Almost American Girl. By Robin Ha. Balzer + Bray / HarperAlley. Paperback: ISBN 978-0062685094, US$12.99. Also in hardcover, Kindle, comiXology, and Nook. 240 pages.
Robin Ha’s Almost American Girl, a Korean American memoir of emigration and acculturation, evokes hard truths and traumatic memories through a mostly gentle, almost decorous style. The style belies Ha’s toughness. A complex story of cultural displacement and loss, but then again gradual near-assimilation—or, better, ongoing negotiation of identity—Almost American Girl boasts a delicate watercolor aesthetic and, by contrast, stilted digital lettering. The style is sometimes straitened or stiff, yet tender and personal; the balance suggests both tentativeness and poise. I confess, I didn’t warm to it easily—but Ha’s story has stayed with me, provocatively.
Young Robin, raised in Seoul, suddenly finds herself uprooted and forced to adapt to life in the US. Her mother, a single parent, makes that choice, indeed all the choices, for them. Ha’s complex relationship to her mother—who at first, it seems, did not want this book to get made—accounts for Almost American Girl’s pointed, unsentimental, and clear-eyed qualities. The book relives Ha’s memories of anger toward her mother, which could not have been easy to set down on the page, but also portrays her mom as a self-driven woman determined to break out of a South Korean society premised on gender conformity and suffocating moralism. Gradually, Robin develops empathy for her mother’s struggles, even as she learns to be critical of stereotypic gendering in her own life—and it is her (re)discovery of comics as an artistic outlet, a move encouraged by her mom, that enables Robin to stake out these positions.
So, to say that Ha’s treatment of her mother is necessarily double-edged would be an understatement. The negotiations behind the book’s making must have been complicated. Just so, the finished book is hard and sort of unfinished. Much of it replays old hurts with fresh anger. In the home stretch, though, Ha fast-forwards into life changes that bring a warmer, more resolved ending; the book seems to leapfrog to its finish. This shift perhaps comes a bit too fast, reflecting, I suppose, the YA genre’s demand for at least some provisional resolution. However, to Ha’s credit, hanging questions remain. The result is clear but not pat, and emotionally rich.
Almost American Girl joins other graphic memoirs of divided identity and enculturation in the US: comics about immigrants and immigrants’ children working their way into a robust but ambivalent sense of Americanness (Thi Bui, say, or Malaka Gharib). In this post-Raina moment of comics memoirs for young readers, the graphic story of renegotiated identity has become a distinct and powerful vein of storytelling. Ha adds worthily to that growing list, with work that is at once aesthetically subdued yet piercingly written. It’s very good, and I imagine it will make a big difference for many readers.
PS. Dig Ha and Raina Telgemeier’s online panel from the recent Comic-Con at Home: a warm, collegial chat (with some drawing!). This has been one of my favorites of the many online “convention” events I’ve watched recently; you can tell that these authors are used to fielding questions from readers young and old. It is hard for me to imagine a Comic-Con panel like this fifteen years ago. Thank goodness the world keeps changing!
Here's the video:
Also, Robin Ha has a nice how-to / process video on YouTube, from this past May, courtesy of Epic Reads: see here.
I have not been a fan of 21st-century DC Comics. Often I have criticized DC for not acting like a real publisher and for pushing more of the same ugly, self-defeating work: grim heroes, continuity porn, line-wide reboots, and other rigged and desperate moves. But nonetheless I found myself reeling from this week’s news of massive layoffs and restructuring at DC, part of a general purge at WarnerMedia (Heidi MacDonald has the best think piece on this that I’ve seen, over at The Beat). That was hard news. With DC losing a reported one-fifth of its editorial staff—indeed, as MacDonald says, “almost an entire level of editorial executives“—and the company’s publishing plans downsized, this seems like a fraught moment for comic-book culture here in the USA. I have to imagine that it’s a heartbreaking moment for many; the human cost of this sweep is considerable.
It’s hard to know what to expect of DC going forward, though. Can we perhaps read some silver lining into this storm cloud? Interestingly, DC editorial will be run by two women (for the first time ever?), Marie Javins and Michelle Wells, the latter the head of DC’s Young Reader division. And, as MacDonald speculates, it seems likely that “DC’s kids and YA books will be more important going forward.” I take that as good news—but I’m afraid the news for direct-market comic book shops doesn’t sound so good (see my recent reflection on that subject here). DC Publisher Jim Lee, who remains in place after the layoffs, gave an interview to The Hollywood Reporter last Friday that puts a bright face on the changes; it seems intended to be reassuring. But I’m not reassured. (See Heidi MacDonald and Rob Salkowitz for informed readings of that interview.)
