Red Eyes, Refugee Camps and the Healing Power of Art: Van Jensen’s Diary as America’s First Comic Book Ambassador

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Red Eyes, Refugee Camps and the Healing Power of Art: Van Jensen’s Diary as America’s First Comic Book Ambassador

I thought I was being catfished.

The email came from Damian Wampler, a cultural attaché at the U.S. Embassy in Tbilisi, Georgia. Or so he claimed. He invited me to come to Georgia (the Eastern European country) to meet with people there and help teach them how to make comic books. To be the first-ever United States Comic Book Ambassador.

I’ve had the pleasure of doing some pretty unbelievable things already—writing for DC Comics, launching my own comic book projects—but this seemed like pure nonsense. How exactly were they trying to rip me off?

Only, Damian is a real person, actually a comic creator in his own right. He had a vision to use creative arts as a diplomatic tool, and to empower young people in Georgia to tell their own stories through comics. How could I turn that down?

I traveled from Atlanta, Georgia, to Georgia last month, touring much of the country in a whirlwind week, including an intensive series of workshops to help a group of Georgians create one of their country’s first comic books. (My fellow ambassador, artist David Mack, will be traveling there soon.) It was an incredible trip, truly life changing. Here is a diary of my travels.
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May 9

I fly out of Atlanta on my first leg of travel, a quick flight to Chicago. But there’s a delay: the bathroom sink doesn’t work. We taxi back to the gate. Load up with hand sanitizer. Wait. Finally, fly out.

We land in Chicago just as my flight to Munich is leaving. I spend the night in O’Hare. My luggage is lost in airport limbo. Thank God I stuck an extra T-shirt in my backpack.

May10

Attempt number two. A red eye to Munich. I spend most of the flight reviewing lesson plans for the creative workshops. How can you teach someone everything they need to know about writing comics in one week? We’ll find out.

I watch some movies. Creed. The Martian. I sleep, fleetingly.

May 11

We land in Munich. I have some ten hours until my flight to Tbilisi (another red eye) departs. I find a little rental sleep-pod thing and collapse for a few hours.

We depart close to midnight. The plane is full of high schoolers from Georgia who spent the past year living with American families as part an exchange program. They’re rapturous, singing, hugging, dancing. The passengers are mostly Georgian, and it’s easy to see I’m going into a different culture. Seat assignments are just a suggestion. Everyone shouts excitedly to each other in Georgian. It’s like no flight I’ve ever been on.

May 12

We arrive in Tbilisi about 4 A.M. I had just gotten home from Hawaii, so that’s 15 time zones crossed in a week. My body clock is toast.

A quick drive into the city. My driver says exactly zero words to me. In the dark, massive Soviet-era statues and brutalist architecture loom overhead. Tbilisi rests in a river valley, surrounded by stark hills. An ancient fortress atop a hill. Buildings and streets laid out in anarchic angles.

My hotel is sleek, modern. I stumble into my room and collapse. I was supposed to have a day to recover, but that’s out the window. Five hours later, I’m awake, rushing to make my 10:30 meeting. Damian joins me, along with my interpreter, a young man named Giorgi, and an embassy intern. We drive to Writer’s House, an ornate home of a brandy baron, then a writer’s commune, then a Soviet-run arts center, and now a public-owned museum and events center. The country had a long tradition of poetry and prose, but most of those writers and poets died at the hands of the Soviets during the nation’s years as part of the USSR. One writer killed himself in an upstairs room of Writer’s House rather than let the Soviets execute him.

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I meet with a group of publishers, most of whom have little to no knowledge of comics. They ask great questions, about the artistic merits of comics and the financial prospects of publishing comics in a country that has no history of them. One publisher has started translating a few American comics. I tell them they aren’t that different from Americans. We birthed comics as an art form, but then damn near killed the industry off (see: Wertham, Fredric) and have been scrambling to build an audience.

