I’ve been a fan of graphic novels ever since I forayed into writing Be Here Now while at IPPR. Admittedly you could hardly call Be Here Now a novel, a collection of illustrated short stories is more accurate. But experimenting with storyboarding my research findings, and then working with an illustrator to bring them to life, sparked my interest in this medium. Illustration takes a story into an exhilarating and absorbing new dimension. Graphic novels can powerfully layer insight and meaning through the tones, shading and visual depiction of emotion.
Publications like Meet the Somalis, funded by Open Society Foundations, and some of the comics PositiveNegatives have serialised in the press accessibly get to the heart of social justice issues. We know that facts have a hard time changing people’s minds. And so, if we want people to become active and motivated about social and environmental problems, then we need to think about how to reach out to people on an emotional level.
As we grapple with the complexity of political challenges and social problems, graphic novels are a route into connecting with our emotions and feelings. They may not provide the answers, but they promote understanding and empathy, which is often what’s needed in areas like fostering integration, appreciating other identities, and respecting our human rights. I believe more organisations and funders should experiment in this space in the future.
Graphic novels explore and convey feelings more emotively than a written report ever could. I’ve often marvelled at the fact that when we launched IPPR’s Shared Ground report on integration in diverse areas (alongside the publication of Be Here Now) the written Shared Ground report was left littered around the room at the end of the event, but every single copy of Be Here Now was taken by each of the delegates. Despite being grown up, it seems we can’t resist the alluring appeal of a colourful comic, which awakens our playful, curious side.
So, in praise of the graphic novel, here are my top five recommendations:
Perhaps one of the most seminal graphic novels of our time, Maus tells the true story of Spiegelman’s father’s experience of the holocaust. At first I wasn’t sure about the depiction of nationals/ethnicities as animals – the Jews are mice, Nazis are cats, the Poles are pigs and the Americans are dogs; it seemed too fixed as labels that are no doubt far more fluid. But, as The Times review describes: ‘They are all terrifyingly human’ and there’s a particularly stark moment when a real human photograph takes the place of the central figure in the book. The story unfolds in multiple ways, exploring the relationship between Art and his family alongside the horror of his father’s experiences in a concentration camp. In my mind it more than lives up to its acclaim as a unique and truly epic novel.
I revelled in this intimate and poignant memoir. The black and white images seem simplistic at first but belie a complexity, which unfolds as the story develops and Marjane’s childhood gives way to a teenager struggling to find her place in a changing world. It’s captivating and absorbing – illustrating the overthrow of the Shah’s regime and the Islamic Revolution in Iran, alongside a young girl/woman’s desire to belong and make sense of the world seismically shifting all around her. She captures a fine balance of humour in the face of adversity, while also being sensitive and deeply personal. I love it when an illustrator lets you know the exact mood and feeling of a person with a well-placed raised eyebrow or a perplexed expression and Satrapi does this to perfection.
March, John Lewis and Andrew Aydin, art by Nate Powell
We are coming up to Black History month this October and I urge you to delve into the March trilogy, told through the eyes of Congressman John Lewis. The agonies and injustices of growing up in 1940s Alabama unfold and give way to the activism that led to the movement’s attempts at nonviolent revolution.
The use of light and dark, shading and line drawing repeatedly capture the mood – be it foreboding, gloomy, tense or euphoric. It’s an intensely brave and deeply personal account of the American Civil Rights movement and a masterful collaboration between Lewis, Aydin and Powell.
The Arrival is a surreal and richly illustrated journey of a man seeking refuge from horrors in his homeland. There are no words to guide, only a series of beguiling sepia images that propel the protagonist along an unknown path. At points it’s confusing and downright quirky, but that’s the point – Tan is provoking us to empathise with how a refugee would feel, far away from family, struggling to communicate and coping with new experiences that are bemusing and challenging in equal measure. It reminds me a little of Majid Adin’s animated video for Elton John’s Rocket Man. Majid Adin is an Iranian refugee animator and, in the same vein as Tan, he creates a touching series of animated images that tell the story of a refugee’s ‘out of world’ experience, accompanying Elton John’s well known music. Both The Arrival and Adin’s Rocket Man remind us of the visceral power of images and music to provoke, inspire and tap into our emotions.
The One Hundred Nights of Hero, Isabel Greenberg
I relished every page of this beautifully captivating feminist fairy tale. It unashamedly punctures the patriarchy in a series of witty exchanges between Cherry and her maid and secret lover, Hero. A friend of Cherry’s husband makes a bet that he can seduce Cherry over a course of 100 nights. In response, Hero tells enchanting fables to outwit him. The magical power of stories is woven throughout the book, turning the traditional ‘happily ever after’ well and truly on its head. I look forward to reading more of Greenberg’s work.
This year’s Man Booker prize longlist features a graphic novel for the very first time: Sabrina by Nick Drnaso. That’s next on my reading list.