October 4, 2007

a whole world of graphic novels

One of the most dynamic forms of narrative expression- be it fiction or memoir- is the graphic novel. And I'm not talking about superhero comic books, though those are great, too. There are a whole slew of graphic novels now, and many of them are illustrating intense personal and historical situations from our region of the world.

As a reader, I find graphic novels-with their mix of whimsy, intimacy-to be a unique and often gripping way to express moments in our lives. I also think this form would be a great resource for teaching in middle and high schools about certain historical circumstances. As resources, these books and often their websites provide great contextual information for learning and teaching about these regions and themes.

Perhaps because the recent history of East Europe has been so tumultuous, and often hard to describe only utilizing traditional forms of narrative (novels, history books, films), there now seems to be a boom in graphic novels trying to make sense of, or at least represent the memory of, this region's events.

In my memory, what really launched the form of the graphic novel as a literary tool with deep emotional impact, was Maus: A Survivor's Tale, which was set in Poland during the Holocaust. Maus is written and illustrated by Art Spiegelman, and it depicts his relationship with his father, and his father's story of living to tell the tale of Holocaust. [In a turn of brilliant metaphoric graphic depiction, the Jewish Poles are mice, while the Nazis are cats]. When I was a high school student, the film "Schindler's List" was the chosen media to discuss the Holocaust in my school. I think Maus is at least as compelling, and perhaps more personal and accessible.

A recent publication has me excited, but I'm kicking myself for missing the chance to meet the artist. And it sort of picks up at the point of history in East Europe where Maus leaves off. The Wall: Growing Up Behind the Iron Curtain by the famous Czech graphic artist and MacArthur Fellow Peter Sis, was launched last weekend in Chicago. This is story of life in communist Czechoslovakia under the thumb of the Soviets.

Fast forwarding to more tragic events in Europe, we have Joe Sacco's account of the Bosnian war - "Safe Area Gorazde: The War in Eastern Bosnia, 1992-95". Can't make sense of this complex conflagration? much less teach it? Here is a work of journalism and comic illustration that might be a useful tool, and is a great read as well. This is a genre that Sacco excels at. In 1996, he was awarded the American book award for a two-volume graphic novel account of the West Bank and Gaza strip, "Palestine".

Another very popular graphic memoir is Persepolis, by Marjane Satrapi. It's the story of an Iranian woman growing up at the time of the Islamic Revolution. It's actually going to be released as a film this year.

As a sort of instructive, optimistic, if still harrowing addendum to "Safe Area Gorazde", we have this year's "Macedonia: What does it take to stop a war?" I mentioned this book in an earlier post about the Republic of Macedonia (and I'll probably mention it again, because we're going to be hosting the creators of this book down here in Hyde Park!). It's co-written by important American comics writer Harvey Pekar, and Heather Roberson, a peace worker who spent time in Macedonia when the country was on the brink of civil war; and illustrated by Ed Piskor. Heather's website and blog about the book, and peace work in general, raises a very valid point - why do we focus on war and the history of those countries afflicted by war so frequently: in our media, and in our classroom teaching. Why shouldn't we work for, document, write about, teach, and celebrate peace, whenever, wherever, and however it occurs?

I am especially excited because Heather Roberson is going to be visiting Chicago this month. She'll be talking to schools; and down here at the University of Chicago, we'll have a chance to meet her (of course, this is free and open to the public, so anyone can come). She'll give a talk at UC on Monday, Oct. 15 at 3:30pm. Check the events list on the CEERES home page for more details. Hope to see you there. For a sneak peak at the author, this is Heather over here on the right, as illustrated in her book by Ed Piskor.

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