It’s been five long years since the eruption of the Syrian Civil War, a violent and complicated conflict that has left around 470,000 dead and rendered millions of citizens refugees. While it’s hard to process the violence as more and more devastating images of victims, including children, circulate and as world leaders fail to reach any decision to end the conflict, a new comic introduces a compelling and important perspective.
Madaya Mom, a short digital graphic novel, is a collaborative effort between ABC News and Marvel Comics, based on real dispatches from an anonymous woman living in Madaya, a Syrian city that has been besieged by the Syrian government due to its strategic location. The people of Madaya have been cut off from the outside world and food and humanitarian aid, with dozens dying of starvation or malnourishment—a move (the weaponizing of starvation) that has been deemed a war crime by the UN.
In January of this year, after being unable to get a camera crew into Madaya or connect with citizens who were willing and able to record their own footage, Rym Momtaz, a reporter and producer for ABC News Digital used her contacts to connect with a family who lived in the city. “The family that we were in touch with, that were sending us such compelling stories with their daily lives, they couldn’t video tape anything for us because of security concerns,” Momtaz told me over the phone.
Through a series of texts and calls, a woman whose identity has been protected for the safety of her and her family, was able to give ABC a picture of the deteriorating conditions she was living through, which ABC News published as a liveblog.
“It really touched all of us in the way that she was talking and how visceral and visual her words were, and we all kept saying we wish we could do more,” said Dan Silver, executive producer of ABC News Digital. That’s when they turned to Marvel Comics. “We wound up on graphic novel primarily as a last resort,” Silver explained. He sat down for lunch with Dan Buckley, the president of Marvel Comics, to ask him to recommend artists that could illustrate the story as either an animation or a comic. “As soon as I bought it up to Dan, his words to me were, ‘Oh, we’ll do that for you,” Silver said. “When the president of Marvel says we’re going to do something for you, it happens.”
After Marvel forwarded a list of names who they felt had a more personal connection to the story, the ABC producers began to work with Croatian artist Dalibor Talajić, who has illustrated for Marvel comics like Deadpool and The Avengers. Having grown up in the former Yugoslavia, Talajić witnessed the breakup of the nation and the turmoil it wrought firsthand.
“It was a real collaboration,” Momtaz explained. “There was a core group of us, a few people on the ABC side, a few people on the Marvel side, and we emailed constantly over weeks.” She worked with Talajić, sending him photos and video footage, and sharing her own experience talking to Madaya Mom to help him construct the environment of the comic.
“He has unbelievable empathy and understanding of this kind of experience that one would go through because he inherently experienced it,” Silver explained. “We like to say that Dalibor brought her to life, but we were able to give her a voice through reporting.”
The artwork is stunning. The frames are illustrated with as much diligence as compassion, conveying a bleak and unnerving quietness that hangs in the city as its citizens struggle against increasingly desolate odds to survive. While the actual Madaya Mom has not viewed the finished product—her internet cannot load it fast enough–Momtaz said she was touched by the screenshots sent to her.
“She was blown away by how real Dalibor’s drawings were, how similar they were to how she is, how well he got the feel of the place,” Momtaz explained. “Every time I talked to her about it, I could feel that it was one thing that brought her excitement.”
“She’s a huge fan of Spider-Man, and she could not believe that the people behind Spider-Man, Marvel, knew that she existed, knew her story and were interested in giving her story the same treatment they gave Spider-Man. The only difference being Spider-Man is fiction and her story is unfortunately is…very real,” Momtaz said.
But by becoming a superhero in her own right, Madaya Mom has been able to provide a humanizing perspective to a disheartening situation.
“In a way it might be easier to relate to her when she’s in a comic book because you can sort of project on her certain things and you can sort of relate to her and build her up in your mind in any way that you want,” Momtaz told me. “It’s strangely liberating.” She explained that audiences and users were engaging with the comic in a much different manner than the way they engage with other stories that include more graphic video footage, showing real people dying or suffering.
“This is such a humanizing way to tell this story. It’s very emotional and compelling without being oppressive because the medium is softer than real footage in a way,” she said, saying that this comic has been able to break through the “Syria fatigue” and elicit real emotional responses from readers.
“What we’re seeing is that it’s sparking a dialogue and that’s kind of what we wanted the comic to do,” Silver said, explaining that he hopes the comic reaches as broad an audience as possible.
“It’s hard to rejoice about this,” Momtaz said, explaining that it’s impossible to forget that Madaya Mom is a real person with five children and a husband, living in a war zone. Despite an aid convoy finally being let into Madaya at the end of September, the situation continues to look bleak. “There doesn’t appear to be any solution in sight. They’re kind of in limbo. They continue to exist under siege.”