Comix, kids, trauma, and war

Graphic novels are a great way to read and learn about history. Not so much the grand narratives in history books and textbooks. These books describe big events, and as described by Wikipedia “as the memory, discovery, collection, organization, presentation, and interpretation of information about these events.” When we read history, we read about large movements, both physically and metaphorically. We read about global wars, economics, great people who influenced and led these events and movements. But what I have always found missing in these books is the intimate- about the lives of the populous whose lives are affected by the decisions and philosophies of those who have achieved positions of leadership, of “power”. While learning about the grand events, intimate stories are missing. We read about mass migrations, global wars, the spread of disease and sickness, but only as abstractions, and these abstractions prevent us from learning about empathy- it is simply too difficult and challenging for an individual to feel empathic about the millions of victims of war and other historical horrors. This does not mean that we do not feel, or are not affected by reading about genocides- we do. But the level of abstraction creates a schism between the words and the reality, and unless we have personally experienced them, or know someone who has, they remain abstract.

Some movies have explored some of the horrors of history, such as Steven Spielberg’s intensely powerful and deeply emotional film, Schindler’s list. But, unless you have experienced the Shoah directly, we are left with only the reflection. This is not a bad thing, as we have experienced too many genocides on this planet. But even when watching a movie that draws us into the story, and we become emotionally involved with the characters and the narrative, we also are aware of the general tension with the movie and our basic understanding that in the end, it is just a movie, with actors dressed in costumes, standing in movies sets, saying their lines, often out of order of other lines. We know that no matter how horrible and intense the narrative, each day the actors shower, and change clothes and go home or a hotel to relax and prepare for the next day’s shooting schedule. This knowledge does not mean that as viewers, we will not be emotionally and psychologically involved with the story. Simply put, it is good for our souls to remember that we are not seeing real.

What this means when returning to the grand historical narratives that we read, is that again, we are left without a direct and authentic way of understanding the results of these grand events on humans on an intimate, human scale. Books about historical fiction, and memoirs can provide paths to understanding these grand events. Reading personal stories by people who have lived through and experienced some of the tragedies of life is both valuable and critical for people to understand the effects of grand events on large populations, by personalizing the effects of the events. But, they often leave out a place for the reader to learn and feel empathy. Just reading the words can remove the context of the story. The personal narratives the authors of many graphic novels, along with the merging of text, and images, provide a historical context for the personal. We read, we see, and we learn about the impact of broad historical events on individuals. We begin learn to feel empathy with others, who through no fault of their own, are made into victims, and hopefully, with this understanding, we can start to take the steps needed to initiate the changes that bring about social justice. And graphic novels are a great way to start.

Some of the most powerful books that I have read, look at the effects of war and global trauma on children, describing their lives in and after war, about how they learned to survive unnatural situations by adapting a wide range of coping skills, from games of denial to active participation. No matter the method, the stories that these survivors are real, and compelling and challenge us to rethink our actions as well as the actions of some of our leaders. Another benefit of graphic novels as a media are that they are less expensive to produce and distribute than movies, or even books. They can be created using online tools and distributed using the web. By giving a voice to those with stories to tell, and spreading the word, perhaps people can learn about similarities between different cultures and communities around the world, and we can learn about the empathy that will guide change.

Maus and Persepolis are two of the primary books that tell about results of war and conflict, but there are others that are memoirs of people who have directly experienced and survived and teach us through their own stories. Below is a short list of six of my favorite books.

  • A game for swallows and I remember Beirutboth by Zeina Abirached are her memoirs about growing up directly on the border between the Christian and Moslem neighborhoods in Beirut during the time of the civil war. Although the war completely surrounded them, her two stories are more about how she, her family, friends and neighbors learned to cope with being in the middle of a war-zone, where gun-fire, bombs and explosions, food and power shortages were part of their daily regime. We become acquainted with Zeina, her family and neighbors and see how they manage their day to day lives, struggling to retain any sense of normalcy. The artwork is not detailed, but effective and engaging for the reader.
  •  War brothers: the graphic novel by Sharon E. McKay and Daniel LaFrance, is although not a personal memoir, is an extremely powerful story that is based on true accounts of Ugandan child soldiers that the authors gathered in hospitals and rehab centers for these children in Uganda. This is the story that nightmares are made of, as it covers the experience of the children watching their parents killed by Joseph Kony’s  Lord’s Resistance Army, then being conscripted in the army and taught to kill, maim, and every and any other activity prohibited by the Geneva Convention.
  • We are on our own is Miriam Katin’s memoir about her experience running away from the Nazis  in Hungary with her mother. Katin, now a citizen of America and a respected graphic artist and animator, tells a compelling story of escape, but really focuses on issues of faith during a time when the horrors of the Holocaust caused people to challenge and question their faith and religious beliefs- then and now. She tells her story with artwork in both black and white (then) and color (now).  A deeply personal and meaningful story.
  • In Paracuellos, Carlos Giménez tells about his own experiences growing up in the orphanages of Francisco Franco’s Spain. These were not simply orphanages, as we might understand them, but more like the orphanage of Dicken’s Oliver Twist, but on steroids and managed by the uber-facist government of post-WWII Spain. Powerful is too weak a word to describe his experiences and those of all of the other survivors of these terrible church and government-run  “orphanages”.
  • Barefoot Gen, is a Japanese Manga by Keiji Nakazawa and his a memoir based upon his experiences as a survivor of the atomic bomb blast that destroyed Hiroshima. Told through the eyes of a young boy who saw and survived the blast, and saw its immediate results and affects on the civilian population, such as the shadows on the streets of vaporized people, the walking dead with their skins hanging off of their bodies.  This book should be required reading for all students about the un-winnable, horrific nature of nuclear war.

These six books, and many others expose students to the results of war on human beings, beyond the voices of politicians and historians, but from viewpoint of people who experienced and suffered from war first-hand, and on no desire of their own, but rather from people, “leaders”, far away from the real results of their policies. There are many other books, and please feel free to comment and tell me about them.

This entry was posted in Civil rights, Comics, Education, Graphic Novels, Hiroshima, Holocaust, Joseph Kony, Paracuellos, Peace, Social Justice, War. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *