Doonesbury Goes to War, Part IV: Phred, B.D. and the Heartless Air Pirates.

Welcome back.

Last time out, I began writing about how Garry Trudeau addressed the immediate aftermath of the Vietnam war, looking at the experience of Kim and other refugees from Vietnam and Cambodia. The second part of that series is going to look at the ways in which two soldiers, Phred and B.D., adjusted to post-war world; the third is going to look at American foreign and military policy in the immediate post-Vietnam era.

But as I started to write that second post, sketching out some ideas about Phred’s post-war career as a re-education officer in a united, communist Vietnam, I realized that there were important parts of his story that I hadn’t looked at, and that I needed to finish telling the story of his war, and the story of the war more generally, before moving on.

Upon assuming office in 1969, Richard Nixon began implementing a policy known as “Vietnamization,” which involved cutting the number of American soldiers in Vietnam while building up South Vietnam’s ability to attain its military objectives. By 1972 – the year when B.D. served – the United States had withdrawn some 400,000 troops from Vietnam. As America pulled back from its commitment to fighting in Vietnam, Garry Trudeau shifted much of his attention away from the experiences of American soldiers to provide a running commentary on the war through the eyes of those who suffered the most during the conflict: the people of south-east Asia. His principal Vietnamese character, Phred the Viet Cong terrorist, was transformed from a sidekick to a spokesperson for a region that, even as the American presence was starting to shrink, was still suffering under massive aerial bombardment (in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia) in order to advance American foreign policy objectives.

GBT’s strips about the bombings marked a second major shift in how he covered the war in southeast Asia. When he started writing about the war, Trudeau used dark satire to underline the brutal nature of American militarism. When B.D. arrived in Vietnam, dark satire gave way to goofy humour that took a softer approach dealing with violence. The arrival of Phred showed readers that, despite the fundamentally dehumanizing nature of much of American discourse about the Vietnamese people (…a set of ideas that made war crimes such as the My Lai massacre possible) they were actually human beings with the full range of human emotions. And mothers.

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Phred’s reality. Doonesbury, 29 October 1972

Starting in October 1972, GBT stopped pulling his punches about the suffering caused by American aggression in south-east Asia. The Sunday, 29 October strip finds Phred in the jungle, writing to B.D. Using language that rarely appeared in the funny pages, Phred describes the “horror and agony of war”: “bombs rain daily” and his parents have again become refugees because his “hamlet was levelled.” While the strip ends on an uplifting note – Phred’s love of rock and roll helps “chase them naughty blues away” – it is fundamentally disturbing when compared to GBT’s previous Vietnam material. Death is no longer an abstraction: a familiar character is confronting it in a way that is much more real than we had previously seen. No softening, and no satirical exaggeration: people who, like us, love Elvis Presley records, are dying, and their homes are being destroyed.

Trudeau sometimes couched his increasingly pointed critiques of American actions n humour that played on the personalities of his characters. After Phred writes that letter to B.D., Boopsie interrupts B.D.’s huddle with the news that casualties from a recent American rocket attack on North Vietnam included cows, sheep, chickens and, worst of all, baby ducks. The punch-line is in Boopsie and Zonker’s reactions; two usually apolitical characters are shocked into understanding how horrible the war is because of some dead birds. A few days after this interlude, however, GBT gets real again. Zonker wants to talk with B.D. about how America has been bombing “schools and hospitals and defenceless hamlets.” Again, Trudeau is determined to use his voice to expose, in frank, clear, unambiguous language that was unique among syndicated comic strips, the horrors that were being done in the name of the American people.

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Baby ducks. Doonesbury, 30 October 1972

Shortly after the “baby ducks” strip, B.D. headed back to Vietnam – this time, not as a soldier, but as a tourist. His return visit allowed Trudeau to confront his readers with the helpless rage that the Vietnamese people must have felt as the American war dragged on with no end in sight. Foreshadowing Donald Trump’s vision of another communist Asian nation becoming a hot tourist destination, Phred invited B.D. to come see Vietnam before it was “spoiled” by the “tourists, resorts and hotels” that would come with the “impending threat of peace.” In fact, this was as much a planned exercise in consciousness-raising as it was a reunion of two war buddies.

Admittedly, the story of B.D.’s Vietnamese vacation was marked by the the goofy buddy humour that dominated his stint as a GI, much of which deliberately minimized the horror of the war: Phred admits to blowing up a man’s bicycle because he supported the Thieu regime, and he rejoices at finding his old desk in the bombed-out wreckage of his former school. We also get the incongruous images of B.D. and Phred getting drunk and singing Christmas carols and enjoying a gourmet meal in the middle of a war zone.

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Phred’s having a bad day. Doonesbury, 21 December 1972

But these moments of lightness stand in sharp contrast to what we learn about the horrors of the war as it was experienced by Phred and his people. Phred takes B.D. to visit his mother at a refugee camp; there is “destitution as far as the eye can see.” A few days later, B.D. and Phred get caught in an artillery attack. When B.D. suggests they help a wounded man, Phred lashes out, screaming that the man is “just ONE of the millions of civilians who have been wounded or killed” since the war began, a statistic that’s repeated in a strip that ran a week later. Trudeau wanted his readers to understand just how tragic the war was for the Vietnamese people. He also wanted them to understand something about the logic that drove their suffering.

As B.D.’s trip was winding down, Trudeau introduced two characters who, although they never directly interacted with Phred, represented the power that was systematically destroying his people’s lives and livelihoods. After an American airstrike forces B.D. and Phred to take shelter, Phred impotently screams his rage at the “heartless air pirates” who dropped the bombs: “I hope you can live with all the destruction and carnage you’ve brought to my little country!!” Meanwhile, the Heartless Air Pirates, several thousand feet above, are insulated from, and seemingly oblivious to, what is happening below them.

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Introducing the Heartless Air Pirates, Doonesbury, 29 December 1972

The appearance of the Heartless Air Pirates made GBT’s writing about Vietnam even more surrealist. War is a fundamentally insane endeavour, and the only way for the people tasked with executing it is to embrace the cognitive dissonance that defines existence in a war zone. Trudeau had already hinted at the insanity of the logic of American bombing in two throwaway panels earlier in 1972. Zonker reads that the Pentagon planned to drop 50,000,000 tons of bombs on Vietnam. The only rationale provided for this radical act of violence came from an official who justified it by reminding Americans that the lives of Vietnamese people were of exactly zero consequence: “Well, why not? You know? I mean, what the heck.” The Heartless Air Pirates allowed Trudeau articulate the gap between that bizarre logic and the ability of the people who had to operate within it to maintain their sanity. For America, the Vietnamese people were human beings of a lesser order, and their lives were secondary to strategic and geopolitical priorities: “In order to save the village, we had to destroy it.” The only way for the perpetrators to live within that logic is to do whatever they can to insulate themselves from it; but that’s only a stopgap measure. The inherent contradictions ultimately reinforce the systemic insanity. This was a key theme in 1960s and 1970s anti-war culture, as seen in popular novels and films like Catch-22 and M*A*S*H. Like Milo Minderbinder and Hawkeye Pierce, the Heartless Air Pirates know they are living with insanity, but as they attempt to make peace with that insanity, its depths are made all the more apparent because the contradiction is just too big.