I am, however, guardedly impressed by DC’s current Young Adult line, despite initial skepticism and misgivings about the work continuing to be work-for-hire in the traditional DC way. This brings me to (forgive me for pivoting so sharply) a happy review of a newish book:
You Brought Me the Ocean. By Alex Sanchez and Julie Maroh. Lettered by Deron Bennett. Edited by Sara Miller. DC Comics, ISBN 978-1401290818 (softcover), 2020. US$16.99. 208 pages.
(BTW, this is the third in an occasional series reviewing children’s and Young Adult graphic novels from DC. See the first here and the second here.)
You Brought Me the Ocean is a smart, beautifully rendered queer YA romance in the guise of a superhero origin story, and a whole, rounded novel to boot. Despite being set in a desert town, it’s about water, about the ocean, and about learning to live as an “amphibian” in a mostly dry world. There’s something about Aquaman in it, and Superman does a distant fly-by, but, really, this story belongs to young Jake Hyde, his lifelong friend and neighbor Maria Mendez, and the young swimmer Jake falls in love with, Kenny Liu. (Jake is basically a new take on the Young Justice version of Aqualad, for those keeping track.) Kenny opens new doors in Jake’s life, just as Jake has to contemplate leaving home for college and a complex shift in his relationship with Maria. Fittingly named, Jake Hyde is closeted in several ways—in fact he is an unknown even to himself—but the story represents his coming out and coming into his own, folding together hero-origin tropes with high school and romance conventions. Loved ones and bullies alike exhibit homophobia—but, with the exception of one foul thug, the major characters all reveal unexpected depths and changeability. Characters disappoint, but then happily surprise. As Jake realizes his powers—the reason for the strange, scar-like markings on his skin—he, Maria, and Kenny become a triad of friends, and the denouement is wish-fulfilling but not pat. (There could and should be a sequel.)
If Ocean revisits some familiar stuff—protective or disapproving parents, homophobic bullies repping toxic white masculinity—its characters are distinct and nuanced, and have humanizing touches. Further, the familiar stuff feels pretty convincing: these aren’t cliches so much as things that commonly happen and should be acknowledged. The book has a confident sense of its characters from the first; I can believe, for example, that Maria and Jake are longtime friends, with a shared history and personal language. Their interaction feels real enough. Scriptwriter Alex Sanchez (Lambda Award-winning author of the Rainbow Boys trilogy) handles characters and world deftly, with a smart, unforced touch. And artist Julie March (Blue Is the Warmest Color) seems to know these characters’ physicality—their carriage and body language—as well as an artist could. Maroh’s figures are compact, sensual, and expressive. Most importantly, they are distinct.
You Brought Me the Ocean benefits from a unified aesthetic that is unusual for DC Comics. Bathed in watery blue and silver-gray, and then again in muted desert browns and tans, the book enacts the major conflict in Jake’s life through its very palette. Thanks to Maroh and designer Amie Brockway-Metcalf, it boasts a visual wholeness and integrity that set it apart. Subtle yet dynamic layouts, unhurried pacing, and mostly understated action define the book, which sidesteps epic superhero dust-ups in favor of smaller, though still dramatic, discoveries. That said, the art remains ravishing; Maroh’s individualized figures and muted colors cast a spell even as they do the vital work of characterization. This appears to have been a harmonious, lovingly edited collaboration; it’s a remarkable feat for a first-time team.
As I said, I’d read more. You Brought Me the Ocean is YA superheroics done with grace and a sensuous visual language. In fact, it’s only a superhero story on its edges; fluency in the DC Universe is not required. At heart, it’s an affirming story of love and friendship with a fantastical, magic-realist touch. Recommended!
PS. KinderComics is taking a roughly six week-long break, sigh, so that I can start the new semester at CSU Northridge more or less sanely. See you in about a month and a half!
The Oracle Code. Written by Marieke Nijkamp; illustrated by Manuel Preitano; colored by Jordie Bellaire with Preitano; lettered by Clayton Cowles. DC Comics, ISBN 978-1401290665 (softcover), 208 pages. US$16.99. March 2020.
(This is the second in an occasional series reviewing children’s and Young Adult graphic novels from DC. See the first here.)
