A veteran photojournalist on the arts and entertainment scene, Julian Bynoe is a Toronto-based cartoonist, artist and arts blogger. From 1996 to 2014, he was the arts/entertainment editor for the street publication The Outreach Connection, and has had articles featured in Realms Magazine, among others.
Rolling Blackouts: Dispatches from Turkey, Syria, and Iraq
by Sarah Glidden
304 pp., Drawn & Quarterly/Raincoast Books
Graphic Novels and Comics/Non-Fiction – Current Events/Comics Journalism
Practically almost a decade after her critically-acclaimed autobiographical debut How to Understand Israel in 60 Days or Less on her sojourn through the Jewish state that left her more conflicted between her roots and her leftist beliefs, award-winning cartoonist Sarah Glidden returns to the Middle East for Rolling Blackouts: Dispatches from Turkey, Syria, and Iraq in her continuing to understand the complicated and volatile region as a whole with clarity, but leaving with more questions than answers that aren’t easy to find in its geopolitics.
Now working as a comics journalist for the independent alternative news blog The Seattle Globalist, for this book she goes on a two-month journey to Turkey, Syria and Iraq in 2009 to get the other side of the “official” six o’clock news that became embedded and sanitized as American government mouthpieces since the War on Terror began. Glidden joins her journalist friends Sarah Stuteville, Alex Stonehill and Jessica Partnow, mainly to get a sense of how journalism basically works.
Along with the news crew is Dan O’Brien, a childhood pal of Sarah and Jessica, who initially protested against the Iraqi War with them, then actually served two tours of duty there later as a Marine; who wanted to get a civilian look at his “contribution” toward the downfall of Saddam Hussein for the most part in coming on the trip. Meeting with numerous refugees from the region looking to resettle in Europe or America, they find a lot of complications and politics involved. But much to their surprise, it’s not the poor and downtrodden – with a few exceptions – that have become the refugees, but mainly it’s the middle- and upper-middle class citizens that lost their lifestyles and influences in the wake of the invasion, with few that stay in a host country until the conflict is over but would rather move on instead of waiting months, years or even decades to do so.
One of the cases written here and the most bizarrely complicated and tragic, is of Sam Malkandi, an Iraqi Kurd whose long story went back to the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s that took him from being a refugee in Pakistan and waiting there for over a decade to come to United States. Living the American Dream with his family, he got exposed in a little white lie he told to the UN refugee board in his application about being a political refugee in Iraq (when he wasn’t); plus somehow was (innocently) connected to an al-Qae’da operative and the 9/11 attacks which got him deported back to what is now Iraqi Kurdistan, but still yearns for the day he would be able to return to the States and reunite with his family.
And the conflict in the book isn’t all political, but personal. Sarah Stuteville locks horns with Dan at times when she wants him to open up on his wartime experiences and feel some remorse of being part of the military-industrial complex that created the mess that followed since, yet he finds a sense of firm resolution despite some kind of residual guilt lingering; that frustrates Stuteville even more in contrast to the post-boomer generation that fed off the hippie counterculture of non-violence and peace and whatever childhood memories remain between them; not to mention of where they get a close-up and ugly view of their country’s foreign policy results.
Rolling Blackouts is an ode and treatise to investigative journalism seemingly endangered of what has changed and what hasn’t for the fourth estate in the age of the internet that Glidden tells in an easy and detailed manner in her soft watercolours for such heady topics, given with a little humour and drama in between. The book also looks back at a pre-Arab Spring Middle East, especially when they tour the police state Syria was under Bashir Assad before the horrific Revolution that has now turned the state into rubble.
There is a sense of nostalgia in reading all this now before the Arab Spring and the fallout that followed, which included the rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria and their expanded role on the stage of global terrorism and the state of journalism in finding a place for a society now entrenched in thirty-second attention span sound bites and fast-food format of the news. It’s been said that truth is the first casualty of war. Rolling Blackouts’ unsung newshound heroes and heroines poses that question that one of them finds comfort in is thus: “The best we can hope for is that the story gets passed along.”
