Muhammad Najem War Reporter Review

By | Tuesday, October 04, 2022 Leave a Comment
Muhammad Najem, War Reporter tells the story of how Najem became a reporter on the war President Bashar al-Assad has waged on his own Syrian people, and how Najem was able to bring al-Assad's actions to more international attention. I will confess that I was unfamiliar with Najem before reading this. I don't believe I've seen or even heard of any of his videos, although I am broadly familiar with al-Assad's attacks on the Syrian population. Whether my knowledge of that -- which mainly came through more traditional media reporting -- was spurred directly or indirectly by Najem's actions, I don't know, but he definitely did a great deal to raise international awareness of his people's plight.

The story starts when Najem was only eight years old. He mostly laughed and played like any other child his age. Over the next few years, however, al-Assad began attacking pro-democracy protesters with increasing violence. Individual attacks eventually made way for air raids, and by the time he was twelve, Najem had grown accustomed to hiding in basements as soon as a plane was heard approaching. fter his father died in one of the bombings, his family worked even harder trying to provide for themselves and others. His older brother had become a photographer and was selling pictures and video of the atrocities to news outlets; Najem took an interest and had the idea to provide the type of reporting but from the point of view specifically from the children being impacted. His brother guided him on what would help his stories hit with the most impact, and his older sister -- a teacher -- helped ensure that his English was good to reach the widest possible audience.

Najem's videos were barely seen at first, but they eventually began gaining traction and eventually came across the desk of a producer at CNN. His work gained international attention, seemingly including al-Assad himself as attacks near Najem's home increased in both frequency and duration. His family eventually had to flee to northern Syria after their and all their neighbors' homes were bombed into rubble. Najem's older brother was able to secure passage for his whole family to Turkey, where they could all be truely safe. While Najem felt compelled to return to Syria to continue on-the-ground reporting, his brother convinced him he could continue to do so effectively -- and safely -- from Turkey and, to this day, Najem continues to do exactly that as he has since 2011.

Najem's life is a compelling one and, since the book is an autobiography, it stands to reason that he would know the best and most impactful moments that shaped his life. There are a couple of things that I find really interesting with the book in particular here. First, while Najem is the central character and it's very much told through his eyes, making him immediately symapthetic to the reader, he doesn't come across as self-important at any point. Even after making some international headlines himself and becoming a recognized figure, he seems to remain quite humble with his friends still razzing him with old jokes and loving insults. Second, this is, I believe, Najem's first attempt at writing a comic of any sort and it avoids many of the pitfalls that typically hound new comic book writers. It's not overly verbose, and the narrative transitions flow very smoothly. Najem doesn't even mention liking or reading comics at any point, so I'm left to assume that much of the heavy narrative lifting should be creditted to artist Julie Robine. I haven't seen anything on how they (along with that CNN producer Nora Neus) worked on the story but I have to believe a lot of the excellent pacing and various story beats are Robine's doing.

In fact, Robine's talents are showcased very early on as we see a two-page spread showing Najem's aging from eight to twelve. At every instance, he looks both ever so slightly older than the previous version but still very much the same boy. While Robine no doubt had photos to reference here, that she was able to capture his likeness over and over again, showing ever-so-slight signs of aging as the book progresses. That hits virtually every one of the things that are difficult for artists to do: draw a character consistently, draw a child, draw a single person aging over time... The book really is an impressive feat for that alone, even if the story wasn't top notch.

The biggest complaint I would lodge against the book is actually with the lettering. It's creditted to AndWorld Design and, while most of it is serviceable enough, there are more than a few instances where poor balloon placement makes following the conversation in a single panel much more difficult than it needs to be. If I had to guess, I would say it was done by someone who knows at least a thing or two about graphic design, but not an trained or experienced letterer.

Given Najem's intent throughout the book to bring the Syrian people's plight to the world, that he worked on this book makes sense. I'm not entirely sure why he chose a comic format instead of prose -- Perhaps a little more accessibility if/when it gets translated? Perhaps a desire to show the visible destruction? -- but I'm glad he did regardless. It's a story worthy of the world's attention for what's going on in Syria, if for no other reason. That it's an excellent story told by extremely talented individuals in a comic form makes it all the more reason to get a copy for yourself.

Muhammad Najem, War Reporter came out last month from Little, Brown and Company and retails for $12.99 US. You should be able to find at your favorite bookstore.
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