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He was just askin’…Doonesbury, 30 December 1972

High above the carnage they cause, the Heartless Air Pirates have a perspective on the war that in no way reflects the reality below. One of them is touched by a recent gift he received: a copy of Jonathan Livingston Seagull. Two ideas about flight that were central to the culture of the era – the well-meaning, if somewhat empty-headed hippie idealism of Richard Bach’s poetic novel and a B-52 dropping tons of ordinance on peaceful villagers – are forced into the same frame, revealing the insanity of the times in sharp contrast. In their last appearance, the Heartless Air Pirates take “one last spin over the Delta,” because “it’s a beautiful day” to look at “some kinda country.” How that country looks, of course, depends on where you look at it from. The Heartless Air Pirates watch in awe as the bombs they drop “[catch] the sunlight as they [disappear] into the clouds,” leading something akin to a Fourth of July celebration; however, as one of them notes, things probably “looked different from the other end.” Phred’s impotent rage at the Heartless Air Pirates gives us a hint at how things looked from the other end. I have yet to find another widely-syndicated newspaper comic strip that did so much to force American readers to reckon with the human costs of what their government was doing in their name.

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Probably it did. Doonesbury, 4 February 1973

B.D., however, was not ready to reckon with what his country had done to the Vietnamese people; in the months following his Vietnamese vacation, he continued to wholeheartedly support the American war. The beginning of his reckoning with Vietnam would start when the last helicopters brought the last Americans off of the roof of the American embassy in Saigon, and the process would take decades; it’s still unfolding. Stay tuned.

Comics Review: First Year Out, a Transition Story

A while back, I reviewed Julia Kaye’s Super Late Bloomer, a comics journal chronicling the author’s early days in transition. On the heels of Kaye’s book, Vancouver’s Sabrina Symington has published First Year Out: A Transition Story, a comic about a woman’s experience with the process of gender transition. Like Kaye’s story, the story that Symington tells is one in which elation and heartbreak come at the heroine – and at the reader – in rapid alternation in response to the myriad victories, challenges and setbacks that are inherent to such a life-changing experience.

Sabrina Symington is a Vancouver, BC comics creator; her webcomic is Life of Bria. First Year Out, Symington’s first book, follows our heroine, Lily, as she as she adapts to living her life as a woman; the book is based on the experiences of Symington and her friends. From unwanted facial hair and other body issues that alienate Lily from her physical self to episodes of misgendering, rejection, and aggression from friends, family and strangers, Symington’s narrative reveals how, even in our comparatively enlightened times, trans people struggle daily with challenges that those who live in bodies that “match” our gendered identities will find difficult to truly appreciate. At the same time that she details the challenges and struggles that are inherent to the transition process, Symington also chronicles the rewards of Lily’s experience, notably the acceptance she gets from others and, most importantly, from herself. For all of the pain we see Lily experience, this is a story about human strength and perseverance and about the meaning of unconditional acceptance and love.

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Aside from being a profoundly moving story, First Year Out is a valuable text because it answers questions about the process of transition that both trans people first coming to terms with their own identity and the friends and families of trans women may have. Transition is a profoundly personal experience, and answering questions about it, even from well-intentioned loved ones, may not be comfortable for someone living it. From how tucking works to voice training to the effects of hormones to the recovery process following gender-reassignment surgery, Symington effectively educates her readers about the both the daily routines and the landmark moments that define Lily’s journey to living as the woman she is. Beyond that, much of First Year Out details Lily’s experiences with people whose hatred of trans women poses a genuine threat to the physical and emotional well being of people like her, including garden-variety bigots, TERfs, and chasers.

Transphobia is pervasive, as can be seen, for example, in our obsession with where people go to the bathroom. Yet while everyone who reads the news is familiar with that debate, the worst dimensions of transphobia too often go unmentioned. Trans people face a one-in-ten chance of being the target of violence every year, and nearly half of all trans people have experienced sexual assault in their lifetime. In one sequence, Symington reveals the psychological toll that living with the persistent threat of violence has on Lily. She can rarely afford to let her guard down, which has a significant impact on her ability to simply go about her day; she is conditioned to expect any encounter with a stranger to end in a confrontational or aggressive manner. Lily’s defensiveness is necessary for survival’s sake, but living like this prevents her from fully participating in her own community. In one scene, Lily steels herself for a torrent of abuse from a passing man, and is thereby prevented from accepting or reciprocating his friendly “Good afternoon,” instead assuring herself that the man must have been at least “probably thought something nasty.” This sort of social alienation is just part of the price paid by many members of marginalized communities, arguably none more so than trans people.

Everyday transphobia has been given a political and theoretical sheen by a subsection of self-described radical feminists whose concept of womanhood is inextricably linked to a narrow biological definition of who counts as a woman: these are the trans-exclusionary radical feminists, or TERfs (This a term that TERf’s consider to be a slur, though it accurately describes their ideology. Out of respect for Symington’s stated preference, I use a lower-case “f” here to represent how TERfs are, feminists in name only…). Lily’s mother struggles to accept her daughter for who she is in part because, by growing up as a boy, Lily has not had the experiences that are part of being a “real” woman. Lily’s mom is an old-school feminist who argues that Lily, having grown up “being conditioned by male privilege to have male thoughts … cannot actually ever understand what it’s like to be a woman.” Accused by her daughter of harbouring TERf ideas, Lily’s mom explores some of the discourse produced by the movement and is shocked to learn that people are accusing women like her daughter of being deviants, pedophiles and rapists. The come-to-Jesus moment that is sparked by this encounter with vile hate speech directed at trans women is a major landmark on Lily’s mom coming to a fuller understanding of who her daughter is.

Alongside TERfs, there is a community of men who also approach women like Lily with a fundamentally dehumanizing agenda. These are the chasers, men who fetishize women who have a penis (…or, perhaps more to the point, fetishize penises that are attached to women). Lily’s encounters with chasers reveal a tendency among men in that community to completely objectify trans women by reducing them to nothing more than what’s between their legs. Eager to find romantic companionship, Lily takes out an account at a website that caters to men who are attracted to trans women, but her inbox is soon overflowing with messages from men who are not interested in her, but only in one part of her body. This is particularly demoralizing for Lily, we learn, because that part of her body serves largely to underline her sense of alienation from her own body. When Lily finally does find intimacy with a man who is interested in her whole being, she asks him not to touch her between her legs because it “kills the mood instantly.” Perhaps one of the sharpest insights of the book is this exploration of what its like for Lily to live in a body that reminds her, at her most intimate and vulnerable moments, that it does not represent her real self.

