The Power of Comics

So last night, Kevin and I went to a reception/dinner for the Iraqi sculptor and journalist, Ahmed Fadaam.

For those of you who don’t follow NPR obsessively, he was an artist, a native of Baghdad, who saw his studio and life’s work destroyed in the looting following the overthrow of Saddam, and began working as a journalist and translator, reporting the collapse of Baghdad and the attempts at rebuilding for NPR and the New York Times. You can read a much more detailed account than I can give–it’s a fascinating, frequently painful story, and his first-hand reports from Baghdad, "Ahmed’s Diary" would wake grief in a heart of adamant.

When Kevin found out that he had come to the US and was having an art reception, knowing how much I admired the man’s work, he got us tickets. I have mentioned before, I think, that Kevin is a keeper.

It was a lovely dinner, and–well, "moving" doesn’t even cover it. He was speaking about his latest sculpture, a copy of which is now on my bookcase, called "Grieving Woman." The inspiration was simple–on his beat, he would often see between sixty and a hundred dead bodies a day, and most of them were men. He said that at the morgue, or at the site of the car bombs, he would find their wives grieving, an image that got burned into his brain week after week, and which he tried finally to excise by sculpting it.

At one point in the dinner, as various people on the staff were chatting with the various guests, it came up in the usual fashion that I did comic books, and one of the producers said "Oh! You have to talk to Ahmed–he just got a deal with DC to turn the diaries into a graphic novel!" So when an opportunity presented itself, I went up and introduced myself, and congratulated him on the deal with DC.

This may sound like an insipid conversation starter, given the man’s life, but it’s very hard to fangirl over someone’s pain. Besides, I don’t know crap about war, or atrocity. Nobody has ever wanted to kill me. I make a living as an artist, but my hamsters-wearing-hats is so far from the sort of art this man is doing that calling them both by the same name is a tragedy of language.

Comics, though, I know. Comics I can talk about with anybody, anywhere, with enthusiasm.

And this quiet, soft-spoken man, who had been telling us matter-of-factly, without emotion, about the horrors of life in occupied Iraq, cracked a huge grin and practically bounced on his feet, and began telling me how excited he was, because he’d grown up on Superman and Batman, and to be working on a comic for those people…!

Here’s a guy who slept with an AK-47 next to his bed, in anticipation of somebody breaking into the house at any moment to kill him and his family. Here’s a guy who has seen more death and ruin come to his home than any human should see in a dozen lifetimes. Here’s a guy who had to flee his country because of death threats against him as a Western collaborator, who had been speaking about the resentment Iraqis feel towards Americans, who hasn’t seen his family in months, and cannot go and visit them because he will be denied reentry to the US if he leaves.

And he was excited to be doing a comic.

More than excited, he was suddenly animated, telling me about his art submissions for the proposal DC had sent him, and how he had taught figure drawing and how they were having to work out the art style for the comic, and then there was much mutual commiseration over illustration deadlines. "A hundred illustrations? Brutal!" "Eighty in six weeks? How could you see afterwards?"

This is the power of comics.

I have said before that readers will give you more and forgive you more, and feel with you more in comics than any other medium. And I still don’t know why that is. I’m an artist, even if most of it IS hamsters wearing little hats, and I’m a writer, and I have stared at the process from both ends, and three volumes of Digger* and an Eisner nomination and a graphic novel for kids with Penguin later, I still don’t know why. Whatever bizarre alchemy occurs between the word and the art, I cannot point to it and say "There. That bit. That’s why it works."

All I know is that it works, and comics have power. I gave up believing in magic–mostly–long ago, but if I had to point to somethingin the world that’s magic, it would be comics. They shouldn’t have such power. They shouldn’t be able to change the world. But they do.

Thank god.

*Four, once I get everything mailed off…

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