2015 Wacky U.S. News Wrap-up in Spirou’s GROOM

Deflategate-colorsThe folks at the venerable Franco-Belgian comics magazine Le Journal de Spirou approached me about contributing to their new publication, GROOM. Like Spirou, Groom is an all-ages publication, but in this case focusing specifically on current events. The inaugural issue of Groom contains stories about terrorism (including Charlie Hebdo), European politics, sports, and various dispatches from far-flung countries like China, Australia, Latin America, Russia, the Middle East, and the good ol’ U.S.A. (I remain continually amazed and impressed at the topics French-language comics touch on, especially in so-called all-ages publications.)

Groom editor Damien Perez asked me to focus on four or five news stories coming out of the U.S. last year that would be particularly shocking for a Francophone audience. So many to choose from! The stories that made the cut were the decision by the State of Utah to bring back executions by firing squadDeflategate; the Rachel Dolezal/NAACP debacle; the Ahmed Mohammed clock incident; and last but definitely not least, the Donald Trump presidency campaign!

Trump-color-nobgIt was funny: when I was pitching the stories to editor Perez, the one he had the most trouble believing was the details of Trump’s vitriol-fueled campaign. As he said, “In the media we often see him as a ‘larger than life man,’ but not dangerous.” To which I responded that Marion Maréchal-Le Pen seems unobjectionable on the surface—it’s her ideas which are dangerous. Touché!

Anyway, this is silly, fun stuff. I hope you enjoy the illos. (For more information on Groom—in English—check out this website, which has also gone to the trouble of translating the Groom editorial page.)

Dolezal-colors Ahmed-colors Utah-colors

A Syrian refugee odyssey in comics, photos, and prose

road-to-germany-p1Just out this week in Foreign Policy magazine is “The Road to Germany: $2400,” which depicts the odyssey of 11 Syrians from the doorstep of their unrecognizable homeland to a life in exile. The bulk of the piece is 11 pages of comics by yours truly, adapted from the reporting/writing of journalist Alia Malek. And as in The Photographer (by Emmanuel Guibert, paired with Didier Lefèvre’s photographs), “The Road to Germany” incorporates photos by Peter van Agtmael, who accompanied Alia on her immersive reporting journey. (Back in September, Alia and Peter shadowed the subjects of the story all the way from the Greek island of Kos to Frankfurt, Germany, meeting up with them at many points along the way.) In other words, this is a very unusual piece to be running in a mainstream news magazine!

In crafting the comics component, my job was to take Alia’s amazing, heartfelt reporting and create a narrative to fill in the visual gaps between Peter’s incredible photographs. I was handicapped, though. Unlike Alia and Peter, I hadn’t actually accompanied our protagonists—Muhanid & Ihsan; Mohammed & Sawsan, and their children Sedra, Ali, & Brahim; and Naela, Maysam, Suhair, & Yusef—on this odyssey, so I immersed myself as best I could. Sadly, in recent months, this type of journey has become all too common, so there were a lot of visual resources out there. And with the help of Alia’s notes and Peter’s archival shots, I dove into the minutiae of life vests, the UNHCR outpost in Gevgelija, and German border police uniforms.

I was also struck by the chart that Syrians and other refugees use as the main guide through their route. Even though everyone has smart phones and the resources of the Internet at hand, they still hold on to this crude schematic, which is more like a game board than a map:

muhanid's-chart-map-cropped

I wanted to integrate elements from the chart into the story, not only to remind readers of its importance to the refugees, but also as a bridging device for changing scenes and pushing the narrative forward.

For the comic’s opening scene on the overloaded raft, I was struck by Alia’s description:

Women and children . . . lined up, nearly supine, in the raft’s base. . . . Where any space remained on the bottom, another layer of women and children wedged in. Everyone’s bags were thrown in a heap on top of them while the men were pressed in along the edges.

FP Executive Editor Mindy Bricker and I quickly decided this image would be the “splash” panel of the comic, and I intuitively felt that the best way to capture it would be from directly overhead. This is from the pencils:

page01pn1-pencils2-lr

The comic starts with five pages of my hand-drawn art; the last six pages incorporate Peter’s photos into selected panels. Combined with actual quotes from Alia’s reporting, it’s pretty cool to see this marriage of documentary forms. And after a solid month of work back in December, it’s very gratifying to see this story in print.

I would say I’m speaking for Alia & Peter as well when I say I hope this piece succeeds in humanizing a refugee crisis which is all too often thought of in impersonal numbers—or sensationalized hysteria—and gives readers a feeling of “being there” on this harrowing journey. As the opener states, “Showing what happens when strangers are thrown together by adversity—how desperate alliances formed and dissolved—[‘The Road to Germany: $2400’] is a diary of an exodus from a war zone to a hopeful, if uncertain future in the West.”

