If you are seeking to expand your horizons in the realms of history, world cultures and current events try skipping the textbooks and newspapers and turn instead to graphic novels. I’ve discovered several graphical gems recently that have given me a special glimpse into events and cultures I know very little about. Through the tool of a graphic novel the author/artist presents what is often a true story or a story based on personal experiences in a way that lets the reader not only read what things were like but see the artistic visual portrayal of the author’s experience.
Here are a few suggestions to get you started in this realm of historical/biographical/journalistic graphic novels all of which, coincidentally, involve the middle east:
Zahra’s Paradise takes it’s name from the largest cemetery in Iran where many protestors, revolutionaries and other enemies of the Irani government are buried. The story, a composite of many true stories, is told from the perspective of a blogger in Tehran who goes looking for his brother, Mehdi, who has disappeared after the street protests of the 2009 elections which were unequivocally rigged. The tale of a brother and mother’s search for Mehdi becomes the springboard for discussing life in Iran. In their search they speak with people from all walks of life which is incredibly valuable for you, the reader. You will rarely get such a glimpse into life in Iran. More broadly, Zahra’s Paradise is the universal story of family, hope and the desire for freedom. Zahra’s Paradise is visually beautiful and varies between realistic and surreal and terrifying.
A Game for Swallows: To Die, to Leave, to Return
In A Game For Swallows we have the beautiful autobiographical tale of Zeina Abirached and her childhood experience growing up in Beirut during the Lebanese Civil War. The story takes place inside an apartment where Zeina and her brother are cared for by their neighbors as they wait for their parents to return. The city of Beirut has been divided by religious and political civil war and Zeina’s parents have crossed the demarcation line between the Muslim and Christian sides of the city to visit Zeina’s grandmother. The city is a war zone and residents take their lives in their hands every time they go outside. Zeina includes a map of the route her parents took to her grandmother’s house which even includes the location of the neighborhood sniper. A Game for Swallows tells the story of how the love of their community and family created a home and stability for Zeina and her brother in the midst of the chaos and meaningless death of war. Zeina’s stylized artwork is delightful and she finds the most creative ways to tell her story using no more than the contrast of black and white.
Jerusalem: Chronicles from the Holy City
Guy Delisle is married to an administrator of Médecins Sans Frontières or Doctors Without Borders, a secular humanitarian organization. When Guy’s wife’s work brought their family to Jerusalem for one year Guy took the opportunity to write Jerusalem, a graphic journal of his experiences in the Holy Land. While Jerusalem is visually unspectacular Guy’s observations are often insightful and he gives his reader lots of interesting glimpses into daily life in the city and into the political, racial and economic dynamics at work. Delisle has similar works about North Korea, China and Myanmar which I look forward to reading.
What graphic novels do you recommend?