graphic novel
Credit: Image courtesy of Marc Ellison

Graphic novels are a well-established storytelling method, although not one usually associated with hard news. But in journalism, where visual stories may resonate better with audiences than a text only approach, illustrations can help depict sensitive images and complex situations in a softer way.

Photojournalist Marc Ellison has spent the last six months working on a graphic novel called Graphic Memories, which details the lives of four women in northern Uganda and their struggle to re-integrate into society after being abducted in their teenage years by militant group the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA).

Ellison's project, funded through a grant from the European Journalism Centre, was published in the Toronto Star yesterday and one of its four chapters has also appeared in German weekly newspaper Die Zeit.

He first became familiar with the issue in 2011, when researching the reintegration challenges faced by women after they'd returned as former child soldiers for his master's thesis.

This enabled him to spend a few months in Uganda doing research, meeting and talking to some of the women that had returned after spending the majority of their lives with the LRA.

"An expert in the field said to me, 'if you really want to tell an untold story, it's what happens to these former child soldiers, specifically women, once they leave the LRA, because nobody has really looked at this serious issue'," Ellison said.

Although the militant group was chased out of northern Uganda in 2006, women still returning are faced with a scarcity of resources and lack of help from the government and NGOs, which have been unable to keep up with the flood of returnees over the last decade.

Grace Achara and Jacinta Acan are among the four women portrayed in the novel and have both returned to Uganda as recently as September 2014. Ellison was keen on "educating people about the fact that the war is only half of the story".

An illustration from chapter 3 of Graphic Memories, telling the story of Jacinta Acan

The idea behind doing a graphic novel in a web format, embedding illustrations with photographs and video interviews, was to tap into the large digital audience.

Ellison's project has been inspired by the work of cartoonist and journalist Joe Sacco, who in 2011 published Palestine, a print graphic novel about his experiences in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip in 1991.

"Having photos and videos to complement the illustrations is a constant reminder, throughout the stories, that they're very real stories", Ellison explained, "because I think after reading the first 50 pages of a graphic novel, it's easy to forget that."

"My hope was also that this novel could be used as some sort of pedagogical tool in schools, whether that's in Uganda or in the West, to educate secondary school students about the developmental challenges facing post war communities."

During his trip to Uganda in May, Ellison worked with illustrator Christian Mafigiri, conducting interviews with women who had returned from the LRA before spending the next few months creating storyboards, scripting and animating the chapters.

Each of the four final chapters contains around 30 illustrations, which he tried to "divide fairly evenly between the woman's abduction, some of her experiences in 'the bush' and her escape".

Around half of each chapter is reserved for the challenges the women have faced since returning.

While some of the women's experiences were very traumatising, having endured violence, witnessed murder and other horrifying acts, Ellison didn't want his work to focus on the "graphic or sensationalist" elements. But he felt it necessary to include them in the story and portray them "as tastefully as possible" in order to illustrate the problems faced by the victims now.

He said the decision of not depicting these scenes directly in the illustrations, but rather giving a rough idea and providing context through speech bubbles and videos of the women talking, is "powerful enough without having to show anything".

"I think the advantage of comic book journalism is that most of us have read comic books or cartoons since we were kids and they're often a powerful way of telling complex stories in a visual way, rather than just reading about them," Ellison told

A video embedded in chapter four of the novel, where Mary Aluku talks about her struggles in dealing with people who mistreated her upon her return from the LRA

For example, one of the chapters tells the story of former child soldier Mary Aluku, from the standpoint of NGOs and their work in a region where people rely heavily on foreign aid.

The women portrayed in some of the other chapters have coped with reintegration in society in different ways – relying on a relative for financial help and finding a job, or trying to make a living with skills learned during their time in the LRA, such as making and selling alcoholic drinks, but they are still struggling.

Many would like to set up businesses to support themselves and their families, but this is almost impossible because of the lack of training or access to higher education.

Ellison said the biggest challenge was telling their stories in an accurate and considerate way, without forcing them to relive traumatising events from their past they are still struggling to cope with.

"It's easy for people to read a story and move on – and I've tried to give people the bigger picture and educate the Western audience," Ellison said.

"This different approach to storytelling is almost like having a virtual conversation with these women, as you're constantly reminded throughout the story that it is their very real life story and people can empathise with what they're going through."

He also hopes that people reading the novel "will take that leap from reading a story to doing something about it", either by wanting to learn more about the issues or help out by donating to some of the NGOs supporting the cause.

In December, Ellison will be travelling to Tanzania for two months, after recently receiving a fellowship from the Aga Khan Foundation in Canada and the Canadian government to work on another graphic novel, focusing on child rights and child marriage in Tanzania, which will be published in the Toronto Star next spring.

"There's an appetite for using graphic novels to tell these kinds of developmental stories, but it does take up a lot of time and resources, which is why I think some news organisations might find it hard to justify putting in that much work for a one-off project," said Ellison.

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