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Review of Postcolonial Comics: Texts, Events, Identities

By Eric L. Berlatsky

Mehta, Binita and Pia Mukherji. Postcolonial Comics: Texts, Events, Identities. New York: Routledge, 2015.

If postcolonial studies has an ür-text, it is probably Edward Said’s Orientalism (1978). Though important theoretical statements undoubtedly precede Said’s book, it is Orientalism that brought the analysis and critique of colonialist discourse into the academic Humanities mainstream, along with the exploration and analysis of counter-discourses. Given the spread and growth in the field over the past forty years, it is perhaps no surprise that postcolonial studies is now intersecting with more nascent fields, like comics studies, whose own ür-texts (McCloud’s Understanding Comics? Groensteen’s System of Comics? Eisner’s Comics and Sequential Art?) date, for the most part, from a later period, tend to be more formalist in orientation and are far less focused on social and political matters. Postcolonial Comics, a new collection edited by Binita Mehta and Pia Mukherji, brings these formalist inclinations into contact with the way in which postcolonial studies (and Said in particular) insists that all representations cannot help be political, imbricated in the production of Self and Other via discourse.

Rather than focus predominantly, as Said does, on texts and discourses produced by colonizers or those in power, Mehta and Mukherji note in the introduction that their collection focuses on the alternative. That is, while Mehta and Mukherji observe that there is already a substantive body of criticism and theory (by critics like Mark McKinney and Phillipe Delisle) devoted to analyzing and critiquing decidedly colonialist comics like Hergé’s Tintin in the Congo, there is relatively little written about comics written from the Congo, or Africa more generally, or a variety of other formerly colonized spaces. Mehta and Mukherji observe that most comics criticism focuses on colonial “centers” like the United States, France, and Japan, and that Postcolonial Comics instead examines how “ninth art production in global contexts records historical critique, political action, or emergent transnational narratives of trauma, gender, protest, and global exchange” (5). In so doing, it brings to light many comparatively little-known comics (little-known because of the bias toward Anglo-European comics and Japanese manga, as Mehta and Mukherji point out) and makes a strong case for further explorations of a variety of World comics’ traditions. In the interests of pursuing this mission, the book is divided into four sections of three essays each. The first section focuses on comics from Gibraltar, Malta, and Japan, the second on Francophone Africa (Algeria, Congo, and Gabon), the third on India, and the fourth on the Middle East.

The first section opens with well-paired analyses of two works of comics journalism. The first essay, by Michelle Bumatay looks closely at Jean-Phillipe Stassen’s Les Visiteurs de Gibraltar, a comic that focuses on Gibraltar’s postcolonial political affiliation as a British Overseas Territory, along with its geographical position on the southern tip of Spain, a gateway to Morocco and Africa. Per Bumatay, Stassens explores the ways in which Gibraltar and the city of Ceuta (on the north cost of Africa) serve as important junctures for migratory patterns between Europe and Africa. Les Visiteurs reveals and depicts the ways in which white Anglo-Europeans can move freely between these adjacent spaces, while Africans, and particularly people of color, are subject to discrimination and are frequently detained. Bumatay effectively highlights the ways in which Stassens’ “specific framing techniques” alongside a “plurality of different perceptions of the Mediterranean and its migrants” sheds light on global migration, while simultaneously acting as a “call for justice” (41).

Sam Knowles’ analysis of Maltese-American cartoonist Joe Sacco’s “Kushinagar,” is also fascinating and convincing. As Knowles details, Sacco recounts his journey to the Uttar Pradesh region of India, and particularly the district of Kushinagar, where he works on researching and representing the mistreatment of Dalits (once widely known as “untouchables”) by the local power structures. As “Kushinagar” shows, Sacco’s efforts are not always appreciated by the Dalits simply because he is seen as a “prying outsider.” One Dalit in the comic asks, angrily, “Is that man going to show the poverty of India and defame my village”(48) indicating that despite Sacco’s best efforts, his version of “truth” has side effects that some of the Dalits themselves cannot abide. Knowles does an excellent job not only explicating the ambivalence in “Kushinagar” itself, but also in its reception. As Knowles details, online responses to “Kushinagar,” particularly from Indian readers, reflect the dynamic in the comic itself. Some commentators praise Sacco’s “truth-telling” and his efforts to critique local power inequalities, while others question his motives and do not wish India’s poverty used simply to “entertain the western readers” (53). Knowles’ navigation not only of the comic itself, but also of its reception, makes it one of the strongest essays in the collection.

