Social anthropologist and novelist Jenny White (Muslim Nationalism and the New Turks, The Winter Thief) and artist Ergün Gündüz’s Turkish Kaleidoscope is dizzying. The graphic novel follows four characters, who are fictionalized composites of oral history interviewees, over four years in Turkey as political power shifted between different leftist and rightist groups. The comic, which spans 1975 to 1979, is meant to unflatten its subjects’ stories, but it does not overcome the two dimensions of its medium.
Turkish Kaleidoscope: Fractured Lives in a Time of Violence
Ergün Gündüz (artist), Veli Okulan (letterer), and Jenny White (writer)
Princeton University Press
May 4, 2021
Turkish Kaleidoscope is not the first graphic novel published by Princeton University Press, following Steven Nadler and Ben Nadler’s Heretics!: The Wondrous (and Dangerous) Beginnings of Modern Philosophy (2017) and Andrew Granville, Jennifer Granville, and Robert J. Lewis’s Prime Suspects: The Anatomy of Integers and Permutations (2019). Like Heretics! and Prime Suspects, Turkish Kaleidoscope is a graphic novel because it is a work of fiction. Because of its subject and style, educators may be inclined to assign this text alongside works of comics journalism by creators like Joe Sacco (Palestine); however, it would be more appropriate to teach it alongside other works of historical fiction.
Turkish Kaleidoscope opens with a text description of how a kaleidoscope works. The titular metaphor is employed shortly after in White’s text introduction, wherein she writes about the “kaleidoscope of political coalitions” in Turkey’s government in the second half of the 1970s. Thereafter, the metaphor fails, because the comic is largely grayscale. Although character portraits appear in color on several pages and there are a handful of pages in full color, there are only a few instances of color within panels on most pages. Notable exceptions are splashes of blood in red and sweaters in orange.
Because Gündüz’s style is an uneasy marriage between realistic and cartoonish — his otherwise relatively detailed characters have simple black dots for eyes — the comic would have benefitted from more partial or full color, especially if it had been employed to visually signify political affiliations. It is difficult to tell the difference between characters in dozens of different leftist and rightist groups, the names and beliefs of which often overlap, when they look nearly the same except for the shape of their beard or cut of their hair.
And the overlapping narratives of the four main characters (leftists Nuray and Yunus and rightists Faruk and Orhan) are often difficult to follow. There are no chapter breaks across the book’s 120 pages, although the aforementioned main and secondary character portraits and captions do indicate changes in point of view, time, and place. Further, it is not always clear how one panel relates to the next, and Okulan’s lettering appears to work around, rather than with Gündüz’s artwork. White’s dialogue is meant to be read from top to bottom of the panel, regardless of where speakers are located within it.
I love that Princeton University Press is publishing graphic novels. I think more university presses should be publishing fiction and nonfiction comics. They could publish comics for both general and academic audiences, not just graphic scholarship in comic book form on comics, but also graphic scholarship and graphic novels like this one on subjects like politics, math, and philosophy. If and when they do so, they will need specialized editors. Turkish Kaleidoscope and its readers would have doubtlessly benefitted from media-specific editorial feedback between script and thumbnails, lines and inks, colors and letters.
White writes, “It occurred to me that academic analysis flattened… stories as it folded them into discussions of abstract issues, like factionalism. Perhaps I could make the same points by allowing people to tell their stories themselves in graphic form and thereby retain the nuances and contradictions of history as it is lived.” Comics, at their best, can be nuanced and contradictory, not just telling but showing stories in complex ways. Turkish Kaleidoscope would have benefitted from a better understanding of its medium because it is a comic that tells and shows stories — from college students protesting to Nuray and Yunus getting married to Faruk and Orhan reuniting as old men — that are nuanced and contradictory and worth reading.