For now, the piece is only available in print, in the Jan./Feb. issue of Foreign Policy. If it becomes viewable online I’ll be sure to post a link. (UPDATE: Here’s the link)

road-to-germany-spread

Charlie Hebdo

Whenever I debated the pros and cons of being a cartoonist, I never considered that it was inherently a dangerous job. (Unless you’re Joe Sacco, running around in war zones.) But I had to re-evaluate that after the events of January 7, and the massacre of five cartoonists (and seven others) at the French satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo.

The last week has been a crazy one, trying to process the events, the manhunt for the killers, the related events at the Paris kosher grocery, the outpouring of pain and outrage, Je suis Charlie, Je suis Ahmed, the backlash, and so on and so on.

The day of the shooting, as things were still unfolding, I was asked to come in to the studios of NowThis News and deliver a “rant” on the events. I didn’t know any of the cartoonists killed. I’d never read Charlie Hebdo (though I knew of its reputation, and its previous run-ins with “angry readers.”) But as a fellow cartoonist, I figured I had some kind of perspective on what had happened. I wish I had been more articulate, more forceful, but I think you can see I was still in a state of shock. Anyway, here’s the video.

I’ll be heading to France myself in less than two weeks, to attend my second Angoulême International Comics Festival (and to also do some signings in Paris). I imagine it will be quite a scene there, what with the various tributes to be held, the changed security situation, and so much more I can’t even imagine. I’ll be sure to take plenty of notes.

Finally, most importantly. Matt Bors, cartoon editor of Medium‘s “The Nib” (publisher of some of my work) has put together an amazing special section on the Charlie Hebdo killings. He commissioned work from seven cartoonists with specific ties to the world of satire, Islam, French culture—even one of the original cartoonists from the 2005 Danish cartoon controversy. The result, “Laugh, Cry, Be Offended,” is an incredible collection of heartfelt, thoughtful words and pictures that addresses so many of the issues brought up in the wake of the killings: free speech, racism, Islamophobia… every single piece demands your undivided attention:

  •  “I Still Can’t Believe It,” by James Van Otto—a French cartoonist discusses his relationship to Cabu, one of the assassinated cartoonists.
  • If We Back Down On This, What’s Next?“, by Ann Telnaes—the Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial cartoonist for the Washington Post reminds us what free speech actually means.
  • I’m a Muslim Who Fights for Free Speech,” by Albaih—a Sudanese political cartoonist criticizes Charlie Hebdo for what he saw as racist, anti-Islam cartoons, at the same time as he laments the attacks. And he reminds the world—as someone who has never fully enjoyed free speech—not to take it for granted.
  • I Drew a Muhammad Cartoon. It Didn’t Go Well,” by Annette Carlsen—one of the infamous Danish cartoonists thoughtfully dissects the events of 2005, which in some ways led to last week’s shootings.
  • Satire Is Dead. And Cartoonists Killed It,” by J.J. McCullough—a self-proclaimed conservative Canadian cartoonist breaks down Charlie Hebdo‘s satire for ignorant American audiences—and hilariously skewers both American political correctness and Charlie “solidarity” cartoons.
  • It’s Not About Islam,” by Safdar Ahmed—an Australian artist and academic sheds a despairing light on the events; his complex argument includes the cheery thought, “Islamophobes share with Muslim extremists the apocalyptic fantasy of a global war between Islam and the West, making such cartoons a force for mobilization.”
  • They Killed My Idols,” by Emmanuel “Manu” Letouzé—a French cartoonist (and United Nations economist) pays tribute to murdered cartoonists Tignous, Cabu, and Charb. Must-reading.

Two days before the horrific events of Jan. 7, “The Nib” published my own story, “Crossing the Line,” about the unprovoked harassment of American Muslims at the U.S.-Canadian border. It’s really important to remember that we can’t allow events like 9/11, like January 7, to compromise our American values—freedom of religion is part of the same amendment that protects freedom of speech. The same goes for the presumption of innocence. Only by holding fast to these fundamental values can we ensure that the terrrorists don’t “win,” and that Safdar Ahmed’s apocalyptic prophecy will not come to pass.

Sari Wilson & I have a new piece in the comics anthology The Big Feminist BUT

The Big Feminist But

Back in December I encouraged you to support the KickStarter campaign for the new comics anthology The Big Feminist BUT (I love that title!), and now, a few scant months later, it exists in printed form, ready for your purchase!

