Into the war zones

Political comic strips are still going strong, and a new compendium, Ctrl Alt Shift Unmasks Corruption, continues this trend by showcasing a range of artists who aren’t afraid to confront contentious issues. Yolanda Zappaterra checks it out

Since Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis burst on to the graphic novel scene nearly ten years ago, there’s been an explosion in graphic art that puts political and personal issues firmly in the spotlight, facilitated by digital publishing and online developments such as social networking sites and blogs.

Next week, an experimental youth initiative largely operating through such emergent media, Ctrl Alt Shift, will publish a comic book called Ctrl Alt Shift Unmasks Corruption, featuring the work of 20 emerging and established artists invited to participate by the book’s editors Paul Gravett, John Dunning and Emma Pettit, and one open-competition winner selected from more than 200 entrants responding to a brief and script written by comic artist, writer and musician Lightspeed Champion, aka Dev Hynes.

The publication of the book and an associated exhibition form part of the ICA’s annual Comica Festival in London, which explores all aspects of contemporary comic issues.

Here we talk to five contributors to the book, whose stories delve into everything from the real to the surreal, and the farcical to the apocryphal – from MP’s expenses and Silvio Berlusconi’s response to the recent Italian earthquake, to ambulance drivers in the pay of funeral parlours and corruption in the pharmaceutical industry. In addition, some of them have taken the opportunity to name their own heroes, whether emerging or established artists.

Familiar to fans of Barack Obama ephemera via his graphic novel diary of the president’s election campaign, entitled 08, Dan Goldman was an obvious choice for inclusion in Ctrl Alt Shift Unmasks Corruption.

For his six-page story he opted to simplify, echoing the wordless style of Peter Kruper in The System to tell the tale of ‘a single baby boy I called “Uninsured Male” and pushed through the American meat grinder’, he says. ‘It served as an excellent challenge, to bring across an abstraction using only visual narration. It was also an excuse to play with a comic-pages-as-tableaux idea I’d been thinking about before receiving Paul Garvett’s e-mail,’ he explains.

Heroes: Ulises Farinas, who experiments with form as he fills strange interior landscapes with sadness and childlike wonder. And Rami Efal’s magnum opus Seven Lies, which takes place in feudal Japan. It’s absolutely beautiful, heartbreaking and formalist all at once.

The creator of the graceful, elegiac Sound of Drowning strips, Paul O’Connell worked with documentary photographer Marcus Bleasdale on a story about the Democratic Republic of Congo.

‘I didn’t want to pollute what Bleasdale had captured in his images by adding text or any kind of personal narrative, and eventually decided to try to ‘remix’ those images in my own comic book way for a comic book audience, while also trying to express, in my approach, my own feelings of horror while engaging with the reality of the situation as I understood it.’

Heroes: ‘More than anyone I admire Sean Duffield of Paper Tiger Comics. He has been collating material for, and trying to produce, a high-quality international anthology of graphic work in this field for years now.’

With ‘a background of writing politically oriented comic strips including a cartoon graphic novel about Margaret Thatcher, I guess it was natural for Ctrl Alt Shift to approach me’, says writer Pat Mills, whose story Stars, drawn by Lee O’Connor, addresses the political corruption of Iran.

‘I have close connections with Iran and good friends who are Iranian, so I know about the situation there and how much of it is not finding its way into the British press. It seemed like a good subject to write about,’ he explains.

Heroes: Lee O’Connor, the artist who drew Stars. And Zograf from Serbia, who has also contributed to the comic and tells tales of everyday people living through adversity – real heroes are far more interesting to me than the costumed variety.

A teacher in Vancouver, Josue Menjivar came to his story of a military kidnapping in Vietnam through volunteering for a project that taught immigrant youth how to tell their stories in comic form. It’s a moving and expressive story that conveys simply and directly the horror of innocent terror in the face of lethal corruption, in a spare style that writing alone would be hard-pressed to express.

‘A comics artist can take the viewer right into the scene immediately. You can show emotion with a simple stoke of a brush or pen, and not spend several pages building up to that,’ says Menjivar.

Heroes: James Hindle – his storytelling is very strong and his loose art style lovely. I think he is going to be a superstar in comics. And Jenny Jaeckel has been doing mini-comics for quite some time. Her artwork is strong and her recent graphic novel was a powerful read.

Muslim Libyan Arab British graphic novelist Asia Alfasi found her metier and style via a library in Glasgow – ‘I found a manga series I recognised from my Libyan childhood: Ironfist Chinmi. I hadn’t realised that anime came in manga-book format, so that was a pleasant surprise, and I hadn’t realised that it wasn’t Arab – that came as a not-so-pleasant surprise,’ she says. Invited to take part in Corruption by Paul Gravett, she was initially ‘baffled as to what I might submit… the theme was massive’.

Alfasi eventually opted to tell the story of a Palestinian girl relaying on TV the loss of her entire extended family in a series of attacks, followed a few minutes later, on another channel, by an Israeli general denying the targeting or injuring of civilians. ‘Since then, the anger and frustration of biased media made me swear to translate the girl’s words and relay the story to the English-speaking world through the medium I use. And so this story is just that,’ she says.

The Ctrl Alt Shift Unmasks Corruption exhibition takes place at Lazarides Gallery, Greek Street, London W1, from 6-30 November

Dev Hynes plays a special Music and Comics night at the ICA as part of Comica Festival on 10 November

Ctrl Alt Shift Unmasks Corruption, the comic book, is available to buy in all good comic shops and from, priced £4.99

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