Other Nexus Graphica Columns
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Bertozzi's Lews & Clark
Recent Books of Interest
Lewis & Clark by Nick Bertozzi (FirstSecond)
The iconic journey of Meriwether Lewis, William Clark, and their Corps of Discovery -- replete
with a slave and teenage mother (that'd be Sacagawea) -- is captured by Bertozzi in straightforward
fashion, starting with a stormy-eyed Lewis being summoned from his bed by President
Jefferson. And while Bertozzi lets events unfold in linear, chronological fashion,
his "camera," as it were, spends most of its time looking over Lewis' shoulder,
ending -- nearly -- with Lewis' suicide at Grinder's Inn along the Natchez Trace. I
say "nearly," because there's another coda after that -- think of Return of the King's
multiple endings -- recounting an apocryphal version of Sacagawea's own passing. If you
know Lewis & Clark's journeys already, you'll love seeing various moments, events -- seasons (the
winter at Ft. Mandan) put "on screen," as it were. If you don't, this is a splendid primer,
although Bertozzi packs in so much, without annotation -- there's no narration and little
captioning, it's primarily "present tense" dialogue -- that might need to, well, pause
and annotate things yourself, to better understand what you've just seen. But as with
the Corps, the journey will be worth it.
Vietnamerica by GB Tran (Villard)
As I write in the column to the left, GB Tran is the first American-born son of a couple
who fled Vietnam during the fall of Saigon. Though much as "fall" is a multi-layered word
in this context, connoting loss (from an American perspective), that mid-70s moment also
represented the first time Vietnam had been united under its own rule, after battling
the French, Japanese and Americans (of the recent conquerors -- there were the Chinese
before that). That their first "unified" government turned out to be as radically imperfect
as the ones it replaced, is all too typical of history, and here, we see the stunning nexus
of family, national, and global histories, the last two, especially, constantly affecting
the first. Here, Tran gives his account of growing into adulthood, an American future as
a videogame-playing graphic artist ahead of him, and finally becoming curious about what
his own family's role in those previous events (and the role of events in his family)
actually was. And how it came to be that he was the first native-born American among his
half-sisters and secret-wielding parents. Like a peeled onion, much of the structure is
curled and a bit scattered, and with the cross-cutting and time-shifting -- between his
father's and mother's families -- you're not always sure whose story you're
following. But by the last act, with a shattering, unresolvable reveal about his
paternal grandfather, and a series of splash panels leading up to his parents' nose-hair
escape, you're riveted. The year in graphic memoir is off to a strong start.
The 120 Days of Simon by Simon Gärdenfors (Top Shelf)
Here's one I read late last fall, as Rick and I were compiling our "Year in Review" columns,
so I never got a chance to blurb it. Until now. Swedish Rapper/Rocker and comiceur (I just
made that word up. It basically means "cartoonist") Gärdenfors got an idea for a book: He'd
sublet his Stockholm apartment for 4 months -- which is to say, 120 Days -- and travel
around the country, housed by people who would volunteer to be part of his itinerary, via
a web page. They have to provide food and board (but he won't spend more than two days in
a single locale). Since he's both single and child-less, the picking up and going isn't
much of a challenge, and so he's on his way, and here recounts his odyssey in a series
of vertical two-panel cartoon strips. It's mostly pretty fun -- he gets laid a lot (because
he's young and semi-famous? Or because it's Sweden?), and some real-life "plot points"
recur in interesting way, including jilted girlfriends, old paramours, enraged,
vendetta-prone brothers, and a sober TV reporting seeking to probe ties between
the "occult" and rock n' roll. It doesn't quite have a transcendent, tied-together
end though, a catharsis if you will, making you think some particular life was learned,
either by Simon, or the reader. Then again, from a Buddhist perspective, which is to say,
one of being in the moment, he did have 120 Days' worth of interesting moments. Simple
art, fun tale, breezy sex: Throw this in your backpack during your wanderjahr.
Corps of Discovery
Copyright © 2011 Mark London Williams
My first column in this Brave New Year of 2011, since Rick & I wrangled our "best of" lists, and we seem to be
off to a strong start.
