Tuesday, October 11, 2022

Messages from Ukraine, in Comic Art Form

You have to give the University of Toronto Press credit for their faith in Ukraine. Even for “instant books” it takes weeks, more likely months, to acquire, edit, design, sell-in, and print a new title. Ukraine now appears to be winning back territory (so of course, Putin has responded with more war crimes), but the prognosis for the invaded nation was probably not as optimistic when this title started the publication process. However, it had an urgent point to make, which is still valid. Former Ukrainian participants in a Swedish program for migrant policy specialists (SAYP) react to the initial horrors of Putin’s invasion in Gregg Bucken-Knapp & Joonas Sildre’s graphic novel Messages from Ukraine, which is now on-sale at online booksellers.

When Putin launched his full-scale war, Bucken-Knapp and his co-workers immediately reached out to their Ukrainian colleagues, offering them shelter in Sweden, if they could somehow reach the Scandinavian safe haven. Many of the initial responses they received have been collected here, illustrated by Sildre (who also took an active curatorial role). Some decided to stay and fight, while others decided to flee—in a few cases carrying their pet cat or gerbil with them. For those under siege in Mariupol, it was already too late to leave. Some expats considered returning to fight, while others continuing applying their training to assist their own migrant countrymen in Romania, or other surrounding countries.

Frankly, the short
Messages (30-some pages of art, plus supplementary text) probably would have had more power if it had more fully developed two or three survivors’ narratives, rather than telling multiple sketches. People really need story and character development to move them to action. There are some viscerally expressive images in Messages, but its fragmentary nature limits its power.

Presumably, Bucken-Knapp & Sildre felt compelled to represent as a variety of voices, which we can respect. The results still have great value and timely significance documenting the shock and horror of Putin’s war—and the proceeds go the Canada-Ukraine Foundation, so it is an altogether worthy endeavor.

In a way,
Messages uses the comic art to speak to some of the issues addressed in Jonas Poher Rasmussen’s animated documentary FLEE, particularly with respect to the challenges human rights refugees face. However, Messages is much more focused on the war crimes that disrupted and dispersed so many Ukrainians. Given its graphic novel format, it should also generate publicity in the comics media, bringing the realities of Ukraine to readers who might need the reminder. There is also a useful timeline of the invasion, but the additional appendixes explaining the project’s creation and methodology are rather dry and academic-sounding.

Of course, the most important things are the art and the stories. Sildre’s less formally representative approach keenly crystalizes the emotional impact of Russian war crimes (committed with the collusion of the Belarus and Xi’s CCP, let us not forget). Recommended for the testimonies it illustrates,
Messages from Ukraine is now on-sale at online book retailers.