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Review time! with Vietnamerica

A memoir! Everyone loves memoirs, right?

Gia-Bao Tran ought to be a more major creator in the world of comics, and with Vietnamerica, let’s hope he’s moved into that group. Vietnamerica is published by Villard and costs $30. Yes, thirty dollars. It’s totally worth it.

Vietnamerica has been compared to Maus, and while that’s to be expected, it would be unfortunate if people ignored it because they thought it was a copy of that august work. It’s not Tran’s fault that other people suffer in this world, not just those who endured Nazism, so the fact that his family goes through similar circumstances that Spiegelman’s went through shouldn’t be held against him. The fact that World War II wasn’t the end of suffering for millions of people just shows how cruel humanity can be and why stories like this need to be told. Personally, I like this better than Maus – it’s more subtle and Tran is a far better artist than Spiegelman – but I understand why some make the comparison. If you’ve read Maus, you’ll find similarities in Vietnamerica, but you’ll also find significant differences, which is only one reason why this is worth your time.

Tran is telling a family history, as the deaths of two of his grandparents spur him to discover more about his roots, so he starts asking questions he never thought to ask before. Tran was born in 1976, after his family fled Vietnam for the U.S., so he has no connection to his homeland. Obviously, when he’s a young punk, he has no interest in learning more about his family or Vietnam, but as he gets older, he realizes it’s important. What makes this an interesting comic is that it’s not really about GB Tran at all – he’s a character in the book and he learns a great deal, but it’s not as if Tran turns this into a coming-of-age story. It really is a family history, and by telling a family history, Tran tells a very personalized yet raw history of Vietnam in the 1950s through 1970s.

One thing Tran does very well is arrange the book so it’s not told chronologically – some sections are told in the order which they occurred, but the section before it might take place in time years later. He doesn’t arrange the book thematically, either – this is much more like a story told over several years, so Tran has to piece together what actually happened, which means he’ll tell some things first and later go back and explain the context behind those events or the events leading up to them. The climax of the book, for instance, is when Tran’s family flees Saigon on 25 April 1975 – five days before the Communists won the war. Tran puts this event at the end rather than in the middle, when it actually occurs in the chronological version of events. This is a good idea not only because it’s a dramatic scene, but Tran has been hinting about how it happens throughout the book, so when we get to it, it’s a good pay-off to foreshadowing.

Basically, the story is about Tran’s parents and – to a lesser extent – grandparents. His father, Tri Huu Tran, is the son of a Vietminh hero who abandons his family in the early 1950s to fight the French and then the Americans. His mother, Le Nhi, raises her children alone for a time before she meets a French colonel with whom she has another child before he is killed in a bomb attack. Meanwhile, Tran’s mother, Dzung, flees the North and moves to a seaside village in the South, where she eventually meets Tran’s father in a French class (he’s the teacher). Eventually, we learn that Tri Huu was married previously, to a French woman who abandoned him, leaving him with two kids of his own. When they leave Vietnam, they leave with Tri Huu’s mother but not Dzung’s. Years later, they’re finally able to return to Vietnam and reconnect with Thi Mot, Dzung’s mother; Vinh, Dzung’s half brother; and Do, Tri Huu’s childhood friend. Each character gets his or her story told (it’s a dense book – not only is it 279 pages long, but Tran packs most of the pages with a lot of content), and what emerges is the story of Vietnam over the course of forty or so years. The characters are fascinating, too – Tri Huu’s father, Huu Nghiep, remains a hero of the revolution, but slowly becomes disillusioned with the way the country progresses after unification yet he’s trapped by his reputation; Do spends six years in a labor camp but has an interesting and refreshing outlook on his life in Vietnam as opposed to Tri Huu’s life in America. Tran does an excellent job showing how interconnected the lives of the characters are and how difficult it was for the “regular” Vietnamese to choose sides – there’s not a very big French and American presence in the book, but they’re certainly not stereotypically demonic figures. Both Le Nhi and Tri Huu hook up with French people, after all, and for most of the characters, the dream is to study in Paris or New York. Even when Tran’s family arrives in South Carolina and later moves to Arizona, we don’t get the stereotypically racist Americans – their brief appearances are more about their complete ignorance of Vietnam rather than any active hatred of Asian people living in their midst. It’s an impressive display of making sure each character, no matter how minor, is a fully realized human being, and Tran does it very well.

