For each day of Twelvetide, Christ and Pop Culture writers will point to some of the cultural goodness that gives hope in the midst of life’s messyness. It’s our version of the “Twelve Days of Christmas” song, filled with things our writers have found to be life-giving. Some entries are 2018 artifacts, some are from years past. All of them point us to hope.
On this seventh day of Christmas, I (your true love) will give to you the gift of comics. Specifically, seven graphic novel recommendations that reflect some small segment of the morass of social issues many of our readers faced, explored, or at least were cognizant of in 2018.
There were many things weighing on us as a conglomeration of international cultures all smooshed together by the grasping tentacles of the continuing social media revolution… and this handful of suggested reading will both neglect the bulk of those issues and neglect to recommend the bulk of books that could be mentioned. Where I will be commending to you seven books, I could very easily expand that to seventy times seven books. That caveat aside:
1 While we all hold particular social issues, ills, and solutions dear to our souls, there is a governing conversation being had to prescribe a better way of entering the public discourse. In 1996, I discovered the internet for myself and was blown away that I could talk to people anywhere. In 2002, I was enthralled by my ability to find out about everything in the world and spent hours snaking my way through Wikipedia articles, just simply enamored with learning. In 2010, I was so excited every day to see the lives of my friends and family evolve through news updates and photos. And by 2016, I wanted to burn it all to the ground.
Our collective ability to communicate, discuss, and interact was suddenly founded upon vitriol, on the idea that every other person was the source of all worldly woe; they were the enemy and would be treated accordingly. By now most of us realize there must be a better way, but finding it and getting there seems beyond most of us. When you’re already on fire, it can be hard not to continue setting everything ablaze.
While Manu Larcenet’s Ordinary Victories (and part 2) doesn’t necessarily offer any solutions, it does present the problem in a warm and real way. A journalistic photographer discovers that a friendly neighbor was involved in war atrocities 40 years ago and immediately excises the man — who is now repentant — from his life. Later he finds himself forgiving some old friends their political opinions even though he believes those opinions lead to the same kind of atrocities his neighbor committed. And here the soul-searching begins.
2 War, as a social issue, is unfortunately an evergreen topic. America is presently at war in seven nations. While much of our war-related entertainment focuses on our soldiers’ pathos, glory, and tragedy, it can help to dive into these conflicts from the perspective of the ordinary citizen who is caught up in these wars, and may be even stoked up to believe their side right and true.
Fumiyo Kouno’s In This Corner of the World takes us back to WWII as young Suzu, a woman from Hiroshima, finds herself married into a family in neighboring Kure, a port town and center for naval shipbuilding. As the local experience of the conflict ramps up across the years approaching the Bomb and the Hiroshima event, the story moves from relative peace to daily shelling. The chaos and cost depicted brings the reader into the morass, and pushes empathy for those people who were aggressors, who perpetrated countless war crimes, and who cheered for those things out of ignorance and nationalistic fervor.
3 As the conversation about sex, gender, and orientation continues to evolve — especially with regard to our responsibility to find a way through the tangle of loving our neighbors, remaining true to our religious convictions, and working through our biases — a good starting point for straight people who feel comfortable with their apparent gender expression is to consume guileless stories about those who experience life differently. And while this series, being partially out of print (as well as only ever half-printed in the US), will be difficult to obtain, I cannot stress enough how wonderful and useful Shimura Takako’s Wandering Son is for this.
The book follows two fifth graders (and a gradually expanding cast) who tentatively stand outside the norm. The lead is a fifth grade boy who finds himself increasingly interested in dressing as a girl while his friend casts off her female gender and grows increasingly confident in presenting as a boy. This is a book about self-discovery, confusion, confidence, persecution and acceptance, life, growing up, and what it means to be a human in the midst of a culture that doesn’t know what to make of you.
4 Long before #MeToo hit the world and shone a spotlight on the travesty of the patriarchal structures that have emerged to protect men and injure women, there’s been a current of thought that many of the world’s troubles could be solved through matriachy — that if women and their maternal instincts were given the chance to govern, the world, while not perfect of course, would still approach utopia. And while I’m inclined to let women have their shot merely for the sake of fair play, I’m skeptical that much would change — those with the ambition to rule, after all, do rather all seem cut from similar cloth.
For this reason, Fumi Yoshinaga’s Ôoku presents a fascinating look at a world ruled by women. It is, she finds, pretty much identical to the world ruled by men. Ôoku imagines the Japanese Shogunate (and all of Japan) governed by women in the wake of a national plague that cuts the male populace by 80%. In Yoshinaga’s Japan, the women are every bit as prudent, blood-thirsty, wise, brutal, intrepid, and prone to political intrigue as the men we know from history. And her story deflates both the concept of female society being utopian as well as the belief that women are really all that different from men when it comes to leading a nation. In Ôoku‘s world, people are people, and for all the horror of that, it’s also somewhat a comfort. We know ourselves and so all at once we already know our villains and our benefactors.
5 As immigration continues to be an issue across Europe and America, with refugees seeking new homes and new futures, it can benefit us to put ourselves into the immigrant’s shoes. Shaun Tan’s The Arrival accomplishes this powerfully by putting readers into a wordless story about a man who abandoned his homeland to establish himself and a new home for the family he hopes to send for as soon as possible. Through Tan’s telling, we experience the immigrant’s alienation, confusion, and bewilderment at a nation whose culture is so distinct from his own as he tries (often vainly) to establish himself in this new place. It’s a powerful work and one that my own parents (who emigrated to Romania in the mid-’90s) felt resonated so well with their own experiences.
6 Many white Americans have been foolishly taught that race is an issue largely vanquished (except for maybe in our nation’s most backward corners). Of course, it has been one of the prevailing issues marking the last couple presidencies. Despite efforts to turn a color-blind eye toward racial injustices, race is not something to be ignored.
Ronald Wimberly’s LAAB Magazine is an art tabloid that mixes comics with essays and interviews to describe and elucidate some of the black experience in Western culture. Throughout, contributors investigate black identity and representation in the popular mythology of sci-fi and superheroes.
7 Finally, in a gleefully anarchic send-up of the zeitgeist, I offer Inio Asano’s chaotic Dead Dead Demon’s Dededede Destruction. Asano presents a Tokyo that experienced an ineffectual alien invasion three years ago. The alien mothership hovers over the city still and citizens seem ambivalent, ignoring the situation entirely or demanding their government move the ship so that their houses are no longer in perpetual shade. This is a media-saturated world and Asano skewers social platforms and their users. He pokes and prods us, highlighting the reckless manner in which our societies approach the catastrophic. Dead Dead Demon’s Dededede Destruction is bitterly incisive and uproariously funny, which also plays into the critique it offers.
Happy seventh day of Christmas! And a word of advice if you seek to dive into the world of graphic novels: your local library is a wonderful place. Many of these you’ll likely be able to find through your own library network, but as well, many library systems participate in inter-library loan, which will allow your branch to acquire books from other libraries across the country for a nominal fee (or sometimes at no charge). This would be particularly useful in finding Wandering Son. I personally save thousands of dollars every year through library usage. (And that’s my real gift to you today!)