Lily tries online dating after seeing a man who, although initially seemingly completely at ease with Lily’s identity, dumps her because he ultimately cannot accept the idea of dating a trans woman. As one friend of Lily’s puts it, like many men, the man’s own internalized homophobia prevents him from being able to allow himself to be involved with a trans woman, even as he likes her very much. Perhaps the most profound concept that Symington addresses is the complex relationship between the bodies we inhabit and the types of bodies we typically desire. Lily’s newly-found acceptance of her attraction to men in the light of having exclusively dated women when she lived as man is fascinating for how it captures the intensely complex nature of desire outside of a hyper-simplified model of two genders operating within a limited framework of orientations. For Lily, the question is less about who she wants to go to bed with as it is who she wants to go to bed as. Before reading those words, I had never really thought about sexual orientation as having as much to do with a person’s relationship with their own body as it does with the types of bodies they desire.

This insight is but one example of how Symington excels at teaching her audience about complicated ideas in a clear and accessible manner. The struggle for trans acceptance, both in terms of society’s ability to accept trans people and trans people’s ability to accept themselves, touches on profound social, political, sexual and personal questions. Symington addresses these questions in a clear, lively and direct manner. You should read this book.

Vietnam, the Aftermath: Part I, the Refugees.

Grandpa pissed his pants again
He don’t give a damn
Brother Billy has both guns drawn
He ain’t been right since Vietnam
— Warren Zevon, “Play it All Night Long.”

On 30 April 1975, the last Americans and some of their South Vietnamese allies were evacuated from the United States embassy compound as Saigon – soon to be renamed Ho Chi Minh City – fell to forces of the People’s Army of Vietnam and the National Liberation Front of South Vietnam (the Viet Cong), ending America’s twenty-five-year involvement in Vietnam’s struggle to liberate itself from first French, and then American, imperialism.

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Introducing Kim. Doonesbury, 5 May 1975

The Vietnam War remains one of the Boomer generation’s defining moments. John McCain’s recent death reminded America of the divides caused by that horrific war: while some mourned a war hero who endured years of torture at the hands of the North Vietnamese, we were reminded that, like many from his class, President Trump used privilege and a weak medical excuse to avoid the war. In a recent column marking the fiftieth anniversary of the 1968 Democratic National Convention, E. J. Dionne wrote that the Democratic Party “never fully recovered from the wrenching schism opened by the Vietnam War.” No matter how one experienced it, much like the Civil War, Vietnam will continue to shape America’s culture, politics, and self-image for decades after the last veteran, the last privileged draft-dodger, and the last peacenik have left us. Moreover, what the Vietnamese people call “the American War” will continue to haunt them in a much more intense way.

Five days after the last chopper left the roof of the American embassy, Garry Trudeau began writing about America’s defeat. In the weeks and months following the end of the war, at least four separate Doonesbury storylines addressed the war’s aftermath from the points of view of the Vietnamese people who managed to escape victorious communist forces, American and Vietnamese soldiers who fought the war, and the political class that conceived and executed what was, until the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, America’s worst foreign policy and military disaster. Well before Hollywood films like The Deer Hunter and Apocalypse Now began to dissect the Vietnam experience for moviegoers, Trudeau was using the funny pages to help America understand what Vietnam meant, and what it would mean going forward.

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Her, and the rest of the Vietnamese people. Doonesbury, 27 August 1975

On May 5, 1975, the last Vietnamese war orphan to be sent to the United States was flying across the Pacific Ocean to meet her adoptive parents, who would name her Kim. The first thing about baby Kim that must be noted is that she is, hands-down, the cutest character that GBT ever drew; Trudeau rarely does “cute,” but he nailed it here. Beyond her cuteness, Kim’s precocious self-awareness and political insight forced readers to confront the question of how to start understanding, and moving past, the tragedy of Vietnam.

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Kim understands her symbolic value… Doonesbury, 6 May 1975

First, Kim reminds us of the atrocities endured by the Vietnamese people during the American war. As a result of American aggression in Vietnam, children like Kim had “paid some pretty heavy dues.” After a life marked by “everything from malnutrition to mortar attacks,” it’s no wonder she was afraid that the raisins in her oatmeal were shrapnel. And as she reminds Americans of what the war cost the Vietnamese people, Kim also allows Americans to tell themselves that, by welcoming the people who suffered so much during the war, a degree of redemption was possible; as the nurse who accompanies Kim on her flight stateside tells Kim, she is “an important symbol of hope for the free world.” This gesture towards redemption competed, however, with a desire to consign the war and its victims to the past and move forward. While Kim embraces her symbolic value, her parents deny that there is any political significance in their decision to adopt her: it’s the “immediacy of her plight,” and not the fact that she is Vietnamese, that led the Rosenthals to adopt her. As much as it must pain the new parents, the question remains: have they adopted a Vietnamese baby as a means by which to “atone for our collective national guilt through individual action?” And while that question might be a “cynical” one, the reporter who asks it is not the only one to question the Rosenthal’s decision: Kim’s grandmother tells Kim’s mom that her presence will will “do nothing but remind you of the most grotesque war in our nation’s history.

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…but her grandmother has a different take on what that symbol means. Doonesbury, 15 May 1975.

It wasn’t just the motivations behind, or potential effects of, the presence of one orphaned baby that were brought into question following America’s defeat in Vietnam. Perhaps unsurprisingly, as Kim settles into her new digs, B.D. is upset that 100,000 people who “let themselves get beat” are being given refuge in America. Revealing how initially unpopular the idea of opening America’s doors to the people that the country had invaded, occupied, and ultimately failed, the normally reactionary B.D. had an unusual ally. Jerry Brown, the liberal governor of California, attempted to halt the arrival of Vietnamese refugees, citing both California’s unemployment rate and the fact that the state already had a large Hispanic population as reasons why the presence of Vietnamese people would have a negative effect on his state.

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Mike sees things differently. Doonesbury, 3 June 1975

And yet, while many Americans now celebrate the Vietnamese presence in the US as evidence of America’s ability to incorporate immigrants into the national fabric, in 1975 Garry Trudeau was not hopeful about the Vietnamese who had come to America. To be clear, he said nothing that reflected the nativism of Governor Brown and his supporters; rather, GBT could only see an insurmountable wall, caused by years of American lies and aggression, separating the Vietnamese refugees and their new compatriots. The gap is evident in the exchange between Mr. Duy, a Vietnamese refugee, and the American family who invites him over for drinks; awkward comments and equally awkward silences seem to show us that Trudeau had strong reservations regarding America’s ability to understand, and accept, these newcomers.

