Graphic novels on systematic oppression

I was in a mood the last time I was at the library and these are the three other graphic novels I got along with Freedom Hospital, and all of them are about dealing with systematic oppression. Not necessarily successfully, but trying to. They are none of them cheery.

RunforitRun For It: Stories of slaves who fought for their freedom
by Marcelo D’Salete
2017

There’s four chapters, telling four somewhat interlinked stories of black resistance to slavery in Brazil. And it’s just heart-breaking. Individuals could and did fight for their freedom, but unlike a game of tag, there was no home base, no safety or home free. There was just constant risk of staying, even greater risk of trying to leave, and no alternatives.

And trying to organize for a rebellion against the structure itself was just more courting death.

It also really shows how slavery-based societies actively promote viciousness and suppress empathy, among everyone involved, slave owner and slave alike. And possibly the greatest rebellion that the slaves managed to (sometimes) win, was to maintain a sense of worth to their own lives and the lives of their loved ones.

girlcalledechoA Girl Called Echo, Vol. 1: Pemmican Wars
by Katherena Vermette, Scott B. Henderson, and Donovan Yaciuk
2017

This a beautifully done YA comic about Echo, who has been placed in a new school and a new foster care house. In school, she’s learning the history of the Métis, the local indigenous tribe, from which she is descended but not raised with. She’s in a position where she doesn’t fit in with the people around her or even with the people who should have been her people, but about whom she doesn’t know anything.

But in an odd experience that comes with no explanation (in this volume, at least) she is transported back in time, for short periods, to the era that her modern history class is talking about. And that’s where she makes what looks like her first a friend, Marie, a young Métis girl. But Marie is experiencing the time that Echo is learning about in school: the series of conflicts between Métis and colonists that largely destroyed the Métis way of life.

veraxVERAX: The True History of Whistleblowers, Drone Warfare, and Mass Surveillance
by Pratap Chatterjee and Khalil
2017

Pratap Chatterjee is a journalist and the graphic novel follows his years-long investigation into governmental mass surveillance and drone warfare. So the slow start and surprisingly long time it takes to get anywhere might be a realistic portrayal of the frustration of the investigation but it makes for a book that spends the first half alternating between victims speaking about their loved ones being killed in drone attacks and Chatterjee speaking about his editor not properly appreciating his nose for a story. Chatterjee does not look good in the comparison.

That said, about two thirds of the way through, it starts to pick up with Edward Snowden’s whistleblowing. At that point the story shifts from following an investigation to explaining the implications of the information found, and that was much more interesting.

VERAX brought up two things that I hadn’t given much thought to before:

First:

That unmanned drones are not actually unmanned: they have a crew of 180 people stationed around the world, keeping them in the air, flying them, analyzing the data, examining the video feed, and making the calls to fire. It means that Air Force enlisted kids right out of high school and sat them down in front of screens with crappy surveillance video (this is not the high def videos shown in the movies) and has them watch the grainy videos of people dismembered and dying from the missiles they helped launch. Rates of PTSD among drone pilots who never leave their offices is amazingly high.

My dad used to say, “be careful what you put into your head, because you can’t always get it out again.” Some knowledge is important to have, and certainly worth the pain of being a third party witness. But sometimes it is just too much: I can’t imagine spending years watching those videos live.

Second:

While mass surveillance is an invasion of privacy and terrifying in how pervasive it is, it is almost equally terrifying how rife with errors it is. It’s bad data and the government is making life-or-death decisions based on this data. That’s why there are so many civilian casualties by a method that is supposed to be created specifically to avoid them. Because how often have you called a wrong number or gotten a call from someone trying to reach someone else? Maybe it’s an old phone number of maybe a 5 got misread as a 6, or a 1 as a 7.

It’s full of bad data, such that a good third of the drone strikes were made on the wrong targets. And the institutions making use of the data tend heavily towards confirmation bias. Ie, if they’re looking for a weapon and they see someone in a person’s hands, that’s evidence that they have a weapon. As opposed to looking at someone carrying something and considering how many other things they could be carrying: a glass of water, a baby, a bag of skittles. No matter how smart you are, no matter how dedicated, you cannot make good decisions based on bad data.

But overall, as a book, it was a slow start that finished with a lot of ideas and was very thought provoking.

I recommend all three books, but they are draining as they show how hard and yet necessary it is to maintain hope.

