An Introduction to Turkish Graphic Novels
By Jean Jacques Charles
If one wished to get greater insight into the rich yet complex culture of modern Turkish society - its values, its neuroses, its wishes, desires and demons, one could do worse than peruse the modern literary works of local authors such as Orhan Pamuk and Elif Shafak, or delve into the Ottoman - era mysteries of Jason Goodwin and Jenny White - where palace eunuchs moonlighting as detectives attempt to solve the grisly murders of janissaries in the backstreets of the Grand Bazaar. But what is there for those of us who are more visual-minded, with a predilection for the blending of illustration and words, caricature and speech bubbles, and multifaceted story arcs set to painted landscapes or storyboards? Fear not, for there are treasures to be found of among Turkey’s illustrious community of graphic novel writers and illustrators.
Istanbul has long since adapted the love-affair Europeans have for comic books, graphic novels and sharp-tongued political cartoons. While it wasn’t until recently that the comic book was considered a serious literary art form in America, the “bande desinée” has been taken seriously in France and Belgium since the aftermath of World War Two. In Turkey, this love can be seen upon perusal of local newsstands, where one will see entire broadsheets and anthology magazines devoted to comic strips, illustrated serials and satirical caricature- such as OT Magazine, LeMan, and Uykusuz. It is among these titles the author began to discover the works of the most prodigious contributors to these anthologies, many of whom have been sketching since the 1970s- lightly (or sharply) criticizing both society, the government and political parties or spotlighting the foibles of the everyday men and women trying to make it among the upheavals Turkey as a nation was going through in the late 20th century. Political cartoonists such as Latif Demirci or Ercan Akyol poke fun at short comings and mismanagement of political parties and local municipalities, Ahmet Yilmaz’s Killanan Adam (Irritated Man) and Kaan Ertem’s Oreten Adam ve Oglu (Teaching Man and Son) mock and critique the changing values and behaviors of Turkish citizens themselves during the late 1980s and 1990s. These political satirists deserve an entire book devoted to analyzing their works. The following, however, is a suggestion of graphic writer/illustrators who do not simply address the political issues that Turkish society has faced over the years, but use the long form of illustrative storytelling to tie the larger cultural and political structures of the last quarter of the 20th century to the deeply personal and relatable experiences of the individual.
Erdoğan Dağlar: Cihangir Gunlugu
Cihangir, with its numerous art galleries, coffee houses with open mike nights, and innovative gastro pubs, is currently one of the chicest neighborhoods in Istanbul- but this wasn’t always the case. In the 1980s and early 1990s it was a rough and tumble area similar to New York’s Lower East Side and Hell’s Kitchen, or London’s Soho and East End before the effects of gentrification raised rents and property values. It is this pre-gentrified Cihangir that cartoonist Erdogan Daglar writes about in his semi-autobiographical Cihangir Gunlugu (Cihangir Diaries), as his leather jacket wearing protagonist bounces from flat to flat with his cat, doing odd jobs and meeting even odder characters as he struggles to make it as a (what else?) cartoonist. In the backdrop is the Cihangir of recently arrived populations of Kurdish men and women from eastern Turkey, along with Turks and ethnic Hemshin and Laz from the northern Black Sea regions seeking jobs and a better way of life as the agricultural economy of the rural heartland collapses. Similar to Yılmaz Aslanturk’s Otisabi, which uses one page storyboard grids to chronicle the misadventures of a player who manipulates women, Dağlar’s two page vignettes explore such issues as urban isolation, violence against women and the LGTBQ community, tension between ethnic groups, and the basic economic struggle of the lower working class. In one story a lonely laborer falls in love with a Transgender prostitute and suffers the violent consequences when he confronts the pimp who controls her. In another, Dağlar’s nameless hero attempts to help a recently arrived migrant from the Black Sea coast collect a debt from an uncle who refuses to pay him. Dağlar’s adventures are quite harrowing at times. In the story from which the cover illustration is taken, our protagonist comes to the aid of a woman being harassed by male thugs, unsuccessfully fighting them off. When he and the woman run to nearby police for help, the cops turn out to be worse as they proceed to assault our hero and attempt to rape the woman as well. Through sheer luck they both escape on a stolen motorcycle and Dağlar leaves the shocked and breathless reader to ponder the reality that most women knew in 1980s Istanbul- that the police did not necessarily represent havens of safety against violence. However, there are many humorous tales as well, such as one where our leather jacketed hero volunteers to act as a “back-up muscle” to help his landlord collect rent from another tenant, only for the tenant to turn out to be one of his childhood friends. The episode ends in laughter and frustration for the landlord. The protagonists’ unending willingness to help a friend in need is the device Dağlar uses frequently to get him into numerous fixes and escapades.
Erdoğan Dağlar draws in a fluid breathless style with experimental panel layouts. He gives his characters mostly innocent expressions to contrast with the surprisingly action filled and violent stories. Dğglar’s beautifully illustrated chronicles provide crucial insight into what urban Istanbul was like in the ‘80s and ‘90s. Cihangir Günlüğü is in Turkish, but brave readers are nevertheless encouraged to explore the urban social landscape that Dağlar paints.
