman and the Silver Surfer. And he would teach some of his older inmates, these really vicious men how to read with these comic books and so like you know late at night you would sort of hear a bunch of men reciting things like you know “take that, Spidey,” or “my Spidey senses are tingling” and sort of there’s something really amazing about literature that that this is the thing about stories that it it doesn’t whatever its original intent is it has a way it’s almost like a like a virus.

Wow, well written. Thanks for posting this. :)

I made comics in Baghdad too, and I can attest to the power of the medium to reach across boundaries.

I did these for the kids of Baghdad while with the Army (hence the name 'Baghdad Kids'). It was part of our way to reach out to them and get important messages across. Although I created many other products aimed at the adults, Baghdad Kids remains my proudest moment 'over there'.

Here are some scans of them:


Hi there, wandered in through a link from fleen.com (http://www.fleen.com/archives/2008/11/14/take-five-minutes-and-read-this/)

Guess I'd better keep on drawing, then. :] Thanks for the great anecdote.

A Website for you

I thought this website would speak to you...www.cforiginals.com.

It's because there's so many badly drawn, badly written comics out there, that good ones really stand out. From the start, comics were pulpy and filled with cliches, hastily stapled, and it seems that some people still follow this standard.

Ahmed: o O ( Awesome! Finally someone at this reception I can talk to about something NEW instead of something I'm FINISHED with! )

*laugh* Well, honestly, I don't know how I'd deal with people who, while intensely well-meaning and utterly admirable, wanted to talk about my misery and trauma over and over. Maybe he was just glad to talk about something that wasn't horrible.

Heh, look at that : Neil Gaiman is linking to this entry !

"And it was an astonishingly powerful entry that I think everyone should read."

I just noticed that too! :D Exciting!

Thank you for sharing this story.

Also, woo, congratulations on that asterisk!