Books

'Threads' Is a Cartoon Sojourn in a Metaphorical Jungle of Real-world Refugees

A comics journalist interprets the plight of would-be immigrants trapped in French refugee camps just miles from their UK destination.


Threads from the Refugee Crisis

Publisher: Verso
Author: Kate Evans
Publication date: 2017-06
Amazon

British cartoonist Kate Evans documents the lives of refugees stuck in French detention camps as they long to complete their journeys to England. Her narrative spans from October 2015, when Evans first volunteered in the French refugee camp known as the “Jungle” to September 2016, when the British government began construction of a wall in Calais to prevent refugees from stowing away in cars aboard ferries leaving the French port for Dover, 20 miles across the English Chanel.

The first chapter also began as the 14-page comic “Threads. The Calais Cartoon.” Evans distributed 12,000, crowd-funded copies to refugee support groups which sold them to raise further funds and public awareness. Later chapters also focus on the unnamed refugee camp in Dunkirk, 30 minutes east of Calais.

On her first trip, the camp is barely functional, only 24 toilets for 5,000 inhabitants. Evans helps construct temporary housing until her supply of staple-gun staples runs out. On her second trip three months later, the former “tool tent” is a warehouse of prefab house frames and electric saws. But in Dunkirk a month later, police enforce a tents-only mandate, preventing volunteers from entering with dry sheets and wood planks to raise tents from the inches-deep swamp of the former suburban park.

While Evans is her own recurrent character, instantly identifiable by her cartoonishly purple hair, she focuses heavily on individuals living in the camps. She titles her sixth chapter after Hoyshar, an Iraqi father separated from his family and living with a friend in a seven-by-eight-foot shack on the outskirts of the Jungle. He makes Evans and her two fellow volunteers lunch in his “eighteen-inch kitchen”, and soon Evans is drawing her “Fairytale” of smuggling him across the channel to a waiting uncle.

Instead, they leave Hoyshar facing eviction because the replacement camp of shipping containers will be too small to house everyone after the Jungle is bulldozed. Instead of private family housing, each unit will hold 12 bunk beds and no individual cooking or personal spaces.

The little Kurdish girl Evser is even more affecting. Evans introduces her kicking a soccer ball and then drifting to sleep on Evans’ lap as the small group of volunteers sits with Evser’s family around a cooking fire outside their newly assembled family shack. When police evict Evser's and neighboring families, they are trucked to Dunkirk where Evans finds Evser sloshing rain-soaked through puddles: “Her mother would dearly love to invite us in and offer us tea, but she lives in a mouldy pit, a hole -- it doesn’t qualify as a hovel.” But Evser is smiling again and riding a bike in a concluding two-page spread, after Dunkirk has erected a new camp of “private family huts” and “well-stocked communal kitchens”.

Though the details Evans documents are all true, she acknowledges that to “protect some of the people described in this book their identities have been altered and some characters have been conflated.” It would be disappointing if Hoyshar or Evsar were composite characters, but Evans alters facts out of necessity. If refugees are registered or photographed while in France, the UK bars their entry.

In the book’s most disturbing account, a team of police in riot-gear burst into a pregnant woman’s tent, strike her repeatedly in the face and hold her and her crying children’s faces steady in their black gloves as each is photographed and the photographs labeled. It's startling evidence of the power of images -- not only Evans’, but also the legal documents that determine the futures of the individuals they depict.

Before a fellow volunteer recounts the event, she says, “I’m going to tell you something and I want it to remain confidential.” Evans answers, “I won’t draw a cartoon about it, I promise,” and then proceeds to present her five-page sequence. Though I presume Evans altered the names and appearances of the family members when she imagined the police photographs, much of her volunteering involved faithful renderings of other refugees. She carried hard-drying watercolors and plastic-sealed paper with her: “what can I give someone who has very little and is about to lose even that? I can give them a piece of paper with their portrait on.”

Before giving those portraits away, she photographed each to include in the narrative of her making them, juxtaposing digital versions of the originals with her later cartoon renderings of the same individuals. The effect is most paradoxical as she describes the intimacy of drawing someone’s face, including one sitter’s “impossibly thick eyelashes” and the “soft, downy hair growing on the upper lip.” As she narrates, she draws her pen drawing the lines of each feature -- though when the pen is absent, it is impossible to determine if the image is a representation of the sitter or a representation of her portrait of that sitter.

That peculiar merging of subject and depiction is at the heart of Threads and the genre of comics journalism in general. Despite the real-world seriousness of her subject matter, Evans works in a style associated with traditional newspaper comic strips named “comics” for their humorous content -- as when Evans draws herself pushing an impossibly heaped grocery cart of camp supplies. When she includes an actual photograph of a garbage heap in Dunkirk, “a view from the nauseous woman’s tent”, she reminds readers that the book’s other images are recollected interpretations drawn after she returned home. She also implies that a drawing of the garbage wouldn’t adequately convey its reality.

While engagingly expressive, her drawings are also gently distancing, dampening the immediacy of the actual camps. The comic doesn’t take readers to Calais and Dunkirk, but to counterparts in a colored-pencil universe. When her cartoon self yells at a border guard, “IT’S NOT A STORY!!! THIS IS REALITY!!!!”, Evans might be yelling at her readers too.

But if her portraits of rightwing politicians Marine La Pen and Theresa May are intentionally warped caricatures, Evans grounds her book in our reality by including actual and far more grotesque statements from other anti-immigrant sources. Framed by a cellphone panel at the end of the first chapter, the first unnamed voice critiques Evans directly: “This cartoon could not be better propaganda for battlefield veteran Islamic militant males invading Northern Europe if Lenin himself produced it.” She includes more social media excerpts between later chapters, until they culminate in a spread of counter arguments literally scissored from newspaper articles and collaged across the two undrawn pages.

The style explains Evans’ approach to panel captions throughout. Her narration appears as strips of words layered overtop the artwork, subtly evoking a ransom note culled from newspaper articles. The addition of the physical words over images that take place in a constantly unfolding present moment suits the nature of retroactive narration perfectly. Speech in contrast is hand-lettered as part of the art and so part of those present moments, with no speech bubbles, only free-floating words linked to characters by single-line tails (a style long familiar to Doonesbury readers). When characters speak Arabic, Evans accordingly draws their words in Arabic letters, with translations provided by English speakers in the scene or not at all.

She further grounds the physicality of her book through an inventive use of gutters. Instead of traditional empty spaces created by panel frames, her gutters are strips of white lace photographed and digitally manipulated. These titular “threads” reference the lace-manufacturing industry of historic Calais explained on the first page with an image of period-dressed women weaving the “steel lacework” walling in contemporary Calais’ highway. On the final page, Evans draws similar women cutting blocks of lace into bricks and stacking them into a new and higher wall around the port. The visual metaphor bookends the narrative well, emphasizing the power of comics journalism to not simply depict, but to interpretively transform.

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