Written by Julia Wros
SDSU History Master’s Student, 2021
In the information age, one of the biggest concerns that we all have is privacy. Exactly who is keeping an eye on our messages, phone calls, and internet browsing habits? And what exactly are they doing with that information? From Amazon and Google looking at your search history, to the US intelligence agencies that have sparked debate in the news in the past decade, threats to personal privacy have cropped up in recent years, often with explosive reveals in news media. In his special lecture “Televisual Assassination, Virtual Subjectivity, and Digital Alienation” (April 20, 2021), co-sponsored by Comics@SDSU, Professor William A Nericcio explored both how governmental intelligence agencies have caused controversies by violating the privacy of citizens and the storm that a newsstory about them can cause.
Nericcio talked about government surveillance, particularly drones and how they are used in intelligence and warfare. In the discussion he used a graphic novel, Verax: The True History of Whistleblowers, Drone Warfare, and Mass Surveillance (2017) by Pratap Chatterjee and Khalil, to highlight the way that drones and other military equipment are used to spy on people, as well as the death that they can cause.
Nericcio described how the graphic novel opens with a drone doing a flyover of a village, where we see the perspective shift from the drone to the person behind the screen. The people playing are framed first by the screen and targeting, and then by the eye of the drone operator. Not surprising for someone whose Twitter handle is @eyegiene, Nericcio points out the multiple ways that eyes are used as a framing device in the graphic novel, from the screen, the physical eye, and things like the moon framing the sight of the drone in the air.
Drones not only keep an eye on people, but commodify humans. Information can be gathered, categorized, and sold; all monitored and kept in records by the government. This collection of information by the government is another part of Verax. Verax is not only a discussion of drones and surveillance, but also a tool of investigative journalism.
Verax: The True History of Whistleblowers, Drone Warfare, and Mass Surveillance: A graphic novel. By Pratap Chatterjee & Khalil. Metropolitan books. Oct 24, 2017.
Focusing on journalist Pratap Chatterjee, Verax contains the struggle to get information, and then to sell stories that contain the breaking news of government surveillance when the government does not want the stories to be released. Figures like Snowden and Assange populate the pages and the struggle to keep all of the information about information gathering secret promotes an interesting irony and strong story.
Nericcio’s talk brought Verax into communication with another book, Drone Visions: a Brief Cyberpunk History of Killing Machines (2020) by Naief Yehya, and discussed how there is a voyeuristic element to the drones; no one being watched by drones or surveillance is aware that they are being watched even while their lives are being recorded… bringing us full circle to that village flyover in Verax with which the lecture began. Nericcio’s layered juxtapositioning of Verax and Drone Visions was a great lesson in how graphic media can tell a powerful story.