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Blank Canvas: My So-Called Artist’s Journey (Vol. 4)

Akiko is continuing to work at the call center and in Hidaka-sensei’s classroom while drawing and submitting manga to Bouquet magazine. Some of it sticks (such as a Thelma and Louise styled story), some doesn’t. When Bouquet ceases publication and a new magazine called Cookie starts up in its’ place. Challenged to write a youthful, more fashion-forward story, she writes “Dress Up Summer” which gets serialized. She’s finally bringing in money regularly from writing and drawing manga! After being invited to a publishing party in Tokyo, she meets Ishida Takumi and other manga creators for Cookie who live and work in Osaka. Akiko’s saved up enough by this point to move there… but what about Sensei and his students who are studying for their own exams?

I feel as if the pace slowed down a little bit in this volume, but in a good way. Akiko shows more details and events of her life during this time period. For example, she helps Sensei with a home project to make his garden look and feel more like Monet’s fabled gardens. We also see a visit from her boyfriend at the time, and all the sights they saw and the foods they ate in Miyazaki: including a meal from Sensei himself. All these events and details are meticulously rendered – so much so that I was craving the sushi that was shown!

A chapter that will be enjoyable for all readers (not just artists like myself) is the chapter where she explains the process of making manga. It’s so much more involved than even I thought! And so fascinating! It’s even more impressive that she did so much by herself, only in the evenings, for so long. It’s at this point that she recruits friends as assistants, for good reason!

More and more, this story becomes less about Akiko’s artists journey and more about the folly of youth and the illusion that comes with it: that we all have all the time in the world. From the beginning, she’s been foreshadowing that something has happened to Sensei since the events of this story, and that something is finally revealed in this volume. All her hints and “what if” sighs do nothing to make this gut punch any less heart wrenching and painful. At the end of this volume, she’s left with a choice: to go back to Miyazaki and help Sensei and his students, or to continue her upward rise in Osaka. I for one am very much looking forward to seeing her choice in the next volume.

– Kathleen

Higashimura, Akiko. Blank Canvas: My So-Called Artist’s Journey (Vol. 4). 2020.

Blank Canvas: My So-Called Artist’s Journey (Vol. 3)

Everyone’s asking Akiko what she’s doing after graduation – but she doesn’t have a clue. She’s working part-time at a used bookstore while finishing school. It’s a pretty sweet gig – she gets to take home unsellable manga for free to read and study. While she still wants to become a manga artist, she still hasn’t drawn any manga, nor has she told anyone that’s what she wants to do. She ends up returning home to Miyazaki after graduating because Hidaka says he got her a teaching job. It ends up falling through, so he offers her a part-time job as his assistant instead. Her parents, eager for her to get on her feet, get her a job at her father’s company’s call center. Deeply unhappy and desperate, Akiko finally starts to draw manga and sends it to Bouquet magazine for a contest entry. She’s finally pursuing her dream, but how long until it gets out of the bag?

This volume was honestly pretty depressing. It reminded me of my days working two jobs, thinking I could also make art in my spare time. Though it does highlight the thing I appreciate the most about this manga: being an artist is hard. Finding the time to be an artist is hard. Akiko thankfully made it work for her, but not without her own unique struggles.

Something else to appreciate about this manga: she showed examples of other famous manga artists’ work by drawing a character in a few of their styles! Most I didn’t recognize, but it was a nice touch, especially considering her mention that she studied different manga and their styles during this period of her life.

Looking forward to the next volume!

– Kathleen

Higashimura, Akiko. Blank Canvas: My So-Called Artist’s Journey (Vol. 3). 2019.

And Now I Spill the Family Secrets

Margaret Kimball’s memoir starts with her mother’s suicide attempt on Mother’s Day 1988: the secret in her family, the thing they never talk about. She traces the event and the effect it had on her family throughout her life, and backwards through her family tree. With the gift of hindsight, she identifies how she grew up around her mother’s mental illness through her parents’ separation, divorce, and her father’s remarriage. And now, catching up to the present day, how she sees her mother in her brother Ted.

This was a tough read. The presentation was unique and immaculate. The illustrations were entirely in black and white and almost solely scenery (such as a room in a house, a street, or the exterior of a building) or memorabilia such as photographs, video stills, and transcripts of diaries. The only figures we see at all are those from the recreations of photographs and video stills. In that regard, this memoir feels extra personal and criminally invasive. I felt while reading as if I was going through her dirty laundry – which was probably the point. Since no one in her family talks about anything important, neither does the book offer a figure to serve as a narrator nor any characters other than who we see in Kimball’s recreations. The reader is left along only with Kimball’s words in a room we don’t know.

However difficult it is to get through, we are rewarded with an intimate portrait of how mental illness affects a family. I’d give it to an older teen. The presentation is easily among the best I’ve seen this year, so it’s worth checking out for that alone.

