It’s difficult to categorize Madaya Mom either as a webcomic, as a graphic memoir, as comic journalism, or something else entirely. But it’s certainly a tragedy — and the reader is complicit in it.
A collaboration of ABC News and Marvel Comics (both owned by the Walt Disney Company), Madaya Mom is the work of several parties (e.g. reporters Xana O’Neil and Rym Momtaz, Coatian artist Dalibor Talajic, and colorist Miroslav Mrva). The chief contributor to this project, however, is the simultaneously titular and anonymous mother of a family attempting to survive in Madaya, Syria.
O’Neil, Momtaz, Talajic, and Mrva keep the Syrian’s mother’s real name secret “for her protection,” but, as her dispatches reveal, there is very little in actuality she can be kept safe from. Snipers, starvation, disease, dread. And she fears them all that much more for her family and children, including her newborn baby boy. As she and her husband crowd the children together at night for heat, they do what they can to keep the family’s spirit strong. Yet, even when the prospect of school reopening starts to lift the children’s spirits, an errant mortar shell rips their peers apart.
“They won’t stop talking about it, they are so traumatized and scared,” reports the Madaya Mom. O’Neil, Momtaz, Talajic, and Mrva are to be credited for providing so unflinching an account, and ABC/Marvel/Disney should be acknowledged for patronizing it. These comics are fulfilling the promise of their medium, doing a service in the name of awareness-raising for Syria.
But are they doing the wrong service? Is Madaya Mom doing a service for its subject or for its audience?
As the horrors mount, the title character reports, “I used to worry my children would die but now I feel that maybe death is more merciful than what they are going through now.” It’s a crushing, chilling sentiment and, sadly, not a historically unique one. The line drives home the desperation and hopelessness of their future in Syria.
That was in February. Eight months ago. While Madaya Mom’s readers were hand-wringing over the Iowa GOP Caucus or savoring rumors of Star Wars Episode VIII casting or even recovering from the cancer-shortened life of David Bowie, Madaya itself was dying.
Reading Madaya Mom is much like reading the comic Living Level-3: Iraq from the World Food Program. It also tells the story of struggling refugee families in the grip of a humanitarian crisis. And, like Madaya Mom, the motives of those behind it — from the creative team of Joshua Dysart, Alberto Ponticelli, Pat Masioni, and Thomas Mauer to WFP producer Jonathan Dumont — are admirable. In LL-3, however, the narrative is split between the view of the Iraqi Bushar family and that of Leila Helal, a new, disillusioned WFP volunteer from Upstate New York. Dysart, who journeyed overseas to research the story, is quick to have Leila comment, from the very first page, “this is not my story.” The critique is already, wisely baked in.
If Madaya Mom errs, it’s in making this too much for its audience. This is not their story. Nor is it an ‘opportunity’ to learn more about Syria, about the ravages it has already inflicted, or to “understand the Syria crisis” as a recent Huffington Post article by Jillian Capewell suggests.
Yes, comics are an extremely powerful and rich medium. Yes, works like Madaya Mom or Sarah Glidden’s Rolling Blackouts are important and useful. Yes, O’Neil et al have done good here. But do not be duped into thinking that this is enough — that awareness has been raised and, thus, the mission is complete.
The directionality here backwards. If there is a power to the medium, why solely use it to educate those far to the margin of crises rather than leverage it for those within them? Who is producing comics for the people of Madaya? Rather than raising awareness externally, couldn’t creators also be fostering hope internally?
Much of ABC and Marvel’s readership can access Madaya Mom on their computers, laptops, tablets, or phones, all charged without a thought that morning by their bedside or in the comfort of an office or within their local Starbucks. On Twitter, Marvel has proudly announced that print copies of Madaya Mom will be on hand and, likely, freely available at the upcoming New York Comic-Con. NYCC tickets start at $40 per person, per day, and the show is such an awesome spectacle that many are all too happy to pay it.
Who knows if Madaya Mom’s family caught sight of the tweet. Who knows if they are aware of the comic. Who knows if they are still alive.
Still, what cool swag for NYCC!