[Saturday Reads] Nonfiction Graphic Novels depicting War and Conflict for Older Readers: Chua’s “Tiananmen”, Eisner’s “Last Day In Vietnam,” and Joe Sacco’s “Palestine” and “Footnotes in Gaza”

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Myra here.

Every Saturday we hope to share with you our thoughts on reading and books. We thought that it would be good practice to reflect on our reading lives and our thoughts about reading in general. While on occasion, we would feature a few books in keeping with this, there would be a few posts where we will just write about our thoughts on read-alouds, libraries, reading journals, upcoming literary conferences, books that we are excited about, and just booklove miscellany in general.

Super special thanks to Iphigene for creating this visually-arresting widget!

This post is the second part of a special feature that I am doing in keeping with our previous reading theme. Several days back, I shared a list of middle grade/YA graphic novels that deal with war and conflict for Nonfiction Wednesday. This list, on the other hand, may appeal more to adults or older readers.

IMG_5502Tiananmen: 25th Anniversary Edition

Cartoon Strips by: Morgan Chua
Published byEpigram Books, Singapore, 2014
Review Copy provided by Epigram Books. Book photos taken by me.

This 25th Anniversary Edition of Tiananmen by Morgan Chua is a compilation of political cartoons about this horrific event that happened in China in 1989 in Tiananmen Square. The sequencing of events could be seen in the foreword that provides a nearly day-by-day detail of the escalation of the tragedy from 15 April 1989 to 29 June, long after the students’ massive demonstrations.

In the Author’s foreword, Chua noted:

Throughout these pages, my brush weeps in sorrow for what happened in Tiananmen Square. 

Not for the first time, a government was turning the guns on its people. Has the world learned nothing from history?

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Once again China is repeating history, killing her sons and daughters who anywhere else would be seen as pillars for the future. If history is to continue repeating itself, the government will fall amid the debris of bloodshed, corruption, incompetence and nepotism.

The “cast of characters” are divided across “The Politicians” and “Student Leaders” with accompanying brief biographies of each one:

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I was fascinated by the political satires as depicted by the cartoon strips created by Chua. I was very interested to discover how Lu Xun seemed to be deeply admired by the activists:

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and how former Part Secretary-General Hu Yaobang, whose death ignited this patriotic zeal among the students, inspired the students with his “Let a hundred flowers bloom”

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… a dream that is crushed and annihilated indiscriminately by the government as seen below:
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While some of the cartoons may be more understood by people who have a more intimate understanding of what transpired in Tiananmen Square and all its horrors, this book effectively shows the fervent spirit of activism that is alive in the hearts of academics, intellectuals, or just about any thinking, rational being who value freedom of expression, freedom of information, and transparency and accountability in political governance.

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Story and Art by: Will Eisner
Published byDark Horse Comics, 2000
Borrowed from the Jurong West Public Library. Book photos taken by me.

It is the first time that I read anything written created by Will Eisner, premier American cartoonist, in whose name the Eisner Award was created for outstanding graphic novels.

In this book, Eisner wrote a fairly-long introduction explaining what this collection of vignettes is about:

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Each of the stories in this work were culled from an inventory of encounters with unforgettable people I met during the years I was involved with the military. They are arranged out of personal importance rather than chronology.

Essentially, these are stories about soldiers in wartime who are engaged in larger combat.

There are six stories in all in this collection. There is the story of the charming and fast-talking escort-soldier in Last Day In Vietnam; the reporters who lost someone in the field in The Periphery, and so they are not dispassionate observers any longer as attested by the reporter who drowned himself in alcohol; then there is the soldier whose love for women becomes his undoing in The Casualty…

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… the bored soldier who uses a “li’l ol’ mommasan” as target practice just because she happened to be cutting wood on the hillside right in the Americans’ fighting range in A Dull Day in Korea; then there is the huge wrestler-soldier who was given shop duty simply because he was too good at killing and whose recreation happened to be something unexpected in Hard Duty:

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… and finally the tragic story of drunkard soldier George who finally got what he wanted in A Purple Heart For George. Each story has fleshed-out characters notwithstanding its brevity; their dreams, wishes, fears, imperfections – their very essence pulled out from them by Eisner and perfectly captured in this war memoir. I would be sure to borrow more of his graphic novels.

