BookExpo Online's New Graphic Novel Showcase—the panel streamed live on Friday, May 29. To see the recording go to 47:30 of the archived panel discussion—features children's, young adult, and adult graphic works in fiction and nonfiction, including Kiku Hughes’s Displacement (First Second), Trung Le Nguyen’s The Magic Fish (Random House Graphic), James Romberger’s Post York (Dark Horse), Bishakh Som’s Spellbound (Street Noise); and Mike Curato’s Flamer (Henry Holt). PW spoke with the authors of four of the five titles to get the stories behind the books.
American Betrayal: Kiku Hughes’s Displacement
In her graphic novel Displacement, which will be published by First Second in August, Kiku Hughes travels through time into her own family’s history, living alongside her grandmother Ernestina in an incarceration camp for Japanese Americans during World War II.
Hughes’s blend of fact (it is partially based on her family’s history) and fiction illuminates a range of landmark events and historical personalities who lived in the camps. PW asked Hughes how she was able to use her family history and literary inspiration to better understand this powerful and tragic period in Japanese American history.
How did you first come up with the idea to tell your grandmother’s story through time travel?
I was inspired by Octavia Butler’s novel Kindred, which tells the story of an African-American woman in the 1970s being pulled back in time to an antebellum plantation. Kindred is a much more complex and intense story than Displacement, but it taught me that time travel narratives don’t have to be tied to hard science. Like all of Butler’s works, it pushed the boundaries of what sci-fi can look like.
The characters in Displacement debate different issues, such as the legality of the internment order, and organize to protest and resist their imprisonment. How much did you know about this before you started to research the book?
I was surprised when I read about the many ways in which Nikkei [the people of the Japanese diaspora] resisted their incarceration. I had only learned about figures like Gordon Hirabayashi and Fred Korematsu, undoubtedly important resistors, but not the only ones. The stories I came to appreciate most were the ones of entire communities coming together. There was detainee organizing at Tule Lake, work stoppages at Topaz and Heart Mountain camps, among others. These stories were hard to find for a variety of reasons. There was a reluctance to seem disloyal on the part of survivors, and government accounts of the camps always sought to portray them as peaceful, and the Nikkei themselves as compliant, as part of the myth of the “model minority.”
At the end of the book, you show Ernestina’s life after leaving the camp as an adult and artist, a concert violinist who studied and performed in New York City. Why did you think it was important to include that part of her life?
One of the things I wanted to make clear in Displacement was that experiences like incarceration never just end with the closing of the camps themselves. One of the lasting impacts was the dissolution of Japantowns across the West Coast, which made preserving Nikkei culture and history even more difficult. I felt it was important to show the ways in which the camps and the racism that created them still impacted Ernestina and her family, even decades later.
Why did you choose to set your story during Donald Trump’s campaign, rather than going with a generic political situation?
The 2016 election was what inspired me to tell this story, and in its own way it is an important part of Japanese-American history. Though there have always been racist policies and xenophobic officials in the United States, and Nikkei have certainly
participated in protests against those before, the parallel between Trump’s campaign rhetoric and the propaganda used against Japanese Americans after Pearl Harbor was clear to our community.
Groups such as Tsuru for Solidarity have formed in response to the Trump Administration’s actions, and there are many Nikkei who are participating in activist groups for the first time now because they can clearly see that what happened to their families is happening again. I felt that using real quotes from the Trump administration was more effective at demonstrating the continuing legacy of community trauma than any ambiguous political moment could be.—B.A.
Sentiment and Understanding: Trung Le Nguyen’s The Magic Fish
Trung Le Nguyen’s debut graphic novel, The Magic Fish, which will be published in October by Random House Graphic, makes use of classic fairy tales to evoke the immigrant experience of its characters, while also offering a loving acknowledgement and embrace of queer life.