Freedom Hospital by Hamid Sulaiman

freedomhospitalFreedom Hospital: A Syrian Story
written and drawn by Hamid Sulaiman, 2016
translated by Francesca Barrie, 2017

This is a gorgeous graphic novel, with stark images that carry a lot of impact. The style matches the story too, in its stark contrast that still manages complex characters in a confusing state of social collapse.

There’s a cast of twelve main characters in and around the underground hospital Yasmine has set up to provide medical treatment to the resistance of the current regime. It’s not strictly non-fiction — Sulaiman took liberties with combining characters and stories, but it’s not really fiction either. It starts in spring 2012, and covers the year in four seasons with a short epilog set in spring 2013.

It’s not particularly long or technically hard to read, but it’s a hard subject and the characters are all complex and the situation even more so. And I keep on thinking about days later. One of the things that really struck me about it was the way Sulaiman created a background by the simple matter of, when there was a time cut between scenes, there’s a small line saying how many hours or days later it was, and how many people had died in that time.

“six days later: another 731 killed.”
“ten hours later: another 69 killed.”
“two weeks later: another 2,157 killed.”
“twelve days later: another 793 killed.”

And the people who survive carry on trying to do something: to win, to get noticed, to be saved, to survive…

Some of them do and some of them don’t, and everyone just keeps on trying to find some right thing to do, whether it’s to stay or leave or join one of the militias.

It’s heart breaking and wearying and shows just how easy it is to become accustomed to truly horrifying circumstances.

Small Press Expo, 2018

I’ve enjoyed going to Small Press Expo every year since I discovered it existed at all, but this is the first time I’ve gotten around to writing a review of it. I just buy too many awesome things to keep track of and then wait too long to read them all. So this year, I’m just going to review the ones I’ve finished.

 

OTPcoverimageOTP Book One
Written and Illustrated by Maki Naro
published by: Box Plot Comic

This is an educational pre-historical romance between a thrinaxodon and a broomistega and it is adorable! Oh my heart! I was lying on the floor cooing at this book as I read it. It’s more of a BroTP in my opinion, but that just makes it even better! Best friendship is the best.

I also find is darkly reassuring to hear about the Great Dying that involved ocean acidification wiping out nearly all sea life and the only known mass extinction of insects. Because the world continued on and life evolved new and different animals.

 

zenithcoverZenith
Written and Illustrated by Iasmin Omar Ata

This is described as “a post-apocalyptic adventure about the phases of the moon, islamic futures, and asserting your identity” but I read as more of a fantasy-world look at being bi-racial. In some ways it reminded me of that aspect from InuYasha, but with more detailed look at growing up among animals deities as a half-human.

Also, I love that apparently The Six Pleasures of Medieval Islam were drink, clothing, intercourse, scent, sound and food, with food being the greatest of them all. That seems accurate to me.

 

A Courtesan’s Tale
Written by: Lynn Novella
Published by: Pretty Dark Tales

First of all, this is a tiny book, with measurements of about 1.5” x 3” x 0.5” and is hand bound. Adorable! And Lynn Novella was at SPX creating more of these books as she sat at her stall. She’s also adorable. We agreed that clearly people needed books sized appropriately to be able to carry anywhere and everywhere, so you could always have a book on you at any given time.

It’s not a graphic novel, just text, but the story is awesome and adorable and hilarious in the way it interacts with the stereotypical fairytale by adding practical characters who aren’t putting up with any of this nonsense. And if you’re in a terribly dangerous situation… get out while the getting’s good.

 

maamoulCan These Cookies Stop Islamophobia?
Written and Illustrated by Marguerite Dabaie

I really wanted to buy this one, but the author was away from her stall when I first saw it and didn’t return in the time it took me to read it. By the time I returned, she’d left early.

But since I’d wound up reading the whole thing while standing there, I’m going to review it here, because it’s sweet and socially aware. Rather than a standard graphic novel, it’s more like an illustrated treatise, a combination of love story to the middle-eastern cookies ma’amoul and a discussion of how blindly fearful people in the west have gotten about a whole culture and language.

 

PREVIOUS YEARS:

I haven’t read the rest of my acquisitions from this year, so I’ll need to post on them individually as I get to them. But I also want to take a moment to go back to a couple of my all-time favorite acquisitions from years past:

The Rabbit Hero
Written and Illustrated by Tony Brandl

This doesn’t really have a plot, per se, just character who get their only summaries. The titular rabbit hero is the first to be introduced: “Once, not so long ago, there lived among us, a Rabbit Hero. He was strong, and very brave, of course, but mostly, he could jump.”

