Communication for peace and social change: comics and animations about the Colombian armed conflict
It has been a difficult task to tell stories, in any format, of the traces left by the Colombian armed conflict, especially because, for the case of Colombia, we are talking about a society that has developed over the years its own language of violence, intensified by the traqueto-discourse in some regions of the country. For many people, telling the story of armed violence from the very epicenter of violence was to sentence yourself to be one more victim of the conflict. However, with the peace process, which started with the dialogues of 2012, to the signing of the peace agreements in 2016, Colombia was immersed in a process of transitional justice, memory and reconciliation that allowed the dissemination of communication proposals for peace and social change. Many of these projects had a trajectory of creation and visual production, but these had not been made visible due to the country’s complex social situation. Other narrative proposals were created from this period of peace, supported by funding from the government and by national and international NGOs.
A large number of comics, graphic novels and animations have been shared in different academic and journalistic contexts. Such is the case of a comic called Jessica: coca growing, stigmatization, violence and development in Colombia. This research-based comic illustrates the reality of many Colombian families who have been caught in the middle of the drug business and have been directly impacted by the armed conflict. Just like Jessica’s, many other stories have come to light. This is the case, for example, with a comic about three personal stories of violence that intertwine in El difícil oficio de perdonar or the graphic novel Liborina, which imagines a future without the Colombian armed conflict offering a revision of the realities of violence from the perspective of a utopia.
Another communication proposal for peace and social change has been the renowned story of Balita, a graphic novel aimed mainly at an adult audience since, as author León Octavio states, “adults are the main agents of violence”. This product has also been turned into an animation and currently promotes the defense of life and food security as an essential component of peace and social change in the Colombian territory. Quoting León again “porque sin pan no hay paz” (because without bread there is no peace).
Balita, la bala perdida. (Animation in Spanish)
Credit: El Bando Creativo. Author: León Octavio.
It is important to note that, since the 1990s, the communication processes developed by community collectives have been a great source of progress in communication for development and communication for social change research in the country and, parallel to this, communication for peace and memory. To better illustrate the experiences of communication from and for the community, reference is made to collective communication processes such as the renowned Escuela Audiovisual Infantil de Belén de los Andaquíes –EAI (Children’s Audiovisual School of Belén de los Andaquíes), located in the department of Caquetá in the Amazon Region of Colombia. Under the slogan “no story, no camera”, the EAI emerged as a community participatory communication project for social change, involving children to narrate their territory using audiovisual tools and with the aim of moving away from the consequences of the armed conflict. This school has won prestigious awards for audiovisual products in Colombia, including an India Catalina award.
Certainly, this creative challenge that connects social actors, communities, academia, NGOs and local government agencies of this South American country, is the current quest to build alternative spaces for reflection. Its aim is not only to restructure and disarm the prevalent language of violence, but also to give visibility and awareness of processes, places, and social realities that are part of the Colombian landscape. To explore a little bit more about these emerging narrative formats amid communication processes for peace, social change and memory, I have invited professor and researcher Dr. Daniel Aguilar from Universidad Externado de Colombia. Dr. Daniel Aguilar earned his doctorate in Sociology at Kansas State University, and his research interests are cultural sociology, comics, rock music and political participation. In a brief interview, he shares his insights on the dynamics of research concerning comics, graphic novels and animations in relation to the Colombian conflict.
Marian (M): Why is it relevant to undertake research on comics and graphic narratives in the reconstruction of memory processes in Colombia?
Daniel (D): Colombia does not have an extensive history of comics and graphic novels. We do have a strong tradition of political and editorial cartoons, however. But since 2012, coincidentally, the same year in which the government began the peace talks with FARC, the book law in Colombia was amended, recognizing graphic narratives and comics as important cultural production, and allowing comics to enjoy the same tax exemption as literature and scientific works. A great number of comics has been produced ever since.
Along with the increase in the production of comics and graphic novels, the internal conflict started to pop up in the stories these comics were telling. Graphic artists and social researchers gave voice to the victims of the conflict, allowing the young readers to understand the conflict, its actors, and, of course, its reasons.
M: Why are comics and graphic novels useful as a communicative tool during a post-conflict process?
D: Graphic novels and comics have become an important tool to tell the stories of the conflict for four main reasons:
1) They provide a friendly language which is inclusive of people of different age ranges and levels of literacy.
