Capturing Europe’s Refugee Crisis Through Comics
In her graphic memoir, 'Drawn to Berlin,' Ali Fitzgerald uses art to illuminate the human dimensions of a situation often sketched in statistics.
By Etelka Lehoczky, The Atlantic, November 17, 2018
Ali Fitzgerald’s new graphic memoir takes on sprawling subjects: a city and the refugees who’ve tried to adopt it as their own, as well as the medium of comics as a tool for self-knowledge. At its root, though, Drawn to Berlin is a tale about faith. “I sort of believe in the gospel of comics,” Fitzgerald told me. “Which is nice, because I don’t believe in that much.”
This conviction is in part what led Fitzgerald to teach a class about comics to a handful of the hundreds of thousands of refugees who had recently arrived in Germany. Set from 2015 to 2016, Drawn to Berlin depicts the artist’s experiences as an instructor, interweaving discussions of visual propaganda and comic techniques with accounts of the lives of some of Fitzgerald’s students. Like their teacher, the refugees in the book are driven by faith—only, in their case, in a new city and a new beginning.
Fitzgerald wanted to emphasize this quality about her subjects rather than depicting the conflict-torn places they’d fled. “It was about newness and acclimating,” she said of Drawn to Berlin. She arrived at this theme from observing her students, who almost never chose to draw the violence that they’d seen firsthand. No matter where they came from—Syria, Bosnia, Egypt, or Iran—the refugees usually drew simple, friendly subjects such as flowers, landscapes, and sailing ships. There was Joram, who entertained the class with magic tricks and drew dirty New Yorker–style cartoons; Adnan, who “had a flair for playful sarcasm, often signing his drawings ‘Picasso’”; and Shada, who helped her disabled son draw, but still found time to sketch a bicycle with a basketful of flowers.
Some of Fitzgerald’s tales also express darker facets of humanity. A German businessman to whom she’s teaching English tells her that his son was beaten up by a refugee. “You can’t tell who’s a refugee just by looking at them,” Fitzgerald says in the book—but she says it to a friend, later on, not to her student.
The artist intersperses such anecdotes with explanations of common comic techniques, drawing examples and analyzing their power. To explain what she was trying to achieve with Drawn to Berlin, Fitzgerald referenced Scott McCloud’s keystone 1993 book, Understanding Comics. Artists in the medium, she noted, tend to abstract faces and figures to help readers relate to characters. “You can kind of see yourself in an abstracted face,” Fitzgerald said. “I think that promotes empathy. It allows for greater identification with people whose stories might be less accessible in other formats.”
Just as Fitzgerald teaches her students to draw comic-book faces, she also deconstructs the elements of visual language for her readers. In a discussion of Germany’s conservative movement, for example, she reports that the most powerful anti-immigrant, far-right party, Alternative für Deutschland, published caricatures of Syrian men in its newspaper. Reproducing a couple of the cartoons, she offers a quick lesson in the way that comics’ universalizing power can be flipped on its head. “Caricatures contain terrifying potency,” Fitzgerald writes, acknowledging the ways in which her faith in comics is sometimes challenged. “In the service of hate, they strip away humanity, flattening people with slightly altered hats and noses. This venom is used again and again—because it works. It makes me question comics as a medium for good.”
Another chapter on the history of typefaces illuminates the weblike relationships between aesthetics and politics, art and life, past and present. Describing the political posters she sees around the city, Fitzgerald shows how Germany’s modern right-wing movement subtly positions itself in relation to the country’s history. She notes that the AfD carefully avoids using the ornate, Gothic typeface familiar from Nazi propaganda. Instead, the party’s message has a contemporary look. “Having a chapter on the [Nazis’] Fraktur font—thinking about the aesthetics of right-wing nationalism—was a good ‘micro’ way to think about ‘macro’ issues,” Fitzgerald told me. “That one chapter is the linchpin, showing a window into the political sphere.”
Throughout Drawn to Berlin, Fitzgerald holds up different lenses to the refugee crisis, highlighting the tension between the real people she knew and the vast, faceless statistics they represent. She doesn’t employ straightforward realism to bring her subjects to life. Instead Fitzgerald gives individuals iconic features—a gap-toothed smile, a ponytail. She’s also interested in capturing the vertigo of the refugee experience as a whole. A street scene may boil with texture and movement, reminiscent of an Expressionist woodcut, while a drawing Fitzgerald creates for her students will be mostly white space. These little sketches, and the students’ work that the artist reproduces here, provide both visual and emotional relief.
The contrast between the refugees’ work and what they’ve lived through is beautifully apparent in a vignette early in the book, when two young girls tell of their inflatable raft flipping over during a nighttime ocean crossing. They ask Fitzgerald to draw the episode. “I drew an inflatable raft like I saw on TV,” she narrates, reproducing her rudimentary sketch for the reader. On the next page, as Fitzgerald privately reflects on the pair’s “harrowing, transient girlhood,” she fills a panel with beautifully rendered, dense, choppy waves. Here, as elsewhere in the book, the different styles prompt readers to think about how artists should depict brutal realities. A hasty sketch might best capture the urgency of a critical moment, while a more detailed drawing provides a sense of weight and context.
As she grapples with that question, Fitzgerald adopts a complex, ambiguous style. The people she sketches are often closed-off and hard to read. But her drawings are remarkably layered considering that she eschews grays, conveying depth and energy through thick, supple strokes of black. In the book, she tells of showing her students the graphic novel The Hive by Charles Burns, an artist who’s clearly influenced her style—although his ridged lines have a laminated effect, while hers lick like flames. Whether the refugees noticed any similarity is not clear, though they did love The Hive, even copying pictures from it. “Part of it is [that Burns’s] line work is really … striking,” Fitzgerald said. She recalled a young girl from Bosnia who was “in love with that book” and explained, “Grotesque things [are] really appealing.”
Other characters who caught the students’ fancies included Charles Schulz’s Lucy, SpongeBob SquarePants, and Tom and Jerry. The students liked copying animals, particularly wildcats, from a book of photos Fitzgerald brought in. Another favorite subject? Flags. “They were tokens of faith—hopeful, patriotic gestures in red, yellow, and black,” Fitzgerald writes.
Sometimes, though, the students’ drawings hinted at deeper traumas. “Children drew guns with alarming clarity,” the author writes, comparing their childhoods with her own. “Their ease with weapons reminded me of my own teenage facility for drawing Bart Simpson,” she continues. “We all have our familiar shapes. My hand was branded by youth corporations and 1990s suburban America. What was theirs branded by?”
Fitzgerald doesn’t tell her readers; in fact, she doesn’t describe very much of her subjects’ personal histories at all. When she depicts her conversations with refugees, she stays focused mainly on the students’ lives in Germany and on their plans for the future. Explaining this decision to me, she pointed to the quote she used to conclude Drawn to Berlin. It’s by the journalist and novelist Joseph Roth, who documented the experiences of Jewish refugees in Germany in the 1920s. Roth’s eloquent call to look forward aptly sums up Fitzgerald’s steadfast conviction that art can help people and that reinvention is possible. “The whole world … never asks the wanderer where he’s going. Only ever where he’s come from,” Roth wrote. “And what matters to the wanderer is his destination, not his point of departure.”