Saturday, September 2, 2023

Family Style & Buzzing

A few weeks ago, cartoonist Thien Pham, writer Samuel Sattin, and artist Rye Hickman did readings and book signings at the Charles M. Schulz Museum. I've just finished their books, Family Style and Buzzing, and have some thoughts--less rigorous than reviews, but maybe helpful to someone thinking of buying them.

I know Thien a bit--enough to call him a friend, but only because he's so darned friendly--and his Family Style: Memories of an American from Vietnam just makes me gape at him with newfound respect, thinking "How did this guy survive all that?!" 

Pham and his family escaped from Vietnam on a rickety boat, overloaded to bursting, when he was a child. Hope for rescue turns to sinking dread when pirates attack, and Pham's mother tells him to close his eyes. For several pages, we see the raid through young Thien's eyes--that is, his closed eyes, so we see nothing, our imaginations picturing more than Pham could draw. As a HUGE proponent of less-is-more and the idea that negative space is one of the most powerful things a cartoonist can put on the page, I think Pham's choice to publish page after page of black, broken only by the desperate reassuring words of his mother, is one of the gutsiest things I've seen a cartoonist do in a long time. It worked for me. The suspense was tremendous.

Family Style is largely a story of assimilation, seen partly through the lens of food, as the familiar Vietnamese home cooking of Thien's mother gives way to hamburgers and Chuck E. Cheese pizza. Thien's parents go from naive newcomers who don't know how to hail a taxi to small business owners, while Thien grows from a kid who knows a handful of English words to a teenager who's embarrassed by how bad his Vietnamese has become. It's a thoughtful, nuanced, compassionate take.

Thien's story is fundamentally American. It's easy for those of us born here to take it for granted and get a little cynical about our country's ideals, but they're real and sincere to Thien's family, who go through Hell to get here and work hard to succeed. There's an obvious comparison to Thi Bui's The Best We Could Do, which is also about the life of a young Vietnamese refugee, but they have different tones and perspectives. They strike me as complementary, not competitors. You couldn't go wrong reading them both.

Graphic novelist Maia Kobabe interviewing Sam Sattin and Rye Hickman in the Schulz Museum's theater. Thien Pham spoke after this, but I didn't get a photo.

I didn't know Sattin or Hickman before seeing them read from their book Buzzing, a graphic novel about 12-year-old Isaac, who's just trying to get through finals and summer vacation without obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) wrecking his life. We see the main metaphor of the story immediately: compulsive thoughts swarm around Isaac like cartoon bees, droning in his ear that nobody likes him, he's an asymmetrical freak, and his ritualistic behaviors are all that keep his loved ones alive. Sattin draws on his own history with OCD to give insights that only someone who'd been through it could. 

The bees are a great, effective device. As Sattin and/or Hickman (I don't recall which!) explained in their talk, individual bees are essentially harmless. But two or three bees are a distraction, and a swarm buzzing you all day every day is a life-threatening terror. 

A big part of Buzzing involves Isaac finding a group of kids who play a game like Dungeons & Dragons and who accept him as he is, and we see a lot of their imaginary campaigns. The characters the friends create, and the quest they undertake, give some insights into their personalities and how quirks that can be handicaps in one situation can be gifts in another.

A quick word about Hickman's art: I think it's very good, particularly in its thoughtful use of color to indicate place and tone. The fantasy sequences have a style of their own that still fits with the real-world material. Also, Hickman's characters are well-acted; their postures and expressions sensitively reveal their feelings.

Another quick word for my friends in Graphic Medicine: add Buzzing to the reading list.

I was struck by the absence of real villains in both Family Style and Buzzing (aside from Thien's pirates, who are gone quickly). Pham doesn't show us much in the way of anti-Asian racism, and in fact almost all of the neighbors, sponsors, teachers and friends we meet are well-meaning and helpful. Likewise, Isaac in Buzzing finds a crew of caring, empathetic friends with very cool parents. Isaac's mother is overprotective but comes around; his older sister, Miriam, is an overachiever who's sick of all the attention her brother's OCD consumes, but she, too, ultimately supports him. Despite that, the fictional Isaac and real Thien struggle mightily. It's sobering to reflect on how many people with less support turn out all right regardless, and how many don't.

Both books are listed for young adults, but that's just promotional poppycock. If either sounds like something you'd like, give 'em a shot.

No comments: