Comics as Witness and Testimony: An Interview with Jennifer Howell
By Rasha Chatta
Jennifer Howell is an Associate Professor of French and Francophone Studies at Illinois State University. Her research explores questions of immigration to France, representations of persecuted groups and individuals in the Maghreb, and the transmission of violent episodes posited at the juncture between the personal and the collective in the genre of comics and bande dessinée. She is the author of The Algerian War in French-Language Comics: Postcolonial Memory, History, and Subjectivity (Lexington Books, 2015), a major contribution to the fields of francophone postcolonial and Maghrebi comics, memory studies, and visual culture. It engages with the writing of contentious histories and collective memories through sequential storytelling, with focus on Algeria. Building on Hillary Chute’s seminal work, Howell is one of the leading scholars who have advocated for the importance of ‘seriously’ examining comics, a popular genre, in cultural and literary studies. Alongside Mark McKinney, Charles Fordsick, and others, Howell’s work points to the relevance of this medium within scholarly debates on France and its former empire, the francophone colonial and postcolonial contexts, and beyond.
On 3 August 2021, Howell delivered a lecture titled “Comics as Witness and Testimony” as part of MECAM’s Interdisciplinary Fellow Group I, “Aesthetics and Cultural Practice”, which hosts various projects concerned with the topic “Imagining the Future: Dealing with Disparities”. During the lecture, she gave an overview of her current research project, which examines the genre of comics in relation to the testimonial and witness bearing, and the related question of the representability and expression of trauma in the cases of Algeria and Morocco. In what follows, Rasha Chatta, a former MECAM Fellow, spoke with Howell about her research and the importance of comics.
Rasha Chatta: Thank you for a fascinating talk at MECAM and for sharing some of your latest research with us. Your current project engages with what has been termed ‘documentary comics’ or, put differently, comics as a vehicle/form/medium that allows bearing witness to historical trauma. Comics seem to be integral to exploring that which constitutes the invisible or obscured aspect of national histories (e.g., imprisonment, disappearance, torture, and other forms of state or public violence). First, I have some questions tied to the genre: how are comics able to ‘bring to visibility’ episodes that are often obscured or silenced in grand narratives, such as personal stories of state violence that are sensitive to tackle? How does the visual element contribute to that effect? And how is it different to other genres, say carceral literature or written testimonials, which have a longer and perhaps more established history in the region?
Jennifer Howell: I’ll start by stating that not all comics at the core of my scholarship were created in the digital age. Yet, artists working today are very active in the blogosphere. The online dissemination of comics – and, in particular, those that critique authoritarian regimes or bear witness to shared and/or individual experiences of political trauma – keeps pace with the general dissemination of information on the internet. The immediacy of personal blogs and social media allows artists to react to events in real time and in ways that can circumvent government censors despite laws and regulations that attempt to limit the political influence of online activists. Their international presence – and thus influence – continually fosters artistic collaboration while reimagining both the global and local parameters of civic engagement and citizen journalism. Tunisia’s Jasmine Revolution, Morocco’s February 20 Movement, and, more recently, Algeria’s Hirak Movement came under the international spotlight largely due to social media. As activists took to the streets, they brought their phones with them, producing user-generated content that quickly spread at home and abroad. However, like all forms of information, readers must still question source credibility and content accuracy.
Contrary to government-issued responses to protestors and the perceived objectivity of photojournalism, the political leanings of various comics and comics journalism are rarely hidden from the public eye. By way of example, the fact that comics integrate drawn images alongside and sometimes in lieu of the written word purposefully exposes that whatever information can be gleaned from them is decidedly subjective. While scholars have often commented on how comic artists strategically use the gutter (i.e., the blank space that separates frames presented in sequence) to help readers derive meaning from narrative gaps, I would argue that comics journalism allows artists and their public to explore the possibilities of narrative excluded from more traditional news coverage. Of this, Emmanuel Guibert, Didier Lefèvre, and Frédéric Lemercier’s Le Photographe (2003–2006) constitutes an excellent example.
