Just So Happens by Fumio Obata
I was recommended this title because of the London/Tokyo/Kyoto setting, but I ended up loving it because of the gorgeous watercolour art. Focusing on Yumiko, a Japanese woman who had been living in London for years, and her visit to Japan upon her father’s death. The story is told in a simple, subtle manner, slowly unveiling her relationship with her parents and siblings. In the beginning, Yumiko seemed disconnected from Japan – she would avert her eyes when passing by other Japanese people, as her English boyfriend observed. She didn’t talk a lot about home, either. Once she reached Tokyo, however, we get to see her memories – past conversations with her father, who seemed to wish she would take on more feminine, filial attributes (and get married/stay close).
After Tokyo, she went to Kyoto to visit her mother for new conversations – her mother was an intellectual whose talents were stifled by her family and ex-husband until she broke free to see how far she could go. Her mother approved of Yumiko’s life in London and wished that Yumiko would do more. However, as Yumiko explained, while she wasn’t quite the daughter her father wanted, she wasn’t quite like her mother either, and even after years in London she had always planned on coming back to Japan one day. Interspersed between her journeys, memories, and new experiences were images of Noh theatre actors/stage sets, most of which were probably from Yumiko’s imagination. Noh theatre is about conveying vivid emotions through stylized/formal gestures, and that’s the feeling that I get from this graphic novel – a lot of emotion packed into a series of quiet, small moments.
Skim by Mariko Tamaki & Jillian Tamaki
TW: mention of suicide
The first time I read Skim was about three years ago. I enjoyed it, but I was at a point where I was tired of queer YA stories with unhappy endings (to the romances), so Skim also left me feeling a little emotionally exhausted. This time around, the first thing that came to mind is how it reminds me of Ghost World, which is one of my favourite coming-of-age stories. Both are about a girl who identifies as someone out of the norm, and whose relationship with her best friend was starting to feel strained. I guess it felt true. A lot of books TV shows and films targeted towards YA audiences make school seem pretty different from my actual experience, especially when it comes to first love and dances and the friends. And I like that – most of the time. But other times, I needed stories that are closer to the truth of what being sixteen felt like, and Skim is that for me. How could it not be, with lines like this:
“This is the thing about school dances. They make like it’s supposed to be this other-worldly thing, but really it’s just the people you see every day dressed up, standing in the gym in the dark with Red Hot Chili Peppers playing.”
Skim (real name: Kimberly Keiko Cameron) who is falling in love for the first time, with a teacher who is also a woman, which makes it two reasons never to tell her best friend Lisa. At sixteen, love is the thing that brings her joy, and pain, and confusion. Lisa has never been in love, and makes gay jokes. Meanwhile, Katie, one of the popular girls, is dumped by her boyfriend who then commits suicide, sending the school into a frenzy over talks about depression and suicidal impulses. Since Skim and Lisa are goths who are learning to be Wiccan, of course some of the students assume they’re depressed. Like Just So Happens, Skim is a quiet, subtle sort of story. I like that at the end of this book, Skim ends up like how she wished Romeo and Juliet would – “…maybe it would still be tragic at first, but then afterwards, when they survive and live, you know… it could end up being something else.”
The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang & Sonny Liew
Back in 2015 someone who is well-known here in Malaysia, and whose career I had a measure of respect for, wrote an editorial. It pissed me off so much, that it was one of the few times I wrote a somewhat personal post on my Facebook (which I generally don’t use for personal stuff). He said that Asian superheroes were an oxymoron. He asked, “how do you save the world and save face at the same time? The Asian comic superhero is a contradiction in terms.”
Of course, I was not the only person who disagreed. I’ve read a lot of responses to this NYT piece saying otherwise. I don’t think that his question was necessarily wrong – but I also thought that it was these questions that make Asian superheroes more interesting to me in the long run. And trying to answer these questions, or having characters that are trying to balance both being the “good Asian daughter/son/etc” and being a superhero is what made me love characters like Kamala Khan (Ms. Marvel) and Amadeus Cho (Hulk). It’s why I was so interested in Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew’s The Shadow Hero.
The Green Turtle is a relatively unknown (I think) Golden Age superhero, revived by Yang and Liew in 2014. They gave the character an origin story that is both hilarious and believable – a young man who had never wanted to be anything other than a grocer in Chinatown, and a mother who insists that her son is destined for greatness, to the point of shoving him into a toxic spill – and a villain that is both over-the-top and yet somehow understandable in his own way. I loved the humour, and I loved the way this story explores the immigrant experience in different ways. I loved the Shadow, and the fact that despite this book is kind of riddled with superhero story cliches, and is in the style of Golden Age comics, it felt like I was reading something new and different. When I reached the end, I wished I could read more of this version of The Green Turtle, and I wished that there would be future collaborations between Yang and Liew, who are both among my favourite comic creators.