I picked up Sarai from Comixology after learning about it through Sonica Ellis’ viral tweet encouraging independent comic book creators to ask local comic book stores to carry their books. Released in 2018, the story’s message the story presents and its creator’s encouragement are no less relevant today.
Sonica Ellis (writer), JC Grande (artist), Jeff Lewis (editor)
From the moment of her introduction, we immediately learn Sarai is not a young girl to be trifled with. Standing up fearlessly to bullies, she physically puts herself between a friend and the older, larger boy harassing him. Putting herself at risk — either of retaliation from the bully, or from getting in trouble with the teacher — is of no concern to this feisty twelve-year-old Nigerian girl, even when the teacher comes to break up the fight.
From there, the story moves to the classroom, but it doesn’t waste any time — the school is attacked by heavily armed members of the extremist organization known as Ken Jou Plek. The name, in Afrikaans, means “know your place,” a phrase is repeated often from here on out. This is also the moment the story goes from one about children to one of innocence brutally stolen.
As mentioned in her Kickstarter, Ellis was inspired to write this story after listening to the CNN news report about 200 Nigerian girls kidnapped by Haram Islamists. Having a daughter herself, the tragedy and trauma the girls must have been going through stuck with Ellis and is captured starkly on the black and white pages of Sarai. Taking on mature and traumatic subjects within the medium of comics make it possible for even a younger audience to learn, understand, and empathize with those who have been affected by such experiences. Like Maus or March before it, Sarai’s black and white imagery both softens the blow of the subject matter while simultaneously amplifying it. Artist JC Grande doesn’t hold back on depicting the physical violence on the page. However, he does not dwell on each moment longer than necessary to make an impact, and the art carefully stops short when it comes to sexual violence, though the implications are clear. Grande’s work captures the emotional weight Sarai bears as the only one willing to stand up against their captors, and as the one who thereby takes the brunt of their attacks while in captivity.
Sarai prays to God during this ordeal, but it’s a pagan god, Sakarabu, answers her call, granting her great powers by the moonlight that will allow her to take her revenge on those who have harmed her and her friends. And take her revenge she does. This is a superhero origin story in its most basic form, walking the path of many superhero stories that have come before it. But that isn’t a detractor. That Sarai so easily comes into her power and uses it with equal brutality against the extremists is both frightening and heartbreaking, for the simple fact that Sarai is a child. This is a fictional story, but the reality of children being stolen away to face such cruelty and being turned into weapons shapes the intensity that flows through each panel.
Human trafficking is not an easy topic to discuss in any form, but Sarai reminds us that we must discuss it anyway. Every child deserves to read about heroes like them, but it is beyond tragic that a hero like Sarai has been born because such atrocities exist.