The reality of life in Madaya, Syria, is hard to fathom. The mountain city has been under siege for nearly a year, with a variety of forces seeking control of the city that serves as a strategic point in the supply route between Syria and Lebanon: Troops loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad fight rebels who are being starved out, while ISIS holds its capital in Radaqq, 300 miles to the east. Because Madaya is positioned in the mountains, there is no way in or out of the city.
Getting news out of the city is similarly challenging. Reporters, foreign aid workers, and other outsiders have no access to the city. But one woman—known by the secret identity of Madaya Mom—has been telling her story to reporters from ABC News throughout 2016, communicating through texts and phone calls as she struggles to keep herself, her husband, and their five children safe and healthy in conditions that are impossible to imagine. And when you've got a character like that as your protagonist, it makes sense to find a way to tell her story in a way that makes clear what a hero is. Enter Marvel Comics.
"Madaya Mom," a partnership between Marvel and ABC News (which share the same corporate parent in Disney), taps the talents of ABC News reporters Xana O'Neill and Rym Momtaz and Marvel Comics artist Dalibor Talajić (who's illustrated the adventures of Deadpool, Luke Cage, and the Avengers for the company) to offer an immersive look at Madaya that's otherwise almost impossible to get.
"Madaya Mom" tells the story through the anonymous mom's messages to ABC—with her identity kept secret to protect her from retaliation—with a focus on the events of January 2016. The storytelling is brutal and heartbreaking. Children are bombed, family members are shot by snipers, and food is scarce. Landmines are an omnipresent threat. And Talajić tells the story simply, using stark black-and-white art with limited splashes of color to add tone and texture to the comic, which is illustrated as a series of panels that move as successive slides. The entire book only takes a few minutes to read, with both the Madaya Mom's own words and the context provided by the reporters complementing Talajić's visuals in a way that brings the reality of the situation to life.
Comics have long been used to tell these kinds of stories, of course—from Art Spiegelman's Maus to Joe Sacco's Palestine to Guy De'isle's Pyongyang and more—but Marvel has seldom ventured into the territory of documentary storytelling, with artists who are better known for illustrating the adventures of heroes whose adversaries wears masks and capes. "Madaya Mom" makes clear, though, that the company is well-equipped to tell this kind of story, too.