Traveling in Algeria is something Western governments strongly discourage. But for handful of comic book creators, a trip to an Algerian comics festival this past October became an eye-opening experience that emphasized the global appeal of comics.
"We were definitely aware of the risks," said Brandon Jerwa, an American comic writer who participated in the festival as part of a U.S. State Department trip. "Riding in armored vehicles that are routinely swept for bombs upon arrival at 'x' destination; having a military police escort for a day of leisure; being 'strongly advised' against leaving the hotel at night — these were all new things for me, but you come to terms with them very quickly."Yet Jerwa and Josh Neufeld — the two creators who represented the U.S. at the Algiers International Comics Festival — both noticed there were still a lot of common elements among people who make comics, no matter where they're from. Brandon Jerwa at a signing table "Despite the differences in approach," said Neufeld, "I found again and again that, as comics practitioners, we all shared the common language of comics."
Jerwa, who writes sci-fi and superhero comics like Battlestar Galactica and Mighty Crusaders, and Neufeld, who's best known for working on American Splendor with Harvey Pekar and A.D. — New Orleans After the Deluge, spent a week in Algeria as joint guests of the Algerian Culture Minister and the U.S. State Department, representing the U.S.A. at the Festival International de la Bande Dessinee.
They were joined by creators from around the world, including two they befriended because of a shared language: artists Nana Li and Paul Grist of the U.K.
The four English-speaking creators said the Algerian festival was very different from a Western comics convention, if for no other reason than the selection of comics.
"Being a French-speaking country, there were understandably mostly French comics available, but the manga wave has also clearly made its marks," said Li, who won a Tokyopop Rising Stars contest in the U.K. "There was very little along the lines Marvel and DC comics around."Paul Grist at a workshop "Not a superhero in sight," said Grist, creator of the unorthodox superhero series Jack Staff. "In fact, the only English language comics available were from our little enclave."
"There are some common threads in the medium, but I figured out very quickly that my work — which is just about as mainstream and commercial as you can get — was the exception rather than the rule," Jerwa added. "That was certainly a different experience."
For Jerwa and Neufeld, the trip didn't end with just the festival. They also represented the U.S. by spending an afternoon teaching at the art college Ecole des Beaux-Arts d'Alger, as well as participating in a live satellite conference with Iraqi political cartoonists.
"We did quite a bit of press, ranging from newspapers to the evening TV news, and Josh joined several cartoonists of different nationalities for a long session in which they drew cartoons depicting the day's news," Jerwa said. "These cartoon were published in the newspaper the next day."Grist, Nana Li and Josh Neufeld This concentration on political cartoons was the most noticeable difference among the people making comics in the Arab world, the creators said.
"Algeria has an interesting mix of French and Arab influences," Neufeld said. "The French influence has left them with a healthy interest in 'bandes-dessinees,' so their long-form comics tend to be in that European mode. The Arab world's love of political cartoons and editorial cartoons is also in evidence: there are over 80 daily papers just in Algiers, and each one has an in-house political cartoonist."
"This probably doesn't just apply to comics," Li said, "but my impression was that people were quite interested in other countries' political pasts and structures. Comics is just one more form where this can be explored. I say this is because, in a panel, I was asked about my thoughts on the difference between China's and Sweden's socio-political pasts against my background as a Chinese-born Swede. Oh, and the topic of the panel was 'Adapting novels into graphic novels.'"
Li said she also encountered several comics that told stories of political strife. "It could just be the selection for this festival, but many of the highlighted comics were made by people from countries with unrest and conflict in their recent past, and this was reflected in the topics of their work," she said.
Grist said one of the more telling differences he noticed came from one of his workshops. "For various reasons, [the workshop] had evolved into a drawing group for very young children. I'd have said under age 6. So lot's of typical children's drawings, with sunshine and houses and hills," he said. "That's what I got from one girl — and then her sister showed me her picture: a French helecopter flying in the middle of the page, being shot at by warrior on the ground, with a few casualties being attended to by the doctors in the ambulances. Now I would imagine that this girl was far too young to have actually experienced those events, but it certainly reminds you how much people's lives have been affected by the war."
Yet Neufeld, who has traveled to a variety of countries in the Middle East, said he's usually able to communicate with other comic creators through artwork.Jerwa does a sketch "Whether it was during workshops with Algerian students or collaborating with Lebanese cartoonists to illustrate a whole issue of an Algerian newspaper, I constantly found that we could communicate with drawings and humor," he said. "And it seems the world over that, when there's nothing else going on, a cartoonist's first instinct is to pick up a pencil and start drawing funny pictures of other cartoonists."
And although Jerwa was expecting "a major culture shock," he said the experience opened his eyes to the commonalities between cultures.
"The culture shock was there, but the things that we had in common with our international peers were just as surprising," Jerwa said. "It was really sort of enlightening to be able to communicate using the simplest touchstones — art, movies, music, food — with people from so many different countries and backgrounds."