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Professor Hillary Chute column in latest New York Times Book Review

Comics of Violence and Nostalgia From War-Torn Syria

Riad Sattouf’s parents met in the early 1970s in a cafeteria at the Sorbonne. They were both students: Clémentine from Brittany, and Abdel-Razak, on scholarship, from a village in Syria. Riad was born in 1978. With a young child and a newly minted doctorate in history, Abdel-Razak — whose stated aspiration for his son, to become “the Arab of the future,” lends Sattouf’s autobiographical series its name — moved his family to Libya for a teaching position before eventually landing in Syria, in the Sunni village of Ter Maaleh, where he had grown up. Sattouf’s graphic narratives of his country-and-culture-hopping childhood — of which, with THE ARAB OF THE FUTURE 3: A Childhood in the Middle East, 1985-1987 (Metropolitan/Holt, $27), we now have three volumes in an ongoing story — are translated from the French by Sam Taylor. They reveal the easy charm also displayed in Marjane Satrapi’s “Persepolis” volumes, setting up a central, and often amusing, tension between a pictured child protagonist and that same person’s adult, retrospective narration. The reader easily shuttles back and forth between naïve and knowing perspectives, the two combined in the space of a frame.

Sattouf deploys a springy black line and a striking palette of creamy pastels. The pages have a clean, almost candied-looking surface, which can exist in stark contrast to some of the horrors depicted (for instance, an honor killing of a beloved cousin in the second volume), and also serve to draw one in, providing a comforting constancy. His chapters tend to be bichromatic, with one consistent color representing the time spent in each country: yellow for Libya, pink for Syria, blue for France.

[ Read reviews of Sattouf’s series by Jennifer Senior and Laila Lalami ]

In “The Arab of the Future 3,” however, another color emerges with force: red. This volume is dominated by life in Syria, and it’s the best of the books yet. The first to make me laugh out loud, it’s also the darkest. The book succeeds because it concentrates on his deeply strained family dynamics, and it looks outward, more explicitly than its predecessors, toward how those conflicts reflect or embody global ones. Both arenas produce violence, which is here often represented by red, coloring imagined killings (Riad’s intense fantasy life) and real pain including the harsh physical punishment of children at school, marital discord, vociferous anger.

It’s as if violence is its own country, free-floating and borderless, which Riad ends up visiting more and more. In one of the book’s strangest, most ingenious sequences, Sattouf dedicates four and a half red-and-black saturated pages to a detailed comics-form rendition — like a mini-“Classics Illustrated” — of the 1982 film “Conan the Barbarian,” in which Conan ultimately beheads a man who claims to be his father. Riad and his cousins watch on television, rapt. Later we see — in the icy blue tones of France — how this connects to Riad’s love of cartooning, and even his talent: A panel shows him drawing Conan amid lopped-off body parts, as the book foregrounds his burgeoning artistic ability. “I drew lots of scenes of barbarism,” the narration reads. “I enjoyed the savagery.” If Sattouf grew up inspired to draw versions of violent fantasy movies, eventually he came to draw the violence of his own childhood.

From “Brothers of the Gun.”

One of Sattouf’s themes is what it means to be “Syrian” — what education, religious beliefs, practices and expectations might constitute that identity. This too is explored in the unique BROTHERS OF THE GUN: A Memoir of the Syrian War (One World, $28), which the 29-year-old Syrian journalist Marwan Hisham wrote with Molly Crabapple, who also provides more than 80 illustrations to the text. “Syrians fighting Syrians. Syrians humiliating Syrians. Syrians. I hated the deceptive simplicity of that word,” Hisham professes. But while Sattouf’s child’s-eye view of Syria is rooted in the Hafez al-Assad years (one of his father’s students, who bribes him, is a Hafez bodyguard), “Brothers of the Gun” opens in 2011, as Hisham and his best friends protest the Bashar al-Assad regime in Hisham’s native Raqqa. Raqqa later became a rebel stronghold — before being captured by ISIS. As Hisham points out about the city he loves and detests at once, and keeps returning to despite all its difficulties, “Raqqa had not only acquired a worldwide reputation as the Heart of Terror and the de facto capital of the caliphate, it also reaped special severity at the hands of the Islamic State.” His viewpoint as a civilian struggling within the city, and especially his perspective on ISIS, is gripping. “Brothers of the Gun” tracks the Syrian civil war in both words and images from the ground and from the inside, offering one of the clearest explanations (even when it’s confessing befuddlement) of the war’s growth and the unrest that is its motor.

Hisham and Crabapple met in 2014 on Twitter, where Hisham posted updates from Raqqa that came to be followed by every major news organization (he broke the news of American airstrikes 30 minutes before the Pentagon released their statement).

The seed for the book was their collaboration for several online pieces for Vanity Fair, for which Crabapple drew sketches of source photographs Hisham took and surreptitiously sent her. He calls this project “the art crime,” since in the caliphate photography was a transgression and would almost certainly result in his torture and execution.

Crabapple is an accomplished artist, and her black-and-white images, varying in size from spot drawings to double-spreads, have a fluidity and dynamism that add to the text rather than distracting from it. Sometimes the deliberately ink-as-blood-splotched aesthetic of the book feels gratuitous — sensationalizing already dramatic images. One of the greatest strengths of the illustrations is their range. They reveal scenes such as ISIS fighters glued to their phones in an internet cafe, as well as decimated buildings and public executions, alongside detailed images from Hisham’s everyday life — which I found moving and illuminating — such as the coffee, water and cigarette he was enjoying (breaking the Ramadan fast) when ISIS fighters stormed into his apartment in 2015. The drawings have both immediacy and texture.