Art about war: Massey student creates graphic novel about Colombian conflict

A Massey student has created a graphic novel about the war in Colombia. Now, he wants the world to know what has happened there.

The phrase “war is hell” rings true for anyone who’s ben affected by armed conflict. Escaping can be hard enough, but an even harder task is telling strangers about what's been going on in the form of a graphic novel.

A Colombian student at Massey University’s College of Creative Arts has created a graphic novel (more info here) about the impact of his country’s longstanding armed conflict between the government and rebel guerilla groups. Francisco Lora’s works seeks to build understanding, reconciliation and forgiveness over long-term strife in the South American country.

Lora, whose own family has experienced loss and displacement, produced a series of stories about the impact of the conflict on hundreds of thousands of displaced victims for a Master of Design degree. Most of the fighting between the government and rebel guerilla groups has happened in rural areas where land is seized for illegal drug production, Lora explains. “My target audience is young urban people who are not aware of our history. In the cities there are localised attacks – I have experienced two bombs close to my house. We talked about it for a week and then life had to carry on but many towns in the rural areas have been destroyed. People displaced from the countryside escape to the cities but face prejudice from city folk.”

And that’s not all, Lora says. “My mother has always worked with displaced people but it wasn’t until I was doing my undergraduate studies in Colombia that I realized we had been displaced. When I was three, my older brother who was 21 was killed - he was about to begin his career in medicine and was also a talented pianist. We had to move to another city on the very same day.”

Dr Caroline Campbell, left, and Francisco Lora.

The graphic novel is presented in three supplements, each of which can be unfolded to reveal a poster. “I wanted to do a poster which I would like to see displayed in schools, universities and around cities,” says Lora. “To make it easier to transport, I folded the poster and used the other side to tell the story in more detail.”

With a backdrop of the horrors of the conflict, Lora’s work narrows in on the experiences of a selection of characters who’ve had their lives forever changed by the fighting. “I tell the same story from the point of view of different characters,” he explains. “For example, the fighter talks about nightmares caused by the terrible things he did. He wants his nightmares to end and is asking for forgiveness. There is also a back story explaining why he became part of the illegal group. The fighters pass through the towns and start by giving children money or toys for running errands. Sometimes they blackmail them and say they will kill their parents to force them to be part of their illegal group.”

The other two supplements are about the victims of the conflict and their resilience after fleeing their homes. With hopes of publishing the work in New Zealand to raise awareness among English-speaking countries about what has happened in Colombia, Lora has also approached publishers in Colombia, with Cohete Cómics very interested in publishing some of the work in a graphic novel supplement.

Lora’s supervisors at Massey, Dr Caroline Campbell and Lee Jensen, both say they’ve enjoyed supervising Lora while he worked on his project. Campbell has particularly high praise. “In my view, his personally informed recounting of internal forced displacement in Colombia adds another perspective and dimension to the conflicts which have been produced by master graphic storytellers,” she says.

Praise aside, Lora says the conflict in Colombia is a story that needs to be told to raise awareness. “I am interested in graphic narrative and concept art,” he explains. “This Masters’ project is quite independent from my immediate career goals but I feel it is important for me to help tell the stories of Colombia. Displacement is an international story. There is always a reason why a person has to leave an area in this way.”