Trudeau’s treatment of the arrival of Vietnamese refugees in 1975 mirrors an previous arc he drew two years earlier, this one about Cambodian refugees. In 1973, Phred the Viet Cong terrorist took some well-deserved R&R in Cambodia. After visiting a camp for refugees fleeing America’s “secret bombing” of Cambodia, Phred brought some of them to Washington to testify in front of the Senate Armed Services Committee.  Unlike the Vietnamese refugees who would arrive two years later, the Cambodians were warmly received in America, and housing a refugee became something of a status symbol among the DC upper crust. [29NOV73] On the other hand, like the Vietnamese refugees, the Cambodians found themselves sharing awkward silences with their American hosts, as the cultural differences between the two often seemed insurmountable. Like Mr. Duy with his American host, Lol Nol Tol finds himself in an uncomfortable social encounter with an American with whom he seems to share little common ground.

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Not a lot of common ground here. Doonesbury, 6 June 1975; 30 November 1973.

But while the Cambodians and the Vietnamese seem to have little in common with their American hosts, there was a possible bridge: a shared love of that great equalizer, American consumer culture. American culture – specifically culinary culture – was woven throughout the Cambodian refugee arc. The Cambodians were smuggled into the United States in empty Coca-Cola crates; Lol Nol Tol’s host is uncertain whether or not Minute Rice would be to his taste; a senator’s secretary treats 300 of the Cambodians to lunch at McDonalds’s. For people for whom food is a pressing concern, American plenty has its appeals.

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Hold the pickle. Doonesbury, 28 August 1975

 

It was consumer culture that paved the way for Kim’s eventual acceptance into American society. Her introduction to American patterns of consumption appalled her – her parents gave her a plate that held “enough … to feed all of Danang” – but she quickly embraced those patterns as the key to adapting to life in her new home. Her first words, much to her parents’ excitement, were “Big Mac,” and her love of corporate advertising became something of a running gag for Trudeau. When I first read these strips, I read them as a basic critique of the all-encompassing power of consumer culture and advertising, and I think that still holds true. On the other hand, it’s also possible see these strips as a nod at how that culture can make it easier for people from diverse backgrounds to find their way into a new setting. GBT might have issues with consumerism, but he also recognizes its basic appeal and the ways in which people can make their own meanings of it, as Kim did with her own brand of “free verse.”

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Kim’s free verse, Doonesbury, 5 October 1975

In a previous post, I argued that Phred humanized the Vietnamese people to comics page readers. His role as a someone who reminded Americans that those who were most affected by American war-making in south-east Asia was made explicit in the Cambodian arc: he brought the Cambodians to the United States to show Americans that they were “not just so many small yellow people, but rather we are human beings like themselves who only ask for a small chance at happiness.” Kim, also hoping for “a small chance at happiness,” joined the cast as a symbol of American failure and a desire to atone for a profound wrong. However, reactions to her presence, and that of other refugees, demonstrate that many Americans were eager to forget the whole sorry episode of Vietnam, and that the racism at the heart of the American war on Vietnam would continue to shape relations between the United States and the Vietnamese people. That said, Kim’s longer arc reveals Trudeau’s ultimate faith in America’s ability to live up to its stated values. Later strips showed that Kim’s road to acceptance in America did not always run smoothly; as a teenager, she was singled out for classroom and schoolyard abuse growing out of stereotypes about over-achieving Asian-American kids. However, her ultimate role as an anchor for Doonesbury’s titular character is a sign that, in the decades after what remains America’s most grotesque war, for some, a degree of healing was possible.8DEC73

It’s pretty simple. Doonesbury, 8 December 1973

Next time: the soldiers and politicians on both sides of the Vietnam War try to move on.

 

 

Comics Review: “The Young C.L.R. James: A Graphic Novelette.”

C.L.R. James (1901-1989) was a Trinidadian-British Marxist and pan-Africanist historian, writer, political theorist and activist. If you’re a halfway serious student of twentieth-century radical thought, you know that already. If you’re not, here’s a quick, and incomplete, summary of his achievements: His 1936 novel Minty Alley was the first novel published by a West Indian living in Great Britain. Two years after publishing Minty Alley, James wrote The Black Jacobins, a history of the Haitian Revolution that remains a critical touchstone in Africana studies; he also wrote the first history of the Communist International. His 1965 semi-autobiographical meditation on cricket, Beyond a Boundary (check out my review here) was an early exemplar of a new field of intellectual inquiry that emerged in the 1960s, cultural studies.

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Beyond his literary and scholarly achievements, James was at the forefront of some of the twentieth century’s key liberation movements. A tireless champion of the oppressed, he mobilized resistance to European colonialism in Africa and the West Indies starting in the 1930s, and spent fifteen years in the United States organizing working people. In the 1960s, he became an critical touchstone to a new generation of Black activists looking to understand, and ultimately topple, racial and class oppression, and he remained an active thinker, writer and speaker up until his last years. Reading James’s work and life story, what emerges is a vision of of freedom in which the popular masses liberate themselves; James was, in the truest sense of the word, a democrat who never lost faith in the ability of the common man and woman to understand the dynamics that kept them down and to work in concert for total liberation.

This vision of the capacity of regular people to work towards a future in which they are truly free is a central theme of Milton Knight’s new comics biography of James, “The Young C.L.R. James: A Graphic Novelette,” published by PM Press. Knight is a comics creator, animator, illustrator, writer and fine artist from Mineola, New York. “The Young C.L.R. James” reflects his maxim that “Art springs first from an observation of life, then a philosophy from the heart and mind of the artist.” Knight has obviously read James’s life and work closely, and the observations he has taken from his study are clearly informed by a set of political values that he shares with his subject. Knight’s book highlights the idea that the way to freedom lies not with following a vanguard leadership, but with the collective self-actualization of the popular masses.

The Young C.L.R. James” reads as a single chapter from what I hope will be a longer project that will cover the entirety of James’s life and legacy. The book follows James’s life from his early childhood to the 1936 production of his play (written in 1934) about Haitian revolutionary leader Toussaint Louverture. It also features a short vignette on swing music and dancing, an aspect of American culture that fascinated James. A brief introduction by James scholars Paul Buhle and Lawrence Ware provides background information about James’s life, work, and his broader historical context.

The Young C.L.R. James” begins with a encapsulation of the first chapters of Beyond a Boundary, in which James recounts his youth in colonial Port-of-Spain. James was a leading figure in the anticolonial movement, and yet he was, in many ways, the proud product of British imperial culture. To him, such touchstones of English identity as Shakespeare and Thackeray were parts of an intellectual heritage that spoke to the revolutionary potential of the people. In a talk given in Montreal in 1966, he argues that dialogue delivered by servants in King Lear reveals “the role of the peasants in the crisis of society.” [1]

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Wright’s dynamic style captures the sense of movement that defined James’s vision of the West Indian people.

