By Shea Hennum
In 1990 brothers Bruno and Sylvain Ricard traveled from France to Beirut, Lebanon, a country, which at the time was in the throes of a terrible internal conflict. They traveled to Lebanon via Cyprus to serve as aid workers, almost on a lark. And even though the brothers were unable to find a position with the Red Cross, they remained in Beirut, living in and around the city for nearly a month, seeing the locals and experiencing a conflict they knew very little about from a very intimate perspective. They eventually ran out of money and were forced to return to France and resume their daily lives. Their trip was short, but they experienced a lot of singularly harrowing, touching, and bizarre aspects of life during wartime. Years later, Sylvain, now a writer of comics, collaborated with his brother Bruno and lauded artist Christophe Gaultier to tell the story of their time in Lebanon.
Originally published in France in 2004 under the title Clichés Beirut in 1990, and only recently appearing in English thanks to Humanoids, Beirut 1990: Snapshots of a Civil War has more in common with a travelogue than a conventional journalistic comic. There’s no structured narrative, no real beginning, middle, and end where things are tied up neatly. There are prologues and epilogues to cap off the story, to provide some sort of introduction and resolution, but no real recognizable structure. The ebb and flow of the story is reminiscent of Harvey Pekar’s writing, with abrupt endings, emphasis on character over plot, and stories that don’t have conclusions. And the idea that we follow the brothers works well to ingratiate us, the reader, into Lebanese life. We begin the stories as the brothers, outsiders, but as they grow into Lebanon and the things once weird become normal, we feel the same. The violence once terrifying becomes background noise, allowing us to focus on the people and not the conflict. This transition from Kafkaesque surrealism to normalized banality is only possible because of artist Christophe Gaultier.
The linework of Gaultier resembles Eddie Campbell’s sketchy, raw style with a lighter, more comedic bent. At first I thought it was a bizarre choice for the subject matter, but after thinking about it more, Gaultier’s work on the book is a big reason it works so well. It creates levity, lightening the tension, and allowing the reader to see the citizens of Lebanon like the Ricards see them: similar souls, not Others, who stand at the center of a devastating conflict. We are able to connect with them, see them as ourselves, to think of them as people like us who just want to wake up in the morning, make some coffee, and see the kids off to school without having to worry about a bomb falling on our heads. Seeing ourselves in the citizens of this foreign land is integral to what the comic is trying to communicate: some human emotions, feelings, wants, and desires are universal, something we occasionally allow to be overshadowed by cultural differences. We say, “They practice a different religion.” Or, “They eat weird food,” “They speak a different language,” and, “They don’t look like me.” This becomes a stumbling block that keeps us from remembering that there are cultural universals, things innate in the human experience. Gaultier’s simple, stylized art humanizes the Other, breaks down the barriers that separate the subject from the reader, allowing us to connect and empathize.
This establishment of an emotional connection allows us to be taught, to be informed. Typically used as a pejorative, “infotainment” is a perfect descriptor for Beirut 1990. It alternates between scenes of the brothers sitting on a roof, smoking, worrying about money, to large chunks of text that cap off each chapter, discussing the theology-fronted militarized politics of Lebanon and how ignorant the brothers were before they came here, how wrongheaded and one-sided Western coverage of events had been.
Beirut 1990 is a singularly touching and informative work that informs without lacking humor and without ever talking down or pontificating. As understated as it is well-made, Beirut 1990 is exceptional in a unique and rarefied way.