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Despair and Hope in “Borderx”

BORDERX

CONTENT WARNING: This graphic novel covers the human rights violations of migrants imprisoned in ICE detention centers. This includes scenes abuse, starvation, neglect, physical violence, and racial slurs, many of which involve children.

SPOILER WARNING: There are spoilers minor and major ahead.

DISCLOSURE: A copy of BORDERX was provided for by a contributor.

Publisher: BORDERX Publishing
Editor and Producer: Mauricio Alberto Cordero
Project Assistance: Roel Torres
Design Assistance: Adriana Cordero
Story & Art: Various Artists


Comics can be more than just escapist entertainment. I don’t just mean the dark, gritty “comics aren’t just for kids anymore” kind of stuff, although I do enjoy a good bit of sex and violence in my panels. Increasingly, the medium has been used to tell real stories about real people. Whether it’s autobiographical comics such as Spinning and Fun Home, or historical comics like Maus or Big Black: Stand At Attica. Many of the latter aren’t just good stories. They provide context to important moments in history and can inspire a sense of urgency to continue on the good fight against racism, homophobia, police brutality, and so much more.

BORDERX is a charity anthology about the current crisis of the injustices against migrants here in the U.S. The goal as stated by publisher and editor-in-chief Mauricio Alberto Cordero is to educate readers about the border crisis and raise money for charity. Not only that, but Cordero hopes to make the focus on the migrants themselves, paint a human picture of them that reminds everyone that these are people–not criminals–who deserve rights and respect.

The cover to this anthology shows a red skeleton approaching a border. This should make it clear the position the anthology has on the crisis. The contributors are not fans of ICE, the Border patrol, or the American government. These groups are clearly placed in the wrong, sometimes artists interpreting agents as vicious dogs or eldritch abominations. If you’re coming into this book hoping for a pro-ICE stance or “both sides” deal, well I suggest you look elsewhere, preferably here:

True Story Behind the 2016 Election Dumpster Fire GIF

However, I must comment that the cover does not set a clear tone. The design here induces dark feelings. It’s a forewarning to content that will be unsettling. Certainly, it is. I would argue though that a cover should clearly match the tone of its content. In that regard, BORDERX is a mix of both darkness and light, something the cover fails to capture. Yes, there are stories in here about horrible human rights abuses, but it also includes hopeful and educational ones as well. Having a cover that reflects only half of your content is insufficient.

I appreciate the anthology’s clearness of intent. There are no meaningless apolitical platitudes found here. It also provides important context to the reader. Introductions by Senator Jeffrey A. Merkley, Warren Binford, and Michael Garcia Bochenak describe the poor conditions migrants experience in the ICE detention centers, the brutal and traumatizing practice of separating families, and the subsequent public responses. From there Cordero chimes in to layout how the anthology addresses the crisis, namely through 5 segments, each with their own purpose:

  1. The Exhibits — views on the border
  2. The Responses — profiles of people and organizations helping migrants
  3. The Context — personal accounts of people whose lives have been touched in various ways by the border crisis
  4. The Ruminations — fictional allegories and satire
  5. The Posters — art pieces

BORDERX is clearly an anthology with lofty goals, clear intent, and what looks like a well thought out plan. Unfortunately, I found the execution to be mixed. Starting with the Exhibits section, there is a conflict between Cordero’s stated intent and the content provided. When he described this segment as “views on the border”, I imagined it would be a series of experts giving their thoughts. Instead, it’s a collection of comics illustrating various accounts from migrants in the detention center. This is not a bad thing. These stories are the meat and potatoes of the anthology. However, it is disappointing that Cordero wrongly stated what the Exhibits would be about when he started off with such a clear plan in mind. I know this is nitpicking, but a work like this tackling such a serious subject matter cannot afford muddling its intent.

As for the comics themselves, these are easily the best in the anthology. Each of the stories are real life declarations from detainees provided by Project Amplify, an organization dedicated to collecting and making their stories available to the public. The creative teams do a fantastic job of transferring the declarations into the comics medium. They all follow the usual formula of filling panels with images and narration captions that correlate with one another. The visuals all vary, ranging from presentational to expressionistic, realism to surrealism. There are even styles that resemble children’s cartoons, no doubt a purposeful subversion to highlight just how horrible these events are. I can’t say that every comic is a work of art, but each one does accomplish its goal of bringing to life the detainees and what they went or still are going through.

