sábado, 19 de diciembre de 2015

Reading political reality through images of the supernatural

Image from Justicia Divina by Francisco Haghenbeck, Universidad Iberoamericana, 2013
This blog entry is a contribution from Carolina González, a doctoral student at the Universidad Iberoamericana (Mexico City) who is working on graphic novels and who worked as a research assistant on the Reading Changes project. At the moment, she is a visiting doctoral student at the University of Glasgow and has recently presented a paper on the politics and historical memory in the Comics Forum at the Leeds' Comic Art Festival 2015 in England.
The students who participated in the project Reading Changes had the opportunity to read the graphic novel Justicia divina by Francisco Haghenbeck (Universidad Iberoamericana, 2013) which tells the story of a young man who investigates and resolves -like John Constantine, the hero of the comic book Hellblazer-  the problems caused by supernatural characters, such as ghosts and vampires, around Mexico (see blog entry from 13th October 2014). In this entry, we refer to the way in which the reading of this text resulted in readers responses both about the reading of images but also about the political reality of Mexico.
From the moment we introduced the book, it engaged the students through its images. “It catches my attention because of its illustrations, it’s like we were attracted to reading it. Like it says to us: come, read me, try to figure me out or something like that" -one of the participants remarked. Their first impressions of Justicia divina focused on the enigmatic and mysterious qualities of the images, and because of their increasing curiosity, young readers began to speculate about the possible meaning of the images and to launch hypotheses about their relationship with the story:
Josué: It’s like about a mystery and that stuff […] because it shows a detective, you know, his look shows he is like searching for something, no?
Raul: It could be justice…
Luisa: It looks like it’s about ghosts, no?
Ricardo: Maybe it’s about people who don’t rest in peace, no? Something like that.
As we went through the book, we noted some of the ways in which they changed their approach to the text. Although some of them read comics, none of them had had access to graphic novels like this one, where the image takes on a central role. Accustomed to books where the written word prevails, the students had to develop a different reading strategy in which they had to examine the meaning of both words and images.
Reading Justicia divina also transformed their previous ideas about comics, as another participant mentioned:
I didn’t usually read comics, but I think this book changed my whole idea about them, the way I think about comics, and well, yes, I really really liked it. More than anything, I was attracted by the language in which he spoke and all they explained, because in a funny way it makes the reader understand many things.
The students performed a special kind of reading where they were not limited to examining the words apart from the images; they understood the particular use of language in the graphic novel. They saw the synergy between the visual image and the written word and succeeded in establishing the connections of meaning generated by this relationship. As they entered the graphic novel they were enveloped in the mysterious but agile atmosphere of the detective fiction. As one of participants said: “It was very interesting and I was completely captured”.
It is important to emphasize that from the beginning, the young readers focused on the connotative qualities of the images and they tried to figure their possible meanings. Even in the first approach, the students went beyond the literal and the descriptive and established connections and create allusions to films, books and other cultural references, for example: “It really reminds a movie I saw, Angels and Demons, I think it's called. And he is looking for ghosts at old houses; he is looking for the Chupacabras and so, as Mexico used to be and all of that”. Or: “It reminds me a film called, I think, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice [ ... ] A book called Circle of Blood.
The referential links established by the readers allowed them to place Justicia divina in a cultural context but even more revealing was the interpretation process through the association of the book with their lives and the Mexican political reality. One of the comments of the participants was particularly illuminating in this sense: “It is more fantasy than reality. Reality gets into fantasy. In Justicia divina fantasy gets into reality”. Although, this graphic novel could be described, on one level, as a story of horror; through irony, the author critiques the current political reality of Mexico. It should be noted that the students arrived at these notions by themselves. They were able to pick up on the subtleties of language and understand the satirical meaning of the complex political situation, charged with black humour, which is described in the book.
When they realized that the characters, such as the ghosts, that are conventionally used to cause fear, were used to provoke humour, the readers reacted to that fear in a different way and connected it to their social reality:
Andrea: “At the beginning, you think that the monsters like La Llorona [the Banshee or Wailing Woman] and those are going to be frightening but instead of being frightening, they make you laugh”.
Fernanda: “The things that worry us now are different, and we are not worried any longer if we come across La Llorona, ah, we would just say hello, wouldn’t we?  But if we find bad people, that’s something awful”.
Through reading Justicia divina, the students also established a link between the types of fear and their everyday life, as Ernesto said:
Because nowadays people have new fears, now they have new fears. They are no longer afraid of ghosts, El Coco [the Bogeyman], La Llorona. They are more scared of assaults, drug trafficking, the police […] because of the corruption in the country. That’s why they are so afraid; they have their own fears apart from those they once had. Now is different, ghost stories no longer attract them.
While the author uses elements from the horror and detective genres, such as the presence of the mysterious and the supernatural, these are redefined by being placed in a plausible and contemporary context through a fictional mechanism in which new nightmares are combined with the past fears but provided with a realism that makes them even more terrifying. This narrative strategy was recognized by the readers who revealed their political conscience and their level of knowledge about the social conditions of their country and reacted with humor: “In this book, the part that made ​​me laugh was when the Coco attacks the mafia’s guy”.
When we delved deeper into notions about fear and asked them what a ghost has to do today to be scary, the students answered:
Claudia: Many things ... I can’t say what, because, well, the things that are happening in the country are more frightening than…
Sandra: They should become ghosts drug traffickers.
Louise: That would be good, to see La Llorona as a drug trafficker!
Although Haghenbeck uses descriptions of the life, the geography and the people of Mexico, especially of Mexico City, to insert all sorts of apparitions in the graphic novel, the author creates a clear image of the present that the young readers were able to notice and even to satirize.
The supernatural events narrated in Justicia divina introduced the readers to a game in which the boundaries between reality and fiction are disrupted but in which they found a space to change their expectations about reading a graphic novel and to express themselves as conscious subjects of their political and social reality. Despite the disturbing reality that is represented in this graphic novel, they agreed: “It’s cool because it’s the context we live in”.
[This blog will return in 2016. Best wishes for the holiday season to all our readers!]