James’s understanding of the possibilities for liberation that were embedded in colonial culture emerged most strongly in his passion for cricket. As Knight argues, cricket was introduced in colonial societies like Trinidad to “indoctrinate” colonialised people “with the values assuring that they will be ‘good’ subjects under British rule.” However, James understood that cricket gave the West Indian people a stage on which to show the world their innovative spirit and ability to excel on their own terms. Cricket is central to James’s, and Knight’s, recounting of the development of James’s racial consciousness: as young man looking for a cricket team, James had to navigate a complicated caste system in which skin colour and social class, as much as athletic skill, determined where one could play. Ultimately, a comment from the West Indian cricket great Learie Constantine – “You have it all wrong you know … They are no better than we.” – shocked James into awareness, and marked the start of his commitment to the anti-racist/anti-colonialist cause.

Cricket allowed James to understand how everyday West Indian people expressed their revolutionary nature within a context determined by imperial power. His novel Minty Alley further explores the daily culture of the Caribbean people, depicting the quotidian lives of those on the margins of colonial Trinidadian society. As Wright emphasizes, Minty Alley reflects James’s growing fascination with the question of the possibilities for liberation that dwelt within the popular masses. After finishing the novel, James left Trinidad, joining Constantine in Lancashire; as James writes in Beyond a Boundary, “the British intellectual was going to Britain.” [2] (Christian Høgsbjerg’s C.L.R. James in Imperial Britain, which I review here, is an excellent overview of James’s political development in those years.)

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Paul Robeson as Toussaint Louverture

While he was in the UK, James wrote a biographical play about Toussaint Louverture that starred the African-American actor and activist Paul Robeson. The last few pages of the comic are a brief recounting of the Haitian Revolution drawn from James’s script, ending with Toussaint’s death in a French prison. Again, in this episode, Knight brings us back to the central idea that emerges from his reading of James’s work: as Toussaint reflects on a white man spouting the alleged biological reasons underpinning white supremacy, he realizes that “If the negro is to be set free, he must free himself.” The only people with the power and insight to bring down oppression are the oppressed.

My favourite James quote comes from Beyond a Boundary. The West Indian people, James wrote, were, on the verge of their political independence, “moving too fast for any label to stick.” Knight’s work effectively captures the dynamism that James points at in this analysis. Whether in his triptych rendering of a batsman in full swing or a two-page dialogue-free sequence depicting James talking to – and ultimately being seduced by – the people he would write about in Minty Alley, Knight’s drawings capture a sense of movement that was central to James’s conception of freedom and progress. I’ve read a few comics biographies of political, intellectual and literary figures likes James, and these often end up being text-heavy efforts in which the artwork may complement the words, but does little to open up an expressive space in which the artist can move the reader to a deeper understanding. Knight’s decision to forgo huge blocks of text in favour of using his amazingly expressive imagery to show the reader – and not just tell the reader – where James came from and what he wanted to say makes this book a must-read for both people who have never heard of C.L.R. James and serious James scholars.

*

[1] C.L.R. James, “Shakespeare’s King Lear,” in You Don’t Play with Revolution: The Montreal Lectures of C.L.R. James, ed. David Austin. A.K. Press, 2009. p. 84.

[2] C.L.R. James, Beyond a Boundary (50th Anniversary Edition). Duke University Press, 2013. p. 111

[3] James, Beyond a Boundary, p. 148.

Comics Review: Julia Kaye’s Super Late Bloomer

VANCAF – the Vancouver Comic Arts Festival – is where I often learn about comics and creators that might otherwise fly underneath my radar. My personal highlight of the 2018 edition of VANCAF was discovering the work of the Los Angeles-based cartoonist Julia Kaye. The strips she had on display immediately caught my eye, as they perfectly embodied the ability of comics to put words and images together and express something that neither can on their own. Her work takes maximum advantage of the unique synergy of the medium: the whole is so much more than the sum of the parts. Her drawings are simple, and she uses as few words as possible. But while Kaye gives the reader only as much visual and textual information as they need to grasp her message, her work has an emotional impact that belies the seeming simplicity of her visual aesthetic.

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The comics Kaye had on display were from her recent book Super Late Bloomer: My Early Days in Transition, a collection of diary-style comic strips that chronicle her experience with gender transition. Kaye’s style may be simple, but her work addresses an issue that is laden with complexities. Her genius – and I don’t use the word lightly – enables her to tell a deeply personal story with heart-wrenching immediacy. But beyond her ability to tell a profoundly moving personal story, her work has critical social and political implications.

Kaye is the creator of a comic titled Up and Out, which is available on two platforms: a GoComics page and a Tumblr page. This review, however, only addresses her book, which stands on its own and doesn’t require any other reading for context.

Super Late Bloomer is a series of daily strips covering five months in 2016, each strip focusing on a particular moment, event, or insight as Kaye embraces life as a woman. Kaye typically follows a three-panel format, which doesn’t give her a lot of room in which to explore the issues that arise, and yet each strip has a clear emotional impact. The format makes me reluctant to classify Super Late Bloomer as a memoir in the strictest sense of the word: while the book proceeds in a chronological fashion, the strips are more a series of distinct reflections than they are a unified narrative. Kaye lets us in on the quotidian challenges, setbacks, and victories she experienced during a crucial period in her life. The strips address topics like the emotional blow that comes with episodes of misgendering, the frustration of dealing with the bureaucracy of changing one’s name, the discovery of sometimes unexpected allies at family gatherings or in a cosmetics shop, and moments in which Kaye realizes that the acts that help her embrace her womanhood, such as wearing makeup, have become routine. Each strip has a sense of resolution, but those resolutions are as likely to be uplifting as they are heart-breaking. Sometimes Kaye celebrates a moment in which she overcomes an internal or external obstacle that she has encountered. On the other hand, she sometimes suffers difficult setbacks as she works to accept herself for what she is and struggles against people and a society that fail to see her for what she is.

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Some strips express deep pain and frustration…

Ultimately, this book is about acceptance; Kaye’s journey to self-acceptance, and her struggle to be accepted by world that too often rejects people who challenge our preconceptions about how people are supposed to live their lives. Sometimes, for Kaye, the former brand of acceptance is armour against the absence of the latter. And this is where I see this book as profoundly political.

