What sense do young U.S. readers, bombarded these days by the war of words between our presidential candidates and assaulted by the images and realities of U.S. gun violence, make of recent events in Turkey? A failed military takeover of the Turkish government on July 15 left hundreds dead and more than a thousand people injured, with thousands more later imprisoned, removed from their jobs, or forbidden to travel internationally. Just a few weeks before that, a deadly terrorist attack at Turkey’s largest airport, outside cosmopolitan Istanbul, shocked the world. I follow Turkish news not only because Turkey is an important U.S. ally but because our son lived in Istanbul for four years, from 2009 to 2013. We learned much about Turkey then and visited there, too.
I wondered now whether any accessible graphic works would aid young readers’ understanding of modern Turkey, with its complex history as anchor of the once widespread Ottoman Empire. So—with mixed results—I turned my attention to four graphic novels, all aimed at readers tween and up. All turned out to be enjoyable reads, but only two speak to the complicated, sometimes brutal realities of life in Turkey today. And, ironically, one of these relevant books never mentions Turkey at all!
I first caught up with author/illustrator Tony Cliff’s Delilah Dirk and the Turkish Lieutenant, a 2013 fiction bestseller, and its recently published sequel, Delilah Dirk and the King’s Shilling (2016). These swashbuckling adventures, set in the early 19th century when Great Britain was at war with Napoleonic France, feature the daring, sometimes law-breaking deeds of Delilah Dirk. In both books, this upper class British woman—whose incredible martial arts training, acrobatic skills, scientific gadgets, and penchant for violent “justice” remind me of superhero Batman—is accompanied by Mr. Erdemoglu Selim, the eponymous “Turkish lieutenant.” His is the voice of reason which only sometimes restrains Delilah, and his superior tea-making abilities and loyalty to the hot-headed woman who once saved his life both are important plot elements in several of their thrilling adventures.
While I was pleased to see author Cliff stress that friendship, rather than a stereotypical romance, unites this unconventional pair, I was disappointed to see how Turkey was used mainly as exotic background for the first novel. Constantinople (the earlier name for Istanbul) is that work’s first, riotously detailed setting. Selim is, at first, a lieutenant in the Ottoman Empire’s military. Yet the duo’s shipboard fights against the pirate captain Rakul, here set on the Bosphorus River and Sea of Marmara, might just as well have taken place on the Indian Ocean, with Mr. Selim being replaced by a native of the Indian sub-continent. Little that is unique to Turkish culture or politics ultimately figures in these volumes—a fact also re-emphasized by the biases of some British characters in the European setting of Delilah Dirk and the King’s Shilling. Its central villain, the treacherous Major Merrick, certainly disdains and lumps all dark-skinned people together, regardless of their country or continent of origin. Merrick’s views are ones that fueled British imperialism, though no background notes are given about that, the Ottoman Empire, or the Napoleonic Wars in either book. Perhaps—I am sad to realize—countries being at war need no explanation for some of today’s young readers, particularly ones seeking pleasure rather than information.
And there is much that is pleasurable in these two graphic novels. Cliff’s cartoonish illustrations are marvelous in their energetic, fast-paced depiction of action scenes, with close-ups alternating with mid and long-distance shots, many of them wordless. We seem to tumble, swerve, and swoop right along Delilah Dirk! These scenes retain a comic tone, too, through the many, sometimes funny faces characters display as they surprise themselves or one another in what might otherwise be high stress situations. But there do not seem to be real consequences, in emotional terms, to all the blood being shed and death being dealt. Instead, we get dramatically varied, inventive sound effect words such as “Clang, “FWHOOP,” “CHOOM,” and “KRISH.”
Rich, lush colors highlight Cliff’s detailed renderings of scenes, and he wisely employs different, unifying color palettes as the action moves from one scene or time frame to another. Readers will enjoy the way illustrations sometimes contradict the exchanges between “Miss Dirk” and “Mr. Selim,” showing how these friends sometimes deceive themselves as they attempt to influence one another or trick their opponents. Thinking of these characters’ strong relationship along with their many escapades, I was not surprised to learn that the Disney studio recently acquired movie rights to “the Turkish lieutenant series.” Real-life events in Turkey would be less appealing to that family-oriented movie company.
Similarly, the most dramatic events occurring in 1970s through 1990s Turkey take place mainly “offstage” in Ozge Samanci’s excellent graphic memoir, Dare to Disappoint: Growing Up in Turkey (2015). These dramas include war with Greece over Cyprus, coups, and attempted coups. Nonetheless, by selectively depicting her family’s daily life in the western coastal city of Izmir—including what she herself did not understand as a 6 year-old when the memoir begins—this author/illustrator has created a vividly intimate portrait of their lives, her growth as an individual, and how a restrictive society shaped individual choices and family dynamics. Sad to say, many of those repressive situations—government limits on mass communications; sudden arrest of people suspected of dissent, followed by torture or beatings; a military sometimes operating on its own; and government officials who “bend” laws to remain in power—still exist in Turkey today. As the backgrounds in some of Samanci’s illustrations slyly point out, through posters and graffiti on walls, only the names of some dissident groups have changed. I believe that reading this memoir will indeed help to inform tween and up readers about life in Turkey today, even though 21st century politics have brought new complications there. Yet Dare to Disappoint is anything but heavy-handed or heavy-hearted in its storytelling.