The way he tells the story – out of chronological sequence – is also important because of the way he reveals things. I have always been slightly annoyed when a writer deliberately holds back information just to surprise the reader later – I understand that in mysteries or such, it’s kind of necessary, but doing it in regular narratives has always seemed like cheating to me. Tran reveals many surprises throughout the book, but it never feels like he’s holding things back from the reader – when “GB Tran” the character learns something, we learn it, so it comes across as a bit disjointed because Tran is constantly learning new things, but it also doesn’t feel like we’re being manipulated. Early on in the book, Tran and his father visit Tri Huu’s father’s second wife, the woman he married long after he abandoned Le Nhi. This occurs when Tran finally returns to Vietnam with his family, after he skipped the first trip because he was a punk teenager and didn’t want to go. Tran tells about his journey back to Vietnam first in the book because it’s the jumping-off point for him to find out about his family, so we’re meeting a lot of characters whose backstories will be filled in later. In one scene, they’re visiting Huu Nghiep’s second wife, and Tran notices that Huu Nghiep owned one of his son’s watercolors (Tri Huu was an emerging painter when he took his family and fled the country). Tran asks his father about it, because according to Tri Huu, his father had left when Tri Huu was a baby and he didn’t contact him for 50 years … yet he owns a watercolor from 1972. Tran’s father doesn’t want to talk about it, and he leaves. Tran could easily have “hidden” that piece of information and dropped a bombshell later about Tri Huu finding his father, but he doesn’t – he shows that Tri Huu has secrets and that his history with his own father is more complex than Tran thought. We don’t find out more about this scene until later, but the fact that Tran does this all the time – learning about key parts of his family history out of context and then filling it in later – makes the book much more interesting than if it was one shock after another. We know the fates of the characters, so Tran doesn’t feel the need to surprise us. He also does a nice job by repeating certain phrases at different times in the narrative, and the meaning changes each time we see them because of what we’ve learned in the interim. It’s a device that could become annoying, but Tran doesn’t allow it to be.

Tran’s art is superb, too. His linework is perfectly fine, and he does a very good job making sure that each character has a distinct personality so we can tell who they are over the years (he does little things to make this clearer, too – his mother’s voice is always in cursive writing, his grandmothers wear glasses with different lens shapes, which might be true-to-life or not, but it certainly makes it easy to distinguish between two elderly Vietnamese women). But it’s in the design of the book where the art is really wonderful. Tran has always been good at laying out a page, and he’s also always done a very good job incorporating sound effects into his panels, and both are on display here. His visual depiction of Vietnam is tremendous – we get a very good sense of the isolation of some of the mountain villages, the beauty of the coasts, and the craziness of Saigon. When “GB Tran” first arrives in Saigon, Tran does a marvelous job showing how his sense are overwhelmed by the sights and sounds. What’s interesting about the double-page spread is that Tran does it later in the book, when his parents return to Vietnam and are similarly overwhelmed. “GB Tran” thought he’d be fine because he lives in New York, while his parents thought they’d be fine because they grew up there. In both instances, they’re very wrong. Tran does a lot of cool things like this – in one double-page spread, he uses a game of Scrabble to show how his family adjusts to life in the States, and it’s fascinating seeing how he’s treated by bullies at school and how his half sister turns into a Madonna clone to fit in. Very often, he uses smoke to create several panels, showing events from the past. At one point, Tri Huu is thrown into prison by the American soldiers, and Tran recreates the page endlessly in the bottom right corner to show the monotony of prison life:

In some scenes, he places a character in the center of each panel in a nine-panel grid and changes the background around him, showing the passage of time. He also breaks up the chapters with propaganda posters, actual photographs of his father and mother during their courtship, and dramatic full-page drawings, some actual events and other more abstract representations of events. His use of color is nicely handled, too. Several scenes are in black-and-white, lending them a “documentary” feel, and he uses a lot of reds and oranges in the book, too – not only is this a nod to Vietnam’s tropical heat but also to the Communist takeover. It’s an intricately colored book, which goes along well with the intricate way the book is drawn. Visually, there’s a lot to see on each page, and Tran does a nice job making sure that he doesn’t overwrite and allow the art to tell a good deal of the story.

I apologize for gushing so much about Vietnamerica, but I’ve read it twice and loved it even more the second time, which isn’t always the case. This is an amazing graphic novel that ought to be near the top of the list when “best-of” time rolls around. Tran tells an interesting story, to be sure, but he tells it in a fascinating and novel way, and he gives us a glimpse into a culture we don’t often see. At one point, a character says that their family’s experiences aren’t special, that they’re just one of thousands who suffered in the same way. That’s kind of the point – we can’t relate to tragedy on a large scale, which is why focusing on a small group of characters is usually the most effective way of getting across the horror. Tran’s family might be typical, but that’s what makes the Vietnam War such a tragedy – it affected the lives of everyone in the country, far more than wars the United States has fought have affected people in this country. Tran never preaches about which side was “right” – the Communists don’t really get a lot of coverage, but neither do the French or Americans, and both sides have their very severe faults – but he does allow his characters to express their own thoughts, and because he’s done such a good job with their personalities, their opinions never sound like the author preaching. This is a gripping and exciting read, a tragic and hopeful read, and a beautiful book to look at. I really can’t recommend it enough.

