Comics for Justice: Calling all comics artists, fans, and justice advocates! Do comics have the power to make a real change in the world? What is the effect of telling your truth in your art and comics panels? These artists have each been working in their own way to shed light on the human condition in some of the most troubled places in the world. Let’s listen to what they have to say about their experiences and what they hope to achieve in their work. Moderated by Liz Frances (publisher of Street Noise Books), and featuring panelists: Sarah Glidden (author/artist of Rolling Blackouts), Carlos Latuff (author of Drawing Attention to the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict: Political Cartoons by Carlos Latuff), Sarah Mirk (author of Guantanamo Voices: True Accounts from the World’s Most Infamous Prison), Mohammad Sabaaneh (author/artist of Power Born of Dreams: My Story is Palestine)
This was a heavy panel but a much-needed one. Four political cartoonists and writers with a focus on the Middle-East, particularly the Israel-Palestine conflict, came together to discuss what inspired them to take on this career, and what they think makes a powerful political cartoon.
Sarah Glidden’s first comic book, How to Understand Israel in 60 Days or Less, was a memoir, but she took a bit of a backseat for her second, Rolling Blackouts, where she observed American journalists and the stories of the people they encountered. Most of the dialogue in the book came from recorded audio, as well. Though Glidden included herself in the book, she took on the role of a narrator and observer. Glidden spoke of being interested in the memoir genre but said that comics journalism was an interesting way to get the truth across to readers. Glidden also mentioned being inspired by Joe Sacco, a favourite among all the panelists, and Marjane Satrapi, because their work showed her that comics could be serious and not just about superheroes.
Carlos Latuff has been working in political cartoons well before the internet reached Brazil, since the ’90s. Interestingly, Latuff spoke of how he used political cartoons to express himself since he was child, especially as an artist, more than as a writer. As a child, he used to watch Hanna-Barbera cartoons and read Mad Magazine, so his approach wasn’t political at first but definitely artistic. It was only as an adult that he encountered political writers and artists and he started using this style to express his opinions and the stories around him. “The purpose of a political cartoon is editorial,” he said during the panel.
With the advent of the internet, Latuff said that the audience for political cartoons has become broader. But content still needs to be relevant and different, otherwise, protesters around the world wouldn’t be using Latuff’s cartoons as banners. Latuff was another Sacco fan and spoke admiringly of Sacco’s details and accuracy on different topics, particularly the way Sacco depicted political scenarios in various countries.
Mohammad Sabaaneh, who is based in Ramallah, Palestine, introduced himself by making a sarcastic statement about the U.S. and Palestine. Sabaaneh said that the U.S. would be better off not doing anything to help Palestine. Every time the U.S. tries to help, they make things worse, he said.
Sabaaneh was closest to his subject in this panel. Born in Kuwait, Sabaaneh lived in Jordan for a while. He was inspired by Palestinian political cartoonist Naji al-Ali to return to Palestine and follow in his footsteps, especially when Sabaaneh lost his friends to Israeli prisons.
Sarah Mirk took a journalistic approach to her book, Guantanamo Voices, an anthology featuring the stories of 10 current and past prisoners. Different artists illustrated each story to fit the various experiences, and to give the people featured in the book their own distinct voices. Mirk spoke of preferring collaborative environments and believes that a story is better told if many voices contribute, instead of just one voice being at the forefront.
When asked about which medium is most effective and powerful, Mirk was the first to share her thoughts, saying that all media have the power to change narratives and culture, as long as it is a relevant story. For Sabaaneh, the story needs to be real, whether it’s someone’s personal story or if it comes from a real place.
Latuff believes the single-pen comic can be powerful, but more than that, it’s the creator’s courage that carries power. It takes bravery to be a political cartoonist, especially when covering the Israel-Palestine conflict. Many political cartoonists who write or draw favourable stories about Palestine are often labelled anti-Semites, and that can be a very difficult stamp to come back from. Sabaaneh and Glidden agreed about this situation. Both personally know cartoonists who were accused of anti-Semitism for extremely vague reasons.
The panelists were also asked about the socio-political trauma resulting from their work. Latuff spoke emotionally about this topic. Having been to Palestine in 1998, he has found himself creating cartoons about the situation quite often. But Latuff also draws cartoons about police brutality in his home country of Brazil. He spoke about feeling physical pain while drawing scenarios where innocents are killed by police. The pain is particularly acute, Latuff said, when he’s drawing the cartoons as the mothers of those killed are telling him what happened.
Mirk agreed, saying that drawing the person’s body as it is hurt can be a painful experience. Her book about Guantanamo made this process especially difficult because the prison is so well-known for its horrifying torture practices. She spoke about how torture can be dehumanising and that she didn’t want to dehumanise the actual people suffering. Mirk also didn’t want to include too much physical torture because that much blood and horror people can actively tune out. In the end, her 200+ page book had only two pages of actual torture depicted. But the final pages included artwork by a current Guantanamo prisoner about the torture he had endured. This really was heavy stuff and Mirk looked visibly shaken even as she joked about needing to go to therapy.
Sabaaneh’s story was probably the hardest to hear in this panel. He was imprisoned in 2013 and he spoke about not wanting to think about the experience at all. But a week ago, Sabaaneh’s brother was sent to prison and that made the memories resurface for him. Sabaaneh managed to keep his emotions in check but the few descriptions he shared were very hard to listen to. I won’t share them here. Sabaaneh did speak about finding the names of past prisoners carved into the cell walls. He said he still doesn’t know how they did it and that he couldn’t carve his name himself. But the experience made him feel like he needs to carve the stories of his people into his comics to show people around the world. “For my people, I want to carve a big mountain.” What a beautifully worded and powerful sentiment to end the discussion on.
This was such a fantastic session to witness. The subject matter didn’t make for easy listening but the panelists spoke so passionately about their reasons for collecting and sharing stories. It was evident in every word they spoke. I’m glad I watched the session and I wish the panelists all the very best in their endeavours in the future.