Marvel’s newest superhero doesn’t have any superpowers, and she sure doesn’t wear a cape. In collaboration with ABC News, Marvel has used the stories of a real woman to create Madaya Mom, a Syrian mother fighting to keep her family safe. This is part of a growing trend of comics focused on
real world issues.
With his graphic novel Maus, Art Spiegelman was one of the most prominent cartoonists to draw on global events to create work with a social message. Spiegelman pushed the genre by exploring his own experiences as a Polish Holocaust survivor through a postmodern lens, depicting Jews and Nazis as animals.
Since Maus, which was the first graphic novel to win a Pulitzer Prize (1992), other cartoonists have used drawings to raise awareness about past and current international humanitarian issues. Joe Sacco is most known for his work on conflicts, including Palestine and Footnotes in Gaza, both focusing on Israeli-Palestinian relations, and Safe Area Goražde and The Fixer on the Bosnian War. For all of these projects, Sacco conducted extensive fieldwork, living in both parts of the world and interviewing hundreds of people with different views on the conflicts. “It’s a bit scary in a way, because you’re capturing moments like that constantly from panel to panel. You have to put yourself in everyone’s shoes that you draw, whether it’s a soldier or a civilian. You have to think about what it’s like: What are they thinking? What are they feeling?” Sacco told The Believer.
Benjamin Dix was inspired by both Sacco and Spiegelman to create his collaborative graphic novel, The Vanni, which is on the 25-year long Sri Lankan civil war. While working as a United Nations communications director in Sri Lanka, Dix said he felt a desire to tell the stories of the people he met. “You deal with your privileged space in this world,” he told The Guardian. “It’s the white guys who get in the armoured trucks and drive out wearing bullet-proof vests. You’ve been there four years and made friends and suddenly you’re saying, ‘Good luck, guys’ and off you go. I lost 30-odd friends in a matter of months and that changes your perspective on life and your sense of who you are in this world.”
Working with artist Lindsay Pollock, who illustrated his script, Dix focused on the life of a fictionalized family who was displaced by the war and was searching for asylum. The reaction to the novel led to him founding the nonprofit PositiveNegatives in 2012. According to the organization’s website, “approaching subjects like conflict and forced migration through the prism of personal narratives emotionally engages general readers and students alike.” So far, PositiveNegatives has released nine projects ranging from the experiences of Somali communities in Europe to the plight of Syrian refugees.
Later this month, Empathetic Media will release its latest social awareness project Life in Gawair, which uses a mixed media approach combining 360 videos as well as comics to report on climate change refugees and garment workers in Gawair, a slum on the outskirts of Dhaka (Bangladesh’s capital). Dan Archer, the founder of Empathetic Media, recorded more in depth interviews with those featured in the videos to provide more of a sense of their background stories, while also introducing secondary characters he met during his time in the field. Previously Dan produced graphic novels worldwide on critical social topics such as human trafficking in Nepal, domestic violence in America and homelessness in Canada.
“Graphic journalism is not only an effective way to reach a wider audience by presenting them with a more visually alluring format, but it also has advantages that go beyond the surface: by slowly drawing my interviewee’s likeness and parts of their stories as I talk to them, I can establish a stronger relationship with them, allowing them to see how they will be represented, as well as confirm layouts and environments of the situations they are describing. It also allows those who do not want to appear on camera share their stories while preserving their anonymity.”