The Exhibits is also the most difficult part of BORDERX to read. The stories are brutal. The detainees live in freezing cold buildings, locked up in cages. There are insufficient supplies, terrible food, not enough beds and blankets, insufficient medical care, limited if any times to bath or brush teeth, sickness, abuse and neglect from ICE staff, lights kept on all day and night, and the detainees have no idea what their rights are or what will happen to them. All of these accounts are from children, including newly born babes. Just imagine being separated from your parents and forced to live in these conditions, constantly treated like dirt. These aren’t even all the stories, or even the worse ones.

Reading the Exhibits boiled my blood. An anger that lay dormant from when I, like most Americans, learned about these abuses rose in me, tenfold this time now that I had faces to associate to all those poor children. Which is a good thing. This visceral reaction I experienced should be the end goal of illustrating these stories. Probably the best piece is “Eisegeis” by Lee A. Gooden, Rod Jacobsen, and Dan Demille. It interrupts the regular flow for scenes of two roommates watching the story being told from a T.V. It’s in the point-of-view of the more sympathetic viewer, and a meta challenge to the reader not to forget what is happening here. Outrage and empathy is not enough. Those feelings must fuel action.

The Responses is the shortest segment of BORDERX, and the most consistently educational. We learn about important individuals and organizations supporting migrants. I was surprised to see Peter Kuper in here. For those of you who don’t know, Kuper is a critical-acclaimed indie comics artist, probably most known for his work on MAD Magazine’s “Spy vs. Spy”. He is easily the best artist in his anthology, and I couldn’t help but experience delight as his cartoon animals explained migration law.

Throughout the Responses, I learned about organizations like Safe Passage Project and the Southern Texas Human Rights center, how they help migrants in various ways. I found this not only educational, but also uplifting. After reading about all the abuse in the previous segment, it was important to know about people actually helping immigrants. Links to these organization’s websites are also provided, which is a great way to encourage readers to continue educating themselves long after they’re done reading.

As much respect as I have for this segment, there are deeply flawed pieces. “Crisis in Clint” is about Warren Binford, an activist who helped Project Amplify collect declarations from detainees. It’s an inspiring story, but one told with choppy progression that left me feeling like there was information lost. I get a strong feeling that the creative team struggled to decompress her story properly. I can’t imagine that it was an issue of page limit. Kuper‘s comic gave a clear picture of the Safe Passage Project with 15 pages, and there pieces that tell their narratives with as little as 4. Another piece, “Anime Blue” by Paolo Massagli, is not very educational despite being about Open Arms. It’s an NGO (non-governmental organization) dedicated to search and rescue at sea. I didn’t learn any of that until I googled them. The only thing you learn about them is their name alone.

It’s a shame because the comic itself is amazing, a work of goddamn art I would even argue. It’s a wordless tale about a drowning baby that is lifted to the safety of the surface by the spirits of dead migrants. The visuals are profound in both their beauty and melancholy. I had quite the emotional reaction, tears of both grief and joy running down my facee.

Issues with the anthology continue onto the Context segment, not so much of quality as organization. These are supposed be personal accounts from people whose lives have been touched in various ways by the border crisis. The pieces I read are split between autobiographical and historical. Yes, they do give context to the border crisis, but not in a way completely accurate to Cordero’s statement.

Let me just start off by saying that these pieces are fantastic. “As Long As They Come Here Legally” by Phoebe Cohen and “Cynthia” by Roel Torres tell the stories of how their families immigrated to the U.S. under legally dubious circumstances. If they didn’t, they would have been dead, something they hold in common with many migrants in those horrible ICE detention centers. These pieces challenge the reader to think about their own families. Many were immigrants as well, and probably had to do what was necessary.

The historical pieces talk about various immigrant crises throughout American history. “…But It Does Rhyme” by Paul Axel, Craig Florence, Alvon Ortiz, and Jerome Gagnon features a different atrocity committed against migrants and indigenous people by the American government and our military. The Trail of Tears, Japanese-American internment camps during WW2, the list goes on. Each and every one of them shows how we were tied to a migration crises, and how we only made it worse by responding not with compassion but violence. What is going on at the ICE detention centers is violence, cold and sadistic. And the sad part? It seems to have always been that way.

Other pieces in this segment don’t seem to fit at all. “Dora”, for example, reads more like the stories from the Exhibits. It’s also the worst written. For some reason, the writer tried mixing English and Spanish together, which makes for a reading experience that is choppy and often bewildering. Actually, to be quite frank, the entire organization of the Context is messy. Even the good pieces I find should have been put in different categories from each other. It would have made the segment much stronger.