Struggling to tell his Vietnamese immigrant mother that he’s gay,13-year-old Tiến finds common ground with her via the fables of "Cinderella" and "The little Mermaid." Deeply influenced by his background, Nguyen offers the Vietnamese equivalents of European fairy tales in a book that reminds us that people everywhere are shaped by the power of the stories that surround them.
What aspect of working on The Magic Fish was most exciting or enjoyable for you? What was most challenging?
I set out to draw some indulgently fun fairy tales that I loved growing up. The catch was that, upon closer inspection, I had taken their visual aspects for granted and needed to build them from the ground up. I thought about the role [that Disney] cartoons have played in flattening our notions of a fairy tale Europe as this vague, non-specific space built around a visual shorthand. The most challenging part, then, was to figure out how to construct those visual efficiencies for the Vietnamese portions of the story. What were the popular fashions? What did they say about the country’s relationships to its colonizers versus its people? The sincerely fun and indulgent parts of the project often got into weighty territory for me pretty fast.
Did you write and draw each thread separately, or were they entwined from the start?
They had existed in my mind as three distinct short projects for a while. [Then] all these common themes of transformation, exodus, longing, and survival started to emerge. The fun of reworking fairy tales is that they’re archetypes moving through a campfire story. There is enough malleability there to give us a little freedom to project intention and pathos.
What advantage does storytelling offer for heartfelt communication that ordinary conversation sometimes does not?
I like stories that are ladened with sentiment because that’s where you go when you don’t have exacting or precise language. It breaks my heart when people refuse to communicate with speakers of other languages when they hear accented speech or imperfect grammar. For people of color, for queer people, for immigrants, people so often talk about our cultures like these mystifying, calcified artifacts, but our cultures are dynamic and still living. Storytelling allows you to lead with sentiment to arrive at understanding.
How did your focus on communicating to the queer immigrant community impact your storytelling?
I can see how the plausible deniability of the expression of my particular queerness under the cover of veiled language can afford me some conditional safety in potentially hostile spaces. Unfortunately, that aspect of our local queer culture also requires strong proficiency in English and a certain level of cultural literacy that many new immigrants just don’t have. In our case, we wear our identities on our skin and carry it on the shape of our words. The ways that immigrants and queer folks need to interface with language are quite different, so the experience of being both at once necessitates a lot of patience and creativity. I wanted to write a story that lets us imagine ourselves at our kindest, and I think layering time and memory within a story can give us the tools to exercise openheartedness. –C.K.
An Expanded Post-Apocalyptic New York City: James Romberger's Post York
Originally published in 2012, James Romberger's Post York is a post-apocalyptic adventure set in a New York City inundated with water. A new and expanded edition will be published by Dark Horse.
Post York is the story an encounter between a young man—a character based on the author’s son—and a young woman, who somehow survive in this devastated version of New York. In this new expanded edition, Romberger has added more than 60 pages of story, expanding the book into a kind of choose-your-own adventure offering additional narrative options that add new layers of moral complexity as well as new adventures.
Can you describe the plot of the original Post York and its characters, especially the role of Crosby, your son, and Ivy, the young woman living in the abandoned theater?
The protagonist is based on Crosby as a sort of apology for leaving the world in such a mess for him and his contemporaries. The first book had one ending that was pretty bleak, and another that had an element of hope, with the rescue of the whale, and it ended on a cute note of possible romance. It is my feeling that, in reality, none of the existing New York City structures would stand after an inundation such as I have depicted and I doubt any humans would survive either. However, I needed buildings and people, drama and romance to have any semblance of a story.
In the new expanded edition you’ve added two possible narrative outcomes (labeled with the “Or” graphic between each section) to the story of climate-devastated New York City. Why did you restructure the original story this way?
Actually, the alternative "Or" device was present in the first book; it is really intended as more of a parallel outcome that hinges on a slight variation resulting from a single action—but I elaborated on the device for the graphic novel and added a third option.
You’ve earned a reputation as an artist that can extract beauty out of images of urban ruin. Can you describe how you created such striking and panoramic views of the submerged landscape of the city in Post York?
