“Apathy Is An Act Of Self-Destruction”:Q&A With ‘On Tyranny’ Illustrator Nora Krug
Named a Best Graphic Novel of 2021 by the New York Times, “On Tyranny” is a timely — and beautiful — call to action.
Vigilance can be exhausting. All that waiting for danger has a way of fraying one’s nerves. But what if instead of it making our collective spirits crave sleep, we leaned into the vigil of vigilance, the responsibility and arguable joy in ‘staying awake,’ in keeping watch over one another.
First published in 2017 by author and historian Timothy Snyder and newly released as a “graphic edition” with illustrations by Nora Krug — On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons From The Twentieth Century — argues the essential role of remaining awake in a healthy democracy.
History can be pernicious — haunting in its ability to determine our future — or it can offer wisdom, a path forward not predicated on the past, but cautious of it.
“We are no wiser than the Europeans who saw democracy yield to fascism, Nazism, or communism,” Snyder says. “Our one advantage is that we might learn from their experience.”
First, a brief confession. I’m not someone who typically gravitates towards graphic novels or comic books; I worry that the content will be somehow diluted or made distracting with pictures accompanying the words.
On Tyranny — coupled with Krug’s arresting, whimsical drawings — has made me a convert. Synder’s history is succinct as it is shrewd, as awakening as it is appalling, yet Krug’s vision and aesthetic voice are what make the lessons sing. By the book’s end, I felt as though someone had tugged my eyelids and they’d snapped open wide as a sun-blind.
“Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.” — Wendell Phillips
The book presents 20 lessons on tyranny and how to refuse repression; from Putin and the Vietnam War to the political philosophies of Hannah Arendt, the labor movement in Poland, and the threatening arc of oligarchies from the ancient Greeks to the Russia that emerged in1990 (the last free election Russian has ever had, an election no one believed would be the last one),
Synder reminds us everyone and everything has been touched by darkness. But it’s always accompanied by the promise of light if we’re willing to keep watch.
Snyder outlines what it actually means to be a patriot (admitting ‘it could happen here,’ but we will stop it) and how dangerously pliable our language is when wielded by autocrats; he urges us to eliminate the ‘hooks’ on which tyrants will hang us. Establish a private life. Scrub your computers of malware. Stop staring at screens so much.
On Tyranny is a pint-sized, beautiful tome to return to again and again; it’s meditative, asking us to iterate upon ourselves and the society and systems that surround us.
“Anticipatory obedience is a political tragedy.”
Combining watercolor, colored pencils, found objects, artifacts, archival photographs and folded paper illustrations, Nora Krug has created an immersive time capsule to deepen and complicate Snyder’s lessons. “I see these images as silent witnesses,” she writes in the book. “They urge us to commit to remembering the stories that shape us, and they help us understand that history is so much more than just the past.”
I got the chance to ask Krug about her own relationship to the world — to tyranny — and how her work on this book is part and parcel of her pushback, her own fight for our collective freedom.
I’m always curious how artists came to be artists! Can you talk a little about your childhood and how it dovetails — if at all — with where you find yourself now?
NORA: My parents were teachers but, on weekends and during holidays, made art together. My father created clay sculptures that still adorn their home and garden, and my mother painted them. We went on family vacations to Italy every year, in part to admire the works of Piero della Francesca and others. I was taken to see so many frescos and museums as a child that, today, I sometimes feel like avoiding them. But they certainly continue to inspire me.
Do you identify as a political person?
NORA: Definitely. Everyone is a political person, because we exist in a political world, and we’re confronted every day with the option of either accepting or rejecting the political systems and realities that exist around us. Creating books and drawing images, to me, is a form of asking questions about the world, and negotiating my place in it.
The aesthetics of the book border on playful — the content is often disturbing but the way it’s rendered — with collage or fairy-tale-like panels — has real levity. At least to me! Can you talk a bit about the art itself and how you made the choices you did?
