While it can be argued that there has been no other time in history in which the human race has been able to disseminate information so quickly and on such a wide scale, all in large part due to computers and gadgetry, here in America, our media output can still play like settlers circling the wagons, keeping everything in a tight ball of what needs to be known or presented. This is reflected not only in media but also in education, as extreme focus upon standardized curriculum continues to ravage possible future intellectual development in favor of supposedly solid foundational training. However, there is always what I like to call wiggle room in both formal and non-formal education, and it is because of technology that such room exits—an allowance for an individual or a group of individuals to go out and investigate ideas that strike them as interesting. Often this backfires when presented with choice, as we will circle around that which makes us most comfortable, from the political to even comics reviews and criticism. Having spent the last few years writing more comics reviews and short criticism I have found that there are mostly groups separated by the type of derision they feel so inclined to opine on twitter and individual websites. The problem often seems to be, and this is my perception, that we lack enough titles that offer a middle ground for debate, that offers enough lofty concept yet can be accessed and understood by a large audience. The key is finding a text or piece of information (or comic) that sparks one to do so, and in monthly comics, in my opinion, other than doing an old continuity dive, opportunity does not present itself too often. Jinnrise, a new series debuting from IDW comics this week, struck me as a monthly that has the possibility of opening up some avenues of exploration and discussion between groups over a period of time dealing with concepts such as manifest destiny and representations of culture.
“Manifest Destiny,” the title of the first issue of Jinnrise, is really no different than colonialism in my opinion, as both are conquering concepts built upon what the invading or “exploring” (if thinking in pre-20th century American usage of the term, and I am being kind with that time reference), groups look to achieve. Either way you color manifest destiny/colonialism, it is about subjugation, the bending and breaking of one’s culture to that of another, which is why it is dangerous, as it can be presented as a method of liberation, something more frightening when utilized as propaganda by invaders or agitators. But are not all invaders in comics built upon this idea? Isn’t the classic invading alien hordes built upon such a conceit for story purposes? Yes, but subjugation and the fight against oppression is what “good” versus “evil,” even in a shades-of-grey society, are built upon in story in regards to myth and history ( in fact, Joseph Campbell’s The Hero With a Thousand Faces is an Easter egg in the issue, as is a scene directly lifted from the end of Episode IV of Star Wars), and writer Sohaib Awan has decided not to overly sanitize it for consumption as so often is done in monthlies, rather being more aggressive, something that I applaud him for. Awan has the head of the alien invaders dropping bold statements of justification such as ” We are stronger. Ownership is ours alone. Might makes right” and “They [the people of earth] are out of control […] They need my rule.” For Awan, the invaders are about the subjugation of what are seen as the “weak” by the “strong,” the screwed up view point of moving away from the ability to give people a chance to explore and toward throttling, pacifying, and neutering. It is an old story, a story that every culture knows, but that is something of importance about how Jinnrise is being told—it is about the perspective of the story, the cultural and individual lens. And that lens does not include taking place in New York.
The creators turn the comics mainstream on its head by placing the danger in the Middle East, not the old standby of New York type cities often depicted in so many comics. While your reaction may be “duh,” think about this for a second…how many comics, monthly serialized comics, actually have a central focus of attack outside what Western culture would consider a major city? Also, how many comics on the shelves are offered to us at the LCS by comics companies that present a different geography? Such a shift in focus of alien invasion is a good thing for comics and for comic creators. The frustrations of comics readers in the minority online in social media, forums,and boards has demonstrated a need for more equality in comics, both behind the scenes and in between the pages. Perspective is often the magic of stories, it is the eye into what we may or may not know about a culture’s ideas, beliefs, fears, etc. But it is important to maintain that the culture is being represented correctly and by those who have made an attempt to not dilute it with too much outside influence.
Now in no way do I believe Awan is trying to fully represent and completely unravel an entire culture in issue one of Jinnrise. This issue like all good firsts is about world building, but the world building here is about a place that most western readers, myself included, have cursory or even no real knowledge about. In reading the issue a number of times, I stopped to think and ask myself what do I know about this region of the world exactly? This past year I read fiction by authors such as Dave Eggers (A Hologram for the King), G. Willow Wilson (Alif the Unseen), and Craig Thompson (Habibi), all which had a perspective on the Middle East but all of which seemed to come back to the same problem both textually and subtextually—what is the best way to tell the story of this part of the world? Only G. Willow Wilson actually has a substantial living experience in that part of the world in that group of authors, which gives Alif a greater sense of a tangible place, and gives the author (Wilson) a more authoritative voice in the writing, even in describing the fantastical. This first issue of Jinnrise has enough of those moments that Alif spends a greater amount of time describing (which is the strength of the visual medium), setting up a geography and a culture that holds its traditions and customs very close to its chest, connecting it to its traditions, which in turn shows, as Jinnrise attempts, that we are all connected, that, as it is written on the final page of this issue as the narrator, a foreigner to the Middle East attending school as the invasion begins, “the game of life’s about us all…whoever we are or wherever we’re from.” Awan uses the foreigner attending university as a way to make the audience feel comfortable, a westerner getting an expanded education in the Middle East who still understands so very little of it (and yes, this happens more often than you think, as major universities offer good scholarships to study and do graduate work overseas, something that pops up in Alif the Unseen). Is this a stereotype? Maybe, but I find that I could easily be that young person, gently mocking old customs and bemoaning how antiquated everything there is, as demonstrated in a marketplace scene. But before I get too far off track, in going back to my question about how much do I know about that part of the world, the answer is very little.
I am a mature adult, and I know the interest that I feel with a story like Jinnrise and some of the other books I mentioned have me running off to all kinds of electronic searches to find more info to help me understand how the story was told and how it may or may not have come to be, and it will take me some time. This places me in a minority, for sure, because the average teenager/young adult (and I know this from teaching them in both High School and College) will not usually follow up on such curiosity unless there is a grade attached, and while there is not anything necessarily wrong with that in regards to reading something that aims to be the equivalent of American superhero comfort food, I think it would be of tremendous help of say American readers to try to understand why a Genie would be better than Superman and how other cultural stories can be a wellspring of new knowledge for those of us who supposedly live in more enlightened times. The Old World (something that pops up as a term to describe the Middle East in all of the stories I read and listed), does indeed have much to show us, and while I wont ever declare such a wild ride like Jinnrise as being in any way authoritative (nor any of the fictions mentioned in this review), it is what it can be, a starting place for conversation and questions between readers and critics, that can help us start down a road to try to understand a part of the world that has been a mystery to us, and by “us” I mean the majority of Americans, for such a long time.