Law and Conversation

October 22, 2013

Aya is back!

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From checking Amazon and Drawn and Quarterly’s website I knew there were more than the 3 collections of Aya comic strips that were available in my public library and which I read and enjoyed three years ago. But they were available only in French and Spanish, and I wanted English translations. So I was thrilled to find a new omnibus collection, Aya: Love in Yop City, on the shelf of new graphic novels the last time I was at the library, and I promptly checked it out.

If you’ve read much of this blog, you know I’ve loved comics since I was a child and that I’ve been on a graphic novel jag off and on for several years, ever since reading Marjane Satrapi’s “Persepolis” a few years ago. I’ve also specifically written of how engaging I find the Aya series, written by Ivorian native Marguerite Abouet, who now makes her home in Paris, and gorgeously drawn by French artist Clement Oubrerie. The new collection is as delightful as the other three volumes, and very much worth the wait. To my delight, I also spotted a number of legal issues in the tightly crafted story about a girl growing up in 1980s Abidjan, the largest city in the Ivory Coast.

Aya is now a college student studying medicine, still living at home in the working-class north Abidjan town and commune of Yopougon. At the outset of the story, she receives a rude introduction into the adult world of unfairness when her biology professor turns out to be a bully who subjects her to explicit quid pro quo sexual harassment, telling her she can forget about medical school and that she’s too stupid ever to be a doctor when she spurns his advances.

Abouet is really good at weaving several subplots about Aya’s friends into her main narrative. Her friend Adjoua’s brother’s ex, Innocent, has decamped to Paris to seek his fortune but has a rough go of it; culture shock and immigration issues in early 1980s France make things difficult for him, just as they often do today in France and the U.S. alike, as well as many other countries, for foreign-born individuals seeking to immigrate. Luckily, Innocent makes a friend when he saves another young gay French man, Sebastian, from being beaten by thugs. The horrified reactions of Sebastian’s and, in a later, different subplot development, Adjoua’s parents on their sons’ coming out to them as gay inevitably called to my mind the public debate in this country over bullying and seeking legal means, including tort suits and criminal statutes, to combat it, as well as over the increasing inclusion of sexual preference in anti-discrimination laws and enactment of laws permitting same-sex couples to marry.

I got to attend multiple programs recently at Chicago Ideas Week. Chicago native Dan Savage, a writer now living in Seattle, spoke at one of those programs about the It Gets Better Project that he started with his husband in response to the suicide of a gay teenager after having been bullied.

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Gay kids, of course, aren’t alone in being subject to bullying for being different. Though Savage’s admirable project is directed specifically and primarily toward young LGBT people, the message of the project and the videos applies equally well to all who are feeling as if they don’t and will never fit in in their schools, families, or other communities. I hope the project helps not only LGBT youth but straight kids, too; it seems to me that if people could feel safe being true to who they really are (I’m exempting sociopaths, of course), an enormous amount of unhappiness and conflict in the world would vanish. Remember not only Rudolph, but Hermie in “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” who wanted to be a dentist, not a toy maker like the other elves?

And there’s something else that’s really cool: The stories of Aya in 1980s Ivory Coast and Hermie the elf in a 1960s American movie resonate with each other and with the U.S., France, and the rest of the world in 2013. Linking the commonalities of people from vastly different backgrounds, places, and times is one of the great things about stories.

So please go read Aya! Abouet deftly and satisfyingly resolves all of her subplots, and, as I mentioned, Oubrerie’s artwork is just beautiful. And I couldn’t help but be pleased to see that strong, sensible, intelligent young heroine acquire an admirer who seems worthy of her. The book is billed as the conclusion to Aya’s story, but I’m hoping Abouet and Oubrerie will continue their collaboration; I’d happily settle for a new series with different characters, though, if they feel that they’ve taken Aya as far as they can.

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May 4, 2012

New graphic novels

At a recent bar association function I was delighted to meet another lawyer who also loves comics and graphic novels. He was familiar with all of the writer/artists I mentioned, of course, and shares my esteem for Lynda Barry, who, in my view, is absolutely brilliant, and Alan Moore, whose “Watchmen” was my Best Book Read In 2011 (and was recommended to me by yet another lawyer).

