Today I have the pleasure of reviewing Zerocalcare’s stunning work of graphic reportage, Kobane Calling: Greetings from Northern Syria. Following in the footsteps of comics journalism greats such as Joe Sacco, Zero captures a series of gritty journeys into the war torn Middle East to observe the Kurdish resistance in Syria. Haunting, beautiful, and simultaneously humorous this timely work of nonfiction is an apt alternative to politicized mainstream news.
Title: Kobane Calling
Publisher: Lion Forge
Originally Published: April 11, 2016
Publication Date: October 17, 2017
Genre: Graphic Novel, Nonfiction, Comics Journalism, Autobiography
Themes: War, ISIS, Reportage, Economics, Politics, Iraq, Syria, Turkey, Kurdistan
My Rating: 4 / 5
KOBANE CALLING is the autobiographical memoir of a young Italian cartoonist, writing and drawing under the nom-de-plume Zerocalcare, who volunteers with the Rojava Calling organization and heads into the Middle East to support and observe the Kurdish resistance in Syria as they struggle against the advancing forces of the Islamic State. He winds up in the small town of Mesher, near the Turkish-Syrian border as a journalist and aid worker, and from there he travels into Ayn al-Arab, a majority-Kurd town in the Rojava region of Syria. As he receives an education into the war from the Kurdish perspective, he meets the women fighting in the all-female Kurdish volunteer army (the Yekeineyen Parastina Jin, or Women’s Defense Units), struggling to simultaneously fight off the Islamic State even as they take strides for Kurdish independence and attempt a restructuring of traditional patriarchal Kurdish society. In a story and style at once humorous and heartbreaking, Zerocalcare presents clear-eyed reportage of the fight against the Islamic State from the front lines. Originally published in the Italian weekly INTERNATIONAL.
Being a die-hard fan of Joe Sacco I was incredibly excited to check out Kobane Calling when it was offered on NetGalley, and Zero’s depiction of the conflict in the Middle East certainly lived up to my expectations. It was gritty, real, and expertly balanced outward perspectives with lived experiences. I found it refreshing to see that Zero visited multiple locations and sought to obtain a variety of perspectives both on the front and geographically removed from the fighting. I was instantly endeared to Zero’s character, his anxiety and his humour, and found him to be the perfect character to carry and represent the experiences of the people he encountered throughout his journeys.
It can be difficult to experience, synthesize, and reconstruct such experiences in comics form in a timely manner – so I was blown away with how current and on point this book remains for today’s issues. I appreciated the shifting maps, perspectives and public reporting throughout but was most drawn to those comparisons of comfortable western life and ignorance in stark juxtaposition to the reality being lived not so far away. I was particularly drawn to the analogy of the embassy as a Stargate as it really drove home the contrast of certain lived realities.
My biggest drawbacks were entirely aesthetic and stylistic, in that I was often lost by the mixture of anthropomorphic and human characters. Don’t get me wrong, I both understand and enjoy the metaphor of the mother hen and such, but I am a fan of consistency. I would have enjoyed this book a lot more if the characters were entirely animals like Maus, or entirely human. I think too, that there would have been even more of an emotional impact if the characters translated into animals had remained human and relatable rather than being removed through abstraction.
I did however, really enjoy the frequent asides from the narrator. Not only did they break tension in some incredibly dark moments, but they afforded a massive amount of information to readers who might not be familiar with the facts of the situation. The inclusion of maps, historical facts, and even personal perspectives from characters on the ground created well rounded and incredibly grounded experience.
Would I recommend this book? Absolutely! I am all for diversity in perspectives, and a huge advocate of questioning everything (especially the news) so Kobane Calling is just the type of thing I like to seek out. It offers alternate perspectives, and re-injects the human impacts that stripped down and factual reporting seeks to leave out. Zero’s work is an absolute must read, and is certain to be the kind of reportage that will be looked back on in the future as an informed alternative to (emphasis on the capital ‘H’) History.
Many thanks to Lion Forge and Netgalley for providing an eGalley in exchange for an honest review.