When Batman was killed a few years ago, some tears were likely shed by comic book lovers all over the world. But it’s safe to say that it’s not often that people cry because of what happens in a comic book.
After the deluge: Neufeld’s book on New Orleans after Katrina began as a Web comic.
So when I find my eyes welling up while reading three separate graphic novels, I know something more than my odd propensity for crying is at work. A.D. New Orleans by Josh Neufeld, Asterios Polyp by David Mazzucchelli and The Photographer by Emmanuel Guibert and Didier Lefèvre are further pushing the graphic novel genre into the realms of journalism and philosophical debate. The illustrations are masterfully integrated into the storytelling and the end result is three simple, yet gut-wrenching human stories about loss.
Perhaps the most powerful of the three, The Photographer, is only a half-graphic novel. The other half is made up of actual photographs taken by the title character, Didier Lefèvre, a rookie photojournalist in 1986. Lefèvre travelled from Paris with a team of Doctors Without Borders, an international medical humanitarian organization, to war-ravaged Afghanistan to document their medical assistance programmes. He told the story of his trip to Guilbert, who decided to draw in the moments that the camera did not capture. The importance of visuals in a story about a photographer is obvious. But the juxtaposition of the photography and illustrations can also be jarring—especially when one is removed from the story. For example, the pages about a particularly gruesome operation on a 16-year-old boy whose face was half-blown off by shrapnel are filled only with photographic stills shot during the day-long operation. It’s tense and brutal because we’re left without the comfort of any graphic drawings. We have to see the mutilated flesh, the frightened look in the tired doctors’ eyes; we are held captive.
At other points, illustrations fill the page, describing a scene, raising the intensity of the tale, so when you turn the page and are confronted with the real photograph of the incident, the point is driven home: This happened. This was real. War was real. And, even worse, still is—in much the same areas as the book is set in.
The next book, A.D. New Orleans, also tells a true story, but it uses only illustrations. It may not have the same depth of tragedy as The Photographer, but it still packs a powerful punch. The story first appeared as an online strip for Smith Magazine in 2007 but its author, Neufeld, writes in his afterword that it was always meant to be a book, to keep the “gestalt of the comic book... the interplay of tiers of images on a page, the way a two-page spread can work to frame and augment the drama, and aspects of timing, meter, and rhythm”.
He expanded the online stories and created a moving tribute to seven people who experienced the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina in different ways. One boy, Kwame, a high school senior, becomes a refugee in his own country, moving from city to city. Denise suffers the indignities of the Superdome, where she was held captive by the government with no fresh water, no food and no plumbing. Leo and Michelle lose almost all their belongings in the flood, including Leo’s collection of more than 15,000 comic books.
After all the photographs, the news, images of people staring bleak-eyed at the camera, stories told through illustrations initially seem to come as welcome relief, a step away from harsh reality. But as the stories build, as the storm ravages the city and lives, the illustrations allow for the impact of the devastation to hit harder. The art, too, matches the storytelling. Both are simple and straightforward; there is no mincing of words and no excessive flourish in the monochromatic art.
The last book, Asterios Polyp, is a fictional tale of a middle-aged blowhard who reaches 50, loses everything and tries to find redemption—a story told so many times before. It’s all about the perception of the self, all about the lack of a man’s self-awareness, and the art tells half the tale. Each character is drawn in a different style. Asterios, an architect who sees the world in two dimensions, is a simple series of arcs, while everyone else in the book is fully fleshed out. The confusion within him requires a style of drawing different from the other characters.
The book asks, early on, “What if reality (as perceived) were simply an extension of the self? Wouldn’t that color the way each individual experiences the world?” It reminds me of a childhood question, “What if I see red when you see blue?” The book tries to play with this, showing us the world through Asterios’ eyes and the way it is, through the author’s eyes.
While there have been some past examples of documentary-style graphic novels internationally—most notably American Splendor by Harvey Pekar and Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi—the genre has usually been the reign of men in tights, explosive fights and fantasy fiction.
In India, on the other hand, almost all the recently published English graphic novels try to tell human, rather than superhuman stories. The Believers by Abdul Sultan P.P. is about two brothers caught up in extremism in Kerala; Kari by Amruta Patil follows a girl struggling to find her identity in Mumbai; and Corridor by Sarnath Banerjee follows the trials and tribulations of a chai-shop owner.
But these books fail to truly resonate in the way the three new releases do. Most Indian graphic novels fail to use their illustrations as a tool to tell the stories. Their raison d’etre is not to be a graphic novel. The two elements of a graphic novel—the text and the illustration—are two separate entities, rather than riffing off each other. These three releases offer good reminders of how powerful that riffing can be.