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Graphic novels chart Myanmar's history

Exotic climate, turbulent past an inspiration to comic writers

R.D. Nolane and Felix Molinari, "The Flying Tigers" (1994), left, and Will and Maurice Tillieux, "Adventure in Burma" (1976)

CANBERRA/YANGON -- Before 1988, Myanmar (then known as Burma) did not feature prominently in comic strips, comic books and graphic novels. After the nationwide pro-democracy uprising that year, however, the situation suddenly changed. Assisted by the global campaign being waged against the military regime, Myanmar found a new place in popular culture.

These days, graphic novels in particular are influencing perceptions of the country and its government, by conveying images and views directly to an international audience.

Graphic novels date back to the 1930s, but they were only recognized as a distinct genre of publication in the mid-1960s. The term 'graphic novel' was coined in 1964. These works are essentially collections of cartoon drawings that tell a continuous story. Initially reserved for works of fiction, the label now embraces fiction, nonfiction and anthologies. It is usually applied to original long form narratives, but the term has also been applied to bound collections of comic strips and comic books.

Over the past 30 years, Myanmar has featured in nearly two dozen graphic novels. Most have been produced in Europe, where there is a strong tradition of bandes dessinees (literally "drawn strips"). They have portrayed the country in different ways, but there have been a number of consistent themes. Most have been intended simply to entertain, but some have had a strong historical flavor, usually referencing World War II. More recent works have aimed to educate readers about contemporary developments in Myanmar, and have often conveyed strong political messages.

The earliest graphic novels about Myanmar were collections of comic strips that had already appeared in newspapers. They included strips first published in the 1930s about Sax Rohmer's Fu Manchu. This oriental villain had strong links to colonial Burma, as did his nemesis, Denis Nayland Smith.

Cosey: "Jonathan: She or Ten Thousand Fireflies" (2008)

While not accorded the attention given to Europe and the Pacific region during World War II, the campaign in Myanmar helped make the country familiar to Western audiences, and later provided the setting for a wide range of comics and graphic novels. For example, the British war comics set in Myanmar and published in the 1970s under the title "Darkie's Mob" were released as a book in 2011. This category also included the Italian "Man of Rangoon" and the French album "The Flying Tigers." Two multi-volume graphic novels set in Myanmar during the war were produced in France and Belgium under the titles "Angel Wings" and "Little England."

Graphic novels also exploit the popular image of Myanmar as a remote country of tropical jungles, wild animals and picturesque ruins. The locals are usually portrayed as simple villagers or dangerous bandits. The country is thus ideally suited as a backdrop for romantic stories about lost treasure and secret bases. Hence the 1976 French production "Adventure in Burma" and the two-volume "Mysteries in Burma," published in 2004 and 2006. One volume of the Largo Wynch adventure series, "The Hour of the Tiger," was set in Myanmar. Even James Bond went there, in a 1983 Swedish graphic novel.

Some Myanmar-related graphic novels contain fantastical elements. The American Mandalay series opened with a story about two British brothers in colonial Burma grappling with ancient magic. In one book of the "Moriarty" series, the eponymous anti-hero journeys to Myanmar to find the "tree of life." In 2015, three Israeli artists were inspired by the story of the youthful Htoo twins (who led a Karen insurgent group called God's Army in 2000), to produce "The Divine," a tale about supernatural powers in a fictional Southeast Asian country called Quanlom.

There have also been graphic novels that try to describe everyday life in modern Myanmar, both for foreign residents and local inhabitants. Foremost among these books has been Guy Delisle's 2008 "Burma Chronicles." While it does not delve deeply into Myanmar's political scene, it has been reviewed as "an impressive and moving work of comics journalism." Also of interest in this regard is a travelogue by Cosey, entitled "Jonathan: She or Ten Thousand Fireflies," which describes a journey around Upper Myanmar in search of personal enlightenment.

Mention should also be made of "Hot Nights in Rangoon," an erotic graphic novel by J.H. Hauper published in 1989. The story revolves around an American gangster hired to track down a CIA agent who has gone missing in Myanmar. He starts his investigation in Rangoon (now Yangon), proceeds to Mandalay and ends up near the Chinese border. The story and illustrations betray a profound ignorance of Myanmar, but that is hardly relevant to the book's aim, which is to describe in detail the sexual exploits of its main characters.

Chantal Van den Heuvelal and Michel Pierret: "Aung San Suu Kyi: The Lady of Rangoon" (2013)

Perhaps the most significant development in this field in recent years has been the publication of several graphic novels describing political developments in Myanmar, including the life of the country's most prominent dissident, Aung San Suu Kyi.

It is a little known fact that the first biography of Suu Kyi was a 1994 Japanese manga publication entitled "Aung San Suu Kyi: The Fighting Peacock." The former opposition leader, now Myanmar's state counselor, was also the subject of Chantal Van den Heuvelal and Michel Pierret's reverential 2013 graphic novel "Aung San Suu Kyi: The Lady of Rangoon," which seems to take as its guide Luc Besson's 2011 biopic "The Lady." Suu Kyi is also the main focus of "The Caged Bird," a graphic book for children published in Britain in 2014.

Other graphic novels examine developments in Myanmar since the 1988 uprising. For example, the French human rights campaigner Frederic Debomy has produced three works, "Burma: Fear is a Habit," "On the Wire" and "Burma: Fragments of Reality." All combine drawn illustrations and text to argue for political reform in Myanmar. Also of note is "Burmese Moons," written by French author Sophie Ansell and illustrated by Sam Garcia. In brutal detail, it tells the story of a young man from Myanmar's Chin Hills whose participation in Myanmar's democracy movement sees him tortured, jailed and later forced into exile.

Romain Hugault and Yann: "Angel Wings" (2014)

The artwork in these publications varies widely in style and quality. In the "Angel Wings" and "Little England" books, the pictures are realistic and beautifully composed. As in Herge's "Tintin" albums, care has been taken to make them historically and technically accurate. Guy Delisle has his own minimalist approach while others, such as Benoit Guillaume in Frederic Debomy's books, employ a more abstract style. In their own ways, however, they all carry their stories and effectively convey the appropriate atmosphere, whether it is one of adventure, mystery or political oppression by the military regime.

The treatment of women in Myanmar-related graphic novels varies according to the source and the subject matter. In "Angel Wings" and "Man of Rangoon" the Western heroines are voluptuous. Asian women tend to be depicted as sultry temptresses, "Hot Nights in Rangoon" being an obvious example. However, few of the women portrayed, whether they are heroines or harlots, are passive bystanders. They are pilots, secret agents, archaeologists, nightclub singers and business women. Unsurprisingly, Suu Kyi was accorded a unique position, as the respected leader of Myanmar's opposition movement.

Graphic novels now constitute a major publishing force around the world. As such, they are powerful vehicles for the transmission of ideas and images to both adults and young readers. After Myanmar captured the imagination of artists and writers, such works became a powerful tool in the hands of those opposed to the military regime. It remains to be seen what they will make of Myanmar after Suu Kyi's party took power in early 2016, and particularly after her spectacular fall from grace in the eyes of the international community following the brutal military crackdown on the country's Muslim Rohingya minority.

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