From there, we drive an hour out of Tbilisi to Tserovani, one of the camps for people displaced by Russia’s 2008 invasion. The countryside reminds me of eastern Colorado. Rolling plains rising up into foothills, then snow-capped mountains. The camp is massive, a city of tiny houses, each the same, built of cinder blocks. Row after row. People have started to build onto them, add gardens. Even still, it is a place bereft of history. Temporary, forced to become permanent.

These people came from villages that were destroyed by Russian bombs. Their land either is occupied or under threat. They cannot return, and they don’t have the ability to start somewhere new.

I go to a school run by Peace Corps volunteers and visit with a group of children who will barely make eye contact with me. I talk about comics, through Giorgi, but their eyes stay locked on their desks.

A new tact: I tell them to get a piece of paper and a pencil. We’re making a comic. Right here. Right now. Draw three panels. Now, we need what? Art. And a story. I push them. What’s our story? What happens?

Silence.

Then a boy speaks up. What if the Flash comes to Tserovani? To the school?

Yes! Flash comes here. But why?

Because…he’s looking for his lost dog, a girl suggests. Now we’re off and running. I have them all draw in the first two panels, filling in the story in their own voice. And for the last panel? It’s their choice to decide how the story ends. They start to draw, hunched over their desks.

I walk around. Flash finds his puppy. He realizes the puppy is back home. It was all a dream. He discovers the puppy is dead.

Congratulations, I tell them. You are all comic book creators.

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We stop by the Bookmobile, operated by the Embassy. It’s a bus stocked full of books, moving from one refugee camp to the next, giving children something to read, helping them to learn English. I’ve brought a box of books, many provided by my publishers IDW, Top Shelf and Dark Horse, to leave with the Bookmobile.

I talk to another group of kids there about writing. They ask about inspiration. I say it’s far more important to just work hard, that passion can’t suffice. That often writing is far from fun, even when it’s superheroes.

As we’re leaving, the embassy intern says to me, “I think that you lied to the kids.” It startles me. What? “I think you very much love what you do.” Yeah. Yeah, I do.

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That night, I have my first workshop with a four-person creative team (two writers, two artists) that the embassy assembled, tasked with creating one of Georgia’s first comic books. They have limited knowledge and experience, but they’re passionate. I launch into an expedited version of my comics course. We settle on Mad Max: Fury Road as a story that everyone knows, using it as an exemplar of how tension is key to storytelling, how characters must have mirrored internal and external arcs, of crafting a unique aesthetic.

They’re itching to start writing, and I push them to slow down. Figure out the story first. Then write it. After a couple of hours, my brain just shuts down. Sorry, I tell them. I need to sleep. We’ll launch back into it tomorrow.

May 13

Sleep. Breakfast. Coffee and coffee and coffee.

I’m the subject of a profile in a Georgian magazine, so I pose for photos, hoping my eyes don’t betray exhaustion. An interview with a woman wearing a Sandman t-shirt. It’s all about comics, not personality.

We stop for a quick lunch (and more coffee), then visit a public school in Tbilisi. High school kids. They’re energetic, excited to have me there. Most speak excellent English. They know comics, mostly superheroes through the movies and TV shows and video games that have become global cultural powerhouses. We hand out comics, pose for photos, run to the next meeting.

At the Peace Corps headquarters, I give a presentation on gender in comics to a group of teens that have been talking about the changing role of women in Georgian society. It’s historically a patriarchal culture, with men making all major decisions, and a weird machismo that’s as ever-present as cigarette smoke.

I talk about the history of comics, of the rise of superheroes and the marginalization of women, of the absurdly sexist comics of the 1980s-2000s, and the past decade of, in fits and starts, destroying the old vestiges of male dominance. They’re shocked to learn that more than half of U.S. comics readers are female. The teens offer advice to pass along to the Georgian creative team, pushing them to tackle these issues in their comic.