This beautiful 200-page softcover—whose full title is The Big Feminist BUT: Comics about Women, Men and the IFs, ANDs & BUTs of Feminism-–is edited by Joan Reilly and Shannon O’Leary, and features contributors like Hope Larson, Jeffrey Brown, Vanessa Davis, Emily Flake, Shaenon Garrity, Gabrielle Bell, Justin Hall, Ron Rege, Lauren Weinstein, Liz Baillie, Abby Denson, Jesse Reklaw, Kat Roberts, and Dylan Williams. It also includes a brand-new collaboration of mine and Sari’s (she wrote it and I drew it) loosely based on her experiences as a fact-checker for Playboy Magazine.

The book asks:

“What do we really mean when we start a sentence with the disclaimers, ‘I’m not a feminist, BUT…’ or ‘I am 100% a feminist, BUT…’ What do our great big ‘BUTs’ say about where things stand between the sexes in the 21st Century? We asked some of the most talented ladies (and gentlemen) working in comics and animation today, along with some of the smartest writers we know, to ‘but’ into the heated discussion about the much more level but still contradictory playing field both sexes are struggling to find their footing on today. Fans of Bitch Magazine, Jezebel, Love and Rockets, Wonder Woman, Girls and Mad Men will all find something to enjoy here, as will anyone who likes to read thoughtful, compelling, top-notch comics!”

I couldn’t say it any better—order your copy now.

Here’s a sample page from Sari & my piece (the original art of which was purchased by a KickStarter funder):

SW-JN-03-sm

Lila Quintero Weaver’s DARKROOM

Darkroom: A Memoir in Black and WhiteLast fall I was sent a manuscript copy of Darkroom: A Memoir in Black & White, a graphic novel memoir by newcomer Lila Quintero Weaver. In 1961, when Lila was five, she and her family emigrated from Buenos Aires, Argentina, to Marion, Alabama, in the heart of Alabama’s Black Belt. As educated, middle-class Latino immigrants in a region that was defined by segregation, the Quinteros occupied a privileged vantage from which to view the racially charged culture they inhabited. Weaver and her family were first-hand witnesses to key moments in the civil rights movement. But Darkroom is her personal story as well: chronicling what it was like being a Latina girl in the Jim Crow South, struggling to understand both a foreign country and the horrors of our nation’s race relations. Weaver, who was neither black nor white, observed very early on the inequalities in the American culture, with its blonde and blue-eyed feminine ideal. Throughout her life, Lila has struggled to find her place in this society and fought against the discrimination around her.

Darkroom is an impressive debut work. A memoir in the vein of Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home and Howard Cruse’s Stuck Rubber Baby, Weaver’s mesmerizing tale is matched by her accomplished drawing and design skills. Darkroom is the story of a childhood, of a Latino immigrant family, of the struggle for justice in the Deep South. Weaver’s appealing pencil renderings perfectly capture the book’s themes of being caught in the middle, witness to (and participant in) one of the most turbulent periods in American history.

Darkroom is out now from the University of Alabama Press. Here’s a link to buying a copy.

New comics story, “Bahrain: Lines in Ink, Lines in the Sand”

Bahrain: Lines in Ink, Lines in the SandDebuting today on the Cartoon Movement website is a new piece of mine, “Bahrain: Lines in Ink, Lines in the Sand.” The story follows Mohammed and Sara, two young Bahraini editorial cartoonists who found themselves on opposite sides of Bahrain’s short-lived Pearl Revolution.

I met Mohammed and Sara at workshops I led while visiting the tiny Persian Gulf country on a U.S. State Department trip. Shortly after I became friends with both of them on Facebook, Bahrain underwent a great deal of turmoil in protests inspired by the Arab Spring — and also by the country’s simmering sectarian tensions.As the New York Times wrote the other day, Bahrain  is “… a country that was once one of the region’s most cosmopolitan is now one of its most divided.”

In the story I document Mohammed and Sara’s impressions of the events, through their words and experiences — as well as their own cartoons, which were published as things unfolded.

As I mentioned, I visited Bahrain last year as part of a trip that also took me to Egypt, Algeria, and Israel/Palestine. I later realized that the way I was “handled” by the State Dept. folks in Bahrain was very different than in the other countries I went to. Essentially, I feel, things were whitewashed a bit, and I was not given a full sense of Bahraini society, particularly the ethnic tensions between Sunnis and Shiites. You can read my original blog posts about the trip, my first reactions to the Pearl Revolution, and my realization that I had been “duped” here. Also, Michael Cavna of the Washington Post‘s “Comic Riffs” blog wrote a very nice profile of me and the piece here.

