Magazine article UNESCO Courier

War Comics: The New Realism

Magazine article UNESCO Courier

War Comics: The New Realism

Article excerpt

Comic strip authors today are tackling the horrors of war with a critical eye

August 1993. In shell-battered Sarajevo, three newborn babies, Nike Hatzfeld, Leyla Mirkovic and Amir Fazlagic, are being fed with milk in Kosevo Hospital. One is Croat, another Serb and the third Muslim. But what does that matter? All three of them have lost their parents. They have come into a world torn by suffering and they must endure the same distress. They are children of war.

Thirty-three years later, in 2026, their paths cross again. They are now living in a society where religious fundamentalism, biological manipulation and historical revisionism are the pillars of a system to which they do not belong. They have lived different lives, but their destinies have been shaped by their common past, a wound that refuses to heal. They are still prisoners in a ruined hospital.

This is the story-line of Le sommeil du monstre ("The Sleeping Monster"), a comic book by the Yugoslav-born French artist Enki Bilal, published in 1998. Through its richly textured narrative and drawing the book broaches several key themes, including the psychological impact of war. After the rubble of warfare has been cleared away, the emotional wounds remain, although they are never mentioned by the military in their combat reports. Wars play havoc with memories and feed our imagination. From ancient times to today's video games, warfare has been a common subject of fiction. The "poetics" of destruction dominates our myths, as a way of sublimating or exorcising violence. And comic strips are no exception to the rule.

A quick, superficial look at comic books might give the impression that conflict is their dominant theme. Indeed, some of the best-known series often turn to fighting and brutality to resolve conflicts. Some people think comic strips are an invitation to aggressive behaviour, even inciting people to violence. In fact, the opposite is true these days. Some comic books now contain sharp criticism and lucid analysis of war. Gone are the days when their pages were filled with war propaganda.

Goodies and baddies

The 20th century has had its fill of wars and hardly anywhere in the world has been spared. However, comic books deal mainly with the Second World War, which has provided a seemingly inexhaustible quantity of material. Trailing way behind come the war in Viet Nam, the Korean War, the First World War, the Spanish Civil War, the Algerian war of independence and the Sino-Japanese war.

The setting is often the same: a land devastated by explosions, burnt-out cities and ravaged countryside. Only the geographical surroundings change. Through impenetrable forests, across arid deserts, frozen wastes or tropical islands, a soldier makes his way, advancing or retreating and observing the world around him. With him, the reader can visit countryside which has either been spared massacres or has suffered their terrible consequences. Most authors use a lot of background material and are scrupulous about details of history, weapons and uniforms. They know the credibility of their story depends largely on such detail.

War is a subject that lends itself well to a medium like comic books, just as adventures and heroism often do. The characters frequently find themselves in extreme situations. It is at such moments of great tension, when the spectre of death looms over the protagonists, that courage or cowardice, self-assertion or trauma are revealed. There's no room for ambiguity on the battlefield. It's a place of extreme commitment and fierce loyalty to exemplary values and attitudes. Even today it can still provide inspiration for epics.

Goodbye To propaganda

There are many kinds of comic strips about war in which the characters perform heroic deeds in a sequence of adventures. Although these stories explain neither the causes of the conflict nor the interests at stake for each side, the behaviour of the characters makes very clear who are the heroes and who are the villains. …

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