Tuesday, December 13, 2011

GN Review -- Drawing From Memory / Allen Say

Drawing From Memory isn't the first graphic biography I've read, but it is the first graphic autobiography I've read, and has so far been the most interesting, if for purely selfish reasons. Its author, Allen Say, tells the story of his early life in Japan, how he became a cartoonist and eventually came into his own with the help of his mentor, cartoonist Noro Shinpei. It's a treat for anyone who's loved comics from a young age, a kind of spiritual vindication that the medium we loved can inspire greatness into adulthood.

A word about the format: it's not a typical graphic novel. Drawing from Memory contains words, and pictures in artwork in a more or less sequential format, but the text and the visuals are distinct, neither occurring in a common panel the way comic books tend to read. The comic book/GN purists out there might be quick to point out that this is more of a children's picture book than a graphic novel. My feeling is that there are more pictures with accompanying text per page than your typical picture book, moving the story along together, and therefore makes a hybrid of the two that I think deserves a review on this site.

As a young boy in Yokohama, the author learned to read well before school, making him popular among the local kids, since he could read comic books to them. After being exposed to comics, he quickly fell in love with them, resolving to become a cartoonist and practicing from an early age. This was much to the dismay of his mother and the displeasure of his father, who considered artists to not be respectable people. But through changing residences during World War II and his parents' divorce soon after, he kept hold of his passion, drawing in his spare time and hiding them from his father when he was around.

Soon after getting his own apartment at age 12, he seeks out tutelage from Noro Shinpei, a Japanese cartoonist of much renown. After being taken on by Shinpei, Say relates some of the adventures he has with him and Tokida, another protege of Shinpei's, and documents the gradual blossoming of his own style as a cartoonist. He and Tokida draw people on the street, get swept up in a demonstration against the government, and even get featured as comic strip characters in Shinpei's popular comic, "Demokurashee-chan." Eventually his father asks him to come with him and his new family when they emigrate to America, and he realizes that as the relationships around him change, he too must change to grow as an artist. The story ends with him leaving his apartment as he found it, as he goes to travel to America with his father.

Say does a great job of depicting the world through the eyes of his younger self, and gives all the characters around himself depth and relevance, however big their role. His mother, for instance, supports him financially from afar after her divorce from his father, but toward the end of the narrative shows that, while his life has been changing and progressing, hers has as well. Tokida and Shinpei are wonderful inspirations and support for the author's day-to-day experiences, and even the distant father who shunned him exhibits mysterious benevolence by inviting him to America.

My only real issue with this story is where it ends. I understand that it makes sense for Say to end the work at the end of his time in Japan, but it does leave some unanswered questions. What happened when he got to America? Why did his father suddenly ask him to come with him, after so many years of silence and a long-held disregard for his son's love for cartooning? I'm sure Say has the answers--this is about his life, after all--and they might even be in his other works. I just would have liked to seen them in this one.

The artwork and visual samples are very nice. Even though most of what Say draws is silent within the panel, he can still tell a compelling visual story without using words. His style is relatively simple, but very evocative. One of my favorite illustrations is the one on the cover, where he simply says he floated around his apartment all day, flush with pride. It's a wonderful visualization of how he feels, and fits the subjective tone of the work.

This was a wonderful biography that, like many good works, easily transcends the demographic for which it is ostensibly intended. At a mere 63 pages, it's a quick read, but packs a lot of emotion into its narrative. I expected to have issues with it due to its format, but the story of Say's early life in Japan quickly intrigued me, brushing away all skepticism very early on. For anyone who's ever wanted to be an artist, had parents who didn't understand their passions, or who simply like biographies about author illustrators, I recommend Drawing From Memory very highly. For those who might have issues with the form, I'd recommend giving it a try. Highly recommended.

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