In the late 1970s and early 1980s, two Jewish cartoonists brought the term “graphic novel” to the mainstream. Will Eisner’s A Contract With God tells the story of poor Jewish immigrants in New York tenements while Art Spiegelman’s Maus depicts two storylines that center around the Holocaust. These books address heavy subjects and differ from the lighter fare in comic books, which are usually thinner, magazine-like publications. The term graphic novel has come to refer to non-fiction, not just fiction.
Asian-American cartoonists like Gene Yuen Lang have become popular in the last decade, bringing stories of immigration and Asian history to the pages of graphic novels like American Born Chinese, Boxers, and Saints. This year two writers who haven’t been published before as graphic novelists have burst onto the scene with graphic memoirs about race relations in the United States.
These topics are also heavy, but they’re especially important in these troubling times. George Takei—better known perhaps as Sulu in Star Trek—spent his early years in one of the now notorious WW2 internment camps for Americans of Japanese descent. He writes about these years and his family’s struggles in They Called Us Enemy. Mira Jacob, an Indian-American novelist, writes about race relations in the format of a conversation to her young bi-racial son in Good Talk: A Memoir in Conversations. Takei’s book is mainly set during WWII, but also includes the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, while Jacob’s covers 9/11 through the Trump era, with the hopefulness of the Obama presidency in-between.
A graphic novel is perhaps not an obviously effective means to convey critical subjects like race relations and contentious politics. But these two books seem to justify the choice: illustrations work.
One of the most stunning images in They Called Us Enemy occurs early on in the story, after the US has declared war on Japan. To show the area of the US plagued by the internment camps, Takei depicts a section of the United States map with shaded areas along the whole of the West Coast and the US-Mexican border in Arizona. For over a century, a large population of Japanese Americans had lived on the West Coast; no one was spared during the war. It’s startling to view the size of the area where Japanese Americans were declared enemies of the state by the United States government.
Jacob writes about growing up in New Mexico as the daughter of Indian immigrants. Much of her memoir deals with racism in the US, as she answers her young son’s many questions about the subject, but Jacob also writes about the first time she experienced prejudice in India. In a particularly memorable passage, Jacob describes her extended family’s preference for light skin, something she didn’t know was an issue until her family visits relatives in India. Jacob writes that she was born with dark skin while her parents and brother have lighter skin. One of the aunties in India says to Jacob’s mother with Jacob standing right there: “But the mother is fair, no? And the father too? Even the boy is okay.”
In her illustrations, she shows herself holding up her arm next to her brother’s and her mother’s arms. These illustrations depict what Jacob sees for the first time. When she tries to compare her skin to her father’s and explains what the aunties said about her dark skin, her father replies, “Don’t listen to them. You’re a pretty girl.” Jacob follows that up with a personal reflection: “That was how I learned dark meant ugly.” Skin color will remain a theme throughout the book, whether it’s feeling represented when Barack Obama wins in 2008 or when her Jewish mother-in-law’s neighbors mistake Jacob for hired help at a party her in-laws throw in Florida. All the guests, apart from Jacob, are white.
Graphic treatments (it feels peculiar to use the “novels” nomenclature) like Takei’s and Jacob’s bring important topics to the mix of “difficult stories” that may not otherwise reach audiences that might not pick up memoirs written in the traditional format. This development could still be in an experimental phase, but going from examples like Takei’s and Jacob’s stories, it seems to be working.