Law & politics

Human rights violations and graphic novels

Dr David Keane takes a look at graphic novels as accounts of legal issues and human rights abuses

David Keane Middlesex UniversitySenior Lecturer in Law at Middlesex University Dr David Keane summarises the chapter he wrote with Reader in Law at University of East London Dr Jérémie Gilbert, which appears in the new edited collection Graphic Justice (Thomas Giddens (ed.); Routledge, 2015) – the first book collection to explore the connections between comics and law.

The concept for the chapter came about when the editor of Graphic Justice, Thomas Giddens, first hosted a conference looking for ideas about how comics and law might interact, which became the nucleus of this book. The world of comics has grown exponentially, in particular in the United States where it has evolved from a marginalised genre into a mainstream industry. In Belgium and France, comics are known as bandes dessinées, literally ‘drawn strips’, with no implication that they are humourous or frivolous, hence better translated as ‘graphic novels’, an English phrase that also implies a seriousness and potential artistic or cultural merit. Indeed, in Belgium and France, bandes dessinées have long been considered the ‘ninth art’ form, intrinsically equal in cultural merit to literature, painting, sculpture and other art forms.

New ground

Nevertheless, in the Anglophone world ‘comics’ is a term that is often incorrectly applied to all ‘graphic novels’ and indeed they have never really been taken seriously. This is reflected in the fact that in legal commentary, while law and literature has enjoyed a long and respected history engaging great (and very serious) legal minds such as Richard Posner, law and comics was non-existent until Thomas Giddens’ collection was published last month. Given the fact that ‘comics’ now dominate much of mainstream film-making and are awash in popular culture, it seems incredible that nobody thought to look at them form a legal perspective.

When Dr Gilbert and I decided to analyse graphic novels (I am now abandoning the incorrect term ‘comics’) from the perspective of human rights, we also found that there was nothing there. While human rights have long been a feature of film, both in terms of film-making (many documentaries look at human rights issues and deal with them directly) and film events (there are now dedicated human rights film festivals hosted by the likes of Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch) there has been no commentary on the existence or the potential for human rights to form part of graphic novels. So in our chapter we decided to try to examine what human rights and graphic novels might involve and we came up with the concept of ‘graphic reporting’.

The figure of the reporter has featured strongly in graphic novels. A number of prominent characters employ the guise of a reporter to advance the plot or focus the story, as well as explain key elements such as why the central character has the ability and time to travel extensively and conduct investigations. In this regard, Tintin is one of the best-recognised character-reporters, while Superman worked for the Daily Planet and Spider-Man was a photographer at the Daily Bugle. These fictional representations see reporting primarily as a background occupation, used for the purpose of setting the scenes and the characters, and allowing them the necessary freedom to interact across the storylines. In addition, their experiences are entirely fictional and removed from any association with human rights violations, real or imagined, with the absence of any requisite call for change or action inherent in reporting on actual abuses.

The mechanisms for human rights protection are constantly evolving, and subsuming graphic reporting will bring important and heightened exposure to the reality of human rights abuses around the world.

Graphic reporting

A more recent generation of graphic novelists has cast aside the fictional representation of reporting, to place such investigations to the fore. These have started to undertake reporting, notably on war situations but also on wider human rights violations, by using graphic novels as a main source of reporting. They take a point-of-view approach to eschew the characterisation of the reporter and place the experience of the novelist as central, documenting the experiences of war or other atrocities in a representation of human rights violations as lived in graphic form.

Joe Sacco’s works are immediately identifiable but he is not an isolated example, arguably being representative of a new generation of graphic authors (the word ‘novelists’ may not be correct given its association with fiction, but is the prevailing descriptor) who are using graphic novels to report on real situations and chart serious human rights abuses. In this context these authors do not invent or create a character that will do the reporting, but are themselves reporting on a real situation, often placing themselves within the narrative as the reporter in question.

Sacco has drafted a manifesto to capture what these graphic authors are doing, arguing it is not correct to divorce journalism and graphic novels, and implicitly demanding that graphic accounts be taken seriously as a source. The title of his work, which draws together a number of different scenarios of factual atrocities, experiences, injustice and violations, and compiles them in one volume, is Journalism – a deliberate choice of nomenclature. In a succinct overview of where he sees his work, he compares the graphic author with the journalist, and draws out the similarities and differences:

“The journalist’s standard obligations – to report accurately, to get quotes right, and to check claims –still pertain. A writer can breezily describe a convoy of UN vehicles as ‘a convoy of UN vehicles’ and move on to the rest of the story. A comics journalist must draw a convoy of vehicles, and that raises a lot of questions. So, what do these vehicles look like? What do the uniforms of the UN personnel look like? What does the road look like? And what about the surrounding hills?”

