[CFP] SPACES OF PRECARITY: Migration, Spatiality and the Refugee Graphic Narrative

deadline for submissions: 
December 15, 2023
full name / name of organization: 
International Research Centre for Cultural Studies, The Education University of Hong Kong
contact email: 

Call for papers - Special Issue

 of Journal of Graphic Novels and Comics

Spaces of Precarity:

Migration, Spatiality and the Refugee Graphic Narrative


Edited by

Markus Arnold (University of Cape Town) & Bidisha Banerjee (Education University of Hong Kong)

The current age of migration has thrown into relief particular spaces of exception – the treacherous waterways of the Mediterranean and the Aegean, new and long forgotten refugee camps and camp cities as well as checkpoints, borders, transit zones, and detention centres. Although characterised by liminality, precarity and temporariness, migrants often strive to find in some of these spaces various forms of belonging. For example, refugee camps are biopolitical systems of segregation that often become ethnic enclaves of the populations they serve. Refugees living in camps eschew a liberatory globality and cosmopolitanism in favor of cultural preservation and ties with the homeland. Therefore, the challenge posed by migrancy to essentialism and cultural nationalism, comes up short when considering migrant refugee identities and spatialities. These new forms of migration also problematize in intricate ways the notion of the border which, beyond its inherent ambivalence (inclusion and exclusion), appears above all as a space of “circulation” and whose effects are indeed to “produce hybrid transition zones” (Nail 2016: 7-8). However, the current migratory predicament has led to an increasing “frontierization” (Mbembe 2020: 66) which contributes to novel forms of capitalist violence and tightened control of population flux on a global scale. It is related to extreme forms of rejection and a growing worldwide production of “disposable people” (Bauman 2003, Ogilvie 2012).

These phenomena have recently found critical resonances with visual, comic, and bande dessinée artists who have introduced today’s “migratory crisis” in their creative work. Such work is located at the confluences of various, both converging and distinct, developments in the field. It shows the growing engagement of graphic storytelling with the “real” as well as social, historical, and political questions (e.g. Delannoy 2007, McKinney 2008). It builds on an already established while not forcefully well-known preoccupation of graphic artists with questions related to multiculturalism (Aldama 2010) and immigration (Marie & Ollivier 2013). It is more and more read in conjunction with the so-called “postcolonial turn” in graphic storytelling (Mehta & Mukherji 2015, Delisle 2016, Knowles et al. 2016, McKinney 2020). But beyond its relation to the after-effects of the colonial and imperial “North-South” divide, comics about migration echo similarly complex questions addressed in this predominantly hybrid medium, including war and trauma (Eerle 2017, icon Düsseldorf 2020). This not only reveals the overtly interdisciplinary character of visual storytelling. It also calls for a thorough engagement with specific forms and positionalities such as the documentary genre and the witness (Chute 2016, Davies & Rifkind 2020), foregrounds the ethical ambition of comics (Polak 2017) and their potential location within a humanitarian and human-rights agenda (Nayar 2021).

The recent creation and visibility of postcolonial graphic storytelling has led to a proliferation of scholarship as well as artistic and cultural production to which the proposed project aims to contribute in innovative ways by focusing on the specific form of the refugee graphic novel and the question of spatial identity. A sub-genre of postcolonial graphic storytelling, the refugee graphic novel deals with particular forms of vulnerability, agency, and precariousness (Butler 2004). It has brought intercultural and transnational subjects to wider audiences, demonstrating these narratives’ political, aesthetic as well as commercial potential. While the genre is, of course, highly referential, and while it openly draws on documentary, testimonial, and often photorealist forms – which may even call into doubt its artistic nature –, it both contributes to the legitimacy of comics (Beaty 2012) and to the aesthetic understanding of borders and migration (Schimanski & Wolfe 2017).


We are calling for abstracts on the topic “Spaces of Precarity: Migration, Spatiality and the Refugee Graphic Narrative” for a guest-edited special issue of the Journal of Graphic Novels and Comics. We are interested in exploring the graphic depiction of the spaces of migration in Anglophone and Francophone refugee graphic novels. We wish to consider the spaces of exception of refugee life, spaces of migration, of limbo and temporary permanence, of legal illegality, where refugees are held or through which they travel. These include detention centres, refugee camps, borders, and the open seas.