Since I finished the piece, the Bassiouni committee, which I mention near the end of the story, has published its report. You can read the original report here [a pdf], or two very thorough New York Times articles about its reception here and here.

In the end, I find the whole story quite heartbreaking — particularly because of the way the demonstrators were so brutally suppressed. It’s also really sad to see the lack of perspective on both sides. There’s a quote from one of the Bassiouni committee investigators that I think sums it all up quite tragically: “‘There is no neutral account ‘ said Mohamed Helal, the commission’s legal officer…. ‘The community is almost living in parallel universes.’ In investigating one episode, Mr. Helal said he found on the same day, at the same moment, ‘there was not one moment of overlap. How can you reconstruct the truth when there’s no overlap?’ he asked.”

Once again, here’s a link to the story, “Bahrain: Lines in Ink, Lines in the Sand”: http://www.cartoonmovement.com/comic/24

Pull Up Those PIIGS!

My mother, Martha Rosler, and I have just collaborated on a public art piece in central Berlin. It’s on the topic of the ongoing European debt crisis, and it’ll be on display on the building (at Auguststraße 10, 10117 Berlin, Germany) until the end of November. (I wasn’t aware of this beforehand, but “PIIGS” is an acronym used by international bond analysts, academics, and the economic press to refer to the economies of Portugal, Italy, Ireland, Greece, and Spain in regard to the ongoing sovereign debt crisis.)

My mom came up with the concept and text, and I did the illustration. The project was commissioned by DAAD (in English, the German Academic Exchange Service). My mother is in Berlin for a year on a residency sponsored by DAAD. This is the second large public art collaboration I’ve done with her, the first being part of the MAK Center’s “How Many Billboards?” project from last year.

The piece is quite massive, approximately 35′ x 42.’ Here’s a photo:

Pull Up Those PIIGS

Pull Up Those PIIGS!

This is how the building normally looks (without the palm trees), sorry about the weird cropping:

Auguststraße 10 10117 Berlin, Germany

And here’s a link to a larger version of the original illo, complete with the groovy yellow-green background which they had to cut out for print-compatibility reasons…

Was I a State Dept. Stooge?

Events of the last week in Bahrain have made me see how naive I was about the country — even after my visit there last October. Before this last week, I had no idea that much of Bahrain’s internal tensions stem from a Sunni minority’s rule over a Shia majority. Other factors are at work, of course — including basic tenets of democratic civil societies like the rights of free assembly — but the heart of it really does seem to be this artificially imposed sectarian divide. The Sunni king — part of a royal line that goes back over 200 years — even brings in Sunni (or at least non-Shi’ite) foreigners to serve in the police force and military. All this just to ensure that Shi’ites don’t have easy access to weapons.

What really frustrates me is that I was specifically not informed of any of this background when I was brought in by the U.S. State Dept. to visit the country last fall. I’ve gone back over the literature they gave me, and nowhere does it mention the sectarian split. My foreign national handler (who I now have to presume was Sunni) never made mention of it, nor did any of the people or institutions I visited. (These places included an American university operating in Bahrain, a college for wealthy female students, an art society, and a journalists association.)

Maybe it didn’t come up because it’s considered impolite to talk about such things. But I would have expected better from the State Dept. to inform me, an official visitor, about the political realities on the ground. After all, in Egypt, Algeria, and Israel/Palestine, my American hosts were very upfront about the political/ethnic divisions in the respective countries. (I tried to do as much independent research as I could before I got there, but there were no guidebooks for Bahrain to be had, and I was visiting so many countries in such a condensed period that I just didn’t have time read much about the country before I got there.) Considering that the U.S. Fifth Fleet is based out of Bahrain, I’m forced to question the motives of my embassy compatriots there. So once again American “interests” conflict with our supposed “values”…

And now I think back even more on the walking-on-eggshells quality of my visit there, right in the middle of Bahrain’s parliamentary election season. A very denuded Parliament, as it so happens. Which makes it even more strange that the State Dept. invited me there — as a “political cartoonist” — yet asked me to refrain from breaching certain sensitive topics. Many of which I was blissfully ignorant of. It makes my head spin.

Bahrain is a tiny country, pretty well off, highly educated. It’s littered with Western chain restaurants: McDonald’s, Seattle’s Best Coffee, Fuddruckers, the list goes on. I got no sense of it being a place on the verge of an explosion. And yet now we see the king cracking down hard on what appear to be very peaceful demonstrators. Seniors, women, children — all victims of repeated tear gas attacks, rubber bullets, shotguns, and beatings.