Paralyzed by a gunshot wound, brilliant young hacker Barbara Gordon (daughter of Gotham’s police commissioner) undergoes rehabilitation at the so-called Arkham Center for Independence — which, surprise, turns out to be a sinister place, a haunted house even, from which patients keep disappearing. Though traumatized, and at first resentful and alienated, Barbara gradually bonds with other patients, and together they form a team to unravel Arkham’s dark secret. This DC graphic novel does not appear to mesh with any version of DC continuity, and its Barbara Gordon differs sharply from previous Barbaras (Batgirl or Oracle). In fact, its DC-ness is nominal, and could be erased with a few minor edits. It’s not a superhero story in the usual sense. Rather, it’s a Young Adult thriller that follows many of that genre’s conventions: young people up against corrupt adult institutions, fighting with official powers, fighting for self-definition, testing their mettle with no outside help. It’s also grounded in an intersectional and community-oriented disability politics that makes it stand out among DC books.
Writer Marieke Nijkamp is an acclaimed author of YA thrillers (e.g., This Is Where It Ends), editor of a disability-themed YA anthology (Unbroken), and advocate for greater diversity in children’s and Young Adult publishing (she served as a founding officer of We Need Diverse Books). The Oracle Code’s plot seems to have been informed by her experience living in a medical rehabilitation facility as a teenager. Her loner hero, Barbara, eventually enters into community, and, with her team, emphatically rejects the idea of being “fixed” (echoing Nijkamp’s criticisms of the trope of curing disability). The book’s politics are obvious and central, and some minor characters and relationships seem designed to make points — or to serve merely as hurdles to Barbara’s ferocious drive. The plot, I think, rushes to a too-sudden conclusion; I can see the story’s somewhat familiar shape from far off. Barbara herself, though, is a distinct character, and the book gives her time and space to be properly angry. If the book preaches, it doesn’t preach to Barbara. Also, the wrap-up wisely lets certain resolutions stay ambiguous; this is no facile overcoming narrative in which all things are made better. The book reflects on the healing value of dark stories — through a series of unsettling embedded tales, like bedtime stories — and itself does not shy away from trouble. The Oracle Code, in sum, is a designedly Young Adult novel that reflects and capitalizes on the disability politics always implicit in the Oracle character.
Visually, The Oracle Code wavers between arid daytime plainness — perfect for a medical facility — and darkly atmospheric nighttime scenes. Illustrator Manuel Preitano favors a naturalism that, for me, recalls the post-Mazzucchelli work of David Aja (though without Aja’s drastic stylization and formalist invention). The intentionally limited color palette (colors are credited to both Jordie Bellaire and Preitano) pits vivid yellow-orange and nocturnal purple-blue against drab olive and icky, hospital-bland greens. Insipid, textureless rooms — like the flat, medicalized interiors we all know, presumably lit by fluorescents — clash with densely shadowed scenes defined by slashing swathes of black and vigorous dry-brush technique. Bright jigsaw puzzle pieces stand out against the general gloom and serve as a braided visual device: a multivalent symbol that variously signifies trauma, fragmentation, reassembly, accomplishment, and, of course, mystery-solving. The layouts are dynamic, shifting, yet steadily rectilinear, except for the embedded “bedtime” stories, which boast curving, swirling panel shapes and a contrasting, cartoonish style. This novel is, as far as I know, Preitano’s longest sustained work for the US market (he has also worked on the series Destiny, NY and several comics for Zenescope), and departs from the sometimes lurid retro aesthetic of his illustrations for the Vaporteppa fiction line, in his native Italy. This looks like a big step forward for the artist.
On balance, The Oracle Code shows the potential of YA fiction that happens to be set in DC’s story-world. It’s more self-contained, and more attuned to the conventions of YA fiction, than I had expected. To me, these are good things. One thing gets to me, though: despite the signs that this book is a rather personal work for Nijkamp, it is copyrighted solely in the name of DC Comics — that is, it’s work for hire (though it bears about as much resemblance to prior Oracle stories as, say, Neil Gaiman and company’s Sandman bore to prior Sandmen). I think that’s a shame, and, honestly, this is one reason I have not been able to muster great enthusiasm for DC’s work with YA and children’s authors. As long as DC graphic novels are centered on company IP and the creators are wholly dispossessed of any equity in the work, as long as DC persists in these damaging comic book industry practices, the promise of its young readers’ line will be dampened. The Oracle Code is very unusual for a DC comic — its focus on a non-superpowered community of young women, and willingness to highlight a young woman’s anger and power, are laudable — but it’s still shackled to DC’s old way of doing things.