Prison Industrial Complex for Beginners
by James Braxton Peterson
160 pp., For Beginners/Red Wheel/Weiser
Graphic Novels and Comics/Non-Fiction – Political Science and Social Policy
Currently over two million Americans are incarcerated in its vast prison network, mainly made up of African-Americans that make up approximately thirty-seven percent of the prison population (U.S. Department of Justice, 2014); more than any industrialized country in the world. It can be further argued on whether the U.S. penal system leans towards a racial bent, but more so over towards a capitalist one in James Braxton Peterson’s Prison Industrial Complex for Beginners where he gives a broad and fair debate on how its correctional system does very little in rehabilitating criminals and more into how much profit it can churn out from the everyday services we unknowingly rely on.
A director of Africana Studies and associate English professor at Lehigh University, plus a media commentator on race, politics and American pop culture, Huffington Post blogger and NPR broadcaster, Peterson delves into the history of the Prison Industrial Complex or PIC, that goes way back to its pre-Revolutionary and slavery period in the 18th century that doled out the usual punishment for major crimes like burglary to minor crimes like debtors’ prison. However, by the 19th century, due to demographic changes and expanded territorial reach now engaging prior to the Civil War a new penal system had to be developed to accommodate criminals and how to rehabilitate them.
In the 1820s, public debates on how to go about this were the rage and involved two systems: the New York-based “Auburn” system, modelled on the nefarious Auburn State and Sing Sing prisons, which allowed prisoners to congregate with one other as a more societal structure that was, more or less, humane and had workable reform programs. The other model was the Philadelphia-based “Pennsylvania,” modelled on the urban Eastern State Penitentiary from 1829 to 1971 in the state capital where a harsher take on punishment was used, the most famous method being is solitary confinement (or better known in prison lingo, “the hole”) which was believed that isolation was a form of penitence under Quaker beliefs. Not only is the Pennsylvania model the main one used across America’s jails and super jails, it’s also the model for most major prisons worldwide.
Other than trying to break the human psyche of criminal behaviour with this model, it’s also a prime example of prisoner exploitation or PIC, to gain a unlimited pool of cheap labour on everything from telemarketing operations to goods manufacturing which are, in a technical sense; illegal and violates most well-established human rights laws on the books.
But the author reveals a dirty little secret in the first section of the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution – the so-called Emancipation Proclamation – states that “neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted (own italics), shall exist in the United States,” thus giving federal and state authorities a carte blanche on how to profit from the PIC from the infamous chain-gangs of the American South of old to the private sector and governmental agencies since Richard Nixon’s War on Drugs and law-and-order politics borne out of the 1960s and ‘70s that continue into today.
Published by the pioneering graphic novel publishing house For Beginners way long before the term “graphic novel” was ever coined (Cuba for Beginners and Nuclear Power for Beginners were my classic documentary comic bibles and influences growing up), Prison Industrial Complex For Beginners relies less on the visuals and more heavily on the textual part than any of their other titles. But it’s not to say that the black and white and greyscale illustrations of John Jennings and Stacey Robinson aren’t effective of their hip-hop culture and Black Consciousness culture tones that ring true to the book’s context on how the PIC specifically targets African-American youth (and on the rise, incarcerating women) for real or imagined crimes. Peterson explains in a simple, yet detailed way and the cutbacks on reform programs from substance abuse rehabilitation and education programs for prisoners that make things even worse and how the movement to reinstate these measures are the only hope of ending the PIC.
In the wake of the recent American elections that now has a prime hardcore capitalist about to occupy the Oval Office in the foreseeable future, Prison Industrial Complex For Beginners is a more than relevant read now to understand why the correctional system is a breeding ground for further criminal behaviour in America and that, rather unfortunately, is not about to change under a Donald Trump-run White House.
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