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Review: ‘Poppies of Iraq’

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Poppies of Iraq
Writers: Brigitte Findakly and Lewis Trondheim
Artist: Lewis Trondheim
Drawn and Quarterly; $21.95

Poppies of IraqBy virtue of the circumstances of her birth, Brigitte Findakly had quite an interesting and important story to tell. By virtue of her profession and that of her husband, she had the perfect way to tell it. The result is her comics-format memoir Poppies of Iraq, which details her childhood in Iraq, which she left at age 14 in 1973; her family’s attempts to start a new life in France afterwards; and her increasingly occasional visits to the country in the increasingly turbulent years since.

In many ways, then, Findakly’s life coincides with that of modern Iraq—she was born the year after the kindgom became a republic, for example, and her family emigrated between the years in which the country nationalized its oil and when Saddam Hussein took power. She wasn’t there firsthand to experience, say, the Iran/Iraq war, or the first Gulf War, or the 2003 U.S. invasion, but she had family who were, and she visited between these national events of international import, seeing how they affected her extended family.

Findakly dropped out of school after becoming a professional comics colorist and has since worked with Disney and Spirou and on graphic novels by the likes of Joann Sfar and Lewis Trondheim. Trondheim, who collaborated on the book but never appears as a character within it, is her husband, which gave her pretty easy access to one of France’s greatest cartoonists for turning her story into a comic.

Trondheim is a very versatile artist, but the style he uses in Poppies is a very simplified, cartoony one that renders all of the characters almost doll-like: All small in stature and generally seen in a medium or long shot, they have perfect tiny black dots for eyes and tiny mouths and arms that end in round, finger-less stumps. While many of the cartoon mannequins can be quite expressive when called upon to be so, in general they all bear rather blank looks, taking in the events that are occurring before and all around them, none more so than Brigitte’s little comics avatar and those of her parents, the three main characters in the story.

In simple, declarative prose, the story unfolds above the implied panels of the little pictures, sometimes as many as eight or nine per page, while the imagery serves to contextualize it or sell the absurdity of a particular situation as if it were a gag, even though the events are often quite serious.

Findakly’s father Matti was a middle-class Iraqi Orthodox Christian who studied dentistry in France. It was there that he met her mother, a French Catholic, and they married in Paris before returning to Iraq to start a family and a dental practice. (Findakly has an older brother too, though he’s only seen in a handful of scenes.)

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While the Findakly family are witnesses to history, much of what we see on the pages is how the various coups and wars affect the day-to-day life in their Mosul neighborhood, and a great deal of attention is paid to the often humorous culture clashes, as Findakly’s French mother never quite learned to adjust to the life of an Iraqi woman (There’s an interesting reversal later in the book, when the teenage Findakly comes to France and feels out of place there, and then, later still, she finds herself in her mother’s position, returning to visit Iraq after having become a French woman herself and finding it as changed and she herself has changed.)

There are a lots of interesting anecdotes regarding her parents and their lives in the two countries, most of them funny and brilliantly, dryly told—as in her father’s brief attempt to launch a career as a movie extra while in France—and details about the domestic life of Iraq that will seem remarkably alien to North American readers who know so little about the country other than what they’ve learned from news reports about our wars there. More remarkable still to anyone who has learned most of what they know of the nation and its people from CNN is how similar domestic life there can be to our own.)

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Because of the care with which the creators have taken to stylize the story, Poppies of Iraq is more-or-less all-ages, and even child friendly. When they discuss the massacres of Iranian soldiers charging over a field of land mines and into waiting machine gun fire, for example, no corpses are shown, just little men with the same level of detail of gingerbread men in the distance, some cartoony explosions, then close-ups on the wall of a bunker, and a necklace that a soldier might have been wearing.

In one particularly horrific story, Findakly’s cousin is the sole survivor of a terrible attack and wanders for days in the desert studded with shrapnel, until he collapses and is tossed into a truck carrying away the dead, only to be discovered to still be breathing at the hospital. Trondheim draws the truck in the distance and a panel depicting an empty coffin and a gurney in a hospital, depicting what the two options were for him, without showing a grievously injured soldier on the page.

The fact that these stories are told demonstrates that Trondheim and Findakly don’t sugarcoat anything, but they present it in as reader-friendly a way as possible. The words and events can be shocking enough, without the need to present a reader with shocking visuals.

The most shocking aspect of the book, however, is probably how mundane and how familiar the lives of the characters can be. Regardless of country or religion, people are people. It’s a fact as important as it is obvious, and one that should probably be dwelt upon by American readers as much as possible, particularly when it comes to Iraq, given the way our two countries have been entwined for the period of time covered in this book.

(You can see an excerpt of the book here.)

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J. Caleb Mozzocco About J. Caleb Mozzocco

J. Caleb Mozzocco is a way-too-busy freelance writer who has written about comics for online and print venues for a rather long time now. He currently contributes to Comic Book Resources' Robot 6 blog and ComicsAlliance, and maintains his own daily-ish blog at EveryDayIsLikeWednesday.blogspot.com. He lives in northeast Ohio, where he works as a circulation clerk at a public library by day.

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