NORA: I began illustrating this book during the final year of Donald Trump’s presidency, and as I worked myself through the book chronologically, chapter by chapter and page by page, I saw the same dangerous developments that Timothy Snyder describes in his book unfold in real time. To me, to book therefore almost functions like an illustrated diary, a piece of visual journalism that chronicled the time I found myself in while creating the artwork.
What was your process like in choosing what to depict for each lesson? I’m thinking of the hunter destroying all the white birds in the sky while one lucky avian — blue — is set to careen off on its course…Beware the one-party state!
NORA: Because the chapter titles in Timothy Snyder’s book are so essential to its message, I tried to come up with strong images that would summarize the essence of what each chapter is about. However, it was important to me that the images convey the idea in a symbolic rather than a literal way, because I think that a more poetic approach allows for a stronger emotional identification and by doing so, also for a stronger ability to memorize and retain information.
“To abandon facts is to abandon freedom. If nothing is true, then no one can criticize power, because there is no basis upon which to do so. If nothing is true, then all is spectacle.”
Do you think “translating” a work like this into something visual — something that in its “normal” form could be alienating to those who self-describe as apolitical or politically apathetic etc. — is capable of, ‘breaking the spell of the status quo’ and engaging new readers and thinkers? Why render these history lessons in a graphic novel?
NORA: To me, the goal of an illustrator is not to translate a text one to one, but to create an additional layer that allows for a different kind of emotional access to what is written about. While keeping Snyder’s text at the center of my ideas, I tried to come up with visual solutions that would encourage readers to recontextualize the book’s content, that would engage and hopefully surprise them. My goal was to create a series of images that would underline the urgency of critical political thinking and of taking action which is just as relevant now as it was before.
What does tyranny mean to you? Why are you part of the push back against it? What role does art play in the push back against it?
NORA: Drawing is an act of empathy. By imagining what it felt like to experience tyranny, and by having to make that experience visible, I identified with the persons I chose to depict. At their best, illustrations can also evoke a feeling of empathy in the reader. The illustrations highlight the human consequences that political events have on individuals. They mean to underline the degree to which our individual lives are impacted if our democracies break down.
History is, of course, based on facts, but through my work, I try to convey the idea that history can also be seen as a series of individually experienced moments in time. Illustration can thus provide a more emotional entry-point into war and political conflict. Of course, art can also achieve the opposite and poison our minds by cementing stereotypical ideas that can ostracize or hurt those who are perceived as different.
In the epilogue, Snyder talks about the “politics of inevitability…the sense that history could move in only one direction: toward liberal democracy,” which then becomes a kind of coma. But for me, the politics of inevitability runs more along the thought-lines of…
“The world is so scr*wed up and complicated there is little else to do but watch it burn.” Injustice and fear feel so ubiquitous it becomes synonymous with inevitability — which I suppose is its own kind of coma! Just curious what your relationship and thoughts are around that concept…
NORA: One of the aspects that I love about Snyder’s work is that it is both critical and somber in its tone, but also conveys a sense of hope in us. On Tyranny is a call to action, a reminder to all of us that we need to learn from history, that it continues to live within us, and that we need to critically confront it in order to ensure the survival of our contemporary democracies. No matter how bad things look, apathy is an act of self-destruction, and we should try not to give into it.
“People who assure you that you can only gain security at the price of liberty usually want to deny you both…it is the government’s job to increase both freedom and security.”
Was there one particular lesson that surprised you? Something that you participate in or felt particularly moved by?
NORA: The general idea that even small changes can make a difference. This is highlighted in the chapter where Snyder talks about the importance of eye contact and small talk. When thinking about life under the Nazi regime, we often assume that people had no choice. This isn’t, in fact, correct. There are always ways in which we can resist or help that won’t necessarily endanger our lives or the lives of others. We always have a choice, and we can always do something that can change the life of another person for the better.