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Heroes or Villains?: Comics as Extremist Propaganda

n the battle of good vs evil there needs to be balance. For every extremist-made comic there should be one purporting an adventurous alternative. Dilbert's gags about expense reports just won't cut it.

It should come as no surprise that the terror group ISIS have released a Grand Theft Auto style video game, making news in the last few days. Visual propaganda is nothing new. Jihadist memes continue to flood twitter and have drawn a lot of attention since the advent of ISIS, a former al-Qaeda affiliate. We have to remember that members of this group, comprising of many foreign jihadists from the West and particularly young, radicalised Muslim males, know what grabs the attention of youth. But, the use of visuals is by no means the reserve of Islamic extremists.

Posters and YouTube videos are just two more examples of popular visuals that have been used to play their part in encouraging susceptible youth to join extremist movements. Comics can also be added to this list. It's important that we have a better understanding of what some images are used for, and by whom.

Over at Stormfront, the world's first hate site bulletin-board catering to the white nationalist community, users have toyed with the idea of making a comic. In the words of one user the comic would be 'an awesome propaganda tool' in which '[White Nationalist] superheroes fight jews, commies, ZOGS,' though no one has come around to making one as yet.

However, after a few clicks around Stormfront it does not take long to get redirected to The National Alliance's Saga of the White Will. The story follows a white youth as he struggles in a multicultural school setting. A brain child of William Pierce, the chairman of the white separatist and anti-Semitic hate-group based in the US- this comic was developed in 1991. Though a little more dated than its jihadi counterpart, Son of the Martyr, but it remains a great example of earlier use of comics as visual, kid-friendly propaganda.

Son of the Martyr is a more recent 2011 comic that has been disseminated across the Shumukh al-Islam forum, an online community for Islamic extremists. Son of the Martyr is clearly the conception of a mujahedeen-Frank Miller. This comic bears witness to the quick spread of extreme ideologies in visual ways. Bright colours and child protagonists give a clear indication of target audience. It follows three brothers through their plot to blow-up the tank of enemy soldiers using a toy-car stacked with explosives. The writers have expressed their hopes that the comic will be picked up by publishers. Let's hope not.

Comics, like memes, are for a wide demographic to enjoy. The risk is when they play into the hands of susceptible youth, which is the aim of both Son of the Martyr and Saga of the White Will. There's no real way of knowing what the impact of these comics are on their audiences. However, there was speculation over the influence of a Japanese manga in the months following the release of sarin gas in Tokyo's subway lines in 1995. Commentators concluded that the Aum Shinrikyō, a religious cult-terrorist organisation in Japan, were successful at influencing their members to act violently using manga using their idea of harumagedon, or Armageddon.

On the side of the heroes is a former al-Qaida linked radical Nasir Abas from Indonesia. Abas, who helped to train the 36 bombers behind the 2002 Bali attacks, came to realise that he no longer wanted to kill in the name of faith, and chronicled this journey in Captain Jihad. His change of heart led to him to want to educate Indonesian youth using his personal narrative. By no means do comic books with a positive message have the definitive answer to preventing radicalisation of youth into extremist groups, but in a country that has been victim to numerous terror attacks, it's certainly worth a shot.

Admittedly these comics are no competition for Stan Lee, but they don't need to be. The use of colourful visuals and easily digestible messages make them easy entertainment, and easy to use as propaganda. Violent extremist groups have been producing seductive, and dare I say cool posters, videos, memes, and comics. That's why Captain Jihad and similar comics with positive and counter-messages are so important to produce and maintain. In the battle of good vs evil there needs to be balance. For every extremist-made comic there should be one purporting an adventurous alternative. Dilbert's gags about expense reports just won't cut it.