On the other hand, the third essay in the section is one of the weakest. Roman Rosenbaum’s reading of Osamu Tezuka’s manga Tell Adolf deals with some of the effects of (post)coloniality while avoiding a full engagement with their causes. Tezuka is, without question, the most revered mangaka in Japan’s long history of comics, and Tell Adolf is an interesting work that depicts “the clash between the diametrically opposed modernities of Germany and Japan” (60). In so doing, Tezuka presents three different characters named Adolf: Adolf Kaufmann, a Japanese-German who eventually joins the Gestapo, Adolf Kamil, a Jewish-German who lives in Japan and is initially Kaufmann’s best friend, and Adolf Hitler, whose possible Jewish ancestry is a centerpiece of the story. Throughout the essay, Rosenbaum asserts, correctly, that the Adolfs’ hyphenated identities reflect the kind of hybrid subjectivities frequently discussed in postcolonial theory. Likewise, Rosenbaum discusses the race-based mistreatment of Kaufman, who is bullied in Japan for being white. However, while Rosenbaum does mention, at the outset, some of Japan’s history as a colonial power, there is little to any effort in the essay to engage with the ways in which this history may have something to do with the hybridity that Rosenbaum highlights. Likewise, there is little effort to engage with the ways in which power relations are inevitably part and parcel of all colonial (and thus postcolonial) relationships. Japan and Germany were both colonial/imperialist powers, and thus hybrid subjectivities that “mix” Japanese and German backgrounds are not necessarily equivalent to hybrid subjectivities arising out of colonizer/colonized relationships. Likewise, then, Kaufman’s mistreatment at the hands of his Japanese schoolmates does not exactly re-enact a colonial situation, nor is it necessarily explained through that lens. This is not to say that postcolonial theory has nothing to say to Tell Adolf (or vice versa), but merely that some effort should be made to tease out these complexities and contradictions if we are to understand this manga in (post)colonial context.

The essays that follow in the section on Francophone Africa are much stronger. Ann Miller’s lead essay discusses Morvandiau’s D’Algérie (2007), an autobiographical bande dessinée devoted to an exploration of French/Algerian relations, and particularly the history of Pied-Noirs, Europeans who lived in Algeria during French rule. Beginning with a childhood trip by Luc Cotinat and his family from France to Algeria, the book traces trips back and forth from/to both locations by both Cotinat and his ancestors, and the relationship of the history of French/Algerian colonial trauma (including a 1961 massacre of Algerians) to family trauma, including Cotinat’s uncle’s murder, and his father’s attempted suicide. Miller uses trauma theory, including the work of Cathy Caruth, and a detailed formalist reading of D’Algérie, including an examination of its frequent black panels (80), to convincingly reveal the “agency” of those who have inherited France’s colonialist legacy to reveal the past and create a better future (88-89).

The next essay, by Véronique Bragard summarizes and discusses a range of comics that revisit a number of important colonial coordinates relating to the Belgian Congo. As Bragard shows, Hergé’s Tintin in the Congo, Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Conrad’s life and Congo Diary, and Adam Hochschild’s historical King Leopold’s Ghost form a discursive stew from which comics artists have been drawing for the last 30 years. Because Bragard discusses so many texts, including several adaptations of Conrad’s novella and life story, she is not able to give detailed close readings of any of them. At the same time, by providing this survey of recent comics, Bragard is able to effectively emphasize the ways in which many comics critique the Congo’s colonialist history through a retelling of it, as well as through an engagement with texts, like Heart of Darkness, which are both anti-colonialist and (as famously argued by Chinua Achebe) racist as well. Likewise, Bragard shows how many of these texts, including Pitz’s Les Jardins du Congo (2013) display a “guilt-ridden anxiety towards the legacy of Belgium’s violence in the Congo” (101), while others, like Retour au Congo, which draws from Tintin, engage in a weak satire that fails to comment seriously on the Congo’s colonial legacy. Bragard also discusses comics like Simon Kimbangu (2002) that depict later periods of Congolese history and the legacy of colonialism. Overall, Bragard’s overview of Congolese comics is helpful in orienting the reader to comics from the region and the way in which they speak back to both a history of comics and a literary history.

