Graphic novels and comics, just like other formats in kids and teen media, still have a ways to go to be a medium that consistently reflects the diversity and variation in our world, but I am always happy to see titles that broaden our views. In reading Craig Thompson’s Habibi (very much not for kids) this past week, however, I was struck by how powerful the graphic format is in giving readers mirrors, reflecting themselves in the wider world, and windows, entering into cultures and communities that are outside our immediate experience. It made me ask myself: what are my favorite titles that give us such views?
This week I’ve decided to take a look at titles for kids and teens that do an exceptional job of hanging up those mirrors and showing us the view through those windows.
When Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis hit the shelves in the US in 2003, book clubs and longtime comics readers alike were reminded of the power of comics in showing another place and time. Most importantly, the title portrayed the complexity of what seemed to many a monolithic, impenetrable society. Along with the young Marjane, who loves her heritage and country dearly even as she challenges its flaws and quizzes her family about hypocrisies, the reader viscerally experiences just how much Iran is not its government or political propaganda alone but is as varied and contradictory as any country. While the second volume veers into teen and adult territory, the first volume appeals strongly to younger teen readers and can provoke a rich discussion.
Guy Delisle’s charming travelogues, including Pyongyang, Shenzen, and The Burma Chronicles, take readers into countries few Westerners enter and reports back with humor, attentive observations, and a clear eye for the differences and similarities that teach us as much about our own prejudices as foreign territories. Delisle relates his adventures with a reporter’s clearness, trusting readers to draw their own conclusions about his interactions with locals and tangles with political restrictions. Teen readers will find fertile ground in these volumes for discussing the sources of stereotypes and nationhood.
Barry Deutsch’s Hereville does a remarkable job showing an Orthodox Jewish community from the inside, underscoring the truth of that society despite the whimsical fairy tale touches. While giving us the delightful story of Mirka’s desire to be a troll-fighting heroine for the ages, Deutsch also relates details of daily life that might puzzle outsiders. His amiable tone keeps variations from seeming bizarre and instead explanations read as informative notes about the culture the readers now find themselves in.
Aside from all of these windows, there is just as much a need for mirrors. So many readers don’t see themselves in comics and its important to celebrate those titles that widen representation.
There’s something to be said for characters that are simply visible. Johnny Hiro tells the tale of an ordinary guy running into all kinds of sci-fi, superhero, and adventure problems, from rampaging monsters to ronin. Johnny also happens to be half-Asian (and all hero, as the book’s tagline exclaims), and his girlfriend Mayumi is Japanese. This shouldn’t be a startling occurrence, but it’s important to remember that having a traditional, light-hearted and pop-culture-filled adventure story starring someone who’s not Caucasian is the exception. Incidental diversity of all kinds should be what we aim for in comics and media.
I turn to the outstanding series Wandering Son by Takako Shimura, recently published in a gorgeous hardcover edition by Fantagraphics, for a uncommon mirror indeed. You might expect I’m bringing up a manga series to draw the connections between Japanese culture and our own, but this series offers a far more rare glimpse: a delicate look at gender identity. In Wandering Son, two fifth graders discover they share the desire to present as the opposite gender: Shuichi wants nothing more than to wear his friend’s cute dress, while Yoshino leans more and more toward a masculine identity. By the end of the first volume, neither really even knows how to talk about what they’re feeling, and we readers must wait to see where these feelings lead. The book’s very existence could help young teens begin to think about gender expectations and sympathize with peers who might be struggling with similar questions. Japanese manga can be full of stereotypes about gender, frequently exaggerated and ridiculed for comic purposes, but Wandering Son is a stand out because it sidesteps melodrama or sensationalizing gender difference.
These are just a few of my favorite titles, but I’d love to hear from you about your favorites titles that add to our understanding of the wider world.
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