The use of the phrase ‘comics journalist’ is not attributed, and it is not certain if Sacco in fact coined this phrase; he is in any case widely attributed as a pioneer of comics journalism, as recognized in the handful of commentaries on this emerging field. Sacco’s works Palestine, and Safe Area Gorazde, are seen as seminal texts while the number of graphic novels that are reporting on real situations is growing. Yet Sacco himself has noted that his more recent work is stepping back from conflict to cover broader situations of human rights violations, evident in his depiction of the Dalits of India and their experience of trenchant caste discrimination (a situation that has also inspired graphic authors on the ground). In this regard, perhaps Sacco is not really a journalist in that the focus of his work is not necessarily topical or current, and may lack a ‘hook’; but rather a human rights reporter in graphic form, or ‘graphic reporter’.

Graphic reporting is clearly distinct from graphic novels even though the latter may raise questions of interest for human rights. Graphic reporting involves the overt and intentional depiction of human rights violations or conflict situations in graphic novel format. For example, in France the news magazine La revue 21 was created with the particular aim of using graphic novels as a medium of reporting. The result is a periodical graphic account of human rights abuses taking place across the globe, presumably the first such publication. This has led to the recent publication of ‘Grands Reporters: 20 Histoires Vraies, a collective work that includes authors such as Sacco, but also Guibert, Ferrandez, Tronchet and Stassen, under the rubric of reporting on ‘real life stories’ with a backdrop of political or military events or everyday hardship, and its perpetrators and victims.

Copyright J Stassen. From Deogratias: A Tale of Rwanda.
An English translation of a strip from Stassen’s ‘Deogratias: A Tale of Rwanda’. All rights reserved.

A question of seriousness

Yet despite the emergence of serious and important works in graphic format – for another excellent example see Stassen’s cross-temporal portrayal of the Rwandan genocide in Déogratias – graphic novels struggle to be taken seriously. In Journalism, Sacco, describes a meeting with Louise Arbour, then prosecutor at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), and Gabrielle McDonald then president of the ICTY. Sacco seeks to portray them in his depiction of the Tribunal (a follow-up to his work on the ground during the Yugoslav war) through interviews on the work of the institution as well as its aims. They responded with heavy scepticism, viewing ‘comics’ as not being of sufficient seriousness to depict the workings of the ICTY. They did not wish to support a medium that they believed might undermine the workings of international justice. Sacco expresses his exasperation, noting that the ending of his graphic snapshot of the Tribunal was somewhat spoiled by the absence of the viewpoints of the major actors within the Tribunal, which he had planned to include as his closing depictions.

In an analysis of the external perceptions of the sister International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR), Kingsley Chiedu Moghalu, Legal Adviser to the ICTR, demonstrates how the visibility of the Tribunal is relatively low. He asks: “But does the tribunal receive adequate coverage? The answer, nonetheless, is ‘no’. Many stories on the tribunal, because they are filed by wire agencies, are ‘spot news’ reports that lack depth, content, and context that would truly enlighten readers. Thus, while the ICTR may be widely reported, it is not reported in an in-depth manner except on an occasional basis.”

It would appear that graphic depiction of the workings of international criminal justice ought to be encouraged and supported, given its unique ability to provide “depth, content and context”. Yet Sacco’s meeting with Arbour captures the difficulties inherent in arguing for the importance of graphic reporting. There is a prima facie belief that graphic novels are not serious, in the way that newspapers or other reporting mechanisms are. In this sense, graphic novels are not afforded any human rights character or weight, and are considered merely as fiction. Sacco and others have to combat this perception and are doing so through continued reporting from situations they consider require it.

Overall the continuance and growth of graphic reporting points to a role that has not as yet been recognised, but is contributing to the array of human rights reportage and providing its own particular insights and testimonies. The mechanisms for human rights protection are constantly evolving, and subsuming graphic reporting will bring important and heightened exposure to the reality of human rights abuses around the world.

0 replies on “Human rights violations and graphic novels”

Graphic reporting would be an excellent tool to use as part of formative or summertime assessment for a children’s rights module – I will consider how to apply it to encourage students to reflect and evaluate upon their experiences, lens and position held regarding rights based pedagogy.

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