– Kathleen

Kimball, Margaret. And Now I Spill the Family Secrets. 2021.

Blank Canvas: My So-Called Artist’s Journey (Vol. 2)

Akiko Higashimura continues her manga memoir immediately after Volume 1 ends. She is in her last exam to try and get into one last art school. Afterwards, she is so sure she failed since she was so distracted by Sensei’s last phone call. However, she gets an acceptance letter from the last school: she got into Kanazawa! Once she’s all moved and settled in, she goofs off like a typical college student would. She feels like she can’t create like she could in Sensei’s classroom. On her trip home for summer break, he sets her straight, and she manages to create all three paintings for her joint review. It’s a very important presentation and critique of your work by your professors in front of your peers. Can she pass the joint review and continue art school? If she does, can she get her act together for the next year?
 
Not gonna lie, I spent most of this book wanting to smack some sense into Akiko. It felt like we went through the first volume, but in reverse. We see how hard she worked to get into art school, only to see her revert back to her old ways and goof off again in college. We get more insight into her and Sensei’s relationship, and while it’s clear that at the time of writing she regrets her actions… it was just cringey to read. I really hope some situations and feelings were exaggerated for dramatic effect.
 
At the same time, I was having hardcore flashbacks of my undergrad college days in the art program, and of my senior thesis in particular. The meticulously detailed environments of the art school and studios made me smell the clay, the paint, the turpentine, the gesso, fresh dust off the sandpaper. It’s very nostalgic and incredibly sad for me. Those halcyon days are long gone for me.
 
The main draw continues to be Akiko and Sensei’s relationship, as well as (for me at least) the reminder of living as an artist. Looking forward to the next volume.
 
– Kathleen
 
Higasimura, Akiko. Blank Canvas: My So-Called Artist’s Journey (Vol. 2). 2019.

Plate Tectonics: An Illustrated Memoir

Illustrator Margaux Motin chronicles her mid-thirties in this graphic novel memoir. It was a time of upheaval for her, as she got divorced and found herself raising her young daughter on her own. Through a series of loosely-connected vignettes, we see Margaux try to juggle these changes and get back on her feet while keeping her head up, staying connected with friends, and finding love again.

I’m all for little vignettes to tell a bigger story, but these seemed far too scattered to be effective. I felt at times as if I was reading a collection of Motin’s work rather than her memoir. The tone of the writing is inconsistent, and I think that was the biggest problem. On one page we are dealing with a deep personal issue, and on the next we’re presented with a funny moment with the daughter. I honestly didn’t even realize it was supposed to be a cohesive narrative until a love interest showed up, and we got a couple vignettes of him in a row. I can see the appeal of this style, and for the most part the whole book was light-hearted in tone, but these switches were too abrupt and jarring for me.

I have to admit that reading has been very hard for me lately due to the pandemic and related anxiety, so perhaps my own limited mental capacity crippled my ability to follow and enjoy the story to its full potential.

To make up for this, Motin’s art is wonderful. Her figures are in a tall, willowy style that recalls fashion illustrations, but are also a little cartoony and exaggerated, to play up the melodrama and visual gags. There are some pages with photographs of (usually) landscapes, where Motin has drawn in a figure on top of them. These were cool to look at! Their placement served, not necessarily as chapter breaks, but all the same a little break up of all the vignettes that make up the story.

There are a few adult themes, scenes, and instances of strong language, but they are few and far between and (for the most part) tasteful and I would give it to a teen. While I found the tone and writing inconsistent, the art was more than enough to salvage this read for me.

– Kathleen

Motin, Margaux. Plate Tectonics: An Illustrated Memoir. 2019.

Blank Canvas: My So-Called Artist’s Journey (Vol. 1)

Akiko Higashimura, manga artist best known for her work on Princess Jellyfish, shares the beginnings of her artist’s journey in the first volume of this manga memoir. She starts her story during high school, where we see her big dreams and ambitions of being a shojo (young adult romance) manga artist! … But her not-so-good grades. Still, Akiko loves to draw, thinks herself pretty good at it, and is sure she can get into art school on talent alone. That is, until her friend Futami reminds her that it’ll take more work than that, as Japan’s college applications are very competitive and demanding. She invites Akiko to come to an art class with her, taught by an independent teacher named Hidaka Kenzou. Akiko quickly learns that Hidaka-sensei is VERY demanding, even harsh. Can she put up with him long enough to take her college exams and get into art school?

I found this memoir very refreshing for a couple of reasons. First, it seems I am becoming a bit more open-minded to manga after all =) It’s always touching to see creators publish personal memoirs in the format they are most familiar with; it makes the story feel more immediate and intimate. Though the art is a little more realistic and less in the stylized manga style, visual tropes of manga (angry veins, sweat drops, sparkling backgrounds) are still found.