6 Comments

I adored Vietnamerica as well. I wasn’t super thrilled by the idea of reading another Maus-tastic look into the family history of an author whose family went through a Tough Event. I mean, I didn’t even really like Maus that much. But then I did two things: 1) I noticed that the book was by the same GB Tran who did Content (which I liked bunches) and 2) I picked up the physical product in a Borders and thumbed through it. The page composition and use of colour are gorgeous. That was enough for me to give it a shot.

And Tran really pulls it off. To his credit, he makes the book about so much more than just How Crazy Vietnam Was & How We Escaped. I found myself so very interested in the journey Tran was taking me on. I never minded the frequent skips between periods and narrators—and like you point out, they really help tie the room together. I loved the way Tran takes characters who probably would have been stereotypes in most other works and gives them a breath of realism. His father and grandfather (but especially his father), who could have easily come off as the clichéd emotionally-closed-off-Asian-man-from-an-older-generation, each have motivations and dreams/desires that gradually come to the surface. My heart especially went out to Tran’s father on the page where he’s digging in the yard and the smoke of memory is rising from his shovel against the orange-peach-coloured sky.

A friend tried reading a preview copy that was black and white and had a hard time keeping track of characters. The art and structure are fantastic and the backbone of the book, but I think the colouring is really what sells the book. And I think that the way the print version incorporates that wild family tree in the inside covers of the book really helps with character identification. I found myself consulting it not infrequently. But where in most books, I would find that kind of thing obnoxious, in Vietnamerica it turned into this kind of game for me and I was quietly thrilled to find out how that tree came about. It really helped bring the book to life for me.

Just put it on my reading list as I do with everything you recommend strongly. Thanks for posting your reviews.

Travis Pelkie

April 6, 2011 at 2:19 am

Man, I’ll have to look for this. I knew the name from Content (the title of which I needed Seth there to remind me of), and I dug the first issue of that (how long did that book last, anyone?). So I’ll have to keep this in mind.

Don’t you know that EVERY comics memoir that involves dictatorships and/or the cartoonist’s attempt to connect with their parents from a different country is required by reviewer law to be compared to Maus? See: Persopolis, I think Cuba My Revolution had a Maus comparison, really, any time there’s a comic like this, expect Maus to come up.

There’s a book by a guy Tom Galambos (hope I remembered his name right) called From Hungary that’s got a similar memoir aspect. He also did All the Wrong Places, and a 24 hour comic called Barn. I should look him up…

I think Content only went two issues. At least that’s what a cursory glance did when I googled it after rediscovering the book a few months ago while rummaging through my garage. I only have the first volume myself, the one with the dream/time travel and resulting paradox.

And yeah, the Maus obligation is silly and everywhere and somehow seems necessary. I made the comparison myself in my own review. It’s the Pulitzer, really. Maus is just such a huge presence in the medium that we can’t get away from it. I think there’s this idea of debt floating around, that every biographical book that treats a family history in relation to Historical Events can’t have existed without Maus. And therefore must be at least a little derivative. And so we find ourselves referencing Spiegelman by way of apology. Kind of a “Hey, look. I know you’ve read this before because most people who’ve read any comics have read Maus, but here’s why you should give this newer Maus-based book a shot.” I was even hearing comparisons between Maus and Joe Sacco’s Safe Area: Goražde—which is not even a remotely similar sort of book.

I wish we could get over this, but I think it might take another ten years. Till people (generally) have more access points into graphic novels.

Travis Pelkie

May 23, 2011 at 12:17 am

SOOOO glad you reviewed this, Greg. It’s an amazing book, one everyone should read. As Seth says, the colors really sell it, and the book as a whole is great. I’m glad GB chose to not focus on himself much as a character, but to tell the story of his family more.

I dug that “infinite panel” you show where Tri is in prison. Great storytelling device, and one that’s unique to comics.

As Seth also said, I needed the family tree a lot, but I am kinda slow sometimes. I thought early on it was somewhat confusing, because he talked about both branches of the family in the same section, but after that, he stuck fairly regularly to one thread of story at a time.

Content 1 was good, too.

Page 207 has a nice wink and nod — there’s a box of comics, and in one panel, we see Maus and Safe Area Gorazde. Since we talked about those here, I liked how Tran slyly acknowledged some predecessors.

I have a librarian friend and she received a preview copy that was black-and-white (and had the family tree as just an insert in the middle of the book). I was sad that the publisher sent out un-coloured copies because really, the book relies so heavily on colour. I read Tran was frustrated with critics who were reviewing the B&W version even a month after the actual book (in colour) had come out. It really does make a difference.

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