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Graphic novels

Originally published in the Ketchikan Daily News, October 2010; written by Kelly Johnson.

Belle Yang was born in Taiwan in 1960, she moved to America with her parents when she was a young girl, but by her teen years she felt estranged from them and their eastern roots. She left for college, but returned home a few years after she graduated fleeing from an abusive boyfriend who continued to stalk her. Her parents sent her to China for her safety and there she studied at the Academy of Traditional Painting. She was working for the American Embassy in 1989 and was horrified and frightened by the massacre at Tiananmen Square. In October of that year she returned to America and once again lived with her parents. She still feared her ex-boyfriend so she began to ask her father about their family’s history in China to distract herself. Soon she began to write down his tales of their ancestors, a story he began with the Japanese occupation of China in 1931 when his father and three uncles reunited with his grandfather and worked to create a new, safer home in Manchuria.

In telling her father’s family story Yang also tells a story of life in China from World War II through the ‘transition to Socialism’ and life under Chairman Mao. There were years of abundance, but there was a lot of struggle and strife as well, both outside and inside the family. The brothers did not always get along, nor did their families. Some were more religious – in the tradition of Buddhists and Taoists, others more material oriented, and her own grandfather struggled for years to obtain peace and let go of his anger at his family. Though her father tried to help his family from his home, first in Taiwan, then Japan and America he was often thwarted by Chinese bureaucracy. He had stayed close to most of his uncles, though his father had become estranged from several of them. Belle Yang had stayed with her grandfather and grandmother much of the time she stayed in China and had met many of her extended family members, some of whom shared stories with her as well. Though she had not yet started writing, some of those people and stories are found in this book as well.

The story is not all history though, also included is the relationship between Belle and her father, whom she calls Baba. They had been rather adversarial in her teens and even when she returns from China, but as he shares his stories Belle gains insight to his character and is able to better relate to him. He in turn becomes more compassionate about her frustrations and fears and they grow closer. This book is not a linear tale, but a fascinating tapestry of history, family, and stories.

You will not find this wonderful book in the biography section, or even the history of China, Forget Sorrow; an Ancestral Tale by Belle Yang is in the Graphic Novels section. You see, Belle Yang found at the Academy of Traditional Painting that she had great talent in drawing and when she returned to the United States she used these skills to become an illustrator and author, mainly of children’s picture books. When she decided to tell her story, and the story of her family, it was suggested to her by her editor that she tell her tale in graphic format rather than a more conventional style. Indeed, her images add a great deal to her story from details of clothing and expression to adding multiple layers to her tale when there are stories within her main story. The black ink drawings are often as much of the tale as the words on the page.

Another new book on the Graphic Novels shelves is Artichoke Tales by Megan Kelso. Though the image on the cover, a girl with an artichoke base for hair, seems sort of cute the story is actually about a land torn apart by war and three generations of women who try to live their lives well in spite of fighting and hardship. The story includes all aspects of life; the violence of war and the pleasure of finding love in such a harsh time. Cute cover or not, Artichoke Tales is not a child’s story.

Finally, if you are interested in a story that is truly different you might try A God Somewhere by John Arcudi, Peter Snejbjerg and Bjarne Hansen. These men have taken the superhero scenario and turned it on its head by asking – what if a man was given super powers and instead of making him a protector of humankind it alienated him from them. Eric is a decent man, but when he survives a mysterious explosion with super powers – including impenetrable skin and the ability to fly – he soon realizes that he is looked at differently by people, including the ones he loves. The fear he sees angers him and soon he ceases to be human in more than just ‘super’ abilities. Told in full color graphics this is a violent tale that leaves many questions unanswered, and much to think about in the wake of its finale.

Graphic Novels are definitely accumulating a broader range of tales, from biography to history to every type of fiction. Stories told in words and pictures have come a long way from the early comics and these are just a few of the interesting titles in the public library’s collection, so next time you are in wander back and check out the ‘GN’ collection. Good Reading!

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