URIS Workshop: Documenting War in Ukraine in Comics

24 October 2023 | University of Basel

Comics today represent a cultural phenomenon reflecting society's cultural and sociopolitical landscape. They possess a remarkable ability to swiftly respond to various facets of human life, including environmental disasters, global crises, wars, displacement, violence, and humiliation. Beyond their role as entertainment, comics serve as a versatile medium capable of addressing various subjects, fulfilling both documentary and investigative journalism needs, and offering socially relevant information. Consequently, comics have evolved into not only a distinct element of popular culture but also a political one, a kind of information warfare, particularly evident in times of armed conflict, such as the ongoing Russian-Ukrainian war.

This workshop aimed to illuminate (self-)representations of Ukraine in predominantly documentary comics and graphic novels created during wartime in Ukraine. It focused on analyzing the various artistic responses to the Russian-Ukrainian war, narrative strategies within comics, framing techniques, aesthetic elements, and the role of comics in depicting the war experience.


  • Nina Mickwitz (London): Aesthetic Registers, Visual Motifs, and Genre-Blending in Sashko Komyakhov’s Graphic Novel TATO (2019)
  • Kees Ribbens (Amsterdam): Visualizing the Impact of War on Civili- ans. Representing War in Ukraine between Recording and Interpre- ting
  • Ralf Kauranen (Turku): From Fundraisings to Graphic Novels: Artistic Responses to the Russian-Ukrainian War in the Nordic Comics Cultures
  • Johannes C. P. Schmid (Flensburg): Framing the Ukrainian Invasion in Documentary Comics
  • Gernot Howanitz (Innsbruck): Traumas Past and Present: The Docu- mentary vs. the Mythical
  • Svitlana Pidoprygora (Mykolaiv/Basel): The Ukrainian Comic Magazine INKER: Different Ways to Narrate the War

The workshop was organized by Svitlana Pidoprygora (University of Basel, URIS fellow) and supported by the URIS – “Ukrainian Research in Switzerland” initiative.

Workshop Report

Report: Dr. Nina Weller (weller@zfl-berlin.org)

The workshop was one of the first interdisciplinary academic events on representations of the current war in Ukrainian comics. The very different disciplinary backgrounds of the participants – history, art history, media and art studies, literary studies (comparative literature and linguistics, Slavic studies, English studies) – fostered great sensitivity both towards stereotypical images of Ukraine and towards ingrained and new perspectives on the genre. The exchange of knowledge and ideas was immensely productive and fostered networks between all of the participants, not least for further collaborations in the near future.

Comics and graphic novels play a central role in media representations of historical events and political upheavals. And ever since comics have existed, wars have been one of the genre's core themes, with the spectrum ranging from historical parodies, educational comics for children, comics for the purposes of war propaganda, tales of adventure, travel accounts and (auto-)biographies, all the way to non-fiction comics, reportage and digital web comics. With their combination of visual and textual narration, comics can communicate the events of war and their impact on society in a visceral and entertaining way. At the same time, the artistic visualisation creates distance, filtering the immediacy of the real events and of the flood of media images, and disrupting prestructured [JO1] patterns of perception for facets of individual aesthetic reflection. The boom in comics and graphic novels published in recent years that deal with the First and Second World Wars, the Iraq war, the war in Syria, the Russian war in the east of Ukraine and other wars, is testament to this.

Since the beginning of the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, numerous new comic works have been published both in print and online. Along with street art and memes, they profoundly shape the visual landscape of the war and reveal the importance of visual media in articulating profound experiences of war. This was addressed by a group of scholars during the workshop Documenting War in Ukraine in Comics, which was held in Basel on 24 October 2023 and organised by the scholar Svitlana Pidoprygora together with Ukrainian Research in Switzerland (URIS).

The first panel concentrated on representations of the war in Ukrainian comics from an (internal) Ukrainian perspective. Nina Mickwitz (London) kicked off the event with her visual analysis of aesthetic cross-genre elements in the graphic novel Tato (Father, 2019) by Sashko (Oleksandr) Komyakhov, which is narrated from the perspective of teenager Maryna in the lead-up to the 2014 Maidan protests and anticipates the impending war. Mickwitz showed how, rather than undermining the documentary function of the visual narrative, fictitious characters and mythical and fairytale elements in fact suggest that past and present events can hold multiple interpretations and multiple realities, not least in that technologies of documenting sometimes themselves form part of the representation. Kees Ribbens (Amsterdam) continued the conversation with a presentation on the representation of war in the graphic novel Blackout. Chronicle of Our Life During Russia's War Against Ukraine (2023) bySeri/graph (Jenya Polosina and Anya Ivanenko). The book, set entirely in black and yellow, presents daily life in the state of emergency without directly depicting war and violence. The title "Blackout" is a metaphor for a society living in darkness and gloom due to the war, but which nevertheless acts with solidarity and strength. Ribbens emphasised the fact that these individual accounts of war thus also convey to non-Ukrainian readers a deeper understanding of the realities and social communities of the areas affected by the war. Svitlana Pidoprygora (Mykolaiv/Basel) also examined the visual and narrative explorations of war experiences in recent Ukrainian works. With particular reference to the comic series INKER (2022-2023), she demonstrated that the comic mode of representation is uniquely suited to the investigation of social issues, for instance when several issues of INKER describe positions from the margins in the state of emergency, sometimes in the unsparing "hardcore documentary" mode. The genre-specific interweaving of text and image, according to Svitlana Pidoprygora, enable the representation of individual experiences of violence to be transformed into a collective reflection of that which has been experienced, making the comic an inclusive medium for an international audience as well.

The second panel focused on (Western) European comics and their perspectives of the war and of Ukraine. Johannes C. P. Schmid (Flensburg) began by speaking about the comic-book reportage The Ukrainian Notebooks. Diary of an Invasion (2023) by Italian cartoonist Igort. Schmid discussed the expectations placed on "witness documentation". These become problematic when the narratives and drawings "documenting" the events, as in Igort's case, and contrary to the previously discussed comic Blackout, are based not on personal experience but on telephone conversations and fragments of war documentation gleaned second-hand from the media. Schmid contrasted the explicit integration of perpetrator motifs and the sometimes paternalistic gestures towards the history of Ukraine in Igort's work with the emotive focus on the collective destiny of the Ukrainians, categorically blocking out perpetrator motifs, in the work of Seri/graph. Ralf Kauranen (Turku) discussed artistic responses to the Russo-Ukrainian war in Northern European comics. He pointed out that comic elements are fundamental components of expressions of solidarity and of activist campaigns in social networks in support of Ukraine (e.g. the fundraising campaign "Comics for Ukraine!"). While these may be better described as documents of the war, Northern European comic artists have themselves also created war documentations, such as Gregg Bucken-Knapp and Joonas Sildr with the graphic novel Messages from Ukraine (2022) and Heikki Paakkanen with the comic Slava Ukraini (2023). Both narrate from an outside view of Ukraine but with differing personal attitudes regarding active solidarity towards (or as part of) the defence of Ukraine. Gernot Howanitz had spoken on the previous day, when he provided insight into Eastern European computer gaming landscapes and remarked that references to the Soviet Union and stereotypical images of "Eastern Europe" tended to appear in Western games, but rarely in Ukrainian ones. In his workshop presentation he compared the documentary and the mythical as the dominant narrative styles in contemporary comics. Drawing on various examples (cyborgs, Tato, Volya), he related these to traumatic past and present realities. He concluded that even comics with a clearly articulated authentic, documentary approach ("We are collecting history as it happened") and that are temporally very close to the events they describe, are unable to free themselves of the genre tradition of "acting out" in comic fiction.

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