Radical liberation movements like abolitionism, the civil rights and Black Power movements, multiple waves of feminism, anti-colonial and Indigenous rights movements and the struggles for gay and lesbian equality do more than strive to end the oppression faced by a particular group for at least two reasons. First, they force societies to interrogate and ultimately discard the intellectual and conceptual frameworks that justified the oppression of a targeted group. Second, they force societies to confront, and ultimately acknowledge, the full humanity of people who had been historically been excluded from enjoying that status. The struggle for trans acceptance requires us to shed concepts and constructs that have been with us for so long that they are considered “natural.” The gender binary is fundamental to our concept of what it means to be a human being, and to how our society arranges itself. As I finished the first draft of this review, a friend on social media posted a video taken at a “gender reveal” party for a family member who is pregnant (It’s a girl, apparently). Before we even come into the world, people are put into boxes that are determined by physical markers, whether or not those markers accurately reflect the human being who inhabits that particular body.

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…while others are amazingly uplifting.

The movement for trans acceptance forces us to examine the fundamental “truths” that inform cultural, legal, political, economic, and social structures that shape who we are and how we live. This is not easy to do. Trans identity not only unsettles the status quo, it challenges elements of even the most radical political ideologies. The existence of TERFs – trans-exclusionary radical feminists, a movement that seeks to delegitimize trans women– reveals how deeply the gender binary is baked into how we see ourselves and the world we inhabit.

The act of existing as a trans person is a profoundly revolutionary one, and requires an incredible amount of courage. Kaye’s elegantly-delivered insights help us understand the challenges of being trans and the stakes of the trans struggle, both for the people living that struggle and for a society that will have to radically overhaul itself so that trans people may be fully accepted. The stakes of Kaye’s struggle are huge for her, but they’re also huge for those of us who are committed to building a truly just society.

Comics convey meaning in a direct and intimate way while requiring that readers actively engage with the material in front of them. This makes them an ideal medium to help readers grasp challenging ideas, arguably better than text alone, or passively-received moving images. Kaye combines words and pictures to create a whole that is so much more than the sum of its parts and tells a story that is intensely human and ultimately deeply political. Read this book.

“Just Some Silly Dame”: Boopsie Takes a Stand.

In a previous post, I discussed how the 1971 arrival of Nicole as a semi-regular cast member signaled an important shift in Garry Trudeau’s approach to writing about women. Before Nicole joined the cast, women in Doonesbury were either sexpots who existed solely to fulfill adolescent sexual fantasies or pathetic figures to be ridiculed because they were too unattractive to be desired. Nicole’s presence as an independent, thinking woman who was sharply critical of the cluelessness expressed by Mike and the other male denizens of Walden campus paved the way for Doonesbury to become an explicitly feminist strip.

That said, one of GBT’s most prominent female characters (possibly the woman he has drawn the most, but I haven’t counted) troubles the strip’s long-standing reputation as a feminist bastion on the funny pages. I’m talking of course, about Boopsie. Yet while Boopsie was portrayed for decades as an empty-headed sexpot, she too eventually became the kind of strong, self-reliant, independent woman that typifies Doonesbury’s female cast.

Sometime in the 1990s I stopped keeping up with Doonesbury compilations; I still read the strip every day without fail, but I no longer went through the archives on a regular basis. As a result, I’ve discovered a number of mis-rememberings on my part as I reread strips for the first time in decades. One such “false memory” was my belief that Boopsie’s transformation from being the butt of “dumb blonde” jokes to a strong, independent female character happened rather abruptly after B.D. lost his leg in Iraq in April 2004. I was wrong. Several months prior to that moment, Boopsie revealed that she had already become much more than the naive eye-candy that Trudeau had portrayed her as throughout much of the strip’s history. The event that fully marked this transition was Trudeau’s unflinching look at rape culture in college athletics.

Barbara Ann Boopstien (Originally Boopsy for a few strips until the more familiar spelling settled in) joined the cast on 15 September 1971 as B.D.’s girlfriend. Boopsie was a perfect match for B.D. He was the vain dumb jock, the star of the football team, and the kind of guy who only saw women as potential conquests. Boopsie was a cheerleader, an empty-headed sexpot, a stereotypical “dumb blonde” who was, like many of the woman in Doonesbury’s pre-Nicole/pre-Joanie days, little more than an eager object of male desire. 16SEP71

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Boopsie was in many ways a holdout from GBT’s frat-boy cheap sex humour days. Doonesbury, 16 September 1971 and 1 October 1971.

After Trudeau’s 1980s sabbatical, B.D. took an even larger role in Boopsie’s life: he became her professional manager as well as her life partner. In his absence, however, she took her first steps away from her “dumb blonde” persona. When B.D. was reactivated to fight in the 1990-91 Gulf War, Boopsie, in the absence of her husband and manager, began to exercise agency in a way she never had before, over her career and over the sexiness that had long been her defining characteristic. Boopsie’s discovery that B.D. had cheated on her while on R&R cemented her commitment to no longer allow men to treat her as a doormat; she laid down the law with her husband and made it clear that she would no longer allow herself to be disrespected.

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This was a big change. Doonesbury, 17 April 1991.

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No longer B.D.’s doormat. Doonesbury, 17 August 1991.

On 11 November 2002 – Veterans’ Day – B.D. learned that he was again being reactivated, this time for the impending invasion of Iraq. In order to ensure that B.D. not lose his job as head coach of Walden College’s football team in his absence, Boopsie proposed that she take the job on an interim basis. Boopsie’s clever reasoning relied on her reputation as an unintelligent woman: because she was a “just some silly dame,” she figured, the team was bound to keep losing; while an interim coach who led the team to victory would likely be offered the job on a permanent basis, Boopsie’s presumed failure would keep B.D.’s position intact.

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Smart. Doonesbury, 13 November 2002.

Before taking up the coaching mantle, Boopsie already had a history with the team; many of the players had followed her acting career and actively lusted after her.  Boopsie’s first practice as coach the team went just like we might expect – she showed up wearing a sports bra, much to the players’ approval. However, GBT opted not to take the obvious route and run arcs that focused on the team being distracted by Boopsie’s sexiness; rather, we only catch up with the team at the end of their championship season, one complete with a bowl invite.

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Her reputation preceded her. Doonesbury, 29 March 1999.

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Oh, God, indeed. Doonesbury, 1 March 2004.

After the following season, with B.D. fighting in Iraq, the Coach Boopsie storyline took a dark turn as Trudeau addressed an issue that had been hiding in plain sight for years as we had followed B.D.’s attempts to recruit players for Walden: sexual assault in college athletics. On 1 March 2004, an anonymous woman – we see her only in silhouette – placed a letter in Boopsie’s mailbox; the letter, which we never get to read, accused members of the football team of sexual assault. We later learn that the woman who wrote the letter was “not the first woman to come forward,” and that the assaults took place at “recruiting parties.” B.D.’s professed ignorance of what took place at the parties angers Boopsie, but B.D.’s refusal to believe her, and by extension the women who were raped, is not the only resistance that Boopsie faces as she fights for the team’s victims. Against B.D.’s wishes, Boopsie suspends Walden’s football program, a move that causes a campus riot and leads to President King firing her.

