Vietnamerica

What a great memoir. I’ve been reading a lot of memoirs in graphic novel format lately, and this one was one of the very best, both in terms of its style and execution. I especially enjoyed the way in which the book moved from scene to scene without frequently telling you what year or location it was. The artwork and, well, comicking itself was just so good that I rarely had to take a second to figure out where the scene had changed to.

The only critique that occurred to me is that the “character” of Tran himself in the story feels very… unformed. Maybe this is simply because it depicts Tran mostly at a younger age, where he would’ve been, indeed, unformed. But, I couldn’t help but feel that the character is so self-flagellating (he is almost always depicted as a sort of know-it-all punk kid) that you miss what could be a more whole interaction between kids and parents. Tran’s past self feels less like a person than a point of embarrassment that the author is covering over with humor. It still works well enough, but I would’ve loved if, here and there, we had a moment of just Tran being himself, in a way that only develops character, rather than moving forward the book’s telling of history.

But, still, quite a good memoir comic, and absolutely beautiful.

Vietnamerica (Tran)

Pyongyang

A quick and fun sketch of the author’s time spent working for an animation studio in North Korea. I don’t have too much to say about it, other than that it’s quite enjoyable, and that I plan to read other books by the author. This isn’t a memoir like March or Maus – it’s not trying to bring you to a heightened awareness of the universe. It’s not particularly poignant, nor is it trying to be. It’s just an incredible well-told, occasionally quite funny, recounting of a short strange time in the author’s life.

Pyongyang (DeLisle)

American Born Chinese

I really enjoyed this book, which is a sort of braiding of three plotlines, one a fable, one a farce, one a diary, all of them on the topic of finding one’s identity as an Asian person in a predominantly white society.


The only thing I will say by way of critique (and maybe this is sort of like someone at a restaurant critiquing small portions rather than quality, BUT…) is that the diary portions were so clever and subtle that I found myself rushing through the other segments. The other parts were there for a reason, and certainly were important to the building of the story and the ultimate coalescing of the different narrative melodies, but… I feel like I could have easily enjoyed three or four hundred pages of the more realistic portion of the tale.

American Born Chinese (Yang)

The Wild Party

Wow. What an incredible poem and story. I wasn’t able to put it down after I read the first stanza.

This book was written in the 1920s, but didn’t get much of a print run, mostly due to the sex and murder, one suspects. Anyway, it is a great story told with incredible melody. Here’s a stanza, selected more or less at random:

The candles flared: their flames sprang high:
The shadows leaned dishevelled, awry;
And the party began to reek of sex.
White arms encircled swollen necks:
Blurred faces swam together: locked
Red hungry lips:
Closed eyes:
Rocked.
White shoulders burst their ribbon bands;
Rose bare to passionate, fumbling hands:
White slender throats curved back beneath
Attacking mouths that choked their breath.

In short: DANG. Wow, what a book. The version I got was a re-issue with very pretty artwork by Art Spiegelman, author of Maus. He apparently happened on the book by accident, due to finding it in a used book store, having a beautiful cover. The illustrations are an excellent reason to re-issue the book, but the star here is really the words. I won’t go so far as to the pictures take away from the poem – they, in fact, have this wonderful Art Deco gruesomeness that I assume was in part inspired by Ward’s book “Gods’ Man” – but part of me regrets having not read it first without pictures.

The Wild Party (March)

The Complete Maus

Dammit, this book is perfection. I hope I write something this good someday.

It’s the story of Spiegelman’s father Vladek, and his experiences during the Holocaust. The story is framed by an equally compelling collection of interactions between Spiegelman and his father as the former collects these stories in order to create the comic book. This book is rightfully considered a classic, and I’m glad I finally got around to it. Time to do a Spiegelman dive.

The Complete Maus (Spiegelman)

March, books 1, 2, and 3

I actually read all of these over the course of February, but I think I can cover them in one post.

This series is basically the story of civil rights in the US from the perspective of John Lewis. The story is framed by his interactions with President Obama as Obama is inaugurated.

I’m gonna say something a little heretical about these books. Although they’re excellent, for me they were somewhat victims of their hype. As a graphic way to tell John Lewis’ version of events, they were quite good, but at times, the story felt mildly disjointed. Some of this is, I presume, because the subject matter is just John Lewis recollecting things. But, I would’ve liked to see it organized in a way that carried the emotional arc more. I know this is asking a lot of a memoir, but compare it to, for example, Maus by Spiegelman. The latter is also a true story, and also a memoir of sorts, but every moment seems to be there for a reason.

One way in which the books are similar, yet different, is the use of framing devices. In Maus, it’s the son of the Shoah survivor’s attempt to make sense of himself and his relationship to his parents. I found it very strong, in part because it’s non-obvious – the father and son spend most of their time together fighting. It results in a beautifully nuanced character. The framing device in March is a bit more obvious and sentimental, and it’s not clear to me what it adds artistically.

That said, it’s still a fine series, and a great addition to your graphic novel collection. For me, it was kind of like Persepolis – great stuff, but it was missing that deeper note that the author seemed capable of.

March, books 1, 2, and 3 (Lewis)

The Complete Persepolis

This is a graphic novel about the author’s life growing up during the Iranian Revolution as the daughter of secular leftist parents. It’s not the most beautiful of graphic novels, but the art hits the right tone. Although I enjoyed it, and recommend it if you’re interested in the history, I have trouble putting it on the same pedestal as books like Fun House by Bechdel. Bechdel’s book both recounts stories from her life and weaves them into a sort of visual poem. Satrapi’s stories are fascinating (viscerally, they are more interesting than Bechdel’s), but they don’t really come together as something.

They are vignettes from her life, and that of itself is quite enjoyable, but I came away wanting something more. Perhaps it’s just my ignorance, but it wasn’t clear to me why a story or moment went in one place and not another, other than mere chronology.

The Complete Persepolis (Satrapi)

Neurocomic

This is a short comic, which provides a quick sort of overview of some basic neuroscience and history of brain studies. It’s an interesting idea, but it didn’t really work for me. The artwork is very rudimentary, and the concepts are fairly straightforward. It didn’t feel to me like the ideas especially benefited from a comic format. The book did have an interesting sort of dreamy feel, in which a man goes through a sort of Alice in Wonderland style world of the mind, but ultimately I didn’t feel the concept paid off so much as provided occasional enigmatic bookends to sections.

Neurocomic (Farinella, Ros)