A young man I met at one of my workshops there has been corresponding with me on Facebook. He was in the Pearl Square roundabout until about 1 a.m. on Wednesday, leaving just a few hours before the riot police moved in, clearing the square (and killing at least five people). A friend of his, a 23-year-old engineering student, was among the dead. My Bahraini Facebook friend implored me, “Please help us.. we need world’s help..!!” Surreal.

A recent tweet by a Bahraini citizen with the handle RedhaHaji sums it up: “Hard to hold back tears. This is not real. Not happening. We hear things like this happen in other places not our home.”

Bahrain — The Next Domino?

I guess after what happened in Egypt I shouldn’t be surprised by anything, but I definitely wouldn’t have guessed that protests would now be taking place in Bahrain. As I wrote when I visited the country back in October, Bahrain seemed stable — not exactly a representative democracy, but certainly much more so than its immediate neighbor Saudi Arabia. Bahrain has only had elected representatives since 2002, with two rounds of elections having taken place since then, but on the whole I got the sense that people there seemed happy. The artists and students I met there all seemed proud of their country and its relative openness. But I guess general prosperity doesn’t necessarily mean people are truly satisfied with their lot.

After all, as I observed during my visit: "My [U.S.] Embassy handlers advise me to speak on any topic except the elections. … Politics is a touchy subject here in Bahrain. There’s no tradition of public debates here, so campaigning seems limited to six-foot-tall roadside campaign posters and small-scale electoral rallies." Not exactly a vibrant public square. And I guess the proof is in the streets right now.

We’re really living in incredible times!

Domino Theory — 2011 Edition

I've been watching with some interest the "Jasmine Revolution" in Tunisia (also known as the "Twitter Revolution"), as protesters in that country have successfully overthrown a corrupt, autocratic government. Seeing as how I recently visited a neighboring country in the Maghreb — Algeria — I asked an American friend living there if similar rumblings were being heard where he was. Turns out there have been indeed — as well as protests and "riots" in Middle Eastern countries like Egypt and Lebanon. My friend reports that Algeria went through about a week of rioting, witnessing five dead, 800 injured, and more than 1000 arrests. The Algerians feel great solidarity with the Tunisians, particularly in regard to the autocratic, corrupt nature of their government; and what is happening in Tunisia has sparked optimism that maybe things in Algeria could also change. According to my contact, however, the Algerian police and military were very restrained in dealing with the protests, with many of the injuries actually being suffered by the government forces just trying to restore calm. So that was smart (though obviously painful for the cops).

Reading stories like this — and what's been happening in Cairo recently — is so strange to me, having walked those same, then quiet, streets, just a few short months ago. As with in Burma, I'm reminded that what seems to be a complacent citizenry can rise up quickly against their repressive government when provoked. While I was in the Middle East, I often heard about the infamous "red line," the theoretical line that dissenters could not cross. In Algeria and Egypt, the red line was understood in media circles as being anything directly critical of the military or the ruling family. So it was okay to write about "corruption" or to attack certain government figures, but never go beyond that. Well, it seems in recent days those red lines are being crossed and stamped out.

(I'm also struck by how big a role Facebook and Twitter have played in all this. I can't tell you how many students, artists, and journalists I met during my travels in Egypt, Algeria, Bahrain, and Israel/Palestine who had FB accounts and have since friended me. How could these governments not have foreseen the way these social networks would enable people to work together and plan actions? It's really mind-boggling.) As "my man in Algiers" writes, "What happens next will be critical. If Tunisia has real elections and installs an inclusive, democratic government like they say they will, the rest of the Middle East will really start to shake." My instant association with all this, of course, is 1989 and the fall of the Berlin Wall, followed by the demise of the Soviet Union and its satellites. Such a thing taking place in the countries of the Middle East is incredible to contemplate. I mean, three of the countries I visited last year — Algeria, Egypt, and Bahrain — are all classic oligarchies.

I'm saddened to hear, however, that my own government's pragmatic concerns are taking precedence over this potential explosion of democracy. After all, the U.S. enjoys good relations with the autocratic leaders of both Algeria and Egypt, both of whom assist us in the "war against terrorism." True to form, my friend reports that "some of the latest regional media stories are all about how terrified the U.S. is over the prospect of the Tunisian Revolution spreading throughout the region." He goes on to sarcastically comment, "Yeah, that would really suck for us if all the corrupt dictators were swept out of power and replaced by democratically elected governments…"

I'm certainly no expert, but it seems pretty obvious to me that people living under a fair, representative system would be less inclined to spread fear, terror, and violence — and less likely to target countries like the U.S. that they see as hypocrites when it comes to spreading democracy…

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