What do you think of when you think about comics? Whether it’s the illustrated fantasy worlds of Spider-Man and Batman, or memories of skipping straight to the cartoon segments of newspapers as a child, the medium certainly occupies its own space in the cultural imagination. But whilst Marvel and DC may be reaping the rewards of a seemingly endless slew of Hollywood adaptations of their classic comics, this combination of text and image lends itself to so much more than superheroes and children’s stories.
Comics and bandes dessineés have long been used as a journalistic tool and a means of offering accessible political and social commentary with a heavy dose of wit, satire and irony. And as the sale of comic books and graphic novels continues to grow, the format is enjoying a certain renaissance, reclaiming its status as a mode of representation for contemporary social issues from feminism to climate change.
One artist who believes that comics can change the world is Berlin-based writer and illustrator Ali Fitzgerald, whose passion for comic-making has developed since childhood. Initially inspired by newspaper comics of the 1990s, the native Californian later discovered the works of graphic novelists such as Majane Satrapi and underground zines that “really blew my mind” and solidified her enthusiasm for the medium. With a masters in fine art, Fitzgerald has gone on to turn her passion into a career and is now a published arts writer and comic designer, with her works appearing in publications such as The Guardian and The New Yorker.
“The power of comics, in my opinion, lies in the medium’s ability to foster empathy among reader,” the artist tells WOM. “We identify strongly with these abstracted, graphic characters and tend to read images more emotionally, which, when combined with a story, can take us places that photojournalism and prose cannot.”
Creating comics entails a very different process to fine art canvases as the use of text can alter the meaning or atmosphere of the visual art. In something analogous to the paradox of the chicken and the egg, I wonder if the story always come first or if it also informed by the image. “I know quite a few comic artists who work image-first, so I think it’s really a question of preference and of context,” replies Fitzgerald. “Although I’m mostly a “write it out first” gal, I do sometimes change directions if the image is particularly compelling or offers something I hadn’t thought of.”
Fitzgerald uses her artwork as a platform to inspire and promote social welfare initiatives. She has previously given a lecture on Visual Storytelling as a Tool to Affect Social Change at the Lesbians Who Tech Summit in San Francisco, as well as host various lectures and workshops worldwide including a series of comic workshops with refugees in Berlin which was supported by Comic Invasion and Amnesty International.
Her series “Drawn to Berlin: Comic Workshops in Refugee Shelters and Other Stories from a New Europe,” recounts the artist’s experiences at these workshops. The illustrations contrast the contemporary refugee crisis with the experience of asylum seekers in Germany 100 years ago. The parallels drawn between the depictions create a poignant consideration of how society views issues of immigration and asylum, and conveys emotions of loss, fear and hope that communicate a deeply primal connection to the experiences on paper and of Fitzgerald’s students.
An upcoming project with the Humboldt Forum in Berlin will give the artist the opportunity once more to explore her fascination and love for her adopted home. Having spent most of the year so far travelling between different residencies, she is now “even more convinced that Berlin is truly special in terms of its creative scene and arty insistence.” When Fitzgerald doesn’t have her sketching tools in hand, she likes to spend time in the cities libraries and art spaces, or go for a “melancholy walk” along Karl Marx Allee, a long boulevard flanked by imposing Stalinist buildings – remnants of the city’s Soviet era.
Works like those of Ali Fitzgerald are both timeless and timely, and synonymous with a new age of comics that serve to confirm the power of the format and the joy that they can bring. “The world is becoming increasingly visual, and so it makes sense that image-based stories are also becoming more common,” the artist considers. “The internet has allowed us limitless visual opportunities: artists are no longer limited by the printed page or the gatekeepers of publishing.”