Journalists have been travelling to the Middle East to capture images of daily life and politics in the region for the best part of the last century. More recently, they have been turning their long-form essays into graphic novels and documenting their experiences pictorially. Maltese-American Joe Sacco and Canadian Guy Delisle were the first graphic novelists living in the region to give audiences all around the world unique insight into life in political unrest using cartoon and comic-style formats.

 

Joe Sacco especially used his experiences as both a cartoonist and a journalist to tell the stories of people who would otherwise be ignored. In his graphic novels Footnotes in Gaza (2009) and Palestine (1996), he speaks to Palestinians who have their daily lives disrupted by the Israeli Defence Force, empowering them to tell stories of past events which never gained the attention of Western media outlets. His work has been hailed for setting new standards in the genre of non-fiction graphic novels, or, as Sacco terms it, comic journalism.

Palestine by Joe Sacco

Although visual storytelling has existed for thousands of years, the use of comics to cover real-life events is currently at an all-time peak. This new form of news reporting reaches beyond words when they fail to explain the horrific reality many live in. It presents the reader with an all-encompassing experience that is both intense and eye-opening. When interviewed, Sacco said he felt the format enabled him to convey the minute details of war that would otherwise be lost when the generation that experienced them first-hand was no longer around.

 

Since Sacco’s dramatic ascent to popularity, local and regional artists and journalists have also started using the comic format to tell their own stories. Among the most famous of these is Persepolis, in which Iranian-born French graphic novelist Marjane Satrapi explores Iranian identity throughout the Iranian Revolution. Further  underlining the power of graphic journalism, the graphic novel that was originally published in French has been translated to more than 10 languages and has sold 1,500,000 copies worldwide.

In Lebanon particularly, issues of identity and conflict have been depicted in works such as I Remember Beirut (2014) by Zeina Abirached and Bye Bye Babylon (2011) by Lamia Ziadé, mostly focusing on the violence throughout the 1970s. This trend has continued and a number of artists have created short graphic novels and collections using images of the wars in recent Lebanese history – often in English, French and Arabic. The language aspect of these stories is markedly important, as it allows an entirely new audience to access stories not delivered to them by foreign journalists but by people whose lives have been directly affected by the conflict.

I Remember Beirut by Zeina Abirached

A deeper understanding of cultural issues is also helping Middle Eastern writers explore the complex politics of the region through comic journalism. The information is made more accessible through the uses of images and diagrams, as can be found in French-Syrian Riad Sattouf’s The Arab of the Future (2015) series. This format isn’t only helping open up an audience to personal and political stories, it is also allowing artists to have their work seen across the world without the need for galleries and exhibitions.

So, the graphic novel has created a new way of exploring the Middle East, which is especially important in the current political climate. The graphic novel has become a tool not only for artists but also for crossing cultural boundaries, and we can only hope that this new form of journalism continues, sharing new artists and different points of view across borders.

Jose Lorenzo Pacheco - Pez Banana
This illustration was commissioned by artmejournal for this feature.
Jose Lorenzo Pacheco – Pez Banana
Words from the artist:
As a foreigner living in the Middle East for the past three years, I have come to rely heavily on images to shape my understanding of my host cultures. What I have seen is an ever-shifting world brimming with stories, and stories within stories, begging to be told. I cannot think of a better medium for this than that of the graphic novel, which offers unique storytelling advantages for both the audience and the authors. And I look forward to seeing all that the region has to offer via this rich and universal medium.