None of the drawings depict actual locations; they are all approximations, invented, drawn from imagination. But I am very familiar with New York City, so I hope they still feel real.
What can you tell us, in general, about the narrative paths you’ve added to the book. The first option adds a murderous component, and the second adds an even more complex set of relations between the characters and the world around them.
There was never a script; the entire book is created using an improvisational practice—although I knew where I wanted to get to. It’s hard to explain, but some of the character development was influenced by talks I had with Crosby, and from "sleeping on" completed sequences and adding characters and inserting passages later to fill narrative holes or to expand possibilities. It was always my intent to continue the story by adding further exponentially multiplied parallel "realities."
For the new book, I rearranged the order, killing Ivy in the second outcome (instead of the first) and adding significantly to that section, following through the logic of what Ivy's friends would do if she was murdered. In the third alternative, the catalyst for change comes earlier; it allows me to envision a different fate for the whale and a larger kind of natural apotheosis, as well as to bring in a reflexive element where I actually enter the story.—C.R.
More Than a Memoir: Bishakh Som’s Spellbound
Bishakh Som’s Spellbound, due out in August from Street Noise Books, is a quasi-memoir about a Bengali-American woman who quits her job as an architect in order to follow her dream of creating a graphic novel. The twist is that Anjali, the lead character, is cisgender, and she stands in for Som, who is trans, allowing Som to show the reader how she sees herself. We talked to Som about what went into the making of Spellbound.
Did you create Spellbound as a diary comic?
I started it as a diary comic but I had committed from the start to drawing it with some care—penciling, inking, doing the colors digitally—so it wasn’t the kind of diary comic that I could crank out on a daily basis, at the day’s end, in my sketchbook. There was necessarily a gap between the events as they happened to me and when I was able to record them in the comic, owing to how long it would take me to draw a page. As the possibility of the collected diary comics turning into a book became more of a reality, I had to change course a bit and think of how to make the thing more book-like, which required delving more into memoir territory, especially with some of the longer “chapters” which reflect on my earlier years. So in the end, the book became a hybrid of diary comic and memoir, with possibly some other genre-genetics mixed in.
Why did you think it was important to have the “real you” introduce the story?
Because I felt like I had to explain the initial substitution—of having Anjali be my ambassador. Which originally felt like a perfectly natural thing to do, seeing as I really didn’t want to draw myself, but became more and more of a complicated strategy as time wore on. I also wanted to process what that substitution meant for me as a trans person, how my persistent writing of women and femme characters in my comics became more and more loaded with meaning, and how that writing has always been part of my psyche, even before I realized I was trans.
Why is Anjali a better character? Have you idealized parts of your life in her?
I’m not sure that she’s a better character but, yes, I have idealized some things. Certainly, Anjali doesn’t have to go through the process of reckoning with her gender like I did—she didn’t have to go through as much self-doubt about her appearance, identity, and desirability as I did—but I feel like the whole book is doing that job instead. In other ways, she is a slightly exaggerated, unidealized version of me—her reliance on alcohol and tendency towards self-pity is played for comic effect, for example. Though I guess I’m not the best person to judge whether or not I embody these traits as severely.
Conversely, what is missing from that character that you would say is important about you or your own life?
Most importantly, Anjali is single. Whereas I have been with my partner for many years. So I chose not to have that be part of Anjali’s life—mainly because I didn’t want to represent (or misrepresent) my partner in my comics, even if I were to resort to another character substitution. I suppose, in that sense, Anjali represents some distilled essence of me rather than how I operate as a social-domestic creature, in close concert with another person over a long period.
In the story, you are working on a graphic novel, which we only see glimpses of. What was that graphic novel and was it ever published?
It was just published by the Feminist Press in mid-April and it’s called Apsara Engine, a collection of eight short stories. But in a sense, the graphic novel that Anjali’s working on might as well have been Spellbound, which I began writing within the time frame depicted in Spellbound!—B.A.
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