Books

Documenting the Journeys of Syrian Refugees in Comics

Escaping Wars and Waves culls Olivier Kugler’s contributions to Harper’s, Le Monde diplomatique, The New Yorker, and more.

A page from Escaping Wars and Waves: Encounters with Syrian Refugees by Oliver Kugler (copyright © Olivier Kugler 2018 (all images courtesy Pennsylvania State University Press)

There’s a lot going on in award-winning graphic journalist Olivier Kugler’s narrative drawings of Syrian refugees. His subjects appear multiple times on a given page — a portrait, front and center, anchors the layout, but he draws his figures elsewhere, too, working or walking in the backdrop. Handwritten annotations are scrawled along the margins, and numbered sections help guide the reader. The tone of these multipage profiles mirrors the frenzied, lesser covered refugee camps where Kugler interviews Syrians who have been fleeing their native country for seven years. 

Since 2011, hundreds of thousands of people in Syria have been killed in a civil war that began after the government deployed military force against pro-democracy activists. More than five million Syrians are on the run. In camps, nearly half of the population is comprised of children. Most of the Syrian refugees live in poverty in places like Lebanon, where the majority of those children aren’t in school. Commissioned by Doctors Without Borders, Olivier Kugler visits camps in Germany, Greece, and elsewhere to tell displaced Syrians’ stories. A book of full-color, comics-styled dispatches called Escaping Wars and Waves: Encounters with Syrian Refugees culls his contributions to Harper’s, Le Monde diplomatique, The New Yorker, and more.

Cover of Escaping Wars and Waves: Encounters with Syrian Refugees (copyright © Olivier Kugler 2018)

In northern Iraq, Kugler interviews an ex-Syrian military sniper named Djwan who rents sound systems out for events. Flanked by monitor speakers and breakdancers, Djwan discusses having deserted his military post, but not before his friends were burned to death when a grenade hit their tank. Kugler integrates cellphone photos here. Djwan reclines in an armchair and recounts hiding out near Turkey and sneaking back home to see his mother. “I cried … and told her that I missed her,” he says.

In portraying these conversations, Kugler offers very detailed illustrations of his expressive interviewees. While backdrops get mere framing lines and partial coloring, Kugler captures Djwan’s long eyelashes and five o’clock shadow. Elsewhere, he’s meticulous about artful head scarf textures or graphic T-shirts. His thin inked line is sometimes doubled-up, so that shadow-like outlines appear around otherwise finished renderings of his subjects’ arms and legs. It suggests motion, but it’s an effect that also recalls double-exposed photos, which is where Kugler’s journalism begins.

A page from Escaping Wars and Waves: Encounters with Syrian Refugees (copyright © Olivier Kugler 2018)

Before making large-scale line drawings, Kugler worked off of high-definition photographs and sketchbook entries.

“When he carries out interviews,” wrote Eye’s John L. Walters last year, “Kugler knows that the camera will pick up details and perspectives that would take too long to capture if he sat down and drew the scene.”

A page from Escaping Wars and Waves: Encounters with Syrian Refugees (copyright © Olivier Kugler 2018)

Kugler’s process yields peripheral cartoon-like spot illustrations, like those supporting street vendor Claudia’s story on Greece’s Kos Island, where tourism declines and refugees sleep on trashed cardboard. For Vian, whose imprisoned activist husband hasn’t met his infant son yet and whose glassy doll-eyes are trained on the reader, Kugler utilizes captions, oversized header type, and word balloons, too. While the work isn’t always labeled as such and is far more venturesome than what is being produced at mainstream comics publishers, Escaping owes as much to the tradition of comics and sequential art as it does to journalism.

A page from Escaping Wars and Waves: Encounters with Syrian Refugees (copyright © Olivier Kugler 2018)

Kugler obsessed over Belgian cartoonist Hergé as a kid and found Joe Sacco’s comics journalism while attending School of Visual Arts. Kugler’s efforts aren’t straightforward reported comics like Andy Warner’s or Sarah Glidden’s in her powerful Rolling Blackouts, but they share aesthetic properties. The animated pages in Escaping read like composites of several images, where physical geography is represented fractionally and sitting subjects look to be in motion. The story retains a sketchbook-like sensibility rather than that of formal, finalized storytelling. It’s fitting: Everyone is on the move. Their stories are far from over, and some are still waiting to be told.

“At the beginning I thought that everything would be over soon,” says Djwan in Iraqi Kurdistan. “But day after day the situation would only become worse.”

Escaping Wars and Waves: Encounters with Syrian Refugees by Olivier Kugler is out now from Penn State University Press.

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