Second, and maybe most important to me, this manga shows how HARD it is to be an artist! It’s hard work! Akiko shows us this through her schedule with Hidaka, his insistence that they keep a log of the time they spend on each drawing, as well as her own character development. As a teenager, she thought she could coast by on talent, but it takes significant time and effort to hone her craft, which is 100% the case, against many assumptions people have of art and artists. As an artist myself, reading this gave me vivid flashbacks of undergrad: long hours sitting or standing in the same spot in the studio, hauling art supplies and projects up 3-4 flights of stairs, nursing various aches and pains in my dorm afterwards. The result? I’m a much better artist than I was before.

I got the impression that this manga is just as much an ode to Hidaka as it is documenting Akiko’s journey. They have an interesting relationship. Though Hidaka is harsh, he is honest and a realist, which tempers Akiko’s teenage idealism and arrogance. She obviously looks back on him with admiration and fondness. I’m fascinated to see how their journey together unfolds.

-Kathleen

Higashimura, Akiko. Blank Canvas: My So-Called Artist’s Journey (Vol. 1). 2019.

Almost American Girl

In this graphic memoir, Chuna “Robin” Ha chronicles how she and her mother moved to America from Seoul, Korea when she was fourteen. Her single mother wanted to take a vacation with American friends in Huntsville, Alabama, but it unexpectedly became a permanent relocation after her mother remarries. Overnight, Robin has to assimilate into American culture. She struggles to learn English and fit in both at school and with her new family, none of whom seem to accept her. She tries to lose herself in her art as she longs for the familiarity of her home, her school, and her friends in Korea while trying desperately to make her new home in America work. Where does she really belong? What is the true meaning of family?

Robin tells the story of the total uprooting of her life with grace. It appears to be colored in layers of watercolor that appear faded and washed out. The lines are similarly faded and shaky, suggesting uncertainty and impermanence. A teenager’s eternal struggle is laid bare and amplified across cultures here. She also shares with us excerpts of the comics and drawings she created during this time, which not only helps show us how she coped, but how she evolved as an artist.

Though Robin could be bitter and angry towards her mom for the extraordinarily unexpected way she uprooted both their lives, she presents her mom with empathy. Robin shares her mother’s story, and the story of her own birth and the circumstances that led to her being raised by a single mom. I believe this was a serious and deliberate decision in order for the reader to try and understand and emphathize themselves with Robin, her mother, and their situation and circumstances.

While this is a personal story, it is also a commentary on Korean vs. American culture. Robin struggles to reconcile these within herself, but we also see the differences starkly when Robin goes back to visit years after her permanent move to America. Ending the novel on this visit was the perfect way for us to see how exactly Robin changed and where she felt her home really was.

– Kathleen

Ha, Robin. Almost American Girl. 2020.

Palimpsest

In this graphic novel memoir, Lisa Wool-Rim Sjoblom chronicles the search for her birth family. She was born in Korea and adopted by a Swedish family when she was very young. She grew up having extraordinarily contradictory feelings: being told she was lucky for being adopted, not belonging and wanting to know about her birth family, but never wanting to ask so she wouldn’t offend her adoptive family. She tried unsuccessfully to find her birth family as a teenager, but tried again between having her first and second child. With the full support of her husband, Richey, Lisa tries to navigate all the red tape surrounding the Korean adoption agencies. She faces contradictions and even outright lies at every turn. Who does she believe? How can she ever find her birth mother, her blood family?

Unsurprisingly, Lisa is now an adoption rights activist because of her experience. I was horrified and deeply disturbed at the revelations Lisa unveiled about the agencies unwillingness to cooperate with her, and the cover-ups and lies. Transcripts of emails and official documents prove this. All she wanted to know was the truth about her past – why was it so hard for her to get it? Why did she and her husband have to resort to detective work to find out to truth?

Richey proved to be a real MVP. Not only did he fully support Lisa in her mission, he acted multiple times on her behalf to reach out to agencies and people he thought would be able to help her. Nowadays I think it would be a no-brainer for married partners to support each other like this – but to read about it, matter-of-factly and with little fuss, was very encouraging to see.

Lisa is also an illustrator, so the art of this graphic novel was superb. It’s all rendered in a nostalgic warm brown sepia which recalls old documents and thin rice paper. Like ancient Asian art, the perspective is very flat, mostly on one plane without much depth. This allows the rounded figures and their emotional expressions to take center stage – and there are a lot of emotions, but it never feels overwhelming or melodramatic. Though there is at times a lot of text, email transcripts and documents are given their own special panels, and considerable efforts are made to ensure speech bubbles are spaced out evenly.

I have to say this is one of the hardest graphic novels I’ve ever read – but it was worth it. This eye-opening account of one woman’s quest to find her family roots after adoption reveals established, yet disturbing, practices that make it extraordinarily hard for adoptees to find out their own information. The art appropriately conveys all the complicated emotions involved without being too melodramatic. Highly recommended.

– Kathleen

Sjoblon, Lisa Wool-Rim. Palimpsest. 2019.

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