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We drive back to the hotel. Our driver for the week, Mischa, is a young man with old eyes and a badly broken nose, the scar still freshly red. Driving is horrifying, with no rhyme or reason, no observance of rules, everyone inching for an edge. The men are hyper-aggressive, charging at each other, weaving wildly. And yet, there’s this joke among Georgian men about how women are such terrible drivers. Right.

Another workshop with the creative team, just the writers. They’re struggling with a few of the big-picture elements of the story. I keep pushing for them to simplify. A protagonist is broken, and needs to acquire the thing that will complete him or her. What is that thing? What are the forces that stand in the way?

They make a real breakthrough, having fun as they go, generating creative solutions. I leave them with a charge to craft a logline and synopsis, as well as a character list.

I push through a little work in my room, then fall asleep where I’m sitting.

May 14

My one relatively open day. Breakfast, then I step out of the hotel. No handlers. No driver. Just me, and a labyrinthine city with no English signage and no Google Maps.

I start walking, going with no agenda. To the north is the river. To the south is a mountain. I figure I can get disoriented, but I can’t really get lost.

I wander through small streets, alleys. I stumble upon a tiny, ancient Orthodox church tucked between massive new buildings. I go inside, too late realizing I’ve become part of a baptism.

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I find a street market, hundreds of vendors setting out Soviet-era items (weapons, gas masks, surgeon tools, medals), bootleg DVDs, artwork, jewelry on the pavement. I buy handmade wool toy animals for my son, antique Soviet earrings for my wife.

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I get lost. Find my way. Get lost again. In the Old City, I try to hike up the hill to the fortress and wall. A street becomes a sidewalk becomes someone’s yard. Eventually, I give up, wander elsewhere.

The creative team meets again, with the artists as well. I talk process, showing them how a comic comes together, to unify their visions, to work writers and artists together as storytellers. We launch back into the story, and they start talking excitedly in Georgian, leaving me in the dust, which is exactly what I hoped would happen.

May 15

I wake up at 3 A.M. for some damn reason. I work on my own comics, watch TV. A slow breakfast.

Giorgi meets me, and we drive with Mischa to Gori, about an hour away. On the drive, there’s a mileage marker with various cities ahead. Iran’s capitol, Tehran, is one of them. It’s a jarring reminder of how far I am from home.

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Gori is best known, perhaps, as the birthplace and childhood home of Joseph Stalin. The wooden shack where he was born in is entombed in a large stone museum, surrounded by a park. It’s a source of pride for some, embarrassment for others.

Giorgi is from Gori. He shows me around. He was 15 in 2008. Russian bombs started to fall, and his family headed for Tbilisi. His parents are experts in traditional Georgian dance. They could only watch as Russian troops occupied their home city. As Giorgi shows me around, he points out a wall pockmarked with bullet holes.

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Like so many westerners, I was oblivious to just how serious that invasion was. It was a blip of international news. But these people suffered. Many died or were injured. There are scars everywhere. And the specter of further violence is ever present.

We go to a school founded by a university professor, an expert in translation. We sit in his office, talk about the country, about comic books, about their power to tell stories.

A Peace Corps group brings in dozens of children and teens taking part in a storytelling/English immersion program. I talk to them in groups, giving them writing advice and answering their questions about comics, superheroes, life in America. Several of them made bootleg T-shirts featuring covers of the comics I’ve written.

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There’s one group of women in the room who start loudly talking to each other in Georgian. Thinking they’re teachers, I shush them in a joking manner. Turns out they’re also students. Whoops. I have diplomatic immunity, right?

Afterward, the kids mob me, wanting photos or signatures.

The school administrators and Peace Corps volunteers take us out for a supra, a traditional Georgian celebration that includes toasts every five minutes or so, with guests expected to down a full glass of wine at every toast. The State Department info sheet included a paragraph that was basically, “This is how you avoid getting shit-faced at a supra.”

The kindness extended toward me reminded me of western Nebraska, where I grew up. People took to me quickly, treating me immediately as family, thanking me for coming, for sharing my time with their students. It’s a warmth that’s all but absent from urban life, and a welcome reminder of just how powerful it is to be generous and caring.

