Carolene Ayaka and Ian Hague (Eds.), Representing Multiculturalism in Comics and Graphic Novels, New York: Routledge, 2015, ISBN: 978-1-138-02515-8, 269pp.
Understood as a visual medium that often combines imagery with text, usually in a sequential manner, comics are an art form perfectly predisposed towards conveying complex narrative structures. Comics employ a wide variety of formats ranging from single panel editorial cartoons, to multi-panel comic strips, to comic book series, to Japanese manga and graphic novels, to perhaps the most recent iteration of the medium, webcomics. Within these varied formats numerous strategies of representation may be encountered, lending a hybrid quality to the medium while also opening it to much debate. The chief concern of this book is to examine how multiculturalism (itself a highly debatable term) is represented in comic arts.
Tellingly, the editors introduce this collection not by strictly defining the term ‘multiculturalism’ but by asking: ‘Is studying representations of multiculturalism in comics the same as producing multiculturalist comics scholarship?’ (p. 1). Stemming from a 2012 Comics Forum conference, the pieces brought together in this volume constitute what might be described as an attempt towards a greater multicultural and cross-disciplinary dialogue on the representational possibilities of the medium. Sites of cultural engagement include, very broadly: African American, Latino, East Asian American, South African, British, Spanish, Romanian, Israeli, Japanese, and Persian, amongst others. Somewhat surprisingly, Lily Glasner’s chapter on an Israeli comic book argues for a multicultural discourse that includes children as a minority culture heretofore under-recognized as being oppressed by an adult majority culture (pp177-193). Still, a tendency to lean towards North American and European comic arts prevails here: only one chapter out of the fifteen focuses on a specific African country’s comics (Andy Mason, The Presidential Penis: Questions of Race and Representation in South African Comic and Satirical Art, pp. 49-65).
In seeking to facilitate a wider examination of the structural forces that shape our concepts of culture as well as the visual and textual structures used to convey culture in comics, the editors chose to divide this volume into five distinct parts. Part I, Histories and Contexts, consists of three essays dealing with the societal backgrounds of three specific developments in comic history. Two of the essays deal with troubling depictions of black American and black South African subjects, respectively. The first asks, can ‘counterculture’ act as an umbrella term under which harmful stereotyping and racial caricatures of black Americans may safely hide, or is there value in re-opening these wounds? The second essay, written by a long-time cartoonist, points to the controversy behind caricaturing real-life political figures in post-apartheid South Africa, asking us to look for the historical structures that uphold racism before we shun all satire in the name of political-correctness.
Part II’s title, Depicting Difference, succinctly summarizes what it is that comics are so adept at doing by means of examining what Sarah D. Harris refers to as a ‘visual shorthand’ used to ‘zero in on racial and ethnic difference’ (p. 113). The production of ideology by means of this visual shorthand is a common theme here, as it is utilized to both enforce and uphold depictions of difference. As Simon Grennan demonstrates, these depictions come to embody both the producers and the readers of comics (p. 69). Mel Gibson’s chapter on using anthropomorphism as a visual tool for examining multicultural interactions in the human world is especially clear and brings a novel perspective to the topic of multiculturalism (pp. 83-89).
Part III, Monstrosity and Otherness, brings together three diverse analyses of depicting difference in comics, all of which point to the commodification of the depiction of the ‘Other’ as monstrous and its usefulness in societies. The range of this section is notable, beginning with Sarah D. Harris’s discussion of Francisco de Goya’s ‘proto-comics’ (p. 114) alongside the modern Spanish comic The Masked Warrior. Later, Ian Horton provides an Orwellian examination of colonialist stereotypes that have prevailed from British boys’ adventure comics of the early 20th century into present times, as well as an expected reference to Edward Said in regard to modern depictions of the hyper-sexualized Oriental. Jacob Birken concludes this section with a study on Japanese contemporary Shonen Manga.
Part IV, Challenging Assumptions, consists of two chapters dealing with comic books aimed at a juvenile audience. The first takes the well-known and beloved Tintin series as its subject, arguing for the ‘indirect education’ (p. 163) that is possible when the series is translated into multiple languages and carefully edited for cultural clarity. While stereotypical racial and ethnic depictions are acknowledged here, Maria-Sabina Daga Alexandru argues that Tintin ultimately asks its young readers to reexamine their own culturally received assumptions about others. Lily Glasner’s chapter on an Israeli children’s comic has already been addressed here, and is included in this section of the book.