IMG_9528 2Palestine

Story and Art byJoe Sacco
Published byFantagraphics Books, 2001
Copy provided by Pansing Books. Book photos taken by me.

One of the reasons why we have reading themes here in GatheringBooks is that it allows us to legitimize our book hunting expeditions and provides us with opportunities to discover authors or illustrators that we would otherwise not have known. Joe Sacco is one of my greatest comic-book-creator discoveries this year. He is a league of his own. He has crafted a niche for himself with this unique blend of graphic-novel-journalism with Palestine winning the American Book Award in 1996. I do not remember being this affected by a graphic novel, except perhaps when I read Art Spiegelman’s Maus I and II, which is the first graphic novel to ever win the Pulitzer Prize.

Just like Abirached’s graphic novel A Game for Swallows, this one is also purely printed in black and white. However, there is a looming, in-your-face quality to Sacco’s artwork that almost screams at the reader to PAY ATTENTION, READ, WAKE UP, ARE YOU BLIND that almost slaps the reader senseless into some semblance of understanding of what is happening in Gaza. I first learned about the Gaza strip when I taught in Bahrain and my teacher-students mentioned the atrocities that continue to happen in that area that left me feeling speechless and thoroughly ignorant and hopelessly naive about what is happening in the world. Sacco, with his keen journalistic eye, unpacks the thick layers of deception that bury startling truths in Palestine, linking it to formal proclamations which he has unearthed through comprehensive and detailed research, teasing out the seemingly-endless arguments that are often raised, on this Ouroboros-like issue between Israel and Palestine.

The fact that Sacco freely admits to being a vulture feeding off people’s pain and misery is firmly established, openly acknowledged, and even satirized in his writing as you can see in the page spreads below:

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The fact that he thinks of all this as nothing but “data” for his comics, and the seemingly chop-chop-highly-efficient way in which he deals with such stark and blindingly-horrifying stories, curiously renders him even greater credibility – precisely because there is transparency, and even a travesty of his intentions, no matter how noble (or ignoble) they may be.

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The fact that refugee camps are made into a living tourist attraction do not escape Sacco’s sharp, self-deprecating gaze, that almost borders on self-loathing. I was also struck by how helpful and hospitable most of his informants are (tea, tea, tea everywhere, and yes with extra sugar too in some households), despite the fact that they see its futility, that one can almost feel the aggression and accusation leaping out of the comic panels as could be seen below:

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And this does not only happen in one occasion, but several:

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To which Sacco responds by saying “I don’t know what to say to her” and asking where his shoes are. I also had a clearer sense of why the Palestinians continue throwing Molotov cocktails or stoning the soldiers despite the Israelis’ evident power, their glaring upper hand, and the fact that they can come down on these teenagers with all the wrath of all the universes combined:

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This “something that is inside us” is not all stones, blood, and vengeance – there is also light amidst darkness as evidenced in this old man’s tale:

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The notion of absolute power corrupts absolutely is clearly evident in this ruminative panel that disturbed me to no end:

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The contrasting views on “peace” by the Israelis and the Palestinians are also evident here in Sacco’s graphic novel

An Israeli’s Notion of Peace

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A Palestinian’s View of the Peace Process

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This graphic novel gave me nightmares. So much so that I had to seek out Sacco’s “Footnotes from Gaza” to read right after. I don’t claim to be an expert on this particular issue. But I know something about displacement, heartbreak, and losing everything that I valued and held dear to me. I am no stranger to staggering loss and free fall. Nothing of this magnitude, however. Nothing of this league. Maybe not in several lifetimes, even. The experience of reading this book is akin to eating the forbidden apple from the Tree of Knowledge. It has changed me and made me look for shelter and search for leaves to cover my nakedness and sheer ignorance.

Footnotes in GazaIMG_5061

Story and Art by: Joe Sacco
Published byMetropolitan Books – Henry Holt and Company, 2009
Review copy provided by Pansing Books. Book photos taken by me.

If Palestine made me feel naked, this one totally broke me and crushed my spirit repeatedly, wringing it dry. Here, Sacco explored a forgotten-period in history, one that is not even officially included in the annals of significant historical moments that are pivotal and life-changing for a particular group of people. These events are relegated as nothing more than mere footnotes, an afterthought, unverified moments in history notwithstanding multiple eyewitnesses and firsthand accounts that document unspeakable atrocities – leaving 111 Palestinians dead, shot by Israeli soldiers back in 1956.

