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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...

...when you say keeper, do you mean "Keeper"? i.e., Tanya Huff?

This was amazingly well timed. I was just going through my comic book collection last night and realizing how much I still love them. Been reading them since I was nine and as a teenager was the only GIRL to ever show up to buy them at the store I frequented.
Someday I hope to write one - as I've not the artistic talent to draw it as well - but I do have a plethora of worlds running around in my head!
Hooray for comics and women who love comics!

Because comics are the one place where art and prose can both pull their full storytelling weight and not be at odds with one another (if it's done right).

Damn it, Ursula, crying was /so/ not on my list of things to do tonight. Thank you for sharing this.

May I repost this to readers_list?

(You probably know it already, but it's a comm for collecting the best LJ entries. If you agree, your entry will be reposted with a link back here and comments closed, so people comment here.)

Repost anywhere you like! *grin*

Heh. One of the scenes I remember the best from any story ever is the image from A Death in the Family, Batman kneeling there with Jason Todd's body in his arms. Comics are awesome.

I think it's that human imagination and thought processes on the written word are so different-- but once you give us an image to put the words to, we tend to see something similar because it's presented to us. I think that's why comics live so long in our imagination; why I (personally) find the comic book V for Vendetta so much more disquieting than the movie, why Batman or Superman or whatever image it is becomes an icon in a generation's imagination.

I think--but I might be wrong-- that it might also be related to the way we learn language. In the beginning, aren't we taught words by seeing the object? It'd be interesting to see if there are images that stick more certainly with us than others; and when I say 'us' I mean us as human beings.

(And the funniest thing is, the book that has always stuck with me is a children's book, with smoky pictures, about several groups of animals in a forest who don't care that some freaky two-legged funky animal is taking away the groups until there's one group left; and then they realize that there's no one left to speak for them because they didn't bother to speak up for anyone else. Still wish I knew the name of that.)

WTF is your user icon all about ?

Holy shit I want to shake this guy's hand.

First of all *squee* for the Gaiman mention.

Now to serious stuff:I think that power is a reflection of the fact we're visually centered creatures who communicate using words&metaphors. Comics take much strength both from books and movies.On the one hand they usually have more freedom, both in potential breadth and character action then movies, since they are less restricted, both by humongous budget needed for movie special effects and by length movies have to stay at.Also, movies are too realistic- it is very hard to have a good visual metaphor in movies(like the various lines involved in various psi power drawing, say).On the other hand comics has the visual cues that books, by definition, cannot have, such as an expressive face, and since we react much more strongly to visual cues in such things because the inner eye has a developmental history of 5k years if we're *very* generous(a few centuries is closer to the truth), while other visual cues have been "on use" for at least half a million years, these cues win.

So when comics are done well, both these things work in tandem to "suck" the readers in and make them much more involved in them.OTOH, they are very demanding, a comics series has more possible points of failure, and catastrophic failure on either front will make many readers leave it-my personal example is when I was paging through the beginning of the second arc of The Authority, and knew I won't be reading any more *because they drew Jack Hawkmoor as a neanderthal*.Uhm, sorry for the outburst.

You know, you're the first person I've ever heard mention The Authority and I JUST lent my copies to a friend. I haven't read them in years and now I want to go back and see what you're talking about! (I was in it for The Engineer, being a female engineer myself. She is so friggen cool!)

That is a really beautiful thing. I'm glad he still has something that can make him happy. Many people still look down at comics as a lesser art form, but those people can't see how they some how break though cultural boders and connect people.

I can't point to exactly why, but your writing about this brought tears to my eyes. Perhaps there's magic in the world after all... thanks much for this.

Jedi Jaz