It’s a small book that has a fun binding and while there’s no plot, the character summaries and illustrations (with the rabbit hero either present or just out of frame with only his plaid scarf visible) provide such potential for interaction that it’s inspiring. The reader is left to imagine how the story goes.

 

kingdomofwenramenKingdom of Wenramen
Illustrated by Wendy Pham
published by Clandestine Republic

This is another book without plot or even words this time, just a series of images that create a whole world of magic and spirits and animals and food. The central theme is definitely food, ramen in particular.

They’re just beautiful illustrations that really supports the classic idiom “a picture is worth a thousand words” because there’s so much world building going on in these pictures as well as successfully conveying a sense memory of eating really good ramen. I bought this book before I’d ever actually had any restaurant ramen, and really enjoyed it then, but now that I know what good ramen tastes like, ooh, this is so good, but also makes me hungry.

Small Press Expo

Private I

By Emily Willis and Ann Uland

Private_IPrivate I is about a gay private detective in 1940s Pittsburgh who teams up with a wealthy young society lady to investigate her sister’s death. As Rebecca said, it is pretty much perfect for me! It is not the most polished in either writing or illustration, but that’s not really what the Small Press Expo is about. There are several actual small presses with a small line of carefully curated comics, but even more of the exhibitors are individual creators, who self-publish and offer the highest quality they can afford. What I got is a printed ‘zine’ style comic of Chapter 1 of a web comic, which I’m now very much looking forward to following.

Run With Your Demons

By Isabella Rotman

Run_with_Your_DemonsThis is a tiny little comic, about 6” x 6”, that is also a lovely webcomic. It is not so much a story as a bit of motivation on how to deal with all the negative voices in your head, but I really liked the unexpected nature of how Rotman represents internal voices vs. internal resilience.

Your Black Friend

By Ben Passmore

Your_Black_FriendRebecca and I attended a panel for the first time, one on reporting and journalism in a comic format. It was really interesting, and I heard later that it was one of the better panels. Ben Passmore was one of the panelists, talking about how he’s narrated his experiences in current civil rights protests. After the panel, I went to his table and picked up Your Black Friend, which is a short book sharing what he would like to be able to tell his white friend about his experience as a black man but doesn’t feeling comfortable saying. It is simply written and constructed, but extremely effective. 

The Nib 

At least two of the panelists also work for The Nib, which collects political and nonfiction comics, with a liberal bias, of course. I’ve talked about this before, but one of the things I really appreciate about nonfiction comics is that they can make topics accessible that normally seem too complicated or fraught. One of the panelists touched on this from the creator’s perspective, saying “If what I’ve written is too wordy, it is a sign that I don’t know it well enough to really explain it.”

Two Very Different Graphic Novels

How to Talk to Girls at Parties

By Neil Gaiman, Fábio Moon, and Gabriel Bá

How_to_Talk_to_GirlsI’d heard the title How to Talk to Girls at Parties around a bit, but it had sounded a little too pickup-artist-y for me. I hadn’t realized that it was a short story by Neil Gaiman, but I’ve lost some confidence in him lately. It’s a bummer, but many writers who were at the cutting edge of the feminist movement, pushing equal representation forward, have seemed to get stuck in their own hayday and been left behind by the advancing social mores.

All of this to say that I probably wouldn’t have read this if not for the adaptation to graphic novel illustrated by Fábio Moon and Gabriel Bá, who paint gorgeous watercolor illustrations. Unfortunately in this case, their drawings of unworldly lovely young women only serve to underscore my central issue with the story.

Two teenage boys, one confident, one not, are looking for a party. The confident boy counsels his friend Enn (N for Neil, perhaps?) that he just needs to learn to talk to girls, perhaps just the first baby step in understanding that girls are individual people just like boys, but this story doesn’t get to that point. Instead it veers off into a very Gaiman-like mythos that is interesting and evocative, but seems to conclude that girls can be dangerously unknowable and foreign. Which isn’t great.

Trashed

By Derf Backderf

TrashedTrashed is pretty much the diametric opposite. You really couldn’t get much more mundane than this “ode to the crap job of all crap jobs,” to quote the front cover.

Backderf got really known for his autobiographical graphic novel, My Friend Dahmer, and this is a sequel of sorts, I guess. After high school, where he was casual friends with Jeffrey Dahmer, Backderf worked as a garbage man. Trashed is a fictionalized narrative, combining his own experiences with a great deal of research into the sanitation industry. It is a very funny, eye-opening look at a part of daily life that most of us pay as little attention to as possible.

