Strangers in strange lands
These three graphic novels might not seem to have anything in common, but in a sense they do: All three are written from the perspective of a lone explorer making his or her way through an unfamiliar landscape. One involves a woman tracing her heritage in an Israel that bears little resemblance to the country she’d imagined; in another, the child of Vietnamese immigrants digs into his parents’ past; and in the third a miserably single American man navigates the terrifying world of dating.
SEEKING TRUTH IN THE HOLY LAND
In her graphic memoir How to Understand Israel in 60 Days or Less, Sarah Glidden runs the emotional gamut, from stubborn to weepy to giddy to furious and all the way back around. The book records a “Birthright Israel” trip she took several years ago; the Birthright fund pays for trips that give non-Israeli Jews their first introduction to Israel. Sarah went intending to “discover the truth behind this whole mess once and for all,” meaning the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Packing her suitcase, she tells her boyfriend, “It’ll all be crystal clear by the time I come back.” But of course everything turns out to be more complicated than she expected. Between touring cultural sites and hearing wise counsel from various perspectives, Sarah finds that her convictions are shaken but her understanding deepened through her engagement with Israel. Given the complex material and the fairly text-heavy panels, Glidden’s clear and simply drawn illustrations, painted in watercolor, add just the right amount of emotional impact to the story.
A VIVID FAMILY HISTORY
GB Tran takes a much more impressionistic approach to memoir in his Vietnamerica: A Family’s Journey. The book, appealing enough in its black-and-white version but stunning in full color, describes Tran’s parents’ decision to leave Vietnam for America in 1975. In flashbacks and retold stories, Tran learns about what life was like for his mother and father when they were young children, what their parents were like, and how much they left behind when circumstances forced them to abandon the lives they had made and start from scratch. Tran is 30 when he returns with his parents to Vietnam for a visit shortly after the death of his last two grandparents. The combination of the young American’s disorientation and the many disjointed recollections he hears from various family members can be confusing if you try to follow the story in strict linear fashion; the key is to relax and let the gorgeous images wash over you. The wild, vivid pages here work the way oft-told and half-remembered family stories from long ago normally do; they’re more about conveying emotion than information.
HOPE AMONG THE RUINS
Daniel Clowes is great at many things, not least of which is leaving readers with a sense of alienation and vague disgust for humanity. But in Mister Wonderful he does something unusual: He transcends his customary gloom and despair to find hope. The story follows a guy named Marshall on a blind date. Marshall is divorced, unemployed and severely lacking in confidence. His scathing internal monologue as he sits at a coffee shop waiting for his date is painful to behold. Told in Clowes’ characteristically tidy style, with its neat rows of panels and straightforwardly drawn characters in plain, blocky urban settings, the story veers often into miniature fantasies, illustrated by miniature versions of the characters. When Marshall’s date, Natalie, appears and is charming, he can’t decide whether to be thrilled or to embrace the miserable certainty that she’s out of his league. But it turns out Natalie is equally fragile. Their delicate emotional parrying, complete with awkward misunderstandings, large and small faux pas and even a mugging, makes for a suspenseful and affecting read. The fact that the story comes down on the side of cautious optimism only increases its impact.