The first time I encountered Art Spiegelman’s Maus (1986 & 1992) was, as for many, a revelatory experience. During my studies I had mainly focused on the representation of genocide in moving images; films, documentaries, television programs. I prided myself of having gained something of a distance to my studied objects. I could look at a film about the genocide in Rwanda or Bosnia and maintain my academic analytical composure, not letting the images get to me too much. But then I opened Maus, which broke right through my academic filters, as did Jean-Philippe Stassen’s Deogratias, Jeroen Janssen’s Muzungu, Joe Sacco’s Safe Area Gorazde, Paolo Cossi’s Medz Yeghern and many other comics.
The impact of the medium made me exchange the realm of moving images for that of the static image, which is moving nonetheless. It is my firm belief that the medium of comics employs unique strategies in representing something as sensitive as a genocide and in trying to establish a connection with the reader. Every comic book that deals with genocide reinforces the idea that these strategies need to be analyzed systematically. My research project, titled Genocide in Comics, analyzes how genocides are imagined and represented in comics and connects theories from genocide studies and comics/media theory in a critical analysis.
The project revolves around a selection of comics that deals with three genocides: the Holocaust, Rwanda and Bosnia. It will systematically research the following questions through this corpus of comics: (1) How does the comics medium represent the highly sensitive historical reality of the genocides in these three locations?; (2) How is the narrative information presented through (a) the visuals; (b) the language; and (c) their interaction?; and (3) how does the subgenre relate to other types of ‘documentary’ comics and other representations of genocide in mainstream popular culture?
I will look at the visual and verbal “toolkit” used by comics artists and trace the use of elements like text balloons, pictorial runes (see Kennedy 1982, Forceville 2005 and 2011), onomatopoeia, the use of the gutter and the concept of closure as well as the interaction between text and image. By using a systematic approach when looking at these medium-specific elements, I hope to make generalizations about the strategies used in these comics, as well as highlight noteworthy contrasts and their effects.
Furthermore, I will take into account the specific historical, cultural and social circumstances of the genocide, analyzing how these elements find their way into the comic books and influence the visual and verbal toolkit employed by the comics artist. For example, I will look at how (and if) ethnic identity is portrayed, whether attention is given to the run-up to the genocide and/or the aftermath and how cultural context is incorporated into the comic book.
The relevance of this project lies in its connection of two seemingly divergent academic strands: comics theory and genocide (representation) theory. My aim is to bring these two traditions into conversation with each other, showing where and how these two studies connect in the comics at hand. A concrete example here is the tension of codes that is often discussed in comics theory, which aligns itself with academic attention for the tension of codes in genocide representations. In comics theory, words and images and the way they interrelate are a recurring subject (Hatfield 2005, Versaci 2007). Comics are “(…) heterogeneous in form, involving the co-presence and interaction of various codes” (Hatfield 2007 p.36). How do words, images, panels and page layout interact with each other and what interpretative options do they provide us with? The fact that different codes exist in comics implies the ever-present possibility of a tension between them, a choice to make them work for or against each other. The subject of genocide greatly enhances this tension between codes, in comics or other media, because of the sensitivity of its content. Genocide representations that feature a tension between codes or modalities immediately trigger questions of appropriateness and become the subject of (academic) scrutiny (think of the girl in the red dress in Spielberg’s Schindler’s List (1993), or the use of the visual animal metaphor in Maus). Both comics and genocide studies are thus prone to focus on the way different modalities interrelate.
In addition to the analysis of codes in the construction of representation, questions of (the degree of) identification and forms of narration are poignant and also connect both fields of study. The question of whether identification with comics characters is possible (McCloud 1993, Hatfield 2005, Versaci 2007) relates to the debates in genocide theory on the (im)possibility of truly identifying with and having an understanding of the genocidal events. The question seems to remain if it is possible to identify with the victims when the nature of their experiences is so traumatic. Both comics and genocide representations thus focus on the -seemingly problematic- connection between text and audience. The subject of “genocide comics” adds another dimension to this interaction between text and audience, because if it is unlikely that we identify with comics characters at all, how would it be possible for the medium to portray a horrific event like a genocide without completely losing its audience? It is therefore all the more important to research which narrative and medium-specific strategies comics apply to engage their readers. The main drive behind my research connects back to this question: when dealing with genocide in comics, what are the strategies used by comics artists to make a connection with their readers?
My corpus consists of a selection of comics about the genocides of the Holocaust, Rwanda and Bosnia. The choice of these three genocides is motivated by the number of representations of these genocidal events in comics and other media. This ties in with my third research question, which deals with the position of comics in relation to other genocide representations, such as in cinema. This comparison enables me to further investigate the role of the comics genre’s medium-specific characteristics in the construction of representation, while also studying the connection between different forms of mediation. In this context, it is also important to look at the use of dramatization and ‘the spectacular’ in representing genocide in comics.
