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The World Around Us in 11 Graphic Novels

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Philippe Squarzoni, Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through Science

On the threshold of a new year, in a world that has become an extremely bewildering place, what preoccupies us just now?  Unless you’re actively practicing the ostrich approach, just about everything. Climate change, pollution, global (or local) or identity politics, technology, inequality, Donald Trump… There are plenty of great books on all these subjects. But we don’t always feel like getting involved in a 350-page book about the ummm... U.S. Constitution. Graphic novels can provide an alternate way to read about important subjects with a more entertaining approach. Non-fiction comics and graphic novels from mainstream to indie and underground publishers cover everything, from, as a matter of fact, the U.S. Constitution, to war reporting, and memoirs. Moreover, in this age of image, graphic novels have become ideal tools for young adults to learn about social and global issues. Here are a handful to pop on your reading list to keep up with our tumultuous times:


Banner image from Hamid Sulaiman's Freedom Hospital.

Freedom Hospital

The terrible news coming from Syria has been all-consuming over the past few years. Freedom Hospital is a beautifully drawn account of a tragic and complex situation by Hamid Sulaiman, a Syrian painter and illustrator. A fan of Art Spiegelman and Joe Sacco, Sulaiman wanted to describe his personal experience during the Arab Spring when he joined the popular uprising during its early days. He was imprisoned and his friend, to whom his book is dedicated, was tortured to death. Sulaiman fled Syria in 2011 and now lives in Paris and Berlin. Freedom Hospital describes the inner workings of an unauthorized clinic in Syria run by a peace activist called Yasmine, who looks after the wounded from all political inclinations. With dark humor, arresting black and white images, Sulaiman describes an incomprehensible situation, first and foremost to Syrians. Translated by Francesca Barrie.

Poppies of Iraq

French comics artist Lewis Trondheim, who co-founded l'Association, a comics publisher, is married to Brigitte Findakly, a colorist, who has worked on much of Trondheim's work. For Poppies of Iraq, Findakly became the lead writer and collaborated with her husband to recount in her debut as an author her childhood memories of Iraq. From a Christian Arab family, Findakly describes her daily life in Mosul in an intimate way, at the same time giving an excellent overlook of Saddam Hussein's oppressive regime. It is also a family portrait of loss and exile. Translated by Helge Dasche.

The Best We Could Do: An Illustrated Memoir

Artist Thi Bui was three years old in 1978 when her family fled Vietnam as boat people. Her memoir, The Best We Could Do,  begins with the birth of her child in New York, as the newfound responsibility of family and history washes over her. Bui explores her childhood and the effects that immigration, displacement and exile had on her and her family, following the fall of South Vietnam. Her past is always reflected in the present, as in Marcelino Truong's recent 2-volume memoir that recalls leaving Saigon, albeit under different conditions. Thi Bui describes her family's frightening escape from Vietnam, and their subsequent difficulties as a family settling in the US going through culture shock, economic downsizing, all the while recovering from loss and trauma, while facing racism. Central to the book is Bui questioning whether she will pass on her heavy past to her child. 

Darkroom

In light of recent political and racial events in the US, Darkroom: A Memoir in Black and White is a perfect reminder of the recent past. Narrated and illustrated by Lila Quintero Weaver it is the story of the author's journey with her family as immigrants from Argentina to Alabama in 1961. Their arrival coincides with the evolution of the Civil Rights Movement, and the dismantling of Jim Crow laws, as well as desegregation in public schools, not to mention violence and riots. In 500 superb drawings, Quintero Weaver relates being a new immigrant, the segregationist south, and while it is a memoir of her own integration, it is also a solid history of the Civil Rights Movement. It’s a perfect example of how graphic novels can serve as tools for learning; Darkroom is being used to teach the history of the Civil Rights Movement in high schools in the US. 