Finally, Part V, titled Case Studies, includes four chapters on comics and graphic novels that demonstrate the individual subject as locus of negotiation between seemingly fixed yet constantly shifting cultural identities. It is in this section that I found one of the weaker reads of the entire volume, Emma Oki’s chapter on representing East Asian Americans (pp. 228-239). While I appreciated the frequent explanation of key plot points and quotes from the characters in the graphic novels discussed, I found myself constantly asking “what, why, how?” Put simply, what could have been a well crafted argument suffered for a lack of real demonstration. Similarly, an earlier chapter on Latino identities in Love and Rockets (Ana Merino, pp. 34-48) also suffered a lack of clarity in argument and overcompensated with frequent plot exposition. It should be mentioned that the latter was translated from the original, so perhaps something was lost in that process.
In the final chapter of the collection, Alex Link deftly compares Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis and Taiyo Matsumoto’s Tekkon Kinkreet, arguing for the individual’s ability and right to articulate their local culture’s ‘collective identity without fixing that identity coercively’ within a globalized, mechanized structure (p.240). While a modern Persian and not-too-distant future Japan seem to have little in common on the surface, this chapter reads as a clarion call for just that—the right and the necessity to express cultural difference. Link ends: ‘the fact of devotion and commitment to keeping one’s cultural identity alive by activating it in the expression takes precedence over the positive content of that identity’ (p. 253).
In carefully arranging Representing Multiculturalism’s pieces into a structural dialogue with one another, the editors and contributors have managed to meaningfully add to an important and ongoing conversation within the young field of comics studies, if also inadvertently managing to further dislodge any definition of the term multiculturalism from my mind. Out of all the chapters included in this volume, only one clearly attempted to define what multiculturalism actually meant for his study. Jacob Birken’s Set Pieces: Cultural Appropriation and the Search for Contemporary Identities in Shonen Manga (pp. 146-159) refreshingly ‘suspend(s) “multiculturalism” as a paradigm for dealing with cultures in plural, and to retreat to a notion of ‘culture, whose qualifying or quantifying prefix remains a potential’ (p.147).
By avoiding any hard definitions of such a term, the editors seem to have deliberately exposed the limitations inherent to any attempts to generalize or universalize notions of multiculturalism. In studying a variety of representations of cultural difference in comics while analyzing both oppressive and liberating possibilities inherent to the art form, this collection succeeds in its project to ‘produce multiculturalist comics scholarship’ (p. 1).
Sara Oelrich Church, September 2015
MA in Art History, University of Saint Thomas
Gifts Officer, Books For Africa, Inc.
Grandpa and His Mystical House
This House Is Not For Sale / E.C. Osondu, Haper Collins, USA. 2015 (ISBN: 9780061990885, pages: 192), $25.99 / £14.99
An old house, a patriarch, and its numerous inhabitants with incredible pasts...
E.C. Osondu stamped his name as one of Nigeria’s finest contemporary writers with his debut book Voice of America (VOA), a short story collection which came out in 2010. It was in VOA that his Caine Prize-winning story Waiting and another shortlisted story Jimmy Carter’s Eyes appeared. The collection brimmed with people trying to live above the poverty line by any means: bank robbers, kidnappers, widows, corrupt policemen, prostitutes, and even an American vagabond living in Nigeria who turns out to be a Nollywood celebrity. So with an exciting first outing, readers would expect Osondu’s latest offer to be another scintillating read.
Osondu’s new novel’s title reminds any Nigerian of the popular statement written boldly on buildings to keep clear of confidence-men around the country: THIS HOUSE IS NOT FOR SALE, BEWARE OF 419. Though EC Osundu never mentions it anywhere in the book, it is obvious it is set in Lagos like in most of the stories in VOA. Just as most times one doesn’t know who is narrating, one only knows it is a child (or a group of children) narrating because of the underlying precocity and unreliability. The chapters – if they can be called chapters –have little or no connection between themselves, confirming EC Osundu’s inclination to the short form.
The first story or section of the book begins with a genealogical tale of origin, in a format common to the tradition of storytelling in Africa. When the children of the household ask their ‘Grandpa’ how the Family House came to be, Grandpa tells them a fantastic story that began a ‘long, long time ago’. Their ancestor, a respected juju man, dreamt he saw a crown on his head and felt the dream meant he would be a king soon. In that time there was an oppressive king who had the most beautiful girls presented to him first to have as wives; a king whose hunters presented him the choicest parts of their kill. The king, in an attempt to build something that would be regarded as his heritage, constructed a moat. But he faced opposition from Grandpa’s ancestors, a move that led to the king deciding to behead everyone who opposed him. However, when it got to Grandpa’s turn to lose his head, a millipede crawled out of that same head and the king decided to let him be. The ancestor, in appreciation, made an elixir for the king’s generation. In compensation, the king built him a home in the western tradition.
