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Reading Images


I'm not certain when my son, the writer for animated television programs and occasionally comic books, and I started talking about graphic novels. We probably shared reactions to Maus: A Survivor's Tale by Art Spiegelman, where Jewish mice are oppressed by Nazi cats, and Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood by Marjane Satrapi, where female children in Iran struggle with political oppressions; we've likely conversed about their sequels and adaptations—Persepolis eventually became a movie. Memory tells me that one of my gifts from him was the graphic memoir They Called Us Enemy by George Takei, an actor best known for his role as Sulu on multiple seasons of Star Trek but also a memoirist.


Sulu's family were of Japanese descent, his father born in Japan, his mother, his siblings, and himself born in the United States. The memoir centers on his childhood experiences with his family while, because of their family background, they were incarcerated in concentration camps in Arkansas and California during World War II. I've read it a few times now. Initially, by paying more attention to the nature of graphic storytelling, I considered finding a way to think more about Takei's book and compare the political nature of it to those by Spiegelman and Satrapi, all centered on troubling historical moments. The oppressors in Takei's memoir are not quite as villainous as the Nazis and Jihadis in those other books, but they are certainly callous, oppressive, and unjust, and Takei's mention in the final pages of recent bans on Muslim immigration to the United States as on a par with the treatment of Japanese Americans in the 1940s brings his readers into the present.


But then I started connecting Takei's graphic memoir to other visual presentations that have haunted me, specifically Dorothea Lange's internment camp photos that caught my attention over a year ago. I'm tempted to focus on two aspects of Takei's book: its internal narrative and graphic representation of the internment camp and its effort to make the book almost like a scene-by-scene reproduction of a film. On one page there are two almost-identical pictures depicting the Japanese-American internees in the context of two problematic items on a form they were asked to sign, the first making them feel complicit in the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and the second making them deny an allegiance to an emperor they never felt to begin with. Another page had three images of military trucks in increasing sizes, each with sounds labeled on them, each larger (and louder) in succession. The sequence suggests to me one of the aspects of the book's narrative composition, the graphics working almost like clips from a movie or television series. In an expanded version of the book published a year later, additional pages explain how the illustrator, Harmony Becker, worked with Takei and two co-authors, Justin Eisinger and Steve Scott, to visualize the moments and develop them in an almost cinematic way. One could imagine the book as a graphic screenplay. Throughout the book we are aware that Takei is narrating the story as if it were a TEDx talk—in fact, he is sometimes portrayed on the TEDx stage, sometimes in close-up, sometimes at a distance, the way the speakers on those telecasts are filmed.


So what is the difference between a Lange photograph and a Takei-Becker graphic, between a static image and a hand-drawn illustration? I've seen a series of black-and-white photographs that Lange took at the internment camp. They are not sequential or serial, but essentially random and individual and cumulative in their often ironic impact on the viewer. The images in Takei's graphic memoir, also in black-and-white, are less explicit in terms of background and close-up details; they emphasize expressions on individual faces and establish sequences of action and re-action in the characters they depict. Narrative insertions tend to contextualize the images. The book is cinematic in its visuals and sound-effects and virtually provides a voice-over narration as well as dialogue in prose rather than in sound.


In the expanded edition Takei explains how the book came together through the efforts of himself and his team. They essentially provided a screenplay for a graphic production of the story Takei was essentially telling on his TED talk in Kyoto. Does this alter our sense of how a graphic novel or graphic memoir (or comic book) operates? A sequence of narrative images that might readily be transferred to cinematic animation? I've seen (and enjoyed) Marjane Satrapi's film version of Persepolis. I suspect that Maus could make the transfer readily. Maybe we yet will get the chance to see They Called Me Enemy as an animated film and reading the graphic memoir will be even more emphatically like reading the screenplay of the film.


Notes: George Takei, Justin Eisinger, Steve Scott, and Harmony Becker. They Called Us Enemy. Expanded Edition. IDW Printing, 2020.


Dorothea Lange, Pledge of Allegiance Internment Image is viewable here.

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