On the drive back, we give Hannah, a Peace Corps volunteer, a ride part of the way. She’s headed to a village, another hour or so away. She hops out on the side of the highway, says she’ll catch a bus. But there’s no bus stop. She laughs. You just wave. The bus stops, wherever. She scampers across the highway, dodging cars. I turn forward, mouth a prayer for Hannah to survive her trip.

We have another workshop with the creative team, now drilling into specifics of scripting. I show them my five-step method I use to write each page, an incremental approach to take an outline and build it out into finished script.

I get them thinking of bigger picture things, of building careers, of marketing and distributing the book. The truth of writing is that most of your time goes to ancillary pursuits, to the business of being a writer.

May 16

Last day, and my first night of normal sleep.

I go for a quick city walk, hiding under alcoves to avoid the drizzle, dodging cars as I cross streets. In a small shop, I buy an icon of Saint George and rosary beads.

We drive to Rustavi, a city built by the Soviets to support a metalworking factory. Tall apartment buildings, each the exact same design, stretch out of sight. The factory shuttered, and the apartments long ago started to crumble.

Giorgi looks around. “I have literally no idea what people do here,” he says.

We go into a school tucked amid the maze of apartments. The floors are wooden, an ornate design that has aged well. Not all Soviet design was atrocious. A huge crowd of students crammed in. They’re bursting with energy, shouting questions. I ask them who their favorite superhero is, and one says, in perfect English, “I love Deadpool because he breaks the fourth wall!”

It’s a stunning reminder of how powerful stories can be, and how important it is to put the right kind of stories out into the world.

The kids treat me like I’m Mick Jagger, crowding in around me, screaming for selfies and autographs. It’s the most like a celebrity I’ve ever felt.

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After a quick lunch, we go to the Arts Academy in Tbilisi, a fine arts college. A full crowd of students join me for a Q&A on comics and writing. Smart questions. As I leave, a faculty member says they’re now interested in starting their first-ever comics class. I offer to send educational materials, give whatever guidance I can.

In the hallway, I do a quick interview for national TV news. The reporters stand to the side, asking questions, telling me to direct my answers to the camera.

We drive back to Tserovani for a follow-up session with the refugee kids. I run them through a quick art lesson, showing them how to build up structures in pencil, then ink over the top of them to produce a finished drawing. Refining. Taking something rough and chipping away, improving bit by bit.

Several have made their own comics in the past week, and they’re damn good. These kids are 12 or so and hadn’t ever thought of making a comic. Now they’re off and running. It’s a special moment, a little sign that I was able to have some impact.

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We drive back to Tbilisi. As I hop out of the SUV, I thank Mischa and say goodbye. He nods, says something in Georgian, the first time we’ve communicated.

One last meeting with the creative team. They’re off and running, so this is all troubleshooting. I give them sample scripts and outlines, make them promise to send me the script so I can give them feedback. We have our farewells.

It’s hardest saying goodbye to Giorgi. I’d never worked with an interpreter, and it’s impossible to explain how deep that relationship can become. That kid is the best. An aspiring architect who wants to stay in Georgia, helping build its future.

May 17

Off to the airport at 2 a.m.

Flight to Munich. Flight to Houston. Flight to Atlanta. Somehow, it’s still the same day, though I’ve been traveling for almost 30 hours. The cabbie asks about my trip. I tell him about it. He says it’s the weirdest thing he’s ever heard. Most amazing, too. Yeah. Yeah, it is.

He pulls up to my house. Up on the porch, my wife and son are waiting.
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You can help refugee children enjoy more comics!

The U.S. Embassy in Tbilisi operates a Bookmobile that visits refugee camps throughout the country. It is one of the only sources of books for refugee children, and a critical resource for them to learn to read, particularly in English.

The Bookmobile has a small supply of comic books and graphic novels, but it could use more. If you have some new or gently used comics that you’d like to contribute to this educational outreach, please contact Van Jensen by email.

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