Comic Riffs

Graphic Novel gets reviewed in comics form

Michael Cavna reviews Habibi using comics (click to read)

Michael Cavna of The Washington Post‘s Comic Riffs blog posted a wonderfully illustrated review of the new graphic novel Habibi by Craig Thompson. I really wish this would happen more often.

I’ve said this before in the past. I love when people in comics use the language of comics to talk about the world of comics. What better way to express oneself. And Cavna presents fantastic evidence to support my case. As he puts it, “it seemed only right to respond with pictures to one of the year’s best comic projects”.

Cavna runs an excellent blog, so it’s easy to forget he’s also an amazing artist. His syndicated comic strip Warped ran in major newspapers across the country, including our own Los Angeles Times, from 1996 to 2003. It’s clear from this that he needs to do more illustrated content for Comic Riffs.

In his review, Cavna weaves together the various threads that led to Habibi. From Craig Thompson’s health problems with his hands following the release of the acclaimed break-out graphic novel Blankets, to his mid-west fundamentalist background. From Thompson’s personal response to 9/11 and religious anxieties that followed, which led to an interest in studying the Qur’an. Arabic writing in turn fed into Thompson’s interest in calligraphy, which informed much of the design of Habibi. Drawing from Arabian NightsHabibi is, as Cavna puts it, “a story of wounded love between a eunuch and a prostitute”. But more than that, it is about Thompson learning to embrace and embody being a man, about sexual trauma, and ultimately about healing. Cavna ends his review intertwining visual motifs of Blankets and Habibi, and calls the latter “a visual masterwork”.

Comics Intimidate Syrian President

Ali Ferzat: down but not out

It may seem like a cushy job to draw cartoon characters all day long, but in some places it’s dangerous.

In Syria last Thursday, popular political cartoonist Ali Ferzat was kidnapped and beaten by four or five men believed to be from President Bashar al-Assad’s security forces, according to The Guardian. Two of Ferzat’s fingers on his left hand and his right arm were broken and his left eye was damaged in the early morning encounter. The attackers specifically told Ferzat “this is just a warning” and that he shouldn’t satirize Syria’s leaders. He was left on the side of a road bloodied and bruised with a bag over his head. According to AFP and Al Jazeera, Syrian police forces are currently searching for the suspects.

Assad has been the subject of increasing international pressure due to his handling of heightened protests against his increasingly oppressive regime. Over 2,500 Syrian citizens have been killed by Assad’s security forces. Ferzat, who once considered Assad a friend and supported his election in 2000, has become an outspoken critic. He has focused his work on covering the uprising that began in earnest this past March.

Ferzat, now 60 years old, began his career in the ’70s and has gained international acclaim, particularly in Germany, France and the Netherlands, as well as throughout the Middle East, where he is considered one of the most famous cultural figures of the Arab world. No stranger to controversy, Ferzat received a death threat from none other than Saddam Hussein, then president of Iraq, because of a 1989 exhibition of his work in Paris. Ferzat has also won recognition for his years as a human rights activist.

Ferzat is not the first Syrian celebrity to get such treatment. In July, the composer Ibrahim al-Qashoush, who wrote a popular song against Assad’s regime, was found dead with his vocal chords forcibly removed. Several other Syrian writers and actors have been arrested in recent weeks. But Ferzat’s international reputation helped increase the reach of the story, which was specifically referenced in a statement from the US State Department criticizing Assad’s regime:

“The regime’s thugs focused their attention on Ferzat’s hands, beating them furiously and breaking one of them, a clear message that he should stop drawing.”

“We demand that the Assad regime immediately stop its campaign of terror through torture, illegal imprisonment and murder.”

Ferzat’s fans as well as the political cartoon community and the larger comics community have come together in support of Ferzat. A Facebook event page called We Are All Ali Ferzat was quickly set up soon after the incident. It currently has over 8,000 supporters. The Washington Post‘s Michael Cavna issued a call to arms to all cartoonists, and one of the responses was the One Thousand Ferzats Tumblr page, a growing collection of political cartoons in support of Ferzat and criticizing Assad. The above image quickly circulated with the belief that it was a self-portrait by Ferzat. That has mostly been dismissed as a rumor but the actual artist is unknown. Below is thought to be Ali Ferzat’s last published cartoon before he was attacked. At this time, it is unknown whether Ferzat will be able to draw again.

While the incident is a shocking and disgusting display of abused power, it’s also a reminder that comics and art are still powerful and inspiring. The editorial cartoons Ferzat has been publishing on his website (naturally, Syria has been banning his work in their state run newspapers for a while now) have been like a rallying cry to the protesters in Syria. And that power is a huge threat to a ruling force facing calls for resignation both domestically and internationally.

So to summarize: comics are hardcore.

Ali Ferzat's last cartoon before the attack

Comics can still be controversial – hot button issues rile up readers

This week, two comics are making national news due to some readers being offended by the comics’ content.

The Washington Post blog Comic Riffs by Michael Cavna takes a look at reactions from an op-ed article in the Press & Sun-Bulletin to a week’s worth of the comic strip Mother Goose & Grimm by Mike Peters. The comic satirized the hypothetical Chernobyl Amusement Park with a series of radiation jokes. The historic meltdown of the Ukraine’s Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in 1986 resulted in the destruction of a community and its local environment, and thousands either dying or being diagnosed with life-altering illnesses in the fallout.

Meanwhile, MSNBC’s The Last Word with Lawrence O’Donnell is shocked and dismayed at the perceived racism of a recent installment of the political comic strip Obama Nation by James Hudnall and Batton Lash. First Lady Michelle Obama’s anti-obesity initiative Let’s Move is the target. O’Donnell takes issue with how Lash portrayed the First Family.

My first thought is that these are reminders that comic strips, comic books, graphic novels – the sequential art form that these all use – can still stir a passionate response in people. Not that it’s even debatable, but the medium is still as vital as ever. So that’s great news.

Specifically though, do these comics go too far?

Your miles will vary. We all have varying levels of sensitivity to different topics. And if someone is genuinely upset or offended by something, that shouldn’t be dismissed. Having said that, artistic expression is still a freedom and a right we enjoy, as long as another’s freedoms, rights or safety aren’t limited as a result.

I’ll look at these one at a time after the clickie-jump: (more…)