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Graphic books – Part 1



I’m sure all my readers are familiar with the newspaper cartoon, the main purpose of which is to ridicule politicians and others who behave badly or foolishly. These cartoons can, when the need arises, be savage; one image that makes a regular appearance in the UK press is of Trump with the crown of his head turned into a lavatory, complete with seat (and yes, the pan is full). Then there is the cartoon strip, which is generally humorous, but not necessarily satirical. For these, think Peanuts or Madam and Eve (OK, the latter is satirical, but generally in a light-hearted way). Cartoon strips can run as a series, like the two just mentioned, with an established cast of characters (Charlie Brown, Lucy, Snoopy, and so on in Peanuts) or they can be one-off. These things don’t lend themselves to purely verbal re-telling, but let me take you through one of my all-time favourites, a one-off strip from the magazine Private Eye. There are three frames. In the first, we see two goldfish in a bowl, facing each other; the one on the left is asking the other “Did you know?” In the second frame, the fish on the left continues: “Goldfish have a memory span of only seven sec…….” In the third frame, the fish on the left is silent, because seven seconds are up and it’s forgotten what it was saying, and the other is asking “Who are you?” Well, I think that’s brilliant, almost existential. At a point, someone had the bright idea of building cartoon strips up into books, making short graphic novels, which can be extended into a series. These are especially popular in France and in neighbouring countries. In France, there is the Asterix series, dealing with the exploits of Gauls (the ancient French) under Roman colonial occupation. From Belgium come the Tintin books. Both series are read, it seems, by people of all ages; to tell you the truth, I occasionally fish out one of my collection of Tintin books for a little light entertainment. Before knowledgeable readers give up on this column in protest, I’d better add that the Tintin books have a pretty murky history. Their writer was a Belgian called Hergé, who when he started the series was clearly racist. This comes across very strongly in Tintin au Congo (Tintin in the Congo), one of the first of the books, which is so repugnant it’s never been translated into English. Readers will be aware that the present-day DRC was a Belgian colony and was the site of some of the worst atrocities in colonial Africa—crimes for which the Belgian monarch and government have only just begun to apologise. Later, Hergé saw the light and the racist elements in the books disappear (though the books can still be patronising and one does get a bit jaundiced with the goody-two-shoes boy wonder Tintin). The change came about partly owing to Hergé’s revulsion at Nazi atrocities and partly because of his attraction to Buddhism. So I read the later books quite happily. There’s another type of graphic production, usually referred to as “comics” and produced in magazine format, that have to do with super-heroes such as Superman and Batman. But I can’t say much about those, as I don’t get on with them, especially since the evil Joker has been outdone in sheer ghastliness by Trump. Now, to move on to the main focus of this three-part piece, the graphic book can be used for all sorts of purposes apart from light relief. A very fine recent example (illustrated in today’s piece) is Paying the Land, a graphic work by Joe Sacco about the dispossession of Native Americans in the Northwest Territory of Canada. As readers will see, the graphics (visual components) are in black-and-white and are quite stark; this is not a book intended for gentle amusement. Reviewing the book for The Guardian, Aida Edemariam commented: “in this time of pandemic and race protests, Sacco’s concern with the decimation caused by injustice and internalised idea of inferiority—with how the system is ‘built for capitalism to succeed, not humans’—resonates even more than it already would have.” Before I go on, I can’t resist a favourite quotation of mine on the same theme as Sacco’s book, from The Last of the Mohicans, which is set in the run-up to America’s War of Independence and has to do with the complex relations between different groups of whites and of Native Americans. At one point an elderly sachem (Native American wise man) says: “Only when he has cut down the last tree, and damned the last river, and killed the last buffalo, will the white man realise he cannot eat money.” (For white man, read capitalist). Hey, why do so many of my readers think that I’m left-wing? To be continued Chris Dunton

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