MOST EVERYTHING SEEMED PLACID, peaceful even, when comics journalist Josh Neufeld traveled to Bahrain in October of 2010 at the invite of the State Department. He met with artists and officials, enjoying ”the whole parade” of welcoming people, even befriending two young cartoonists who reached out to him. In this tiny, highly educated country chock-a-block with McDonald’s and Seattle’s Best Coffee and Fuddruckers, Neufeld would write just months later, “I got no sense of it being a place on the verge of an explosion.”
By the following February, the political powderkeg blew. The spark of public protest was struck amid a region afire during the Arab Spring uprisings. That month and next, the small Persian Gulf kingdom experienced protests and crackdowns that left some demonstrators dead — including, Neufeld says, a friend to one of those two young cartoonists.
“A young man I met at one of my workshops there has been corresponding with me on Facebook,” Neufeld wrote on his blog in February. “He was in the Pearl Square roundabout ... just a few hours before the riot police moved in, clearing the square (and killing at least five people). A friend of his, a 23-year-old engineering student, was among the dead.
“He implored me, ‘Please help us... we need world’s help..!!’. Surreal.”
The personal plea launched from the eye of the Pearl Revolution caused Neufeld to question the conditions and presentation of his State-sponsored trip, blind as he was to “underlying tensions” during his four days in Bahrain. “I felt hoodwinked,” Neufeld tells Comic Riffs, noting that was invited as a symbol of freedom of literary expression after the publication of his reportorial graphic-novel bestseller “A.D.: New Orleans After the Deluge.”
And by summer, the events in that nation also creatively sparked the script for his compelling new work of visual journalism, “Bahrain: Lines in Ink, Lines in the Sand,” which debuts today on the international political comics website Cartoon Movement.
As a window into the revolution, “Bahrain” centers on the political and personal dichotomy between those two young cartoonists, whom Neufeld identifies by their first names only: Mohammed and Sara.
Mohammed, a University of Bahrain student and “aspiring professional cartoonist,” supported the protests. Neufeld depicts him chanting, “We are brothers, Sunni and Shia!”alongside other demonstrators.
Much to Neufeld’s surprise, though, Sara — who had drawn a cartoon supporting the uprising in Egypt — was opposed to the protests in her nation, convinced that the king and his ministers, as Neufeld quotes, were the “best protection against outside threats.”
A world away from his New York home, Neufeld found his two cartoonist friends on opposite sides of a bitter fence.
“Lines were being drawn,” Neufeld writes. “Literally.”
NEUFELD’S SCRIPT didn’t really come together, he tells Comic Riffs, until he “realized that Sarah was against the demonstrations and pro-government.”
“That just stunned me,” he says.
“I was having conversations with her over e-mail and I even challenged her a couple of times,” Neufeld says, noting that he cited an official quote about human rights abuses. “We’ve seen footage of the brutal crackdowns [that] she was denying, saying, ‘That’s not true — that’s propaganda spread by Iran.’ “
Mohammed, meanwhile, was facing repercussions for drawing cartoons in support of the protests, jeopardizing even his ability to continue his university studies in Bahrain, Neufeld reports.
To help convey how Sara and Mohammed were responding personally to the events in Bahrain, Neufeld cleverly incorporates cartoons from both young artists, who he says gave him permission to use their stories and illustrations. Neufeld also used some of Mohammed’s photos for artistic reference in “Bahrain,” which ripples with a sepia-toned palette .
Portland-based editorial cartoonist Matt Bors appreciates such technique from Neufeld. “I like the way Josh incorporates the real cartoons of Mohammed and Sara and their opinions without judgment,” Bors tells Comic Riffs.
Bors, who is an editor at Cartoon Movement, commissioned “Bahrain” for his site. “I reached out to Josh just as he was finishing ‘The Influencing Machine’ [a graphic novel co-authored by Brooke Gladstone] about doing some work for us and he ended up pitching this story,” Bors tells Comic Riffs.
“It was perfect for Cartoon Movement,” he continues. “We’re a site devoted to international perspectives, and were really excited to have a comic that shows two cartoonists on opposite sides of their national debate.”
Bors calls Neufeld one of the best nonfiction comic journalists working today. Neufeld, for his part, is just grateful to be working in a fertile era for cartoon journalism.
“I just happen to be part of this new acceptance of American comics abroad, and nonfiction comics journalism in general,” Neufeld tells Comic Riffs.
“It used to be just [Joe] Sacco,” says Neufeld, citing the acclaimed comics journalist who has famously reported from war zones. “I can only dream to emulate him.”
“Now it feels like comics journalism is expected out of any big news event — from Japan to Occupy Wall Street to economic protests in Europe and turmoil in Africa.
“It’s no longer such a shock to see it.”