Comics Against Racism: Asian-American Edition

“They Called Us Enemy” by George Takei, with Justin Eisinger, Steven Scott, and Harmony Becker. Top Shelf, July 2019. 208 pp. Paperback, $19.99. Middle to high school.

Also mentioned in this post: “Superman Smashes the Klan,” by Gene Luen Yang and Gurihiru. DC Comics, May 2020. 240 pp. Paperback, $16.99. 12 and up.

Thanks to Fables Books, 215 South Main Street in downtown Goshen, Indiana, for providing Commons Comics with books to review.

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It’s been a while since I’ve posted—I’m working on a BIG manuscript about representations of women’s bodies in graphic fiction, so I won’t be posting new content until the summer. In the meantime, here’s a re-post from 2019 of George Takei’s “They Called Us Enemy,” about his and his family’s experience in internment camps for Japanese Americans.

If you enjoy this post, you might also appreciate my most recent post about “Superman Smashes the Klan,” by comics master and all-around-awesome human, Gene Luen Yang.

How do you decide whether to stand for your principles or protect your family? It’s not a decision any parent should be forced to make, but actor and activist George Takei lived the consequences of his parents’ honesty. Fortunately for Takei—and for his massive fanbase, many of whom have followed him from the first “Star Trek” to his more recent roles in shows from “Furturama” and “Archer” to “Kim Possible”—he not only survived, but eventually thrived.

Now 82, this isn’t the first time that Takei has told the story of his family’s time in US internment camps for Japanese Americans. His memoir “To the Stars” also inspired the musical, “Allegiance.” The graphic memoir “They Called Us Enemy” is the most recent version of this thankfully brief chapter in his life, published by Top Shelf, best known for US congressman John Lewis’s graphic memoir trilogy “March.” Co-writers Justin Eisinger and Steven Scott helped Takei translate the narrative to comics form, and the art of Harmony Becker—subtle and manga-inflected (see, for example, the backgrounds and the giant tears on the page below)—transforms the story into a work of art.

When Takei and his family were first imprisoned in May 1942, they didn’t have any choices to make at all: US soldiers came to the door with bayonets to kick them out of their house. They had ten minutes to pack.

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Brazen: Rebel Ladies Who Rocked the World

“Brazen: Rebel Ladies Who Rocked the World,” by Penelope Bagieu. Trans. Montana Kane. 296 pp. First Second. Cloth, $24.99; paper, $17.99. Ages 13+.

Thanks to Fables Books, 215 South Main Street in downtown Goshen, Indiana, for providing Commons Comics with books to review.

 

“Brazen: Rebel Ladies Who Rocked the World” is a powerhouse collection of 29 biographical comics about women from around the world who got things done—or, in some cases, are still at it. Comics bios can be difficult to pull off: I’ve seen a lot of clunky ones that fail to use the genre to its best effect, and get squashed by the weight of wordy exposition. Penelope Bagieu, however, is a master of the genre. Her instinct for the arc of a life is spot-on, well-balanced by emotionally dense visuals that keep the story moving, while also conveying humor and compassion.

Take for example, the first three panels of the book, which introduce Clementine Delait, a bearded lady born in eighteenth-century France:

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John Lewis tribute

Thanks to Fables Books, 215 South Main Street in downtown Goshen, Indiana, for providing Commons Comics with books to review.

Lewis in 1965 and 2015. Image from “Colorlines”: https://www.colorlines.com/articles/john-lewis-recreated-selma-march-comic-con-full-costume

In 2008, when Andrew Aydin was a young staffer answering phones for Congressman John Lewis’s re-election campaign, he told his colleagues that he was heading to a comics convention after the campaign season wound down. Aydin received the usual ridicule about costumes and kids’ stuff, but Lewis came to his defense, citing how the comic book “MLK and the Montgomery Story” helped fuel the civil rights movement. Five years later, he published “March, Book One,” co-written by Aydin, and illustrated by fellow Hoosier (although Arkansas-born) Nate Powell, the first of three volumes about Lewis’s history and role in the Civil Rights movement.

“I believe in this format,” Lewis told “The LAist” when asked what he was able to accomplish in comics that he hadn’t in the two memoirs he had published before “March.” “You are able to make it real, make it plain, make it simple for young people and people not so young to understand. It’s drama—high drama. That’s what the civil rights movement was all about—drama.”

Lewis recreated that drama for a new generation at the 2015 San Diego Comic-Con International, when he cosplayed his younger self walking across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in 1965. He found a similar jacket and backpack, and filled the backpack with “two books, a toothbrush, toothpaste, an apple and an orange,” according to a recent tribute article in the “New York Times.” Lewis walked a half mile across the convention center, followed by a horde of kids who had read “March,” and were as awed by Lewis as if he were Superman in the flesh. By the time he had finished this version of his march, he had gathered more than 1000 followers, even more than the original 600 who were there for a peaceful protest on a day later called “Bloody Sunday.”

Here’s a link to my review of “March 3,” which came out in 2016. You can also read my reviews of the first two volumes here and here. We’ll miss you John Lewis. Thank you for the many generations of kids you’ve taught to get into the type of “good trouble, necessary trouble” the US needs right now.