The joke goes that the difference between consumers in authoritarian states like China and those in the U.S. is that readers in America sometimes like to believe that they are getting impartial truth from the likes of The New York Times, The Washington Post, ABC, or The Guardian. The Chinese have no choice but to believe that it’s all excrement. But that's only because the Chinese government is so abysmal at this game. It took years for their state-owned conglomerates to figure out that they even needed to talk to the press, much less shape its message.
When Marvel-Disney contributes a free war comic to an American audience you can be sure that the propaganda is safe, conservative, and in line with the inclinations of the powers that be.
Surprise. This is not a company known for taking chances.
"Speaking to The National, artist Dalibor Talajić spoke about not sensationalising the comic. "I didn’t want to do a war comic," he told the publication. "I wanted to make a comic with a civilian point of view, where you’re really powerless. You can’t do anything. You’re just waiting for it to pass or for you to die."
When Dalibor Talajić says he didn't want to create a war comic but only wanted to present the "civilian point of view," he is of course spouting nothing less than bullshit. Madaya Mom is clearly a war comic and one with an ironclad version of good vs. evil.
“Marvel's latest hero is Syrian mother trapped in besieged town,” reads the headline. Indeed, the comic’s intentions are painted boldly from the very first. In the introduction, care is given never to suggest that the U.S. is aiding and abetting the Nusra Front (once upon a time the Syrian branch of Al-Qaeda), this being the sole province of their extremely naughty allies Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey who are supporting some vague “Islamist jihadist factions.” As if the border between America's "moderate" Syrian allies and Al-Nusra was not completely porous (with some small efforts to rehabilitate the latter in the American press).
The enemy is consistently the government forces of Bashar al-Assad; and no one else.
On January 24, 2016 the protagonist is told “there is a plan to forcibly displace the people of Madaya and replace them with Shia people who are supporters of the government...” In other words, Madaya is to be “ethnically” cleansed – a code word for increased military intervention as sanctioned by all caring adults.
A few pages on, a man is shot by a “government sniper” because only the forces of Bashar Al-Assad have snipers and are capable of acts of evil.
The comic is presented without commentary and delivered as if it was the authoritative word of God. There is not one word about the complexities of causation. As the comic implies, the government forces are preventing aid from getting through and that is the end of it. But where are we to put reports about aid being confiscated by the rebel forces occupying the town as has been stated in the alternative media. Whose propaganda is the more reliable and who exactly is responsible for this starvation? The creators of Madaya Mom suggest that there is no room for doubt in this instance.
One might also ask, why create a comic about starvation in Syria when there are hundreds of thousands (if not millions) starving in Yemen; a situation which is altogether more easily remedied by money and doing the unthinkable – stopping the flow of arms. Or is this all a gentle prelude to Hilary Clinton's widely derided Syrian no-fly zone, a move which will entail billions of dollars and boots on the ground in an act of forceful regime change that will mirror the atrocities in Libya.
The comic is workmanlike and designed to cultivate empathy on the part of its readers; a readership coddled into one failed violent intervention after another; a population which has little interest in the affairs of unknown peoples in foreign wars unless some Americans die or the bombs aren't dropped in a timely fashion.
As the study guide which accompanies the comic laments:
Madaya Mom puts a personal face and voice on a story that's all too easy to ignore. Once a personal connection is made, it becomes less easy to consider war as a large issue on the other side of the world... ask them to think of ways to address the issues by making them less impersonal and more connected.
The experience following the events of 9/11 suggest, however, that simply making things more personal does not naturally lead to superior results. If only the American government was as disinterested as the American people seem to be in the affairs of the world. What a wonderful world that would be.
Are people suffering in Madaya? They almost certainly are and in the most awful fashion; as they are in Fuah, Kefraya, Aleppo, Libya, Iraq, Palestine, and Yemen. The forthcoming choice of the next U.S. President will only prove that there will be no let in this suffering – the disastrous military interventions will not cease nor will the refugees be allowed to flow.
The question is why we think it is vital that we intervene (or even kill more people) in Syria. The study guide by Kelly Johnston seems more noble in intent with several sections directing students to discuss the scope for immigration and the admission of Syrian refugees in resolving this crisis. If only this was the limit of the media's ambitions for Syria.
Comics have been used through the ages for propaganda purposes and also periodically targeted by governments of all stripes for dissent (though perhaps no more so than other forms of media). Having said this, the one positive aspect of Madaya Mom is that it will probably be largely ineffectual as a propaganda tool when compared to video and photographic journalism, or even the simple art of the newspaper headline.
The truth about Madaya and Syria will only be known decades hence when no one actually cares. When the dust settles, all that Madaya Mom will prove is that most comics have their lips planted firmly on the asshole of empire.