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Making the Invisible Visible
How graphic novels can contribute to the reconciliation process

Comics als Beitrag zur Versöhnung
© Photo by Zakaria Ahada on Unsplash

Reconciliation describes a complex concept of dealing constructively with conflicts and traumatic experiences. Comic narratives, as many authors in the history of the art form have demonstrated, can contribute to this way of grappling with the past.

By Lars von Törne

According to our common understanding, a first step towards reconciliation is being cognizant of past events so that we can grieve or ascertain the truth. In the history of comics, numerous works have contributed to this. One outstanding example is Keiji Nakazawa’s manga series Barefoot Gen (1976/1980) about the Second World War and the atomic bombing from the point of view of the Japanese people. Art Spiegelman’s Maus (1986/1991), in which the author worked through his father’s Holocaust experiences and their effects on the present day, is a modern classic. Many other authors took on this topic after Spiegelman, such as the Israeli illustrator Michel Kichka in his graphic novel Second Generation: The Things I Didn’t Tell My Father (2012). Sarah Glidden’s analytical autobiographical travel report How to Understand Israel in 60 Days or Less (2011), in which the US artist relates her own Jewish identity to the history of the state of Israel, can also be seen in this context.

What’s special about comic books like these is that the contemporary picture sequences depict events that are often long past and were not or only poorly documented by classic visual media such as photography and film. In this way, comics make the invisible visible. This is one of the special strengths of the art form, which can be of great importance when dealing with the past.

Many see a dialogue between victims and wrongdoers as the next step in the process of reconciliation. For the perpetrators this involves, for example, assuming responsibility and issues such as guilt and remorse. For victims, the focus is often on being heard, having a voice in the debate about the past and, ideally, experiencing the satisfaction of being able to correct or add to the story previously written by the perpetrators.

All reconciliation begins with a first step

Comics have always contributed to this as well. For example, in her graphic novel Irmina (2014) illustrator Barbara Yelin, inspired by her own family history, addressed the question of personal responsibility under the Nazi regime. In their biographical comic Nieder mit Hitler! (Down with Hitler!) (2018), Jochen Voit and Hamed Eshrat dealt with similar questions regarding the Nazi era and also East Germany. Gord Hill’s collection The 500 Years of Resistance Comic Book (2010) is an example of rectification of a historiography long dominated by one group. In it, the author and illustrator, a member of the Kwakwaka’wakw people living in Western Canada, pictorially summarized the history of the oppression of indigenous peoples by European colonizers as well as their resistance, which is meant to correct a one-sided and often wrong presentation of history.

The anthology This Place – 150 Years Retold (2019) has similar intention. In it, ten Canadian author-artist teams illuminate the history of their country from an indigenous perspective.

The meeting of the conflicting parties and reparations for the victims or their representatives and descendants are often seen as final steps in reconciliation. In order to contribute to reconciliation in this sense, comics need a corresponding resonance framework that affords them a greater impact beyond the personal reading experience. One successful example of this is Secret Path (2016), a multimedia project by musician Gord Downie and illustrator Jeff Lemire. In the graphic novel and accompanying music album, also published as an animated film, the two Canadians told the story of Chanie Wenjack, a boy from the Anishinaabe people who died in 1966 trying to escape from a residential school. This book is now used as a teaching aid by many Canadian schools, the proceeds of which go to a foundation that emerged from the project to bring together indigenous and non-indigenous Canadians with the aim of reconciliation.

Only a few comics have such an effect. But all reconciliation begins with a first step, and that is often the telling of personal stories – just like those created by twenty artists from Canada and Germany for this publication.