That said, comics not initially intended for circulation online (e.g., Abdelaziz Mouride’s On affame bien les rats!, 2000) eventually make their way to cyberspace. These circuitous pathways often breathe life back into out-of-print publications whose content nevertheless remains relevant to contemporary audiences. And more than anything else, comics on political trauma show the public that which they were never meant to see. By way of example, Mouride’s black-and-white account exposes the torture, cruelty, and inhumane conditions to which he and his fellow inmates were subjected daily in secret prisons and detention centres. On affame bien les rats! belongs to the relatively large body of written testimony and carceral literature that, as you already know, has left an indelible mark on Moroccan literary history. Interestingly, Mouride, who was a founding member of the March 23 Movement, produced his narrative in prison from 1974 until 1984. He succeeded in smuggling his drawn testimony out of prison one page at a time. The work was eventually revised and translated into French before its publication in 2000. Since Mouride spent much of his sentence blindfolded and in isolation, the visual component of his narrative lets readers witness what he himself could only imagine.
In your lecture, you showed a selection of case studies drawn from a larger spectrum of comics that depict and are inscribed in the two historical periods delineating your research, namely Algeria’s Dark Decade (1992–2005) and Morocco’s Years of Lead (1956–1999). You explained that you’re invested in a comparative reading and analysis of the historical aesthetics and political significance of comics that document violations of human rights. The excerpts you’ve shown us reveal a variety of styles, aesthetic choices, formats, storytelling techniques and so on: is it possible to detect any major trends, aesthetic directions, and/or stylistic tendencies? How do you proceed with an initial categorisation of the works in your corpus?
Obviously, there are as many variations as there are artists, which makes a comparative study of their work profoundly enriching but, also, overwhelming. Add to this the current pandemic and shelter-in-place mandates. Artists are now producing more content on blogs and social media than ever before. Yet despite the sheer volume of comics on political trauma in the Maghreb, they share one essential characteristic: each artist struggles with how to effectively narrate events that defy visual and verbal representation. And while this is not necessarily unique to comics on North African history, it is interesting to compare how each of the artists I study contends with this particular narrative challenge – and perhaps this is a characteristic that also draws me to certain works.
I hesitate to say ‘resolves’ instead of ‘contends’ as these comics are all forthcoming about the limitations of representation. For some artists, like Jacques Ferrandez and Kamel Khélif, this surfaces as an abundance of black space (entire panels and/or pages). For others, most notably Nawel Louerrad and Khélif, we find human figures completely devoid of identifiable characteristics – or what Scott McCloud would describe as figures drawn with a low level of iconicity. According to McCloud, the more generic a figure appears, the more likely readers are to project their own likeness onto the page. Louerrad’s and Khélif’s comics may achieve this effect, but one could also interpret their stylised approach as the erasure of individual identities, as the result of the innumerable forced disappearances that would come to define Algeria’s Dark Decade and that may well come to define the government’s response to the Hirak Movement today. Omar D’s photography exhibit and resulting catalogue, Devoir de mémoire /A Biography of Disappearance, place particular emphasis on official identity photos of those Algerians who went missing or are presumed dead. Through the reproduction of hundreds of such photos, Omar D’s work actively resists state-sanctioned efforts to erase this chapter of Algerian national history from collective memory. In many ways, Khélif’s and Louerrad’s faceless characters demonstrate the extent to which the state has succeeded in implementing a politics of forgetting. And yet their faceless figures are also infinite, universal.
Mouride writes in his graphic adaptation of Mohamed Choukri’s novel, Le pain nu: “Yes, never again. Neither torture nor misery. But we still have a long way to go.” So, while the works included in my corpus certainly speak about the past, they are also forward-thinking; they serve as reminders to the public that political violence and the violation of human rights have yet to be eradicated.
To what extent do these comics contribute to what you qualify as “the development of a new ethics of historical representation”? How are the authors invested in engaging with readers, both on the socio-political and artistic levels?
