In December 2014, just months after the Islamic State militant group took over major cities in Iraq and Syria, graphic novelist Joshua Dysart arrived in the northern Iraq city of Erbil. During his five days in the country, he saw thousands of people who had lost their homes in the conflict and began to document the unfolding humanitarian crisis that enveloped them.
Dysart had traveled to Iraq with United Nations' World Food Programme, or WFP, to create a graphic novel highlighting the organization's humanitarian aid workers and those they strive to help.
The comic, titled "Living Level 3," for the most severe classification of humanitarian crisis, tells the story of a fictional humanitarian aid worker, Leila, on an aid mission after the Islamic State brutally seized territory there in 2014.
Based in part on a WFP trip to northern Iraq, the graphic novel draws on real life experiences of people who have fled ISIS militants in the country's Sinjar district. It gives a unique perspective on the lives of aid workers offering relief.
The WorldPost is publishing the comic exclusively in a four-part series this week.
We spoke with WFP's Jonathan Dumont, co-creator of the project, as well as with bestselling graphic novelist Joshua Dysart, who wrote "Living Level 3." They shared their hopes for the work, and described how the idea came to fruition.
Jonathan Dumont, Co-Creator
How did the idea for this project originally come about?
Me and my colleagues had an idea of doing a graphic novel. There was a comic book done in Bosnia with Superman on de-mining, and a few others that were a bit too propagandist and a little too self-promotional.
We thought it would be more interesting to do something a little more edgy and realistic, and try to show what life is like for humanitarian aid workers in the field.
The idea was also to produce some characters that could live on in different formats, whether it be in TV or feature film projects.
What does the graphic novel format add to this project?
It's become such a medium in itself. In bookstores now, there are so many that they’re in their own sections, and a lot of them are reality-based.
For this one, I took writer Joshua Dysart to Iraq. The story is based on what happened when we went to the areas around northern Iraq. The narrative of the Yazidis, who got airlifted off of Mount Sinjar, were actually people we met.
It’s an amalgam of real-life people you met there?
Well actually, almost all the characters are real-life characters, apart from the protagonist, who is an amalgam of humanitarian aid workers.
Also, in the hope that we would do more episodes, we tried to have peripheral characters appear who might be in another episode. Let’s say we did one in Ukraine. Someone peripheral in this one could become a main character in the Ukraine.
What do you want readers to take away from the project?
Obviously, we’re the World Food Programme, and hunger is something that affects almost 800 million people in the world. So it’s a powerful and important issue.
We have sustainable development goals, and in 15 years our goal is to get to zero hunger. People who are out there to achieve this have a dream and are out there trying to fulfill it, and the idea is to show who these people who are out there trying to do this.
Joshua Dysart, Writer
How did you become involved in the project?
In 2007, I did a series of comic books and graphic novels called "Unknown Soldier," for the publisher Vertigo. The comics took place in East Africa, and I traveled with child soldiers along the northern Ugandan border.
A few years ago, a friend of mine got a call from WFP because they were looking for someone to do a comic book. He declined, but referred me because I had this experience of fiction and geopolitical situations.
You traveled to Iraqi Kurdistan with the WFP for research. What was that experience like?
Suffice to say that it was intense. It was very contained. I was there for only five days and there was a lot to take in.
It was interesting to be part of a fast-moving convoy, but having to stop and be as present as possible when people let you into their homes and tell you their stories. You carry the burden of responsibility once a human being tells you their story.
What do you hope readers take away from this project?
There are two narratives in the work. There is the narrative of the WFP worker, an Egyptian-American who comes from what we in America have -- stability, security and food security in particular -- and questions why she is there. Her narrative is juxtaposed with characters acting without agency in order to survive.
It was important for the work that the comic both told the story of the population that is served, and the struggle to serve the population.
The universal story, that I hope is timeless, is how and why we rise to the occasion when there is so much inhumanity around us. And I hope the story also helps eliminate this notion of the "other."
“It was important for the work that the comic both told the story of the population that is served, and the struggle to serve the population.”
What are your hopes or lingering thoughts on this project?
We’re using this story to educate people on exactly what has happened there. What I hope is that we produce a work that is universally human.
I would like to see "Living Level 3" become a larger project, so we can tell these stories in these regions to educate people on exactly what it’s like working in these zones and about the populations affected by these natural and geopolitical disasters.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Also read Joshua Dysart's blog about traveling to Iraq.
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