Comics As Cultural Educators

By | Saturday, December 01, 2012 1 comment
I would make a terrible sociologist. I do okay when it comes to armchair psychology if I know the person, but sociology is just like a big black hole for me. I just don't get people in a broad sense. I'm actually rubbish at armchair psychology, but compared to my skills in sociology, I'm amazing there.

I'm speaking from a practical sense here, by the way. I took psychology and sociology classes in both high school and college, and did pretty well in them. But that was all the rote memorization stuff. Who was Sigmund Freud, what was David Berlo’s model of communication, etc. In terms of practical application? Let's just say I can be very socially challenged.

But, I know this about myself, and continue working to improve where I can there. One of the ways I do that is by trying to learn about other cultures and societies that I don't really know very well, in order to understand them and how they do or don't relate to the culture(s) I'm an active part of, which are often difficult to analyze precisely because I'm an active participant.

This I why I'm always on the lookout for new comics that come froma different perspective. I mean, yeah, Jeff Smith turns out some fantastic work and I really enjoy studying what he does, but he's still a white guy from suburban Ohio and not all that much older than me. He's going to come to the table with a pretty similar perspective as me. Which is fine because, as I said, he does some fantastic work, but it's not going to provide any great insights into other cultures.

Manga, of course, is a good source of insights into another culture. Reading through Bakuman or One Piece teaches you something about Japan. And we're fortunate that manga is relatively popular in the U.S. right now. Popular enough in fact that we get some manhua and manhwa out the bargain too!

There's also some European work here in the States, but not nearly enough for my tastes. Some British work, and a few French and Belgian pieces but not a whole lot else. Russia and Australia are woefully under-represented, as are pretty much all of South America and Africa.

So I'm generally pleased when I can find something that speaks to a mindset very different from my own. I stumbled across some old Argentinian comic strips recently; they're still in Spanish but the action is so clearly delineated, the dialogue is largely unnecessary. Will I get a complete understanding of Argentina from reading these? No, but some understanding? Probably. (The strip is Antenita, el Hombre de Marte in case you're interested.)

I'm even more please when someone writes a comic specifically to address the cultural differences. I recently started watching Little Mosque on the Prairie on Hulu; it's a comedy, but aimed at pointing out the issues Muslims have in Canada. That kind of thing, I think, can be very enlightening.

Also, recently, I found that Dara Naraghi is currently working on a graphic novel called Persia Blues about an Iranian woman living in Ohio. There's also, evidently, a lot of historic and mythological references to ancient Persia. It sounds like a complex story, and I don't know Naraghi's or artist Brent Bowman's abilities well enough to know how successful the final result will be. But I'm intrigued enough by the concept that I'm willing to give it a shot.

It's human nature to surround ourselves with similar individuals. It's more comfortable to be around people who come at life with the same basic perspective as us. But it doesn't help our understanding of people in general; it's just a reflection of our own perceptions.

Maybe because I've never really felt like I belonged to a culture like that, I'm more open to seeing how other people approach the world. But as we're entering the holiday season -- which is ostensibly about peace on earth, goodwill to men, and all that -- maybe we could all try to pick up a little more understanding of cultures outside our usual comfort zone.
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Matt K said...

This is part of what I love about Walter Mosley's writing. Aside from its just being deliriously good, it's an experience of a whole other America that is otherwise near invisible from my life.