The Influencing Machine

With the media facing incredibly challenging times, The Influencing Machine is the ideal book to learn about journalism throughout history, going as far back as Ancient Rome. Brooke Gladstone is known for analyzing the media each week on NPR, and here she has teamed up with the comics artist Josh Neufeld, to give us the background necessary for understanding today's problems in the media. "I’ve been reporting on the media for some 25 years, apparently none of them good years," writes Gladstone. "The concentration of media ownership, the blurring of news and opinion, the yawning news hole (there’s teeth in there!) created by 24-hour newscycles...scarifying local coverage...shriveled foreign coverage...liberal bias...conservative bias...celebrities...scandal...echo chambers...arrogance...elitism...bloggers with no standards..." Gladstone's primer will help us think about how to navigate today's very confusing morass that is the media.

The United States Constitution

The 2016 election in the U.S. vividly pointed out certain flaws in the U.S. Constitution, which worked beautifully when it was written, but is no longer adapted to current times. Political experts in the U.S. now acknowledge this, following the biased nature of the Electoral College system that is rooted in the  Constitution. So why not take a close look at this famous document that governs the U.S., and ultimately has an effect on the entire world? The United States Constitution goes through each amendment explaining its meaning and background, ultimately highlighting an absolutely relevant document...for the 18th century. Then you can go on to read Fault Lines in the Constitution.

Trump

Political cartoonist and commentator Ted Rall, who has written graphic biographies on personalities such as Edward Snowden, or Bernie Sanders, published this Donald Trump biography before he was elected and explains the phenomenon before the unthinkable happened. In deliberately crude drawings, Rall sketches Trump's beginnings but better, he analyzes the man and his supporters: "There are parallels between Facism and Trumpism. And differences." He shows how the American political landscape has moved into uncharted territory and helps us understand clearly how Hillary Clinton lost. 

March (Trilogy Slipcase Set)

The graphic novel trilogy March is the inside story of the Civil Rights Movement told through the eyes of one of its most iconic figures, Congressman John Lewis. Co-written with Andrew Aydin and drawn by Nate Powell, it is the account of Lewis' lifelong struggle for civil and human rights, meditating on the distance traveled since the days of Jim Crow and segregation. Rooted in Lewis' personal story, it also reflects on the highs and lows of the broader civil rights movement. Congressman John Lewis went from an Alabama sharecropper's farm to the halls of Congress, from a segregated schoolroom to the 1963 March on Washington, and from receiving beatings from state troopers to receiving the Medal of Freedom from the first African-American president.

Climate Changed:A Personal Journey Through the Science

The French comics artist Philippe Squarzoni has worked on a number of hard-hitting issues including the Zapatista movement in Mexico, and the crime rate in Baltimore based on David Simon's The Wire. Climate Changed, which appeared in French in 2012 was published in English two years later is essential reading for everyone interested in our environment and climate change. The beauty of Squarzoni's book, besides his line drawings, is that he begins by showing us how he learned about climate change by doing research for this book. He uses hard scientific facts and quotes experts but brings it down to our level--the concerned citizen and what we can actually do about it? How to reconcile a global capitalist economy and rampant consumerism with the climate crisis? Squarzoni may not offer solutions, but he gets a crucial conversation going. Translated by Ivanka Hahnenberger.

Verax

Journalist Pratap Chatterjee teamed up with the political cartoonist and co-author of Zahra's Paradise, Khalil, to put together a gripping account about the world of electronic surveillance. Developers, companies, users, government agencies, whistleblowers, and journalists all come together in the story of the post 9/11 era that unleashed electronic spying by the government on a massive worldwide scale. Chatterjee explains the complex ways governments follow the movements and interactions of individuals and countries, whether by tracking the players of Angry Birds, deploying "Stingrays" that listen in on phone calls or "deep packet inspection" that mines email, or by weaponizing programs with names like "Howlermonkey" and "Godsurge" to attack the infrastructure of states such as Iran and remotely guide the U.S. missiles used in drone killings. He chronicles the complicity of corporations like Apple, Verizon, and Google, and the daring of the journalists and whistleblowers―from Snowden to Julian Assange to the lesser-known NSA Four―who made sure that the world would know. Finally, he gives a prognosis for the future of electronic surveillance, and for the fortunes of those who resist it.

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Olivia is a Paris-based journalist and editor.

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