Many consider comics a childhood distraction, corrupting youth towards a world of violence and superheroes. This specificity excludes a large selection of works that transcend such a narrow description, but which can still be defined as a comic. In Scott McCloud’s comic Understanding Comics: the Invisible Art, he seeks to expand the definition of comics to include Egyptian heiroglyphics, graphic novels, sequential artwork and many other sub-genres among this realm. He stresses a scholarly definition of comics as “juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence, intended to convey information and/or to produce an aesthetic response in the viewer” (9). The author intends to provoke certain reactions based on how he or she expresses the characters’ emotions and which senses are called forth from the readers.
However, comics lack objectivity and fail to produce only one clear-cut aesthetic response. Each image can elicit a variety of interpretations based on an individual reader’s background knowledge and personal opinions, as one’s culture shapes him or her to see the world in certain ways and to draw meaning from physical stimuli. As McCloud states, this phenomenon of “observing the parts but perceiving the whole” (63) is called closure. One’s social context and background heavily influence this learned process; “a single image can serve a multitude of purposes, appear in a range of settings, and mean different things to different people” (Sturken 10) based on how the reader constructs meaning from the material world.
The graphic novel Deogratias: A Tale of Rwanda by Jean-Phillippe Stassen depicts the traumatic effects of the Rwandan genocide on a teenage Hutu boy, also named Deogratias. Deogratias’ sober thoughts are plagued by nightmares and hallucinations about his actions during the genocide. Throughout the graphic novel, Deogratias’ flashbacks touch upon the terror and cruelty synonymous with the time, although the author does not lay out exactly what happened. It is evident that Deogratias was complicit in the murders of his Tutsi friends and the rape of their mother, but the full extent of his role remains ambiguous. Thus, the reader also undergoes closure to take away meaning from the various images.
The cultural bias inherent in closure is perhaps even more severe when focusing on a subject like the Rwandan genocide, because it is such a personally tragic and polarized historical event. Moderates became radicalized, neighbors murdered neighbors and the lines were blurred between victims and perpetrators. The graphic also depicts the Western powers’ roles in the tragedy. Thus, every reader of this graphic novel has some connection to the genocide. Objectivity is not, nor should be, possible when describing such a historical event; merely observing the facts and figures cannot bring justice to the victims because they reduce individuals to numbers on a page.
Deogratias sheds light on the complexities by addressing the conflict through the eyes of a perpetrator. Thus, the reader can gain some insight into the mind of a moderate Hutu when his or her own experiences likely differ dramatically. The comic’s form and depiction of Deogratias further contribute to this effect because it allows the reader to analyze the story’s content from another lens by reducing the identification between the reader and the graphically-depicted character. The drastic difference in subject portrayal creates the sense that it is a new story, despite plenty of media attention on the Rwandan genocide and publicized stories of survival. Although the vast majority of people recognize the cruelty and horror that characterizes the Rwandan genocide, Stassen’s use of different subjects and contexts is somewhat shocking to the reader and causes him or her to follow the storyline closely, rather than assuming the events will be similar to those told in other genocide testimonies.
The complex emotions and thoughts that a reader experiences when reading Deogratias merely touch upon the complexities involved in the entire conflict. However, they certainly challenge the notion that there is an objective, black-and-white way to view and process the historical event. The graphic novel highlights the devastation that plagued the entire nation, not just the Tutsis, and the variety of different roles that factored in to create such a tragic event in world history.
Stassen, John-Phillippe. Deogratias, A Tale of Rwanda. (Macmillan, 2006).
McCloud, Scott. Understanding comics: The invisible art. (Massachusetts: 1993).Sturken, Marita, Lisa Cartwright, and Marta Sturken. Practices of looking: An introduction to visual culture. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001).