The Ruminations is by far the worst part of BORDERX. The comics here approach the border crisis by using genre fiction as an allegory, kind of like The Twilight Zone. Despite me liking a lot of the art, the stories are mostly half-baked ideas with mediocre writing. For example, there’s one story that tries to take the monkey’s paw concept into a new direction, only for it to be a confusing, repetitive slog. Given how much the editing in previous segments was superior, I do wonder if time was running out on the deadline and the publisher had to make do. Cordero does mention all the contributors worked on a tight schedule.

That doesn’t mean there aren’t good pieces. “Rose Colored Glass” by Sal Fitzgerald and Raymond Griffith is a post-apocalyptic scenario where apparently there are certain people in America denied the permission to breathe oxygen, so they must wear these helmets that look like old scuba gear and not take them off or their heads explode. The world-building is vague and the whole concept in of itself is ridiculous, but it’s the most successful in using genre fiction as an allegory for immigration.

The most irritating of them all is “Sink?” by Tom Hart. It’s stylized as a newspaper comic strip, starting off with a guy going on an incoherent rant, then the whole thing cuts to a bunch of guys on boats. They rant as well, but are more coherent, mostly just about how unhappy they are with their marriages and jobs. Every now and then, a scene of war, floods, and other horrible events interrupts the rambling. This whole comic is a ham-fisted attempt at tut-tutting first world problems while the real problems are happening elsewhere. It’s not righteous or supportive. It’s cynical and condescending. Yes, it’s framed as a bunch of privileged men acting like their privilege is the worse thing ever, but I too often see people with ADHD, depression, and anxiety get swept under the same vague umbrella. It’s not about actually caring about real issues, but smugly showing off a sense of moral superiority.

The best piece is “Silence” by Dean Westerfield. The art style is an underground, black-and-white style without much of the stylistic grandeur as other comics in the Ruminations. However, it also has the most impact. It’s dialogue-less and interlaced with passages from Audre Lorde’s “The Transformation of Silence to Language and Action”. A woman wakes up early, tired and old. After getting her kids off to school (no father in sight) she has to work, her facial expression growing increasingly melancholic. Turns out she is a janitor at one of the ICE centers. She cleans up while passing by all those cages full of children sleeping on floors. At the end of the story, the Audre Lorde passage ends with this observation:

There is so much you can observe about this comic. Are we to judge her for not speaking up, or should we consider there are reasons she can’t? After all, we don’t know much about her other than being a mother of two small children and working a janitorial job. That’s not someone with a lot of options to rebel. She could be an immigrant herself and scared to speak up. The message about silence being deadlier than indifferences rings true while not judging her coldly, and I appreciate that. It should say something that the most effective piece of fiction in the Ruminations doesn’t rely on genre as an allegory.

Which isn’t me saying genre fiction can’t work as an allegory. Classic works such as The Twilight Zone, 1984, and Aesop’s Fables proves that it can. The problem is that if you put those allegories in the same book as the real life atrocities, they will always pale in comparison. Personally, I would have taken the material at hand and done two separate anthologies. The first would be the real life stories from the Exhibits, the Responses, and the Context; the second could be the allegorical stories in the Ruminations, and in both you could give the contributors more room to make their stories better.

The Posters is the last segment, and it’s top quality! The point here is to use the artform of posters to make commentary, much like the WPA era. This commentary ranges from the strength and beauty of migrants to ICE brutality to satire. Some of these posters are one page comics, a particularly brutal one by Donna Barr that shows the different reactions between Germans learning about the concentration camps and Americans finding out about the detention centers. It is incredibly chilling.

All in all, BORDERX is a mixed reading experience. On one hand, its lofty goals are muddled by issues of organization and quality control. It should have been either shorter or split in two. With that said, it does succeed in educating the reader about the border crisis. Most importantly, it recognizes the humanity of the detainees, reminding me that this is an issue that I and every American have to continue fighting for. We can’t be so naive as to think that just because Donald Trump is out of office, we can rely on his Democratic replacement to fix it. After all, this is an issue the American government on all sides has been contributing to for centuries.

The electronic PDF version includes bonus material, which I do encourage you to get because it’s all spectacular. Probably the best piece is this one:

This is the future we should be fighting for, even when we’re not at our best.

NOTE FROM REVIEWER: I apologize for not being able to talk about all the contributors to the anthology. Whatever my opinion of each individual work is, I recognize and respect how hard you all worked on your comics.

Available at Amazon