The last essay in this section, by Binita Mehta, examines the autobiographical La vie de Pahé, by the Gabonese comics artist Pahé (an alias for Patrick Essono Nkouna) (111). As Mehta outlines, Pahé’s humorously cartoonish drawings combine with a satirical critique of a variety of French and Gabonese institutions, as well as the interactions between them. Pahé examines and mocks both French and Gabonese educational systems for the ways in which they both teach about the “other” and rely on damaging and invidious stereotypes. He also critiques corrupt government officials and the practice of polygamy (in Gabon), and the comics industry’s reliance on racial stereotypes, along with overt racism by government officials (in France). Mehta does a deft job of providing examples from Pahé’s work that illustrate his humorous “reflections on the socio-political culture of twentieth and twenty-first century Africa and France” (126). She also explores, via the work of Michael Chaney, the way in which the “I” of Pahé the cartoonist differs from the “I” of the Pahé drawn in the comic, bringing together theories of autobiography (and autobiographical comics) and postcolonial theory. This is a productive intersection that subsequent critics may be able to apply to other comics that use the memoir form in postcolonial context, and even in fictionalized versions like the recent The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye by Singaporean comics artist Sonny Liew.

The next section of Postcolonial Comics, includes essays on Indian comics. The first of these is one of the weakest, as Pramod Nayar discusses Vishwajyoti Ghosh’s graphic novel, Delhi Calm, a book that takes place during Indira Gandhi’s Emergency of 1975-1977, a time of martial law and state censorship. Perhaps the essay works better for those already intimately familiar with the book discussed, but given that there is little discussion of the plot or characters, there is little for the less initiated reader to grasp. Ghosh focuses on what he calls “call-ins” in which signs, posters, banners, and speeches of the “authoritarian regime” intrude into the daily lives of the book’s characters and setting (133). For Ghosh this use of what he indirectly refers to as paratextual features (though, in fact, they seem to be clearly textual) is a significant part of the trauma inflicted by Indira Gandhi’s government. Likewise, Ghosh suggests that masks worn by state officials in the book function as effective caricature, reflecting, again, the trauma of the political situation. Comparing Delhi Calm to canonical Western comics like Art Spiegelman’s Maus and Alan Moore and David Lloyd’s V for Vendetta, as well as Marjane Satrapi’s well-known Iranian/French Persepolis, Ghosh suggests that the book both reflects the trauma of the historical and political situation and critiques it through caricature. However, there is not as much effective close reading of the book as this reader would have liked (and no images included), making Ghosh’s claims more abstract than concrete. Likewise, his misattribution of V for Vendetta to Frank Miller (135) weakens his credibility with readers who know better.

The next essay, by Harleen Singh, discussing the Amar Chitra Katha (ACK) comics series, is one of the volume’s best. As Singh explains, the ACK series was “designed as an educational tool for the nation’s children,” though it also later became a way for diasporic Indians to establish and define India for themselves. The series advertised itself as “the route to your roots” (144) through biographies of important historical figures and the recounting of specific historical events, literary classics, and myths. Singh reads comics devoted to the lives of two “postcolonial revolutionaries,” Chandra Shekhar Azad and Bagha Jatin as means of showing the ways in which India constructs a “postcolonial mythology of revolution, masculinity, and youth” (143). Singh cleverly explores what the comics devoted to these figures include and what they exclude, in order to construct a particular story about India as a nation, particularly emphasizing youthful (asexual) masculinity and non-violent resistance. As Singh shows, neither Jatin nor Azad’s actual history fits the model of nationalism that India or ACK is self-consciously promoting, but the comics serve to fit them into that mold. Thus, Jatin and Azad’s violent resistance is downplayed (148), while Azad’s antagonistic relationship with eventual first Indian Prime Minister, Jawarhalal Nehru is effectively erased (151). Singh’s clever close reading of the ACK comics as juxtaposed with “real” historical events reveals the ways in which comics, like other discourses, often silently produce ideology.

Pia Mukherji’s discussion of Amruta Patil’s graphic novel Kari (2008) places the comic set in Mumbai within the context of Frida Kahlo’s painting, poststructuralism, fairytales, postmodern cities, magical realism, and feminist écriture feminine. In Patil’s reading, Kari’s lost lover, Ruth, is also a version of the lost self, resulting in a very postmodern meditation on the slippery and indeterminate self-other distinction and ‘the delineation of identity by way of alterity’ (164). It is, of course, undoubtedly the case that the self/other dichotomy and the idea of “alterity” are absolutely inextricable from the postcolonial condition, but, as in the case of Rosenbaum’s essay on Tezuka earlier in the collection, there is little in this essay to tie Kari’s subjectivity to her place as a postcolonial subject, affected by the history of colonialism in India, or the power relations attendant to that history. Instead, Patil relies somewhat questionably on ideas associated with postmodernism and poststructuralism, ideas linked to Western history and philosophy, and arguably removed from (post)colonial realities and more localized metaphysics.