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B.D. knew. Doonesbury, 3 March 2004.

Looking back, one wonders if, in the years leading up to the crisis, GBT hadn’t been creating background for the story behind Boopsie’s brave decision. B.D. certainly helped create the conditions that led to Walden football’s rape crisis. He told one recruit that should he be “accuse[d] of date rape,” Walden would “set [him] up with a top legal team” and a “publicist to get out [his] side of the story.” B.D. also fostered a culture of inappropriate sexual behaviour in the locker room: when he announced to his players that Boopsie would be taking over, the squad’s first concern is whether or not team’s regular pornography viewing session would continue under her leadership.

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Walden’s got your back, Son. Doonesbury, 25 March 1998.

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That’s probably a bad idea. Doonesbury 15 November 2002.

Trudeau wrote the arc in response to an unfolding sexual assault crisis at the University of Colorado,  where, among other abuses, “sex parties” were part of the football team’s recruiting strategy. While UC ended up paying a large settlement to some of the university’s victims, the case did little to reduce sexual assault in the world of college sports. In recent years, we’ve learned that college athletic programs are still experiencing, facilitating, perpetuating, and covering up sexual assault in epidemic proportions. The examples are far too numerous to mention. As I write this, Representative Jim Jordan (R-OH) stands accused of turning a blind eye to a years-long pattern of sexual abuse of Ohio State wrestlers . Two Midwestern universities that I have a personal connection with had appalling controversies when I was on campus. While I was doing my Ph.D. at the University of Michigan, the college was under investigation for its handling of the sexual misconduct of a football player. While I attended Michigan, my partner attended Michigan State. We lived in East Lansing and Lansing for four years; I wrote the bulk of my dissertation at a carrel in the MSU library, and I made many close friends in the MSU community. I don’t need to remind you of the horror show that was unfolding on campus the whole time.

On the funny pages, as in real life, little good came out of Walden’s crisis. A press conference held by members of the football team revealed how sexual assault had been normalized on campus, complete with standard blanket denials, the singling out of “a few bad apples,” and a persistent inability on the part of men to understand the meaning of a simple two-letter word: no.  Meanwhile, President King empaneled a task force whose findings were predetermined, and the campus community branded Boopsie a “head case” for thinking that a zero-tolerance policy on sexual misconduct was a reasonable solution. B.D. was never held accountable for his role in the crisis: the man who had, at best, turned a blind eye to endemic rape in his program and refused to stand by his wife when the shit hit the fan remained in charge of the program.

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My dog understands what “NO” means. Just sayin’. Doonesbury, 12 March 2004.

Trudeau’s decision to not address this part of B.D.’s past when he returned to Walden’s sidelines could well be excused as another continuity slip in the strip’s long history – there have been a few, and I’ll write about them at some juncture. In the years following Walden football’s rape crisis, GBT has continued to address the topic of rape culture, with examples ranging from the characterization of noted sex criminal Arnold Schwarzenegger as “Herr Gropenfuhrer,” a giant hand that wallows in inappropriate comments about women to, of course, his chronicling of Melissa Wheeler’s recovery from being raped by her commanding officer in Afghanistan. Recently, Boopsie expressed her concerns about her daughter Sam’s potential interactions with young men who lack “impulse control.”

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The “new” Boopsie is pretty awesome. Doonesbury, 17 May 2004 and 15 July 2018.

When B.D. lost his leg in Iraq and then developed a severe case of PTSD, Boopsie was saddled with responsibilities that no person can ever prepare for, and, as we will see in future installments, she revealed levels of strength and wisdom that would have been inconceivable for earlier iterations of her character. No longer B.D.’s arm candy, she truly became his right hand, an equal partner in a family’s struggle to endure tragedy. That said, before those tragedies struck, her response to the tragedies experienced by the unnamed victims of Walden’s football team showed us that she was already another one of the strong, independent, and insightful women of Doonesbury.

 

Comics Review: Zerocalcare’s Kobane Calling

Kobane is a city of about 40,000 people in northern Syria; it is the administrative capital of Rojava, a multi-ethnic self-declared autonomous region that Kurdish nationalists claim as part of a greater Kurdistan. The city was besieged by ISIS militants in July 2014 and liberated by the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) and their all-woman forces, the Women’s Protection Units (YPJ), six months later. The YPG/YPJ are closely associated with the PKK, a Kurdish nationalist movement that has been classified as a terrorist group by Turkey and the United States. In 2014 and 2015 the Italian cartoonist Zerocalcare traveled in Turkey, Iraq, and Syria and visited Kobane (most English-language sources render the town’s name as Kobanî, but I will stick with Zerocalcare’s preferred spelling) to document the struggles of Kurds and the Turks and Arabs who support them to create a new type of society in what they hope will one day be an independent Kurdish republic. The book Zerocalcare wrote about his experience, Kobane Calling: Greetings from Northern Syria,  (Lion Forge Press) is one of the most outstanding works of graphic journalism that I have ever read.

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What drew Zerocalcare to Kobane is not a story about national liberation, but one about a revolution seeking to create a just and egalitarian society. The people fighting for Rojava govern their society according to a social contract built on the empowerment of women, ethnic and religious plurality, socialist economics, and environmental protection. These are not values that we in the West typically associate with Middle Eastern political movements in the age of Islamic fundamentalism. Zerocalcare wants to “defend … a model of peaceful coexistence for the entire Middle East, if not the world” and makes no secret of his belief in the Kurdish cause. He sees the people of Kobane as “a beacon for humanity” whose struggle “should be aided, defended, [and] supported.”

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Commander Nasrin of the YPJ

Witnessing the suffering and struggles of the people of Rojava as they confront the Turkish government on the one hand and ISIS on the other, Zerocalcare comes to understand that “even the guy who seems like some boring old accountant … has had a life that makes Die Hard look like a kid’s party. And makes you feel like the village idiot.” We have grown numb to the horrific crimes committed by ISIS, a movement we think of as a horde of “sadistic savage bloodthirsty marauders.” This perception not only reduces a complex regional conflict to a simple tale of good versus evil, it obscures important political dynamics. ISIS commits mass atrocities informed by their particular brand of fascistic, fundamentalist Islamism; they also destabilize strategic regions to the advantage of other powers, notably Turkey, a country that, as Zerocalcare documents, may work selectively with ISIS in order to strike at the Kurds.

