In 1941, U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt sent Walt Disney and 16 other artists, musicians, and writers to South America to serve as citizen diplomats. In the 1950s and ‘60s jazz musicians toured the world as emissaries representing U.S. culture in the midst of heightened Cold War tensions. And in July, following in this longstanding tradition of these cultural diplomacy envoys, the State Department participated in Comic-Con International: San Diego, the globally renowned comic arts annual convention, for the first time as part of a panel called “Comics and Animation Ambassadors to the Rescue.”
The panel event, coordinated by the State Department’s Collaboratory, featured the stories and experiences of David Mack, comic book artist and writer; Mike Rauch, Director of Current Series at Cartoon Network; and Josh Elder, comic book author, graphic novelist, and creator of the syndicated comic strip Mail Order Ninja. These artists discussed their experiences as citizen diplomats representing American values through initiatives such as the Bureau of Education and Cultural Affairs’ Arts Envoy and American Film Showcase programs, as well as the Bureau of International Information Programs’ U.S. Speaker Program.
Rachel Gandin Mark, Project Director of the American Film Showcase at the University of Southern California, moderated the panel.
Throughout their travels, these comic artists and animators engaged with students, young leaders, educators, and a range of other individuals who came together around a common interest in comics and animation for social good. This art form is particularly powerful in communicating with foreign publics because it uses a universal and accessible language. Comics are available in most corners of the globe, and they convey shared human experiences through a compelling visual medium.
For example, this year the U.S. Speaker Program coordinated programs for David Mack in Tunisia, where he engaged young aspiring artists, educators, and students; comic book writer Larry Hama in Kuwait; American graphic novelist Ben Hatke in Macedonia; and comic writer David Andrade in Algeria. The U.S. Embassy in Tibilisi, Georgia also invited Mack to meet with youth groups and refugee populations to discuss artistic expression as a way of addressing the traumas of war.
Just across the border from San Diego, U.S. Consulate General Tijuana Public Affairs Officer Preeti Shah and her team have dove into comics diplomacy to build awareness about human trafficking. A series of artists, animators, and visual effects designers visited Tijuana in 2017 to talk to youth audiences about the impact of popular arts in society, and they were teamed up with anti-trafficking experts. The finale of this multi-month effort was the announcement of the winners of the Consulate’s superhero design contest (pictured below). The superheroes were created by young Mexicans who took a creative approach to preventing human trafficking, and demonstrated the impact of comic book culture on the global stage.
The Tijuana comics initiative to counter human trafficking is part of a growing effort by U.S. diplomats to build mutual understanding across global communities through comics, cartoons, and animation.
And there are other illustrations around the globe as well. The U.S. Embassy in Seoul invited editorial cartoonist Pat Bagley to lead a series of lectures on cartooning and freedom of speech while the U.S. Embassy in Beijing facilitated #AmericanAnimation&Comics Month, a social media campaign featuring Steve McGarry, president of the National Cartoonist Society.
U.S. embassies have also begun exploring partnerships with Comic-Con. This summer, the U.S. Embassy in Tunis hosted art and comics-themed programs with David Mack as part of their presence at the second annual Comic-Con Tunisia, drawing nearly 8,000 participants. Mack’s events at Comic-Con and an exhibition of his art brought thousands of young Tunisians to the Embassy’s booth where they learned about U.S.-sponsored exchange programs and the EducationUSA advising service. The mission also connected Mack to Tunisian artists and other audiences for workshops and discussions highlighting the role of comics and artists in positive social change.
Today, comic artists, cartoonists, and animators are leading a new wave of diplomatic outreach efforts at the forefront of U.S. public diplomacy.
Editor’s Note: This entry is also published on Medium.com/StateDept.