Education, Entertainment and Ideology: “Reading” the European Union through the Comic Strip

One of the constants of dealing with visual culture in third level is that certain themes will inevitably recur as a topic of thesis or essay. A particularly popular example is the ‘history’ of the comic strip in essay or thesis. This is of course a legitimate area of study, and it is by no means certain that the last word has been written about the form. Yet such exercises often amount to yet another excursion along a well trodden path which has a selection of over considered points of reference. Maus, Watchmen, V for Vendetta and so forth comprise a sort of mini-canon of visual materials produced in the comic strip form. Each of these is excellent in and of itself, but there are only so many things that can be said about them in the limited format of the essay or the thesis.

Note also the anglophone bias in the canon. Only rarely is there reference to bande dessinees, or any appreciation that outside of Ireland, the United Kingdom and the United States there is a thriving and culturally embedded tradition of comic art for both children and adults [there being exceptions to every rule occasionally anime and manga are considered suitable subjects of research, an interesting reflection on their place within the popular visual culture].

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I’m therefore indebted to franklittle of the Cedar Lounge Revolution for drawing my attention to a most remarkable document issued by the ALDE (European Liberal group of political parties in the European Parliament). This consists of a comic strip, entitled Operation Red Dragon. As the ALDE website notes:

The aim of the comic strip is to illustrate the activities and processes of the European Parliament in a more accessible and enjoyable format than studying text books about the EU.

Firstly it should be noted that on a purely technical level the visual imagery is quite well produced. The conventions of the comic strip form are replicated as one might expect. Flat imagery, sequential panels, cut-aways, the presentation of multiple locations and times together in order to generate a dynamic visual narrative. The line drawings are perhaps not quite as strongly rendered as one might expect but if not quite generic they are indeed typical of the form.

The plot is straightforward, or as straightforward as any that seeks to marry free-market liberalism with the thriller format in a comic strip can be. As the ALDE website puts it:

Set in the European Parliament and the fictitious country Fang Dong, “Operation Red Dragon” is the fictional story of Elisa Correr, an MEP who gets embroiled in a risky and fascinating adventure whilst in pursuit of her parliamentary activities.

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The superpower Dong Fang (strangely reminiscent of the Peoples Republic of China, complete with red flag and star) is involved in trying to circumvent an EU arms embargo. A Liberal MEP uncovers this plot and exposes it to a grateful European Parliament. As stated in the quote above, during this narrative the reader is expected to learn a number of fundamental lessons regarding the nature of the workings of the Parliament and attendant Committees, the policies of the ALDE and the importance of human and trade rights.

Somewhat amusingly the site continues:
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European Parliamentarians do not generally (!) lead such dangerous lives as Elisa Correr, nevertheless you can learn about the the work of an MEP, the ALDE political group, the European Parliament and the other European Institutions through this story.

The way in which the comic strip is enmeshed within significations of entertainment permits remarkably pointed political statements to be made with little fear of criticism. It would be largely impossible for the ALDE to make a direct attack on the human rights record of the PRC in quite the same way as the comic strip depicts the militarised society of Dong Fang. Except that the comic strip draws back from a complete engagement with teasing out such complexities when the twist in the tail of the narrative reveals that it is a rogue element within Dong Fang who wish to break the embargo, initiate a coup and overthrow the more progressive leadership.

Oddly enough there is a curious aptness to the use of the comic strip format for this project. Franco-Belgian comic strips share a language, French, but underplay national distinctions (as wikipedia puts it “making a unique market where national identity is often blurred”). Somehow in the project to promote the workings of another entity that seeks to somewhat blur national identity the selection of the comic form which uses limited text and the visual to put across a message seems sensible.

Ellen Lupton and J Abbott Miller have noted in Design Writing Research that ‘didactic illustrations, a mainstay in technical and scientific journals, have spilled over into general interest publications…illustration[s]…reveals a stylistic vocabulary that borrows heavily from science fiction pulp comics…’ In this instance the process appears to be similar. The information is encapsulated in a stylistic vocabularly of action and adventure that somehow seems mildly inappropriate for depicting the workings of a democratic supra-national institution. Yet Lupton and Miller make another point, noting the contemporary vogue for cartoon styled informational graphics where they suggest these are ‘info-toons for the infotainment age’. Here we have an entire info-comic.

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And this leads to an interesting, if uneasy, tension between the text based informational content in the last number of pages and the illustrations used to depict the European Parliament and the role of ALDE and Parliamentarians within it. It is hardly coincidence that it is necessary for the phrase “* fictitious characters” to be placed prominently on one page because here there is a certain blurring between the reality of the Parliament, the ALDE group and the force of the narrative within which they are contained. Clearly few readers will be under the illusion that this is ‘real’. Yet the use of the comic strip form to transmit information about ALDE can lead to a potential confusion regarding the veracity of the narrative itself.

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Then there are issues of ‘authorship’. Illustrative forms of visual communications tend towards legitimacy through reasonably transparent significations of authorship. But some comic strips, at least of the style presented here diverge from that. A certain ‘authenticity’ that is afforded by the use of illustration is rendered anonymous by the actual style used in “Operation Red Dragon”. Indeed it is telling that the illustrator remains anonymous.

One might wonder whether the attitude of the anglophone area towards comic strips in general matches that of the francophone. In France and Belgium the comic strip is not seen as an exclusively – or even largely – juvenile format. Comic strips have been dubbed ‘the Ninth Art’ by those involved in critical studies according them a status as visual artifacts of some credibility [film and television are respectively the seventh and eighth arts using a schema originated by Ricciotto Canudo the Italian film theoretician].

How this translates into the anglophone area is a different matter. Although there is a greater regard in recent years for comic strips this has to be qualified by acknowledging that this greater regard is for some comic strips. And again these are largely the titles noted earlier in this post. The actual physical format of Operation Red Dragon may, of itself, be regarded as being ‘inauthentic’ and unserious. Here the reach will be more limited because of the ‘juvenile’ perception of the nature of the form. And it is arguable that ALDE does not intend the comic strip to have a particularly wide distribution.

So all in all a curious vehicle for such messages and one that demonstrates how modes of communication can be related to particular cultural milieu and beyond them can take on often contradictory significations to those who produce them.

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