I was intending to spend the column writing about Nick Bertozzi's splendid graphical overview
of Lewis & Clark -- as in "Meriwether" and "William" -- those plucky adventurers sent by Thomas Jefferson to
explore the then-unknown (to most European-Americans) West, along with their handpicked Corps of Discovery (see
review in sidebar).
Of course, not everyone had a choice in the matter: Clark's slave York, though treated more "equally" out on
the trail than he would be "back home," didn't actually "sign up" for the adventure. So too the fabled
Sacagawea, encountered that first winter in the Dakotas as a pregnant teenage mom. She'd been sold/traded
to her older husband, Charbonneau, by the tribe that had originally captured and enslaved her.
So -- somewhat fittingly -- this first great domestic American adventure had two slaves in it. And if not for
Sacagawea, it might not have succeeded, since her presence allowed successful (and literal) horse-trading
with the Shoshone tribe -- the very one from which Sacagawea had been kidnapped when she was 13. Those horses
allowed the Corps to make it to Pacific Coast (and back to their boats, parked in the inter-mountain west,
the next spring).
If I go on about this particular Exploration, it's because I'm one of its "fans," from a history buff's
perspective. So much that is essential to the American experiment -- and its present, clearly faltering
state -- is contained in that journey: the high hopes, the contradictions between aspirations and eventual
fall-out (Lewis is shown ruminating the fate of Native Americans, now that the "West" had been opened up),
even the failure of great material success to quell inner demons. The Corps had become the early 19th
century versions of "media stars" upon their return, thanks to the copious journals the group kept.
But Bertozzi spends a few pages following his "leads" -- especially the troubled Meriwether -- after the
great journey ends, and so his suicide-by-gunshot at an inn along the Natchez Trace is included towards the
My third Danger Boy book is about Lewis, Clark, Jefferson, and many of those contradictions. Of course, I
insert a 21st century boy into the mix (along with a dinosaur and teenage girl from Alexandria -- Egypt,
that is, not Virginia) to ratchet up those contractions. But I spent about a year steeped in
Lewis/Clark-iana, and I never tire of learning new facets about that particular odyssey.
So it was I intended to write about all these things (indeed, perhaps I just did!), when I picked up the
next book in my promising new year's start pile. GB Tran's Vietnamerica is his graphic memoir/historical
recreation of his parents' journey from a war-torn Vietnam to America, where he became the first family
born here (also reviewed in the sidebar).
(As a side note, Vietnamerica shares a title with an earlier prose book, about the "homecoming" of
Vietnamese kids fathered by U.S. serviceman, who, abandoned in Vietnam, were airlifted back here some
And it was then I realized that the two books were like, well, book-ends. Lewis and Clark were heading west
when (slave-holding) America was still a bastion of possibility, unlike those sclerotic European empires
from which it had freed itself (putting aside the fact the French both helped us fight the British, and
sold us the expanses of the Louisiana Purchase).
And then, GB Tran's parents arrive in America as a result of Lewis and Clark's country having become an
empire itself, behaving in a fashion diametrically opposed to the advice and observation of its first
President who warned a democracy should "beware foreign entanglements."
Eventually, of course, the entanglements tangle back, and you're being groped when you get on
airplanes, your emails can be read without a warrant, and all that feisty "liberty" that folks like
those in the Corps thought they were almost literally paving the way for, keeps receding into the
mists of history.
Both books serve as well made comic, four-panel tellings of history. Bertozzi's is the broader, necessarily
third-person view, though he personalizes it with many of the "character arcs," particularly with his focus
on Lewis and his "humors."
Tran -- who, I'm given to understand, was discovered by his publisher at artists' alley at the San Diego
Con -- tells a story that is obviously more personal, since it's told through the prism of his family.
Both journeys are insightful, and worthy of your attention. And if a new year signifies the beginning of
another type of journey forward, consider these both as provisions for the travel ahead -- as a reader,
and as a citizen.
Mark London Williams wrote the Danger Boy time travel series,
though never got to the "60's"-set book, which would have included Vietnam.
He also gets Twittery @mlondonwmz.