Coincidentally, shortly afterwards I learned of two new graphic memoirs that have just come out, each from an artist I think is amazing: “My Friend Dahmer,” by John Backderf, and “Are You My Mother?” by Alison Bechdel. Each author draws or used to draw a weekly comic strip. Backderf’s is “The City,” a hilariously incisive strip that appears in a number of alternative publications; I’ve also seen his art in The Wall Street Journal and other publications. For 25 years, Bechdel drew “Dykes To Watch Out For,” which, I can attest, you didn’t have to be a lesbian to enjoy.

I can’t wait to read both memoirs. The “Dahmer” of Backderf’s title refers to THE Jeffrey Dahmer, the serial murderer/cannibal who himself was killed after he’d been in prison for a few years. Backderf knew him long before then, in high school in Akron, Ohio. They didn’t stay in touch, as he explained in a recent interview with Q’s Jian Ghomeshi, and he was as shocked as anyone when Dahmer’s atrocities hit the news in the 1990s. In Bechdel’s first graphic memoir, “Fun Home,” which was nominated for a National Book Critics Circle Award and won several others, she tries to make sense of her father’s concealment of his homosexuality. In her new one, she turns to her relationship with her mother.

In other comic/graphic novel news, from Canadian law professor Kate Sutherland’s Twitter stream comes this account of European legal proceedings with respect to one of Herge’s classic volumes of The Adventures of Tintin: Tintin au Congo. One of the many great comics of the mid-20th century, Tintin reflects the prejudices of his time as well. That particular installment includes matter that is outdated and appalling to our 21st century minds. As I’ve previously noted, so, of course, did many other notable publications of that era, including not only comic books but also, to name just a few examples, Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Tarzan and Venus series, Margaret Sidney’s “Five Little Peppers Midway,” and Edward Stratemeyer’s “Tom Swift” series.

As I’ve written, I never lost my childhood love of comic books. A few years ago, I discovered their history and how they’ve grown up into graphic novels. If possible, I love them now even more than when I was seven years old. Some contemporary graphic novels that I’ve found outstanding include Marguerite Abouet and Clement Oubrerie’s Aya series (Yay! Volume 4 is coming out in English in just a couple of months!!), set in the Ivory Coast, David Small’s “Stitches,” Guy DeLisle’s documentary-style books on Pyongyang, Shenzhen, and other places, and Craig Thompson’s “Blankets.”

Comic and graphic novel fans, what are your favorites, and what recently published graphic novels are you recommending? I’m always interested in adding to my TBR list.

September 29, 2011

The fascinating history of comic books

The other day I posted about Banned Books Week here in the US. In the mid-20th century there was a powerful movement against comic books in this country, complete with public burnings. I’ve noticed, though, that comic books don’t usually rate mentions during Banned Books Week. Indeed, though I’ve always loved comics, until just a few years ago, when I happened to be listening to podcasts reviewing David Hajdu’s “The Ten-Cent Plague: The Great Comic-Book Scare and How It Changed America,” I had no idea about that interesting and appalling part of US history.

Jeet Heer’s article in Slate, “The Caped Crusader: Frederic Wertham and the campaign against comic books,” reminds me that I’ve been meaning to read Hajdu’s book for some time and ought to move it up on my list. Now that I know that Wertham and his partisans succeeded in whipping even Congress up into a frenzy over comic books, I understand why, when I was a child a couple of decades later, my parents didn’t want me to tell anyone I had my own subscription to MAD magazine. But Heer’s nuanced treatment of Wertham, which I haven’t seen elsewhere, also reminds us that many comics of that period contained story lines and imagery that even those of us who oppose banning books would find shocking and repugnant today.

I mentioned Michael Chabon’s “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay,” a novelization of the mid-20th century’s comic book age, in my last post. The fictional storyline of Chabon’s novel reminded me strongly of longtime MAD magazine artist Al Jaffee’s real life story, which Mary Lou Weisman tells in collaboration with her subject in “Al Jaffee’s Mad Life.” (What, you don’t remember which cartoons Jaffee drew? He invented the brilliant Fold-Ins back in 1964; NOW do you remember?) You can read more about Jaffee and Weisman’s book, including the entire prologue, complete with some of Jaffee’s wonderful illustrations, on HEEB’s website.

To summarize, here are three reading recommendations for books about the fascinating history of comic books:

1) The Ten-Cent Plague: The Great Comic-Book Scare and How It Changed America, by David Hajdu

2) The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, by Michael Chabon

3) Al Jaffee’s Mad Life, by Mary Lou Weisman

As always, I’d love to hear other recommendations for further reading in the comments.

UPDATED: Neatorama has a great post on the history of comic books. Hat tip: Judex Jones.

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