Sarah Glidden in The Economist

“Graphic novels and the refugee crisis” / The Economist / L.K. / February 23, 2017

ART SPIEGELMAN, the renowned graphic novelist behind “Maus” (1986, 1991), proved that comics can be expansive and nuanced enough to capture the stories of movements, peoples and nations. “Maus” depicted the experiences of his parents at the hands of the Nazis, including their imprisonment at Auschwitz. “In the Shadow of No Towers” (2004) recounted the events of the 9/11 attacks. Both works initially struggled to find a publisher—comics seemed too risky a medium to document such horrific events—yet they are now considered canonical graphic novels, works that cemented the genre’s gravity. 

Faced with documenting another 21st-century horror—the migrant crisis—a new generation of graphic novelists has taken up Mr Spiegelman’s torch, depicting the deadly journey across the Mediterranean. “A Perilous Journey”, a comic series by Benjamin Dix and Lindsay Pollock, follows three men who fled their homes in Syria for Europe (the last frame takes the unexpected form of a photograph, showing one of the characters reunited with his family after being granted asylum in Norway). In 2016, Marvel produced “Madaya Mom”, inspired by the experiences of a young mother in Madaya, a besieged Syrian resort town. Similar projects, like Sarah Glidden’s “Rolling Blackouts”, Ali Fitzgerald’s Refugee Comic Project,  Kate Evans’s “Threads: From the Refugee Crisis” and Wolfgang Speer’s “Stories from the Grand Hotel” also use the expansive form of the graphic novel to familiarise Western readers with the harrowing realities that refugees face every day. Comics have always dealt in the hidden good and evil of the world, celebrating the triumphs of everyday heroes over metaphorical monsters (Godzilla emerged as a stand-in for the nuclear bomb). Mr Spiegelman’s literary heirs do away with much of the metaphor—refugees’ lives are quite dramatic enough. 

The attributes that make the graphic novel an expressive form also make it a useful didactic tool: a handful of local and state governments have turned to comics to prescribe behaviour to newcomers. In January, the Department of National Policy, Interregional Relations and Tourism in Moscow published a 100-page comic guide illustrating proper conduct as part of an effort to lower “the level of tension among Muscovites and migrants”. Narrated by heroes and heroines from Russian fairy tales and folk stories (such as Princess Vasilisa the Wise, the manual instructs migrants not to attract attention to themselves, to refrain from ogling women and to always be ready to show their papers to authorities. Some of the information it imparts is practical—how to navigate the underground system, for example—but its thinly-concealed message is “assimilate quietly or leave”.

A German public broadcaster took a similar approach when it published a comic guide for migrants called “Germany and Its People” last October. In German and Arabic, the guide describes appropriate public behaviours—how to introduce oneself with a handshake or ask for directions from a stranger—and inappropriate ones, such as groping women and using violence to solve conflicts. In comic form, these suggestions take on a condescending tone—so much so that satirist Karl Sharro created his own version, telling Western governments how not to behave in the Middle East.

Prose would be sufficient to communicate social and legal norms, but that is not the only goal of this emerging genre of state-sponsored graphic guides. Each tries to deploy visual language to paint a cohesive portrait of their respective nations—depicting Russians as descendants of their fairy tale heroes and conquering knights, or Germans as law-abiding, egalitarian citizens. Both guides address their audience in the vaguest terms possible, grouping all newcomers as “others”, while relying on illustration to communicate ethnic differences and state narratives. Migrants and refugees are shown to inhabit a space separate to the fairy tale of the nation. 

It is possible to create an empathetic yet instructive guide for refugees. International Medical Corps UK published two comic books for child refugees that tell the story of migration from their point of view while also conveying basic health and safety information, like how to avoid contracting polio and how to stay safe in a refugee camp. “Europa: An Illustrated Introduction to Europe for Migrants and Refugees”, produced in partnership with the Arab Fund for Arts and Culture, is available in four languages and weaves together photographs, first-person accounts, historical, political and practical information to provide a comprehensive guide for people seeking refuge. Their success lies in specificity, using illustration to illuminate rather than obscure the faces of newcomers. “Comics can be pernicious, fascist propaganda or anti-authoritarian,” Mr Spiegelman said. “The ones that shaped me were particularly anti-authoritarian.” The next generation of graphic novelists would do well to follow in his footsteps. 

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