Artists create comics for different reasons: some are interested in all things historical; others use the medium to explore the deeply personal; others still are highly invested in civic engagement, the pursuit of social justice, and the need for political reform. Regardless of the reasons, comics remain a ‘participatory’ medium that engages the reader in unique and innovative ways. The visual component, for example, speaks to both literate and illiterate populations. This is an important factor considering that in 2018 the World Bank reported that Morocco’s adult literacy rate was 74%, Algeria’s was 81% and, in 2014, Tunisia’s was 79%. These rates are of course relatively high compared to neighbouring Mauritania (53% in 2017), Mali (31% in 2020), Niger (35% in 2018), and Chad (22% in 2016). The World Bank also provides information about internet access, which is important when considering the impact of comics published on blogs and social media. 84% of Moroccans have internet access (based on data collected in 2020), 58% of Algerians (2018), and 67% of Tunisians (2019). As a point of comparison, 89% of Americans had internet access in 2019. For these comics to effectively develop a new ethics of historical representation – one in which counternarratives and alternative histories are considered alongside grand master narratives and founding mythologies – they must also be accessible to the public. Unfortunately, print editions of comics, especially those produced by regional publishers like Tarik Éditions (Morocco) and Barzakh Éditions (Algeria), tend to have smaller print runs and they are often too expensive to be affordable for the average reader. Artists like Louerrad, Zainab Fasiki (Morocco), and Othman Selmi (Tunisia) nevertheless maintain a strong online presence, making their work more accessible first to local audiences, but also to those around the globe.
Furthermore, readers must also decode – not just see – the visual elements of narrative, as well as its composition on the page. While Moroccan readers may readily understand Fasiki’s inclusion of Amazigh symbols, global readers may not. Of course, not all readers will try to learn about minority cultures of the Maghreb. But for those who do, Fasiki’s comics will have raised a small degree of international awareness about the politics of Amazigh identity in North Africa. In contrast, artists like Ferrandez integrate transnational cultural icons into their narratives. Indeed, readers are often drawn to his work partly because he reproduces iconic imagery in his own style. Certain segments of Retours à Alger, for instance, evoke scenes from Gillo Pontecorvo’s classic film, La Bataille d’Alger (1966).
Finally, the comics medium has its own unique grammar. Meaning lies not only in images, words, and their spatial configuration on the page, but also in all that is not drawn. Informed by Gestalt psychology, according to which the mind perceives images and objects as whole rather than as the sum of their constitutive elements, readers of comics can derive considerable meaning from what artists choose to exclude from narrative. Blank space, for example, requires readers to imagine spatiotemporal and/or causal relationships that link narrative segments, individual panels, and so on.
How can documentary comics, especially those that explore traumatic events, be read in conjunction with the process for transitional justice? What function, if any, can they serve?
As I mentioned earlier, some of these comics are invested in lobbying for future justice with their clearly articulated ‘never again’ stance. That artists such as Ali Dilem (Algeria) have been prosecuted for publishing political cartoons is a strong indicator of the power of comics and of the threat they represent to authoritarian regimes. Comics can effectively underscore the limitations of ‘History’ and ‘the Archive’, but only when they are carefully read in conjunction with other competing narratives. What function can comics serve in the context of transitional justice? I’m not quite sure – they can serve as a catalyst for change, but often at the expense of the artist. Only when such artists can openly exercise their freedom of expression without fear of retaliation will we recognise their society’s ‘successful’ transition from authoritarianism to democracy (or, at the very least, to a greater semblance of democracy).
 Nawel Louerrad’s, Les vêpres algériennes (2012), Kamel Khélif’s, Ce pays qui est le vôtre (2003), a collaborative album titled Algérie, la douleur et le mal (1998), Abdelaziz Mouride’s On affame bien les rats! (2000), and Jacques Ferrandez’s Suites algériennes 1962–2019 (2021).
Rasha Chatta is Research Associate of the Einstein Foundation based at the Freie Universität Berlin where she is completing a monograph on Arab comics and migration. She has published essays on migrant literary theory, Arab diasporic literatures and cultures, and Arab comics. Her research interests include visual aesthetics and memory, approaches to world literature, Arab migrant and diasporic literatures, ‘alternative’ archives, and war literature with a focus on Lebanon and Syria. Rasha serves as Chair of the MLA’s Global Arab and Arab American Forum. Previously, she was a EUME Fellow.
Further articles in the #Aesthetics&CulturalPractice thread of the #MECAM series on TRAFO:
Angela Rabing, Can Images Shape the Future? A Conversation with Director Abou Bakar Sidibé, 3 February 2022
Farouk El Maarouf, Coming to Terms with Marginal Art(ists) in Morocco, 17 February 2022
Teresa Pepe, Science Fiction and the Anticipation of the Future: On a Public Talk by Kawthar Ayyed, 1 March 2022
Citation: Rasha Chatta, Comics as Witness and Testimony: An Interview with Jennifer Howell, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 31.03.2022, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/34409