The World Through Graphic Novels

Some of the best travel writing of the 21st century has taken the form of the graphic novel.

It wasn't really until 1986, when Art Spiegelman's Maus was published - a tale inspired by Speigelman's Holocaust surviving father, in which Nazis are depicted as Cats, and Jews as mice - that graphic novels first began to be taken seriously as a medium for depicting historical and non-fiction events. This hugely successful work of art went on to win a Pulitzer Prize.

As graphic novels became increasingly popular as a medium for communicating often complex political, philosophical, psychological, and even scientific, ideas and issues, the form was inevitably adapted to a new kind of travel writing. Authors such as Joe Sacco (Palestine, Footnotes in Gaza, The Fixer: A Story from Sarajevo) and Guy Delisle (Pyongyang: A Journey into North Korea, Burma Chronicle, Jesrusalem: Chronicle from the Holy City) used comic strips to communicate a level of complexity and ambiguity that could not be imparted through text alone. Difficult and uncomfortable subject matter, that might otherwise have alienated casual readers, could be broached in a deceptively simple form that lured readers into worlds beyond their comfort zone.

Perhaps the most successful graphic novelist to have dealt with harsh historical and political realities from an autobiographical perspective is Marjane Satrapi, author of the hugely successful Persepolis (also made into a major animated film). Persepolis succeeded in introducing a mass audience to the horrors of Iran's recent history, through a deftly constructed collage of text and images that dealt with both the personal and political, with a style, subtlety and accessibility, which could never have been achieved through any other medium.

Graphic novels require readers to 'read' in a different way. They are required to fill in the gaps between panels, and absorb both text and images simultaneously. Such 'readings' facilitate the absorption of multi-dimensional, multi-faceted and multi-model narratives that many might imagine to be more 'poetic'. It has been argued that this form of communication more closely mirrors the shape of our thoughts. As text alone came to be seen as the only valid medium for serious thoughts and ideas, and the possibilities of a more primal visual language were obscured, it may well be that we lost touch with something communicable that is fundamentally human.

In many ways it has been comics and graphic novels lack of mainstream credibility that has given them their greatest power. In much the same way that court jesters in medieval Europe, puppetry in the former Soviet Union, or animation in the modern West, have been able to communicate uncomfortable realities that might otherwise have been censored, so graphic novels have been allowed to say the unsayable. If Joe Sacco had been a conventional journalist, rather than a graphic novelist, it seems unlikely that Israel would have permitted him the same level of access to the people of Palestine. I also doubt if Guy Delisle would have been able to communicate quite as candidly about North Korea - a country he would continue to work in as an animator - if he had relied upon the written word alone. As you might expect, the irreverent and irrepressible Persepolis was banned in Iran. More surprisingly, it was also removed from all classrooms in the school district of Chicago - "due to powerful images of torture in the book" - but not before it had been approved for use in thousands of schools throughout the USA. It seems unlikely that such a book would have been permitted to reach such a readership, in the first place, had it not have been a graphic novel.

Full Length Books

Tearing up the Silk Road

Two Globes A 100,000 word travelogue detailing a journey from China to Istanbul, through Central Asia, Iran and the Caucasus.

Click here to view more details and the original book blurb for the back cover. You could also check out some of my initial ideas for book cover designs, view the final printed cover and check out the slide show.

amazon.co.uk | amazon.com

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Voodoo, Slaves and White Man's Graves

My second full-length travel book revolves around an overland journey through Benin, Togo, Ghana, Burkina Faso and Mali.

The book is now available in both print and eBook editions. Check out the West Africa Photo Gallery to view some pictures from this journey or view the full print version of the book cover.

amazon.co.uk | amazon.com

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Free eBooks

Turkmenbashi's Land of Fairy Tales

A Short Break in Libya

To Camels from Cows: Algeria Overland

All of these short eBooks are available for free in a variety of formats for use on such eReaders as Kindle, Nook and Sony Touch. After downloading the books in Kindle, Epub, RTF, PDB or PDF format, they can then be copied over to the eReader of your choice.

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Contact Me

If you would like to get in touch, then you can me email me at tom@tomcoote.net