The Best We Could Do by Thi Bui

A pervasive color, temporal slip n’ slides, hop-scotching graphics, one voice to rule them all—everything you’ve ever loved in a Samuel Beckett play now in a graphic novel memoir!

Bui, Thi. The Best We Could Do. New York: Abrams ComicArts, 2017. Print.

Genre: graphic novel memoir

Summary: A graduate school assignment turns into a decades-long quest to collect one family’s immigrant history morphs into a graphic memoir. The author recounts her family’s escape war-torn Vietnam and their rough, raw transition to America.

Critique: Orange hues pervade, warm, and stain every page and panel. It’s an apt color because the memoir roots back to Vietnam’s most turbulent and violent years of occupation, liberation, and civil insurrection. However, the unrelenting “Agent Orange” on every page adds as much as it detracts. To be sure it contributes an entire whispered universe of historic weight and suffering and survival. At the same time, it muddies the narrative timeline which alternates between then and now. The orange past is often indistinguishable from the orange present.

Perhaps this temporal slipperiness is exactly how the author lives with her heritage. The graphic novel may well be her attempt to share that experience with readers. And isn’t that one of the primary and most fundamental objectives embodied within every literary work? Creating that magical, telepathic exchange between the writer and the reader (to poorly paraphrase Stephen King from his memoir, On Writing). I believe it is, but I’m not convinced the exchange here has been entirely successful.

And the omnipresent orange is not the only culprit.

The confusion between past and present may also be tied to how this novel uses its panels. Commonly, graphic novel panels contain moments arranged sequentially—like individual frames from a movie reel. One panel can show a man approaching a door. The next can show keys sliding into a doorknob. The reader connects these two otherwise disconnected ideas: ah, that man is unlocking that door.

As Scott McCloud puts it in Understanding Comics, “…panels fracture both time and space, offering a jagged, staccato rhythm of unconnected moments.” Our minds have the power to fill in the gaps based on experience and prior knowledge, thereby creating a continuous narrative.

In this graphic novel, the moments within the panels are not entirely sequential. For instance, in one panel, you might have two people huddled at a dining room table. In the next panel, farmers work rice fields. It takes a while to decode that those farmers exist in the past and are being remembered by the people at the dining room table set in the present.

Presumably, the dialogue in that first panel would have made it clear that the subsequent panel was going to represent the memory being discussed. That’s not the case and is almost never the case because this novel rarely employs dialogue. Instead, exposition pervades the panels. It’s a one-way dialogue—the author’s monologue. Imagine watching a movie with no sound other than a voiceover telling you about what you’re seeing. Characters come together, interact, discuss, argue, but you don’t get to hear any of that. You only get the voiceover…for 330 pages.

Pervasive orange…. Temporal slip n’ slides…. Hop-scotching graphics…. One voice to rule them all.…

I can’t help feeling as if all these oddly juxtaposed elements should have combined into a brilliant, unconventional narrative. I mean, really, aren’t these precisely the kinds of bizarre components we know and love in every Samuel Beckett play?

Sigh. If only Samuel Beckett had made graphic novels.

A Hungry Lion, Or A Dwindling Assortment of Animals by Lucy Ruth Cummins

Look out, creative writers! Using a list format to tell a compelling story just fell into the capable hands of a children’s author. Cue sinister guffaw: MUHUHUHU-WHA-HAHAHA!

Cummins, Lucy Ruth. A Hungry Lion, Or A Dwindling Assortment of Animals. New York: Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2016. Print.

Genre: children’s picture book

Summary: An unassuming narrator attempts to relate the once upon a time tale of a large assortment of animals, only to be repeatedly interrupted by steady disappearances. Each time the narrator takes stock, the cast dwindles, until only the hungry lion remains…. But the tale does not end there.

Critique: Fans of the mischievous, misbehaving forms of children’s literature will no doubt root this book on their shelves alongside classic troublemakers crafted by the likes Mo Willems, Roald Dahl, E. Nesbit, and Mark Twain. Readers, after all, delight in subversion.

Writers, too, will delight in the way Cummins crafts a story around a continually revised list! Creative nonfiction writers have used this technique to great effect, but in children’s books lists tend to either accumulate or taper and the purpose is usually to assist with counting. The list in this text operates on a totally different schema. Much like Emily Gravett’s Wolves, A Hungry Lion hinges on subversion, but whereas the genius of Gravett’s work achieves its subversiveness by breaking the barriers of a complex mise-en-abyme, Cummins’s text utilizes closure.

In his seminal Understanding Comics, Scott McCloud describes closure as our natural ability to construct a whole from only the parts. Closure is how we fill in gaps in order to make sense of partial or disconnected bits of information. We rely on past experience to complete the incomplete. In other words, closure is our ability to make assumptions or leap to conclusions needing only a small diving board.

What happens to the disappearing animals? The book does not say, so the reader fills in that narrative gap. However, Cummins uses closure to brilliantly demonstrate how our assumptions can be (and often are) wrong. Truth is more slippery than soap. And injustice and justice can be easily and simultaneously swallowed whole.

Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud

McCloudMcCloud, Scott. Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art. Northampton, MA: Kitchen Sink Press, 1994. Print.

Genre: Craft Book, Comics

Summary: McCloud delineates the history, present, and future status of comic books. He succinctly defines comics in opposition to other art forms. He also grapples with weighty artistic concerns encountered by all artists in all stages of their careers. (Which, if you’re an artist struggling through a bout of the blues, you must read Chapter 7 of this book!)

Critique: McCloud has a dazzling ability to handle with ease and aplomb the most complex theories and philosophies related to art and art history. He breaks down ideas and concepts you’d expect to find only in esoteric Ph.D. dissertations. But his words are plain, compelling, and enlightening.

McCloud3 McCloud2No wonder this became the seminal work that landed comics and their close cousin, the graphic novel, on the main stage in preceding decades! Students learning to write essays should read this book! Teachers should encourage their students to use McCloud’s comics approach to present research in a clear, dynamic way. (Let’s face it: if I’d known I could write my research papers for school as graphic comics, I’d have been a happier teenager!)