Similar to a dog with a bone, Sacco tenaciously investigated this period during that dark day in Rafah and the “large-scale killing of civilians in Khan Younis in 1956.” He gnawed on this story to bits, ignoring everything else but that dark damned spot that he obsessed and mulled over, never letting go, tearing it apart, shredding it til he gets into the very marrow of the bone, unmindful of the fact that it could poison him and that bits and pieces of himself would die in the process. And I join him through this journey, held his gaze which he meticulously drew and transferred in stark black and white figures that glare at me through the gaping holes of people’s memories and miseries. Sacco unearthed all these sordid stories from the dark corridors in people’s minds, because he wanted to make this comic book – for the world to know about this teeny-tiny footnote that is all but forgotten, and mostly-unrealized, and practically undocumented in world history.

In Sacco’s Foreword, he rationalized his morbid fascination with this significant period in the Israel-Palestine conflict:

This episode – seemingly the greatest massacre of Palestinians on Palestinian soil, if the U.N. figures of 275 dead are to be believed – hardly deserved to be thrown back on the pile of obscurity. But there it lay, like innumerable historical tragedies over the ages that barely rate footnote status in the broad sweep of history – even though, as El–Rantisi alluded, they often contain the seeds of the grief and anger that shape present-day events.

And as he noted, he is but a thorough newspaperman is what he is:

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What exactly happened in 1956 is gradually unraveled like a noir film, peppered with Sacco’s self-deprecating commentaries, his sharp-as-razor insights, and his flair for facts sans drama making it even more powerful and oddly, paradoxically-dramatic than usual.

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He juxtaposes the old (see left page above) and the current one (see right page above). The same thing can be seen in the photo I have taken of the page below:

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Just like a postmodern film, Sacco’s narrative shifts back and forth from that day in 1956 he is obsessed about to modern-day events and recent incidents that for most of his respondents/interviewees deserve greater attention, much more media-mileage, as this is the stuff of current events. For most of them, the atrocities that are being perpetrated in the here and now should take precedence over some obscure moment in history that some outsider is avidly curious about, where most of the eyewitnesses are dead, missing, or too old and broken to share their narratives properly. As one of his interviewee’s sons snidely claimed with a measure of disgust: ” ’56? ’56?…. Every day here is ’56.”

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Women, in particular, are feral in their rage as their homes which they have built from nothing, are again bulldozed and torn down with the justification of the IDF (Israeli Defense Forces) that there are tunnels being used by terrorists to smuggle in wanted people, weapons, and other supplies.

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The rage is palpable, thick with loss, lathered with a bloodlust for retribution – among the only recourse left for the powerless, the weak, the defenseless. No wonder the cycle of vengeance continues; and the unceasing, blind-white hatred that streaks like lightning within one’s skin. Sacco’s Appendices also include his interviews with Major Sharon Feingold and Captain Jacob Dallal, the Israel Defense Forces spokespersons and commanders, back in 2003. Find the book to know more about their comments and insights regarding the home demolitions in Rafah, or just watch the major television networks that mostly air the Israeli’s version of events and facets of truths.

Yet, regardless of what is happening around Gaza at the time that Sacco was doing his research, he is lost somewhere in the 1950s as you can see here:

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Such is his obsession with 1956 that he tunes out anything from his respondents that are not in reference to this particular period, no matter how heartrending. He has chosen to feel something only in relation to this Armageddon-like day. I was struck by his flat-out admission that it has reached a point when he would refuse to even enter the home of his potential respondents if they do not have anything relevant to say, as he feels trapped by the niceties and the tea provided for him alongside narratives that he has no particular use for…

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… because this is what he wants to listen to, the image that he wants conjured in the mind of his respondents, this ghastly experience that they have to unearth from the bowels of their memory, as they resurrect the dead, experience the beating and the unremitting pain all over again:

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This book brought unbidden tears to my eyes, especially when Sacco noted that he has lost something in the process of creating this monumental work that needs to be read by all:

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Reading Challenge Update: 223-226 (25)

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Nonfiction PictureBook Challenge: 42-45 (25)

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