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When Comics Mirror Society

23 Nov 2017

By: Siobhan Brewood-Wyatt


On comics, literary theorist Edward Said wrote, “I don't remember when I read my first comic book, but I do remember exactly how liberated and subversive I felt as a result.” As a genre, comic books are a unique medium, which can “liberate” strict narratives and real-life events. Garnering a cult following in the 20th century, many comic book artists have used their creative skills to comment on society, from world wars to gender issues. To celebrate the exciting opening of THE WORLD OF TINTIN exhibition at the new ArtisTree, presented by the HOCA Foundation in collaboration with The Hergé Museum, we explore the intriguing relationship between comics and society. 


There are many examples of comics highlighting events contemporary to their time; from Tintin’s exploits in Russia in The Land of the Soviets (when published, this was a timely representation thanks to Russia’s increasing dominance in Europe) to Superman’s first appearance in 1938 as a “save-the-day-hero” antidote to a world hurtling fast towards World War II. 


And then there are the more controversial examples. In 1986, Art Spiegelman published Maus, which would go on to be the first graphic novel to win the Pulitzer Prize. Spiegelman’s absorbing and gritty postmodern work depicts the atrocities of the Holocaust using cartoon animals; Jews are portrayed as mice, Nazis as cats. Similarly, Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ acclaimed series, Watchmen, represents a post-Hiroshima world, which, when published in 1987, was a still-relevant and sensitive topic for many at the time.

Many see the [comic] medium as the only viable genre for representing truths
Some critics have argued that representing world events and social criticisms through cartoons and graphic novels is insensitive to those affected. However, many see the medium as the only viable genre for representing truths; placing events in such an unrealistic, meta-visual milieu enables readers to take a step back and truly contemplate what they are reading and visualizing, which presents a vastly different experience to being “told” through traditional genres like prose. This concept was summarised by critic John Blades in the Chicago Tribune following Maus’ publication: 


“On the face of it, a cartoon may not seem to be the most appropriate or compatible form to treat a subject as perilous and cataclysmic as the Holocaust. Yet Spiegelman’s deliberately crude illustrations do suggest the surreality of Polish life under the Nazis. In fact, they may do so [with] more verisimilitude and assurance, than many conventional books, movies, TV shows or stage plays.”


Since Tintin’s first escapades with the Soviets in the 1920s, many more comic adventurers have jumped from the confines of comic panels into “reality”, exploring controversial themes and topical issues. When Wonder Woman, long synonymous with female empowerment, was released, psychologist “Doc” Marston, who helped create the heroine, described it as “a great movement now under way – the growth in the power of women.” Similarly, the cultural portrayals in the Asterix series raised questions of stereotyping different cultures, particularly prevalent in a post war world; inevitably it grew criticism of being too monoculture by some.  


The HOCA Foundation, in collaboration with The Hergé Museum, presents THE WORLD OF TINTIN

Wednesday – Sunday, 17 November – 10 December at the new ArtisTree. Due to popular demand, the exhibition will be open daily from 11 – 26 December.

See the Tintin programme page for more details. 

 
Follow @artistreehk on Instagram for all the #tintin_Artistree action
 

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