The final section, devoted to comics of the Middle East, is regrettably the weakest, closing the book on a less than ideal note. Jeffrey John Barnes begins the section with a reading of Jewish and Arab editorial cartoons during and just after the World War II years. Barnes notes how both Jewish and Arab cartoons (as defined by their presence in known Jewish and or Arab/Palestinian publications) opposed the rise of Hitler and the Nazi party. However, Jewish publications worked to associate Jews with Europe in the interest of the Zionist cause, while, according to Barnes, Arab cartoons associated Jewish nationalism and imperial expansionism with Hitler himself. While an interesting premise, the evidence presented is not particularly convincing. Barnes includes one cartoon from Filastin which depicts Hitler as a “wolf consuming territory in Europe” (176). According to Barnes, Hitler’s “facial features match those of Jewish characters in Filastin over the previous decade” (176). While this may well be true, Barnes includes none of those cartoons and thus does little to prove the link. Obviously, Hitler’s antipathy toward the Jews was, and is, well known, and it would be surprising and revelatory to see the two linked as equivalent. Without including the visual evidence, however, the argument feels less than fully convincing. There are other cartoons (or at least one other) that is analyzed without being included, weakening the essay further. Undoubtedly, Barnes is much more of an expert on this material than I, and perhaps procuring the rights to include the evidentiary images plays a significant role in their absence. Nevertheless, when the argument being made is based on images, it would have helped the essay significantly to include more of them.

The final two essays are also disappointing. The first, by Massimo di Ricco, is more a list of recent Middle Eastern comics than an analysis of them. The final essay, “Men With Guns,” is written by Lena Irmgard Merhej, a Lebanese comics artist in her own right. Merhej chooses to analyze a number of recent Lebanese comics in an innovative, if confusing, way. She takes a number of comics (including her own) that participate in what she calls the Lebanese “war debate” and maps their depictions of individuals carrying firearms in order to determine “Who are the armed characters found in Lebanese war comics, and what roles do they play in the narratives?” (208). To do so, she uses a method drawn from “social semiotics,” building on “fragmentation and re-editing techniques” (208), pulling each panel depicting a person with a gun and sorting them into her own categories. It it unclear how these practices yield anything enlightening or useful. She comes to a conclusion that “narratives of armed men that are allied to the state focus on resilience, while narratives of non-state armed men focus on suffering” (216). This fairly banal conclusion never acknowledges that one can both suffer and be resilient, nor that Merhej herself decides upon the terms of this binary (and arbitrary) opposition, as well as the decision to only analyze patterns with armed men (as opposed to all other panels in the comics.) Without a conclusion to the volume, Merhej’s essay ends Postcolonial Comics on a frustrating note, despite the many valuable contributions within the collection.

In truth, as Mehta and Mukherji point out, there is comparatively very little criticism devoted to comics from places like Africa, India, and the Middle East. Even in collections devoted to the idea of transnational comics, like Picturing Childhood: Youth in Transnational Comics (U of Texas P, 2017) and Transnational Perspectives on Graphic Narratives (Bloomsbury, 2014), many (if not most) of the texts considered derive from the U. S. and/or Western European comics traditions. In the latter volume, India is discussed via its version of the U.S. superhero Spider-Man, while canonical U. S. comics artists like Art Spiegelman, Harold Gray, and Robert Crumb are discussed in the former, albeit in transnational contexts. Even a book like Jennifer Howell’s The Algerian War in French-Language Comics (Lexington Books, 2015) relies heavily, if not exclusively, on French comics. All of which is to say that the effort Mehta and Mukherji make to present criticism on comics created by authors from formerly colonized nations is a salutary and worthwhile one, despite quibbles one like myself might have with some of the individual essays. While Postcolonial Comics does not contain the first essays devoted to the comics of formerly colonized nations, it does represent one of the first collections of its kind and, as such, is an important step towards a more widespread and serious consideration of a broader base of comics traditions, while also opening up the potential applications of postcolonial theory to the study of comics.

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