One of the comics in my corpus is Jeroen Janssen’s 1997 Muzungu: Sluipend Gif (which, in a literal translation, would become something like Muzungu: Creeping Venom), which I would like to highlight in the context of my research, giving a concrete example of what these comics bring to the table. Jeroen Janssen lived and worked in Rwanda from 1990 to 1994. Janssen’s Muzungu (see figure 1) tells the story of Edwin (a “muzungu”, a white man), a Belgian aid worker stationed in a small village in Rwanda. The comic explores the run-up to the genocide and touches upon the genocidal events. Janssen’s style of drawing is the first thing that draws attention (see figure 2). It is rich, detailed, colorful and expressionistic, offering a wealth of information that requires decoding on the part of the reader. Many panels cannot be taken in in a single glance, they simply contain too much information. Colors are bright, popping out of the panel and the characters are often drawn with exaggerated (facial) features. Janssen’s use of pictorial runes also stands out (see figure 3). He uses big, bold, exaggerated lines and figures to express emotion or movement. The shock and surprise in the last panel of figure 2 is thus emphasized even more by this use of pictorial runes. Although this visual style is Janssen’s signature (see for instance Bakamé 2003), influenced by, amongst other things, African art and his earlier work with woodcuts, he also feels that a more clean and “traditional” style is too narrow to deal with “the themes of life” (in ‘t Veld. E-mail correspondence Jeroen Janssen, 26 August 2010).
Janssen’s signature style undoubtedly affects the story that is told, and more specifically, it affects the story of the genocide. His panels show a Rwanda that is slowly moving into a state of chaos. Janssen shows that suspicion, social tensions and corruption form a part of daily Rwandan life. The notion of a small rural village that is on a path to destruction is present not only in the narrative – a wealthy merchant poisons farmers to secure his position, we see Hutu extremism taking shape – but also in the visual toolkit used by Janssen. The richness of the panels shows both the beauty of Rwanda; its vibrant colors and breathtaking vistas, as well as the idea that it is hard to know what’s going on, to keep a clear propeller view of the events. The detailed and ‘loose’ visual style used by Janssen makes it hard to see the bigger picture, and like the characters in the comic book, we are immersed in the chaos of everyday life. On the one hand, we are aligned with Edwin and the other characters and we become part of this exuberant and chaotic world. On the other hand, we are also firmly positioned as outsiders through the use of language. Throughout the comic, Janssen includes phrases in Kinyarwanda, spoken by his Rwandan characters and at times by Edwin. However, Janssen does not always translate these phrases (see panel 1 and 3 of Figure 2), leaving the readers wondering what is said. This specific use of “coded” language intensifies the feeling of not-knowing. We are drawn into the story and we know there is something going on, but we do not always get all of the details. Like Edwin, we become outsiders, looking into a world we do not fully understand. We are the muzungus, immersed in the visuals but excluded through language.
Janssen, like other comics artists, does not eschew showing violence in dealing with the subject of genocide. In figure 4 we see how Joseph, a Hutu boy with a Tutsi mother, is killed by his fellow Hutu militia when he defies the order to kill his mother. Whilst the radio blurts out anti-Tutsi proclamations  (again, note the tension between text and image), the face of dead Joseph looks us right in the eyes. Interestingly, Janssen switches to black and white during this sequence. He states that the use of greys was done to make the story more accessible. However, he now regrets this choice, feeling that the sequence is too soft and could be more confrontational. The question of how to portray genocidal violence is one that comics artists have to grapple with. The degree of explicitness often varies, but the confrontation with the depiction of violence seems inevitable.
So what are the strategies used by Janssen to make a connection with the reader? Janssen does not provide us with an “easy” reading experience. We need to work when looking at the panels and we are not always positioned in a comfortable omniscient perspective. Although we know that the events in the comic will lead to a genocide, and although we see signs of the impending doom, we cannot help but be swept away by the chaos, becoming part of the world drawn by Janssen but also becoming an outsider through language. Genocide representation studies often focus on the notion of “finding an appropriate language” (Insdorf 2002). Janssen’s use of codes and his expressionist and rich visual and textual language might be considered inappropriate for the subject matter because of its unrealistic look, explicit violence and play with codes. However, I would argue that these are precisely the elements that draw us into the story, and that they are able to convey (part of) what it was like to be in Rwanda at that time. Janssen’s strategy is one of confusion through shifts between inclusion/exclusion, conveying the chaos and complexity of a society on the brink of a genocide, as well as showing the horrors of the genocidal events.
Forceville, Charles (2005). “Visual representations of the idealized cognitive model of anger in the Asterix album La Zizanie.” Journal of Pragmatics 37: 69-88.
Forceville, Charles (2011). “Pictorial runes in Tintin and the Picaros.” Journal of Pragmatics 43: 875-890.
Hatfield, Charles (2005). Alternative Comics. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi.
Insdorf, Annette (2002). Indelible shadows: film and the Holocaust. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Janssen, J. (1997) Muzungu: Sluipend Gif. Wonderland Half Vier Productions.
Janssen, Jeroen (2003). Bakamé. Oogachtend.
Kennedy, John (1982). “Metaphor in pictures.” Perception 11: 589-605.
McCloud, Scott (1993). Understanding Comics. New York: HarperCollins.
Spiegelman, Art (2003). The Complete Maus. London: Penguin Books.
Veld, Laurike in ‘t (2010). E-mail correspondence with Jeroen Janssen.
Versaci, Rocco (2007). This book contains graphic language. Comics as literature. London: Continuum.
Laurike in ‘t Veld is a PhD student at the University of Amsterdam and a lecturer in mediastudies, teaching courses on film, television and visual culture. Her PhD project, titled Genocide in Comics, deals with the representation of genocide in the medium of comics. The project’s focus is on comics about the Holocaust, Bosnia and Rwanda.
 – They’re everywhere, tear out evil by its roots! Do your duty and listen to our sympathetic rrrradio-television Mille Collines’