Samanci effectively inserts collaged items into the impishly-drawn cartoon narratives of her fifteen chapters. For instance, the family members to whom the book is dedicated are represented by “stick figures” actually composed of button “heads” and trailing yarn “limbs.” Young Ozge’s prized pink ruler is shown several times as an actual plastic ruler, bearing not only the cut out geometric shapes U.S. readers will recognize but also a profile of revered Turkish leader Mustafa Kemal Ataturk! (Ataturk’s image is indeed everywhere in Turkey, as frequent in government buildings as Washington’s or Lincoln’s face is here. Samanci devotes a whole chapter to Ataturk’s influence in the media and schools.)
Such creative, unexpected touches as collage or crayoned scribbles lighten this family history, where personal choice is often limited by a harsh, unstable economy, fear of offending powerful government officials, and a rigid educational system that uses standardized tests to slot young people into schools and careers, regardless of their desires or potential. To satisfy their worried father’s goals, both Samanci and her older sister study and enter fields that deny their real interests, along the way stifling friendships and creativity. Only after she has graduated from college does Samanci “dare to disappoint” her family, veering off her prescribed course to pursue art as a career. Today Ozge Samanci is an artist and professor at Northwestern University in Illinois.
What is “foreign” in Turkey’s everyday life will be more accessible to American readers because of the ways in which Samanci zeros in on aspects of childhood that transcend borders. The desire of a preschooler to be like her school-going sibling; an elementary school student’s adulation of a kind, attractive teacher; the seemingly endless hour at the end of a boring school day, minutes counted down one-by-one: all are captured by this gifted author/illustrator. Her mainly black-and-white pages use color tellingly, highlighting dramatic moments, realizations, or settings. The book’s cross-cultural experiences extend beyond childhood into more adult terrain: first boyfriends, juggling school with part-time jobs, the social pressure to marry, and even a terrifying attack and near-rape by a stranger are also recounted here. By the memoir’s buoyant conclusion, when Samanci surfaces atop a sparkling, collaged fish to encourage us to “Come, let’s swim against the current!,” we understand how she has struggled to reach her open-hearted, triumphant sincerity. Her final words to readers are a joyful, well-meant challenge: “Do you dare to disappoint?”
Samanci’s memoir debuted in 2015 to glowing U.S. reviews and positive ones in Turkey’s liberal press. One reviewer there called it Turkey’s first graphic novel. Dare to Disappoint was and may still be under consideration for publication in Turkish there. Yet I suspect that Turkey’s current government, criticized by Samanci in her online blog, may make such publication unlikely, if not impossible. Other graphic works from and about Turkey are scarce. Anthologies about comics in the Middle East such as Muqtatafat (2016) focus on translating Arab language works—from countries such as Lebanon, Egypt, and Jordan—rather than works from Westernized Turkey, with its Romanized alphabet.
Ironically, to get a further sense of how suppressed groups live under a military regime, and how teens’ choices and friendships are constrained by the laws and customs upholding such regimes, readers might look past Turkey or any other clearly-identified country. Author/illustrator Faith Erin Hicks’ new graphic novel, The Nameless City (2016), colored by Jordie Bellaire, spotlights these questions in an adventure-filled, fantasy novel centered on two teens—a ruling caste young man named Kai and an impoverished, homeless young woman known only as Rat. Her people powerfully refuse to use the names given to their pre-industrial city by its succession of conquerors. That strategically-valuable city, located at a juncture on what might be the central Asian steppes, is prized by different ethnic groups, another distinction drawn here between conquerors and the conquered.
Unlike Delilah Dirk who challenges authority for excitement, honor, and—at times—for the satisfaction of righting wrongs done by others, Rat dangerously bounds across rooftops, avoiding armed soldiers, to find food! She and other conquered people in the Nameless City do not have enough to eat. Rat does not have the choices and privileges that Delilah has. Her ethnic identity—different from Kai’s—is another feature that sets her apart . . . a difference even sharper in this novel than race is for Mr. Selim in Europe. Harsh choices, rigid laws upheld by the military as well as police, and punishment of any kind of dissent—all were part of Ozge Samanci’s Turkey and typify Turkey today. And, as Samanci notes in her memoir, some Turkish dissenters belong to that country’s ethnic minorities. In The Nameless City, both Kai and Rat have to learn to see past their racial differences to become friends and allies. There are parallels between life in Hicks’s mythical city, 19th century racial bigotry, and its unfortunate lingering into the 21st century.
I recommend Hicks’ book, the first volume in a trilogy, not just for the issues it addresses but for its engaging characters and detailed, energetic illustrations. I look forward to the trilogy’s second volume, The Stone Heart, scheduled for publication in Spring, 2017. It is enticingly previewed here. I can only hope that by next spring the news from Turkey will be better, life there safer and more comfortable for its citizens and the refugees it now shelters.