2) They offer the victims a voice to tell their stories.
3) They can be incorporated to various pedagogical scenarios, from higher level conferences to the most basic classrooms in rural areas.
4) It is easier to incorporate a vignette with a dialogue between characters, than to remember a complex argument within an academic or political report.
M: What role are the victims of the conflict playing in these comics?
D: Institutions such as the Truth Commission or the Centro Nacional de Memoria Histórica – CNMH (National Historic Memory Centre) have incorporated graphic narratives to tell stories of the conflict, focusing on the centrality of the victim’s voices. It means that many of those stories are told by victims or represent their experiences.
Probably one of the most interesting things is that a wider public is now reading graphic narratives in which a character tells the story on how she lost her family, or her home, or a similar story about forced displacement, or disappearance, which tend to be the most recurrent topics. These are stories that need to be told and read.
M: Could you please tell me about the people who are creating this type of comic in Colombia? Is it victims’ collectives? An initiative by ex-combatants? youth leaders? Non-profit organizations? Public institutions or the government?
D: I would dare to say that independent efforts started to undertake research about the conflict, printing graphic novels as the way to present the results of the research processes. Thus, groups like Colectivo Leche in Cali (southern Colombia), Altais Comics in Medellín (western Colombia) or Cohete Comics from Bogotá (the capital) among others, started to publish interesting works which capture the attention of institutions such as the Truth Comission or the CNMH.
Rapidly, graphic artists, such as Gusanillo, Pablo Altaís or Henry Díaz, working along with researchers and writers, such as Diana Ojeda, Lina Florez and Pablo Guerra started to make this kind of stories more visible and with a higher quality in production as well.
M: What are the greatest challenges in the creation and distribution of these comics and graphic narratives about the conflict in post-conflict scenarios in Colombia?
D: There are several challenges to develop these kinds of stories. Even though the current government is friendly and committed to the implementation of the peace agreement developed with FARC, there are also a large number of powerful people in Colombia who are not interested in unveiling the truths behind the war.
Nevertheless, the conflict is part of our DNA, and it appears in different ways, as bakdrop of the story, as historical or political context, as a mode of naming and defining a character, among other ways it shows up. It reaches everybody, because despite the conflict having taken place for the most part in poor rural areas, most Colombians have experienced its consequences, one way or another.
M: How has this kind of study progressed in Latin American academia? Is it a recent, interdisciplinary approach? what are the goals of this emerging field of study?
D: There has been a direct relationship between graphic novels and conflicts or wars. Most of the great stories in comics are related to some sort of conflict, like Captain America fighting the nazis, Popeye fighting the Japanese, Asterix and Obelix fighting the Romans, Tin Tin having adventures in a world of conflicts created by Europe with its colonies, and so on.
In Latin America, there have been approaches to see how people struggled with the last Argentinian dictatorship (1976-1983). Nevertheless, Colombia has had a internal war, so long in time, that we have had the chance to study it while it is happening. We have violentologists in our academia, with a prolific scholar production. But only since 2012 the war began to be a subject in Colombian graphic narratives. It was the time to do so. Since 2021 at the School of Social Communication and Journalism of Universidad Externado de Colombia, we began to study the ways through which the internal conflict has been represented in comics and graphic novels. We wanted to identify the type stories, the voices, the manifestations of war, etc. That is why we began a research project called “Vignettes of War”. We are on the final stages of this research project and hope to publish our results in the coming months.
Finally, for those of you interested in reading more about comics in Colombia I would like to recommend the article La Bogotá distópica: los cómics sobre una ciudad en caos (Dystopian Bogotá: comics about a city in chaos) by professors Dr. Enrique Uribe-Jongbloed, Dr. Daniel Aguilar and Dr. Sergio Roncallo. Also, you can consult the entry on Comics and fandom (studies) in Colombia as part of Henry Jenkin’s Blog “Pop Junctions: Reflections on Entertainment, Pop Culture, Activism, Media Literacy, Fandom and More” written by Dr. Uribe-Jongbloed and Dr. Aguilar.
Traqueto is a colloquial term used to define a drug trafficker.
 The India Catalina awards of the Colombian audiovisual industry offer special award categories in Best audiovisual products for social inclusion and Best audiovisual product by community television.
Doctoral researcher | HCIAS Publications and Knowledge Transfer Coordinator