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own voices

They Called Us Enemy

I have been a fan of George Takei for years, as his character of Lieutenant Commander (later Captain) Hikaru Sulu of Star Trek was one of my favorite TOS crew members. I have admired his civil and LGBTQ+ rights advocacy and have followed his popular Oh Myyy Facebook site for years. So it was a no-brainer that I was going to pick up his debut graphic novel, and it was a bonus was that it was this month’s selection for Goodread’s I Read Comic Books.

In the same vein of the March trilogy by John Lewis, this book takes a long hard look at America’s shameful secret of forcing Japenese Americans into internment camps during World War II. After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, there was mass hysteria that people of Japenese ancestry would be loyal to Imperial Japan and attack our mainland. President Franklin Roosevelt forced the relocation and incarceration of about 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry, most of whom lived on the Pacific Coast. George Takei and his family were one of these families.

George was a young boy when he, his parents and a younger brother and sister were forced from their Los Angeles home and sent to the first of two camps that they would spend three years in. They lost their house and dry cleaning business and endured humiliation after humiliation. That Takei and his siblings were so young, they did not fully understand the ramifications of their relocation, whereas his parents were the ones who had to deal with the daily legalized racism of these camps. In fact, Takei found some pleasure during those years as his parents worked hard to shelter their children and normalize their upbringing as best as they could. But these years also helped shape him into the leader he is today, for he learned about courage, leadership and activism from both his parents who made hard decisions in that time period.

Although this memoir concentrates on a retelling of his family’s time in the camps, Takei does take time to give a larger picture of what was happening in the world before, during and after his incarceration. He names some key political figures who pushed for these camps, but also extends grace to those that helped fight the injustice. It is a great irony that President Roosevelt, who helped the country out of the Great Depression and has many other laurels to stand on, was the one who signed orders for thousands of American citizens and/or residents to be sent to these internment camps. No wonder there was little mention of them in my history books growing up, for while we can condemn other countries for gross injustices, our country had taken away the liberty, finances and dignity of a segment of our population just because they were of a certain nationality.  And this story sadly has a parallel today, as President Trump had set up camps for families trying to immigrate from Mexico, and has been blatant about his prejudices against people he does not deem American enough.

Harmony Becker was a perfect choice to illustrate this graphic novel, for her evocative black and white drawings were historically accurate, and brought to life daily camp realities, showing both the good and bad from a child’s perspective. In fact, some of her drawings slid into an anime-style when George and his siblings were experiencing joy. This not only was a great way to show their emotions, but it is also a nod towards Japanese culture. That Becker is #ownvoices elevates the story, for her talent and cultural sensitivity go hand in hand. I also wish to mention co-writers Steven Scott and Justin Eisinger, who helped shape the narrative into a strong lesson for us all. Takei and his team deserve major kudos for shining a light on issues from the past so that way we learn from them today.

-Nancy

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Surviving the City

This is a short but powerful graphic novel about two young First Nations women in Canada that face the perils of being Indigenous in the city together.

Best friends at school, Miikwan is Anishinaabe, while Dez is Inninew.  The two high schoolers bond is so tight that they completed a berry fast together, which is a rite of womanhood in their tribes. Despite their close friendship, they have each faced great trauma in their lives. Miikwan’s mother is missing and presumed dead, while Dez lives with her elderly grandmother who is facing health problems, and social services is planning on moving her into foster care.

Dez briefly runs away as Miikwan gets involved in a protest to bring attention to the crisis of stolen sisters. What makes this story especially poignant was the effective use of showing dead Native women as spirits surrounding their loved ones, and dark alien type creatures besides men that wish these woman harm. While the girls could not see these unearthly creatures, the readers could, and it ramped up the tension as you desperately hoped the girls would avoid the evil that seemed to be near them often on the city streets.

The artwork was well done, showcasing the diversity of Indigenous tribes, and spotlighting that not all tribe members live on reservations. The color palate was in warn earthen tones, and the panels flowed well on the pages, with some lovely imagery. As a stated above, the unseen presences surrounding the girls elevated the story, and drew you into their world. It also clearly showed the pride and connection they each felt about their cultural heritage, which was a direct message from the author and illustrator, who both have Native ancestry.

An afterward explained some information about the crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous women and gave some excellent statistics and further reading suggestions. I do wish this afterward had included even more information. While I have some knowledge of berry fasts and two-spirit people, I really don’t think many people outside the Indigenous community will be familiar with these terms. Some explanation within the preceding narrative text, or in the afterwards should have been added. For two other well done graphic novels about other aspects of modern Indigenous life, read The Outside Circle and Roughneck.

I applaud this book for the awareness it brings to the plight of Indigenous women and the families they leave behind. Please do further research on the crisis they face, for this situation is also present in the United States, and needs to be acknowledged.

-Nancy

Puerto Rico Strong

Puerto Rico Strong is a comics anthology that explores what it means to be Puerto Rican and the diversity that exists within that concept, from today’s most exciting Puerto Rican comics creators.” The proceeds from this book sale will go to UNIDOS Disaster Relief & Recovery Program to Support after the back to back hurricanes that devastated the island in 2017.

As with any anthology, this collection was uneven. Pair that with a graphic novel format, and there are some illustration styles that will not appeal to everyone, but the art as a whole is well done. Written with the best of intentions, these one-shot stories that are only a few pages, vary in tone and authenticity. Also included were one-page splash pages, which I thought were a lead-in to a story, but indeed were only that page- which proved off-putting. Some of the comics were powerful and made me tear up, or even better, made me think about the issues beyond that page. Others were trite and lacked depth.

I appreciated learning more about Puerto Rico and the history that has shaped this US territory. Several stories spotlighted their Taíno heritage, who were the first inhabitants before Columbus and Spanish conquistadors destroyed their culture.  Paired with their early history, was modern-day history and how misguided US involvement has caused financial, ecological and cultural disasters. In addition, a few of the stories dealt with the eugenics that women endured as pharmaceutical companies preyed on those they felt that they could manipulate.

Favorites:

Thanks for Nothing by Tom Beland-  I was surprised that there wasn’t more anger directed specifically at Trump, only Beland’s righteous barbs referred directly to Trumps’ epic mismanagement of disaster relief.

La Casita of American Heroes by Anthony Otero & Charles Ugas- Lovely story of a woman soldier coming home with her child to the island to check on her parent’s safety. She teaches her daughter about all the soldiers on both sides of her family who have fought for America, but often are not considered American.

The Dragon of Bayamon by Jeff Gomez, Fabian Nicieza & Adriana Melo- An 11-year heads to Puerto Rico to stay with his abusive father for the summer and has to deal with not speaking Spanish fluently and his father’s moods. I liked this story, but it needed fleshing out.

Reality Check by Tony Bedard & John R Holmes- This story rubbed me the wrong way on the first page but the father’s explanation of the conquistador’s role on the island in relation to the Taíno was shocking, but he juxtaposed it to other nation’s helping now after the hurricanes. Still not on board with his reasoning, but it truly was thought-provoking.

I have to applaud this book, for these artists did not just sit back and send their best – no, they did their best and donated their time and talent to help a hurting community. The stories open lines of communication, and I love how authors and illustrators who were Puerto Rican added their #ownvoices to the dialogue. While often too sentimental, the right intent is there, and purchases of this book will benefit those in need.

-Nancy

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