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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.

The American Dream?: A Journey on Route 66

A lifelong dream of author Shing Yin Khor’s is to travel on Route 66 from Los Angeles to Chicago. Her family emigrated to the United States from Malaysia when she was a little girl, so she grew up both in her home country and her new one. Though she spent the later half of her childhood and early adulthood in the glamorous City of Angels, she had always been intrigued by the mythical ’60s Americana that Route 66 stood for. So with nothing but the bare essentials and her dog, Bug, Shing sets off in her tiny car along the fabled road, hoping to gain better understanding of her adopted homeland, and herself.

This graphic memoir is part diary, part fact book. I learned a lot! Her personal story is littered with the history of Route 66. She divides the book into chapters by the states the highway runs through – first California, then Arizona, then New Mexico, and so on. However, the first 3 chapters are the longest, and so packed with information, that the remainder of the book feels rushed and far shorter by comparison.

Shing’s art is delightful. I can still see sketch lines of the pen or pencil beneath the watercolor, which I adore! It never feels unfinished, though. Her forms and colors are loose and quirky, more concerned with conveying an idea or a feeling than how things actually are. I think this was a good choice, so we readers could feel what was going on in Shing’s head and heart throughout her journey.

In her epilogue, she writes that she took her trip 6 months before the outcome of the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election. It forces the reader to wonder how the trip might have turned out if Shing, a Malasyan immigrant, had taken her trip after the election – or whether she would have taken it at all.

– Kathleen

Yin Khor, Shing. The American Dream?: A Journey on Route 66. 2019.

Something New: Tales from a Makeshift Bride

Graphic novel artist and author Lucy Knisley chronicles the story of her wedding here. She starts, of course, with the first date she and her now-husband John went on. They dated, broke up, and got back together when he proposed in her apartment in New York with his grandmother’s ring. As an artist, Lucy wanted to make her wedding completely her own. She takes readers through her process of planning and making a wedding, navigating family and friend input, and much more. And of course, she takes us through her special day at the end.

I have to admit I couldn’t read this all the way through. I skipped to the middle, then the end after the first quarter of the book. It wasn’t what I was looking for – I had been hoping to read the experiences of a fellow bride-to-be who also completely eschewed wedding traditions, but that just was not the case. I also had a hard time getting past what I see as a fundamental incompatibility in the couple. But, that’s a post for another day.

Knisley is an accomplished graphic novel artist who had a few under her belt before Something New was published, such as Relish: My Life in the Kitchen (2013) and An Age of License (2014). Because of her prior experience, Something New is very well-put together. It’s laid out in chapters, which tell a specific part of her story. Each chapter wraps up nicely while also serving to further the overall narrative, just like a traditional novel. Just as in Jarrett J. Krosoczka‘s Hey, Kiddo, the title page for each chapter is a photograph of the wedding, momentos from the wedding, and so on. I’m a fan of this literary device for graphic novel memoirs, which reinforces to the reader that we are reading about someone’s real life, not just a fictional story!

Just like the layout, the writing and art are straightforward and intuitive. It’s very easy to read, even for those who are new to graphic novels. The linework is clean, and the coloring realistic though a bit on the saturated and cartoony side. While sometimes speech bubbles may overlap the blank space between panels, it’s otherwise uncluttered. Not only does Knisley write about her personal experience, she sprinkles in facts and figures about the wedding industry, which may be helpful to brides. All is written in a conversational tone.

Something New blends memoir and nonfiction in a straightforward, yet expertly executed, way. For brides looking to make their special day their own, yet nod to traditions, Knisley will be very helpful, and will help them feel not so weird or alone in their choices!

-Kathleen

Knisley, Lucy. Something New: Tales from a Makeshift Bride. 2016.

I Moved to Los Angeles to Work in Animation

In this part autobiography, part how-to graphic novel, Natalie Nourigat shares how she went from working on comics and freelancing in Portland, Oregon, to working as an animator in Los Angeles, California. She attended college to study Japanese business, and started her career drawing comics after school. While visiting an animator friend in Los Angeles, she decided to make the career transition. She shares her job hunting process, especially the process of building a portfolio, the environment of the studio she works in, and what it’s like to live in L.A. She even plumbs some animator friends and coworkers to share their experiences!

For some reason, I thought this one was fiction (I must have gotten mixed up with another graphic novel), but I didn’t mind at all once I realized it wasn’t. In fact, I was pleasantly surprised. The information is conveyed in a no-nonsense, yet conversational manner, as if you were speaking to a trusted mentor. The perks of working in animation and living in L.A. are definitely highlighted, but Nourigat makes no effort to hide the less-pleasant aspects, nor tries to diminish how hard she and others worked for their current positions. Knowing next to nothing about the animation industry going into this book, I feel like I’ve learned a lot about it now that I’m done. Mission accomplished for Ms. Nourigat =P

The layout and art (unsurprisingly, since she is a comic artist) are wonderful. Most often, the illustrations in a panel only contain a few elements (such as two people) either without a background or a minimal one, and are colored in two or three complimentary pastels. It reads in a straightforward way as well; I was never once confused about where to read next. The art and layout are clean and uncluttered, to allow the information in the text to take center stage. This one is more text-heavy than your average graphic novel, but I never once felt bogged down by the text due to the clean art and simple layouts.

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Page 4 of the graphic novel, showing the general layout and art.

Before I read this book, I can honestly say that I wouldn’t have known where to start looking if a patron at work had asked me for information about getting into the animation industry. Now, I have a resource! The information is presented thoroughly and succinctly with little fuss. Even those new to graphic novels will have no problem reading this. A solid how-to that fills a niche market.

– Kathleen

Nourigat, Natalie. I Moved to Los Angeles to Work in Animation. 2018.

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