It's been an odd couple of weeks for freebie books here at Casa Comics Bulletin, as a series of graphic novels have showed up that all kind of coalesce around a theme: educational comics. And they've been a fascinating collection of material — as each one explores either history or its designated topic from its own unique angle. Each book is didactic and provides a detailed look at the topic that it explores, whether that topic is early American history, philosophy, a specific historical event… or the topic of today's book, a look at the story of African immigrants in Israel.
There are so many issues in the world that I simply do not know about. I consider myself to be a relatively well-informed person. I pay attention to the news, I listen to NPR frequently during my long drive into work. I read the news sites and generally do what I can in order to be plugged in to what is happening outside of my little household.
Then I read a zine like Miriam Libicki's Strangers and I realize how provincial my view of the world often is.
Libicki is a Canadian-based cartoonist who's self-published several issues of her comic Jobnik about her life as an American in the Israeli military, and about the frequent conflicts she felt between the dreams of a situation and its inevitable reality. Since returning to Canada (and having a baby), she has moved into creating comics that look at Israel from a distance and commenting on what is happening there — often with some real frustration with how the political situation in her adopted country has evolved in unexpected ways.
In this zine — a 20 page, 8½ x 11, fully painted piece — Miriam explores an issue that I had no idea even existed. Refugees from the horrific turmoil on the Sudan are arriving in Israel in large waves, and those waves of people are causing horrible turmoil in Israel. All summer long, the Jewish state has convulsed with tumult about what to do with these strangers in their beloved country.
The dilemma brings up so many contradictory thoughts for Israelis. As a country settled as a haven for refugees, how can Israel turn refugees away? But if those refugees are destroying the fabric of a relatively peaceful country, how can the country keep taking those people in? What is the responsibility of a country like Israel, sitting just barely on the edge of Africa, towards African refugees who walk thousands of miles to seek asylum in one of the few democracies in the region? Are the refugees really committing violence in South Tel Aviv or are the news reports being stoked by political opportunists? And maybe most galling, how can a country like Israel, with its history based in the Holocaust, actually talk about building refugee camps in which these Sudanese refugees will be detained for a period of years?
It's a mind-bogglingly complicated situation — one that would make Miriam feel conflicted and impotent if she lived in Tel Aviv. But she talks about how she feels far more impotent living in Coquitlam, British Columbia caring for her new baby and having trouble getting unbiased news from the region. What is the right response for someone who still feels an emotional connection to her second homeland? How much stake can she take in these events, and how much of her precious emotional energy can she devote to even investigating these issues, let alone take action?
We all want to do our part to change and improve our world, but in this case who even knows what the right thing is to do? What is the appropriate action to take? It's one thing to believe that Israel should take in as many immigrants as it can handle, but right there in that statement is the heart of the dilemma: how many immigrants can a fragile country like Israel handle, and what is the appropriate response when a loud but small minority of people can make the majority look terrible?
Yeah, that's a lot of depth for 20 comic pages to bring up. But Libicki does a nice job of conveying her personal and emotional confusion about what to do and helping the reader to understand this complex world.
The words and pictures are nicely combined in this book to add impact to each other. Miriam uses the two-dimensional space of the comics page to emphasize the complex nature of the events. There's a real energy to the looseness of her watercolors that helps to emphasize the uncertainty and immediacy of the situation, and the way she places text on the pages also gives the story real energy.
Strangers caught me in a strange way. I got much more than I expected out of this zine than I ever expected. It's not often you discover a new world in the space of 20 pages.
For more information on this book, visit Miriam Libicki's website.