Just The Facts: The Honduran Coup

Posted by on June 26th, 2010 at 8:23 AM

Rob reviews Dan Archer’s THE HONDURAN COUP: A GRAPHIC HISTORY.

Dan Archer is a rarity among young cartoonists these days in that he’s a comics journalist and social activist.  With the exception of World War III Illustrated, there simply haven’t been a lot of venues for the kind of extended political narratives Archer writes about.  Certainly, alt-weekly newspapers have had political cartoons in them for years, but those sorts of strips are more descendants of standard editorial cartooning than the longer narratives or poetic expressions of activists like Archer and the WWIII folks.

Archer’s clear role model seems to be the man who made comics journalism into an art: Joe Sacco.  Like Sacco, there’s an unending curiosity and thirst for truth that drives Archer.  Unlike Sacco, Archer’s reportage is rarely first-person (and not in this comic) and has clear polemical ends.  While I wouldn’t ever call Sacco a detached observer, he’s always scrupulously fair and skeptical about the information he receives, even as he simultaneously is trying to give a voice to groups that have not been heard by the wider world.  Archer has always had a clear political goal in his comics and has never been afraid to use his illustrations to dramatize that goal.

That said, his account of the 2009 military coup in Honduras is remarkably well-sourced.  Archer’s gift as a storyteller is his ability to quickly distill enormous and complex amounts of information into easily-digestible images.  When he first started doing this comic (along with writer Nikil Saval) for alternet.org, it got picked up by Boing Boing, which led to another chapter being published at the Huffington Post, which led to international media attention.  The comic presented here also features a translation in spanish, because it’s being distributed through an NGO in Honduras as well as an educational tool in the US.

Archer uses a combination of well-sourced and indexed facts along with carefully-chosen and bracing anecdotes to tell the story of a populist president being deposed by a coup and how the subsequent democratic elections after international pressure not only failed to curb human rights abuses, it gave a license to to those in power to step up their brutality.  Archer ties this all closely with the USA’s checkered past regarding Latin American relations, detailing how US fruit companies dictated Honduran policy and then how the US routinely used Honduras as a military staging ground.

As an artist, Archer had a tall order in depicting all of these events while jamming in tons of text in a limited amount of space.  The result is that, as art, THE HONDURAN COUP is not entirely successful.  The use of color added some dramatic impact (especially with the images of blood covering torturers trained at the US-sponsored School of the Americas), but Archer’s figure work lacks clarity.  His figures are lumpy and frequently indistinct.  His panels are tiny and cramped, never giving his images a chance to make much of an impact on the reader.  Most of his design choices are simplistic and too on-the-nose.

None of this seems to matter much to his audience, which is very much not your typical comics-reading audience.  They’re not looking for art, but rather a dramatic and simple way to absorb a lot of critical information.  As a journalist, it’s clear that Archer has stepped up in terms of how thoroughly he’s researched this story.  As an activist, he’s done a remarkable job of making quick and powerful connections in an effort to promote social change.  As an artist, however, Archer should take a cue from Sacco and work to let his images tell the story as much as the text.  This is the reason why so many folks have been drawn to his work in the first place: the power of the image to depict terrible events that are difficult to understand in a clear, stark manner.

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