Irvin Mandel: Mozotros Ailesi Vols. 1-4
Very little is written of modern Jewish life in Turkey. Countless resources exist regarding the history and legacy of the Jewish community both during the Ottoman Empire and after the birth of the Republic, but current insight into modern everyday life, from the perspective of one who is both Turkish and Jewish is rare indeed. Hence the reason why the volumes of comical cartoons by Irvin Mandel are both an unexpected joy and a treasure.
Irvin Mandel is a cartoonist of Ashkenazi Jewish heritage. Born in 1956 in Turkey, he studied hotel management in Switzerland, returning to Istanbul to work in hospitality and tourism in the 1990s while also developing his idea for an illustrated humorous chronicle of a middle class Turkish-Jewish family. Mozotros Ailesi (The Mozotros Family) Volumes 1 to 4 is a compilation of the strips he published throughout the late 1990s and early 2000s in Shalom, the only newspaper of the Turkish Jewish community at the time. “Mozotros” is a Judeo-Spanish expression that means “our people.”
Similar in the vein of Canadian cartoonist Lynn Johnston’s For Better or For Worse, or Gary Trudeau’s Doonesbury, Mandel’s humor is soft and gentle, almost deceptively milquetoast (he doesn’t go for the big laughs or gags) as he depicts the everyday life of middle class Jews in Istanbul and their interactions with Muslim and secular Turks, using his keen observations and acute sense of wit. The satirical portrayals of these interactions are handled delicately and gracefully, which one could arguably expect given the topic it aims to depict - the lives of a shrinking religious minority within a predominantly Muslim country. The humor is subtle and an understanding of the nuances of Turkish language and grammar would be useful in deciphering the punch lines, such as when the family must gently inform their dinner guest that it is more “polite” to refer to Jews as “Musevi” instead of “Yahudi”- which can be seen as more pejorative. The dinner guest responds that she has met as many polite “Yahudi’s” as she has met impolite “Musevis”! Yet as one flips through the volumes compiling the adventures of the Mozotros family, it becomes apparent that the bulk of the problems facing this Jewish household are the same ones that afflict all middle class families trying to stay afloat in this modern world- troublesome neighbors, rebellious and wayward teenage sons and daughters, incompetent bosses at work (with accompanying office shenanigans), and the struggle to keep the precarious strings that bind a family together in a world whose aim is to rupture them.
Mandel’s illustrative style is light, loose and impressionistic. His backgrounds are stark, using very little dark lines or shadows, adding to the fluffy “airiness” of his storyboards. His characters appear to almost skip and float across the panels. If they were translated into English, Mandel’s work would be at home among the pages of The New Yorker, next to the satirical sketches of Robert Mankoff or Jack Ziegler.
Özge Samancı: Dare to Disappoint - Growing Up in Turkey (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
For those who cannot read Turkish and would like a masterpiece readily available for purchase on Amazon Books, look no further than artist Ozgi Samanci’s Dare to Disappoint: Growing Up In Turkey. An autobiographical coming of age work depicting Istanbul during the political upheaval of the 1980s- the turbulent coup years! It’s been compared to Iranian illustrator Marjane Satrapi‘s Persepolis with good reason. Satrapi’s work explores, through the eyes of a teenage girl, the years leading up to and the aftermath of the Iranian Revolution. Samancı’s work does the same for Turkey. Spanning the 1980s, Samancı’s unconventionally whimsical illustrations paint an informed but child’s-eye view of the dynamics of Turkish society in the waning days of the Cold War. Throughout the 1970s the Turkish economy was stagnating with a devalued currency and inflation reaching nearly 80 percent at one point. Recession had caused widespread unrest with labor unions staging demonstrations, and Left and Right wing groups violently clashing in the streets. The military intervened in 1960, 1971 and again in 1980 to “restore order” by forming caretaker governments. By the 1981, Turkey would have changed prime ministers eleven times. In other words, a pretty tough time for a girl to be going through puberty!
Samancı’s narrative uses humor and youthful angst to recount this graphic memoir of being a teenager in a country being pulled in different directions, as she herself is torn between the expectations of her family and societal culture and her need to be true to her own individual voice. Whether watching her parents purchase “black market” corn flake cereals or being warned not to repeat family political discussions at school, the reader sees Turkey through the quirks and absurd childhood perceptions of Özge’s eyes. With the ongoing political strife of Turkey as backdrop, we follow our heroine as she struggles with quantitative courses and state exams to fulfill her fathers’ expectation to become an engineer. We follow her to the prestigious Bospheros University where she begins to assert herself as an independent woman and slowly take her destiny into her own hands.
Samancı is a gifted cartoonist. Her lines are sinuous, using spare and light watercolor combined with uses of mixed media such as maps, stamps, diagrams, and real world photos. Her caricatures are drawn with a wide eyed expressive innocence and conventional panel rules are broken as characters dance across page dividers and book binders, dragging the readers’ eyes with them!
Samancı’s graphic novel presents a tale of a girl’s self-discovery with the political historical context to highlight its cultural significance.
Jean Jacques Charles is a Lawyer, Country Political/Risk Analyst, and a Writer from Queens, New York City who loves comic books. He has worked in Morocco, Egypt and Scotland. He currently lives in Istanbul, Turkey.