Lore Olympus

By Rachel Smythe

Lore_OlympusI was about a 100 pages into Kinsey’s recommended Six of Crows last week when I was hospitalized for an emergency appendectomy. The surgery went well, but recovery has been slow. Between managing pain, digestion, and a slew of medications, my attention span was shot, and I had to put aside the gritty, fantasy heist story. I tried a couple of other books, but anything with a plot more involved than, like, solitaire, and I lost the thread.

Luckily, I ran across* the fluffiest of fluff, which made my final day in the hospital bearable! Lore Olympus is a weekly web comic that retells the Greek myth of Hades and Persephone in a modern setting. The art is incredibly lush, and the story reads like the most indulgent of fan-fiction. Is there an extremely wealthy but emotional distant man who falls uncontrollably in love with a manic pixie dream girl? Well, I mean, that’s just canon. Are there sumptuous parties in elaborate mansions? Check! Beautiful and improbable clothes? Check! An absurd amount of dogs? Check!

There’s 23 chapters up right now, and it updates on Sundays. Each chapter consists of a single scroll down panel with some really interesting vertical composition, which I found particularly easy to navigate on my phone in bed, making it the perfect companion for required bed rest.

*Via a Twitter thread on “middle school weird girls” and the subset of “the ancient mythology stans,” in which I full-on recognized myself.

Native Graphic Novel Anthologies

Writing a review of anthologies is sometimes tricky, because the contents can be so diverse and these three anthologies are even more so. But theme of them all is that they are stories about Native people and cultures, written and illustrated by Native people of North America.

DeerWoman-Anthology-FINAL-C_dragged_1024x1024Deer Woman
2017
Native Realities Press

Looking up Rebecca Roanhorse made me realize that I actually already owned an anthology that she had contributed to. I had kickstarted it some time back and received the book but not gotten around to actually reading it. This was a good reminder to do so.

It contains thirteen entries and while some felt like the work of practiced professionals many felt like the work of people still developing their crafts. A couple of the stories I didn’t find particularly interesting, but some of the other stories left me struggling not to cry as I read them. I’m not going to call out any particular entries though, because I expect which ones you connect with will vary depending on the reader.

The theme of this collection felt like a precursor or ancestor or possibly both, to the #MeToo movement. Deer Woman is apparently a traditional character who seduces and then kills men, and in this particular anthology is celebrated as a protector and source of consolation to women who have been attacked by men.

Native American women are particularly vulnerable to sexual violence and the anthology both raises awareness of the issue and fund raises for a variety of resources:

MoonshotVolume1Moonshot Volume 1
2017
Alternate History Comics

Moonshot was another anthology I got via Kickstarter and hadn’t gotten around to reading until recently. Unlike Deer Woman, however, this is clearly the work of experienced writers and illustrators, including names that I recognized from other graphic novels.

There are thirteen stories in Volume 1 and they are all beautiful. Some of them I was clearly within the intended or at least expected audience. A few of them felt like they were written for a native audience: there were expectations of shared background knowledge with the author that I didn’t have, but that’s not a bad thing. Picking up information from context is how most learning takes place. I was surprised that there weren’t more that felt like that. And sadly, one felt a bit like a standard comic book plot that I’ve seen many times, but with native American names attached to the protagonists and villains.

MOONSHOT-VOLUME-2-COVERMoonshot Volume 2
2017
Alternate History Comics

I was really impressed by volume 1, but I like volume 2 even more. It’s still the same high quality of art and stories, but this time it’s focused its theme to presenting the native cultures as modern living people and communities.

I’m reminded of how some people think that as a Quaker, I should be wearing long dresses and bonnets like the Amish do. But the Quaker tenet is for simplicity. So in an era where all women wore dresses, mostly adorned with ruffles and ribbons, Quaker women wore simple dresses. In the modern era, the tenet of simplicity is achieved by wearing jeans and t-shirts. The appearance is very different but the intent remains the same.

This volume tells historic stories of Native tribes, but shows how they live on in the Native people today. They don’t necessarily have the same appearance as they did three hundred years ago, but they have the same meaning.

Showing the traditional stories into the modern era gives them a strong impact. They don’t have the separation that comes from looking at events and interactions in the past. These are all stories happening now, trying to find light in darkness, bravery in fear, and struggling to protect Mother Earth and sacred waters from uncaring corporations. Also, this book made me cry.

All three of these anthologies are well worth reading. And you can be certain that I’ll be hoping for and keeping an eye out for a future Moonshot Volume 3.