Many of the YPG/YPJ fighters that we meet joined the movement to seek refuge from and strike back against violence and oppression. However, it was not ISIS terrorism that had shaped their lives: in fact, much of the horror Zerocalcare reports on was inflicted not by ISIS, but by Turkey, a NATO country and a key partner in the campaign against ISIS. Ezel, Zerocalcare’s principal contact with the YPJ, was imprisoned at age thirteen for protesting laws that banned people from speaking Kurdish in public. Three years later, she witnessed a friend being shot dead by Turkish police. Another young woman fled to join the PKK after being sentenced to ninety-eight years in prison for attending a protest against a plan to develop a green space. Other women fled to the YPJ to flee gender-based violence and the patriarchal structures that traditionally dictate their lives, as in the case of one young woman who joined the movement to escape being forced into an arranged marriage.
The space in the Venn diagram where Turkey’s geopolitical position overlaps with gender informs what Zerocalcare calls the “Great Mesopotamian Hoax,” an intellectual move that allows the West to separate the “good Kurds” – women fighting ISIS in Syria – from the “bad Kurds” – bearded “terrorists” fighting Turkey. Zerocalcare’s main goal in writing this book is to debunk that hoax and reveal how the Kurdish struggle has, as a foundational value, the the liberation of women, and men, from the political, social, and cultural forces that oppress them, whether that oppression comes from the Turkish state, ISIS, or the internal dynamics of Kurdish society.

The PKK’s focus on female emancipation and empowerment not only informs structures of daily life like work and marriage; broadly feminist values also inform their approach to politics, war-making and community relations. Lessons about gender equality and female empowerment are as much a part of the soldiers’ training as learning to clean a mortar. As Commander Nasrin, head of the YPJ says, each trainee has to “learn how to kill the domineering male inside us and others … and challenge age-old relations between men and women.” This is “the foundation of the revolution.” Moreover, the movement prioritizes protecting civilians – women and children – from the effects of the conflict. They have a strict policy of avoiding civilian targets; one YPJ fighter tells Zerocalcare that soldiers won’t pick fruit from civilian-owned trees so as to protect civilians from Turkish retribution for supporting fighters.

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Feminist values are at the core of YPG/YPJ politics

The woman-centric aspects of the Kurdish movement complicate standard Western narratives about women and Islam in the Middle East, narratives which have little room to account for women exercising political and social agency. From women being driven out of the public sphere by the Taliban in Afghanistan to women being taken as sexual slaves by ISIS, protecting women has been a key part of the discourse justifying Western aggression in the Muslim world. Yet in Kurdistan it’s Muslim women who have made many of the sacrifices to remake their world as they see fit. “What,” Zerocalcare wonders as he learns more about the role of women in the Kurdish revolution, “do we have to teach them again?”

I read Kobane Calling after reading Sarah Glidden’s Rolling Blackouts, another work of graphic journalism that covers developments in the Middle East in the years after the formal end of the Iraq war. While the two books have different points of focus – Glidden’s principal concern is Iraqi refugees and the journalists who document their stories – they both shed light on the widespread regional instability that developed in the wake of the illegal and failed American invasion of Iraq. Read together, both speak to the vast possibilities of graphic journalism. Stylistically, the two artists occupy very different spaces. Unlike Glidden, whose drawing and text are are subtle and understated, Zerocalcare takes full advantage of the reality-bending aspects of comics art. By using a bold, cartoon-y style that highlights comic exaggeration, asides to the reader, and pop-culture references, Zerocalcare conveys the fear, excitement, dread, uncertainty and occasional joy that he and his subjects feel in an an immediate and dynamic way and encapsulates complex political, social and historical dynamics in a way that lets him move the narrative forward without having it bog down in background information.

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Zerocalcare’s style blends critical analysis of his journalistic skills with self-deprecating humour

While Zerocalcare’s stylistic approach is very different from Glidden’s, Kobane Calling, like Rolling Blackouts, blurs the line between journalism and memoir by making the creator of the book a central character. Like Glidden, Zerocalcare documents the fear, self-doubt and occasional joy that he experiences travelling through unfamiliar and sometimes dangerous settings and interrogates his motives, skills, and methodology. He also acknowledges the imitations posed by the comics medium, which does not favour text-heavy explanations, and is open about how he had to engage in “exercises in narrative synthesis” that alter [the book’s] fidelity to reality.” Moreover, both writers, in a direct and self-conscious way, document their struggles to overcome the ignorance that shapes our shared understanding of the people, cultures, and history of the Middle East. Neither of these writers position themselves as experts on the people and events they are covering. Rather, with both books, the reader feels as though they and the creator are on a shared learning curve, both figuring things out as they move through the story. Zerocalcare’s humorous style in particular lends itself to this sort of self-examination; throughout the book, he pokes fun at himself for his lack of skills and knowledge as well as for fore endearing qualities such as his addiction to Kurdish chai and his inability to develop a taste for Kurdish food, notably the fact that they eat olives or lentils for breakfast, a true affront to his Italian culinary sensibilities.

Yet as he jokes about lacking some of the skills that more conventional journalists might take for granted, Zerocalcare is sharply aware that by reporting on the YPG/YPJ, he is taking on a weighty responsibility, in that a screw-up on his part could well endanger the lives of his subjects. The Kurdish movement faces formidable opponents, and information about Kurdish fighters and activists falling into the wrong hands could place them in peril. When Zerocalcare and his travel partners enter Turkey, their carelessness leads to a list of contacts within the Kurdish movement being seized by border authorities. He draws on his imaginative style as a way to circumvent unintentionally identifying people who are potential targets of the Turkish state: in one sequence, contacts are rendered as a hunk of goat cheese and some olives, “glorious symbols of Kurdish identity and how the Kurds don’t know how to have breakfast.”
As he blurs the line between journalism and memoir, Zerocalcare also blurs the line between journalism and advocacy. He is asking for two things: one for the Kurds, and one for us.

For the Kurds, Zerocalcare is calling for the international community to follow through on the often empty commitments that Western voices make regarding our expressed desire to see women in the Islamic world live better, freer lives. While nightmarish visions of ISIS, concerns for women’s welfare, and heroic images of Kurdish women fighters all shape Western discourse about the region, we are doing precious little to support the Kurdish women fighting ISIS. At a Rojava graveyard we see Kurds, Arabs, Assyrians, Muslims, Christians, and Yezidis grieve for loved ones who died fighting ISIS, a movement that we call an existential threat to our values and security. Absent from the scene are those who scream the loudest about religious wars in the Middle East: us.

Zerocalcare is also urging us to open our minds to the possibilities being articulated and made real by the YPG and the YPJ. Faced with war and massive bloodshed, the Kurds nonetheless actively expand spaces in which community and democracy may take root and thrive. Meanwhile, we in the West have, since the attacks of 2001 made Islamist terrorism a global concern, only become more atomized and have lessened our own commitments to freedom and democracy in the face of challenging times.

What do we have to teach them again?

If you’re at all interested in better understanding the Syrian crisis, are a fan of comics journalism, or a lover of comics art and good storytelling, take the time to read this book.