In the following story, Ndozo flees the Family House after being humiliated for stealing money from the sales box. Rumours surround her disappearance, including a curse Ndozo left, ‘that just as she had been put to shame that the house and its inhabitants would eventually be humiliated...’ Years later, Ndozo returns as a wealthy woman with an incredible story. She is intent on getting her son back but the members of the Family House refuse to give her back her son. She leaves disappointed.
Perhaps, of all the people mentioned in the novel, Gramophone, formerly known as Cash, is the most exciting. He is a man who long ago came to seek refuge in Family House after killing another man. In his past life, he had a provision shop that boomed but soon failed with the coming of Rotate, another shop owner who seemed to know one or two things about proper bookkeeping. A duel ensued between Rotate and Cash to see who would attract more customers to his own shop. They employed every known method, even slandering each other’s names. Now, living in the Family House, Gramophone is married to a girl who is given to him by Grandpa, a girl whose father owed Grandpa some money and was given in exchange of the debt.
There is Abule with his unfaithful wife Fanti who hawks food by day and runs a ‘beer house’ by night. One morning he decides to kill all his wife’s lovers, one of them a bricklayer, the other a motor park tout. He shoots the bricklayer in the shoulder and kills the motor park tout. He burns his wife’s shed thereafter. His wife flees.
Gabriel ‘the unluckiest person on earth’ now lives under the roof of the Family House after venturing into a series of unfavourable businesses, from planting tomatoes to felling trees. His lumbering business ended when the first tree, which his sawyer was felling, fell on the sawyer and buried him. He thinks that under the family, perhaps his misfortune will change to luck but after a police raid and his arrest, he decides to leave the Family House since even under its roof, his unluckiness cannot be avoided.
There are a host of other people: Soja, ‘a corruption of the word soldier’ who leaves home for a training camp and returns with stories of his time away, one time working for the Environmental Task Force maltreating people and illegally confiscating people’s property; Fuebi, Soja’s daughter, whose mother rejoices to God when a rich man, Fide, makes passes at her and gives her large sums of money and, in due course, demands for sex. Things turn out to be good for Fuebi when she gets pregnant by Fide and moves into his house.
The house later comes to an end: ‘The Ministry of Environment sent a notice that the Family House is sitting on a place that should have a major drain way’. One morning it is bulldozed, the event is observed by even soldiers and policemen because everyone knows it is not an ordinary house. Family House is a house where ‘all the things they said happened in that house ... will make our ears tingle’.
Every character has a story of his own, typical Nigerian city’s stories, stories whose only connections are the Family House and Grandpa the patriarch. The characters come in a fizz in one chapter and then are never mentioned anywhere else.The stories of the characters are often didactic and ironic.Full of people fleeing, vanishing, and returning to the Family House. E.C. Osondu employs flashback technique to blend his characters’ complicated lives in such a way that their lives merged with the fortunes of the Family House, leaving them all memorable but with unsatisfying personal encounters.
Without intending to demean his book, I can say it works better as a collection of related short stories or as some sort of modernist novel told like an African fairy tale, of stories of people who lived in one big house at some point in time. There is no traceable plot. The book is something like an amalgam of Jennifer Egan’s A Visit to the Goon Squad and Chinua Achebe’s Anthills of the Savannah. Each person who arrived at the Family House seemed to have done so to seek salvation, a salvation they later realise not to be achievable.
Thematically, This House Is Not For Sale deals with most topical issues in contemporary Nigeria – prostitution, robbery, security (or lack of it), lack of infrastructure, corruption, kidnapping, political chicanery and other grim topics that populate the pages of daily newspapers in the country.
This House is not for Sale works better as a folktale rather than as a metaphor of contemporary Nigerian social and political history.There’s so much allusion to the Family House that at a point one feels it is another character, or rather the central character we seem to be missing, which isn’t entirely a bad thing. In reading the book, we experience a house full of mysterious people with mysterious stories. It becomes a representation of the complicated and fast life lived in the city, in this case, Lagos. Of all the people who have stayed in the Family House, Grandpa is obviously the most enlightened, the one who is portrayed as a flawless one. He is portrayed as a metaphysical being. He seems to have solutions to every problem, doling out advice to critical situations. Everyone else listens to him. But, who knows, whether this is because Grandpa is the Family House’s owner, whose attributes are reflected like a spectral mirror in the lives of the occupants of the Family House?
NIgeria, July, 2015