People always react with surprise when they hear that graphic novels deal with very hard topics such as the Holocaust (Art Spiegel’s Maus) and coming of age in a revolutionized country (Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis). Yet sequential art has been giving due consideration to social issues as far back as Superman’s first years of existence, when he battled to right social injustices including prisoner and orphanage abuse, impoverished neighborhoods and workers’ safety. While Superman was more fantastical, Deogratias can be considered another progressive step in depicting realism and strife within the pages of graphic novels.
This graphic novel reveals the life of Deogratias, a Hutu in Rwanda, and how the genocide affected his life. In the present, Deogratias is a broken man teetering on the brink of sanity, addicted to the alcohol and virtually soulless. Through a series of flashbacks, Deogratias remembers how he and his two Tutsi childhood friends became enwrapped in the events that dominated Rwanda in 1994. As violence strikes out, Deogratias must decide where he stands, or he and his friends will suffer the same fate.
In a very simple manner, Stassen relays his tale of Deogratias, conveying such devastation, sorrow, and futility. Through Deogratias, the unfocused story slowly makes sense as the flashbacks get closer to the present but still engulf surreal elements that seem perfectly appropriate for any attempts at processing the event. Deogratias is not a character to pity necessarily, but Stassen presents him as someone to allow readers to understand just how cataclysmic the Rwanda tragedy was and how difficult it was for the people who survived it.
Setting the tone for a graphic novel of this caliber can be hard. The Rwandan massacre (or genocide, depending on your point of view) has barely made it into history books, and many people know little or nothing about it. But Alexis Siegel, the translator, eloquently describes the events and history surrounding Rwanda in 1994, including bringing readers up to date through the 2000s about what has transpired there. Siegel provides a concise explanation of where the concept of Hutus and Tutsis originated and how it has been manipulated by external forces over the years. Readers feel fully immersed and prepared for the tale that follows, thanks to Siegel.
“Must read” is a cliché that reviewers and critics throw around like a worn-out baseball. But if readers want something that will educate them and impact them on various levels, Deogratias is a foregone conclusion.