Contributors may consider, inter alia, the following kinds of precarious spaces of migration:


Post-Agambenian camp spatialities

While Giorgio Agamben’s concepts of “states of exception,” “bare life,” and “the camp” (Agamben 1998) have provided useful analytical tools for refugee studies, more recent camp studies have witnessed a move away from these ideas to an increased recognition of camps as dynamic spaces of resistance and political action, as “an exceptional place” (Gabiam 2016: 126) rather than a space of exception. This has led to the development of post-Agambenian camp studies which argue that a “generalized model of the space of exception falls short of an effective analysis of the refugee camp” (Ramadan 2013: 68). Camps are often seen as paradoxical spaces – exceptional spaces that come into being during emergencies and by intervention, yet spaces where families live for prolonged periods of time, sometimes even decades. Marked by their extra-territoriality, they do not belong to any national space and have their own system of governance. They are also permanently precarious, conveying an acute sense of an interminable present haunted by waiting and absence (Agier 2011: 73) for the “frontier-bodies” (Mbembe 2020:131) which inhabit them.  Ho do graphic novels convey the complexity of camp spatialities and the migrant bodies within them?


Aquatic spatialities

At the height of the refugee crisis, an unprecedented number of refugees were attempting to cross the Mediterranean in order to arrive on European shores. Tens of thousands of asylum seekers have died attempting to cross the seas since 2010. Several recent refugee graphic novels tell harrowing stories of the treacherous journeys migrants undertake in order to reach “Fortress Europe.” The thanatic aspect of these journeys is delineated repeatedly in graphic novels like Mediterraneo (Nazzarro and Ferrara 2018), which often have children as protagonists – Amalia in Mediterraneo, Ebo in Illegal (Colfer, Donkin and Rigano 2018), Mai in The Boat (Nam Le 2015), Amina in Zenobia (Durr and Horseman 2018), and Petite Soeur in Les Ombres (Hippolyte & Zabus 2013).  In the context of refugee migrations, the sea becomes a space with shifting boundaries, a contradictory space of capture and rescue, of stasis and mobility. The collection will explore the representation of the oceanic spatialities of migration as depicted in the various refugee graphic novels. 


Carceral spatialities

Refugee detention centres are highly securitized spaces of incarceration and isolation. They form part of a larger economy of “brutalization” which transforms parts of the global population into a “humanity in a cage” (Mbembe 2020: 151). Many graphic novelists have taken up the task of depicting these spaces graphically (see for example Undocumented: The Architecture of Migrant Detention (Chak 2017), At Work Inside our Detention Centres: A Guard’s Story (Wallman and Olle 2014), Still Alive: Notes from Australia’s Immigration Detention System (Ahmed 2022), Les Ombres (Hippolyte & Zabus 2013), Les Nouvelles de la Jungle (Mandel 2017), Humains (Troubs and Baudoin 2018), Yellow Negroes (Alagbé 2011), etc.) How do their portrayal of carceral spatialities comment on the ways in which such practices of detention shape migrant subjectivities?


Spatiality of the page

The features of the graphic novel form – frames, panels and gutters – are particularly well suited to telling traumatic stories, and comics appear to be a privileged form for debating issues of migration in an ethical and empathetic way (Polak 2017). However, some critics have drawn attention to the differences in power between the various people involved in creating graphic novels and underscoring the importance of context (see Mickwitz 2020). Notwithstanding such important questions of context and ethics, refugee graphic novels remain a potent narrative mode for telling stories of displacement and precarity while also posing challenges to stereotypical and mainstream representations of migrants that use other saturated visual modes like photography. What are the ways in which graphic artists use the conventions of the graphic novel as well as the spatiality of the page itself to depict the refugee crisis? What are the potential limitations of this endeavor?


Please send an abstract (400-500 words) and a bio note (100-150 words) by the 15th of December 2023 to Markus Arnold (markus.arnold@uct.ac.za) and Bidisha Banerjee (banerjee@eduhk.hk). Notification of acceptance will be communicated by the 15th of January 2024.

v  Full papers are expected to be submitted to the guest-editors by the 15th of May 2024.




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