HYPHEN show 2017: Tasreen Rahman turns difficult debates into comics

Comics are generally not taken very seriously as an art form, outliers such as Art Spiegelman’s Pulitzer-winning “Maus” notwithstanding. But perhaps they should be: visual storytelling is an excellent tool for making a wide variety of topics more accessible and easier to understand. For her BA Design graduation project, Tasreen Rahman created a comic book based on conversations about difficult, controversial issues:

“I’ve been looking at comics this whole year, and using comics as a medium to confront things that make me uncomfortable, like racism, rape, difficult, taboo things that we might find difficult to talk about, but through this medium it’s quite easy, because it’s chatty, it’s unapologetic.  So my final outcome is a comic filled with different conversations I’ve had this last year looking into various different topics.  The characters are always x, y and z, throughout the chapters, to  maintain anonymity, so you don’t know who’s who, and the focus is on the language, not the person.

I’ve used conversations with my family and friends, because I know what triggers them, what things they’re very passionate about, and how unfiltered they can be, it was important that they could talk to me candidly. For instance, in the fourth chapter, we look at Brexit, and most of my group of friends voted Remain, but there’s one who voted Leave, so that’s a really uncomfortable situation for her, which I wanted to address in this chapter.”

Tasreen is, of course, a keen comics reader:

“I love comics, I’ve been reading comics since I was little. I mostly like the independent stuff, but also the classics like Watchmen and V for Vendetta, or mainstream titles from Marvel and DC, but I mostly like the one-off comics.”

Which kind of issues are tackled in Tasreen’s comic book?

“It first looks at how we can take the individual micro-narratives and personal experiences we have, and understand them better by relating them to the bigger things, then bringing them back down.  This is something that I don’t feel a lot of mainstream comics do, they focus on a very specific person and their story, or they get so big and it’s about something so removed from reality that it’s hard to relate back to reality. Another issue I deal with is how we talk about difficult topics, but in a colloquial way.

I also look at conventions within comics, such as adverts, and how they’re used. I hate how adverts in comics break up the narrative, in-between a really intense fight scene, you’ll have an ad for an unconnected TV show, it makes no sense. I’ve tried to use adverts in a different way, so that they feed into the narrative.  For example, one chapter is about rape, how the verdict for a rape trial is going. The characters are just about to find out, you get an advertisement breaking the pace of the narrative, informing the reader about consent, and victim blaming, then on the next page you find out the verdict.”

On experimenting with the comic format:

“In one particular bit of the comic I’m trying to explain my method, so I drew myself as Scott McCloud and imitated his style, so that I can talk the reader through it. In another chapter, Wonder Woman makes an appearance. I was looking at a misunderstanding between a couple of friends, and one of them is quite feminist, but when she goes off on a rant, she immediately regrets it afterwards, “ah, they probably think I’m really weird , I wish I just gave a straight answer”, so in here she’s transforming into Wonder Woman and making the other characters see their wrongs. By the end of the chapter, she pulls them up and flies them up in the air, from the micro to the macro, and then drops them back down to the micro. Then you realise in the next page that it’s all in her head, and and she just wishes she did that, instead of it actually happening. So it’s using an already existing character for a re-imagined purpose to give it new meaning.”

How can comics best address social issues without falling into the trap of being preachy?

“There are some that do it really well. For example, V for Vendetta, the way it deals with social issues, it did it in such a way that it eventually did turn into the Anonymous movement and all that came out from it, but it didn’t set out to do that, it just organically happened afterwards. Without setting out to make social changes, I think that’s a great way to do it, rather than going in headstrong, the main thing you want is to entertain people, because it’s a comic.”

On the stereotype of comics as an art form for children or teenagers:

“I appreciate that it is quite a childish art form, but I think in that childishness, it’s accessible, and it’s in that where its potential lies. Anyone could read them, understand them, and because it can reach so many people it can be used for great things, for addressing social issues. Now, especially, a lot of comics seem to be aimed at adults, or a grown up readership. They are so unapologetic,  you can say whatever you want in a comic and get away with it, it’s not serious, it’s not academic, and you can get really interesting conversations from it afterwards.”

On studying Design at Goldsmiths:

“We have the freedom to do whatever we want, and it took a while to understand that, I come from a very academic background, there’s a right way to do things at exam time, there’s always a correct answer, but coming here and understanding that there isn’t…As long as you have the confidence in your work and you have the process to back it up, it’s all good. Once I got that, these last 3 years have been amazing.  Originally, this was going to be a hobby, not a career path. I even applied  to do law and history elsewhere, but I suddenly changed my mind. I’m not sure what sparked that, it might have been my teacher at school who said, why don’t you give it a shot?  But it’s definitely been a great decision, I think. It’s been fun.”