Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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Miracle Pictographs
    Graphic Novel Reviews by Spencer Ellsworth
November 2011

I Get By With A Little Help From The Bends

Dark Rain: A New Orleans Story, American Born Chinese

Comics were a marginalized medium for years. They were not true literature, the snooty said as they adjusted their monocles and drank their tea with pinkies out. I know I hit this a lot in the column, but it's important to understand what the results of this marginalizing were. For one thing, it's made them a great place to explore the marginalized in race and culture and history, ever since Will Eisner's legendary Jewish sagas like A Contract With God.

Mat Johnson wrote the fantastic IncogNegro, which I reviewed a few years ago, and which still stands out in my mind as one of the best comics of the last few years. The stark black-and-white artwork illuminated a world where "black" and "white" could mean death or life, and yet where the congress between male, female, black man and white man, was much more fluid.

Dark Rain is equally powerful, and just as suspenseful, relevant and poignant. Mat Johnson has a rare gift as a writer. He can tackle important topics like race and poverty, and do it all in one hell of a nail-biting, maddeningly tense story. You'll never feel as though you're being preached at, but once you've raced through, you'll have plenty to think about. In that way he is similar to the magnificent modern black novelists Charles Johnson and Octavia Butler.

That isn't to say that he is without his flaws. But we shall arrive there, in our gradual float through desolation.

Simon Gane's art illuminates the dark, drowning atmosphere of New Orleans. Faint blue watercolor washes muddy the black and white world. The people here are slightly more cartoonish, and more grotesque, than Warren Pleece's depictions in IncogNegro. They sweat and grimace and scream in terror as the water of the breaking levees comes up around them.

Sarah is a pregnant woman, whose former mate was "busy running." She shelters with an older woman in the Lower Ninth Ward during Katrina, and when the water rushes in, she breaks through the ceiling and sees the horror of the drowned neighborhood.

Dabny and Emmitt are two cell mates in a halfway house who couldn't be more different: Dabny is an Iraq war vet who did time in prison because he took bribes on the customs docks, in order to pay his back child support. Emmitt is, in contrast, a sleazy bank manager who attempted to embezzle and was caught.

Even as Sarah is getting onto the roof and the Ninth Ward is drowning, Emmitt pitches his perfect plan to Dabny: go into the abandoned Lower Ninth Ward and rob the bank while everything is abandoned. Dabny is unimpressed and thinks Emmitt is crazy, but Emmitt offers a nice pile of money if Dabny can just get him into New Orleans.

Dabny takes Emmitt to see one of his old commanding officers, now with the private security firm Dark Rain (in no way inspired by Blackwater). Driggs, the former commanding officer, gets the information from Emmitt and takes off for New Orleans under the guise of a humanitarian mission. Dabny, determined not to let his old boss commit some of the atrocities he did in Iraq, finds another way to smuggle Emmitt into New Orleans.

What follows is a little bit heist, a lot of knuckle-biting tension, a little bit romance, and a great deal of social commentary without preachiness, as Johnson takes us into the horrid depths of the Superdome after Katrina, when a huge mass of people crowed together with minimal food and water.

In one passage, an ancient veteran of the Korean War covers up dead bodies in the Superdome, telling another character, "Usually, when we screw up this bad, we do it on the other side of the ocean."

A woman cradles her dead baby, muttering, "Now you've gone and soiled your diaper. Where will I get another one?" When the man next to her says, "You know he's --" she interrupts, "Don't say it."

Mix this with the moments where Dabny and Emmitt struggle against Dark Rain, who have moved in to the Ninth Ward and blown the bank open, trying not to get blown up, as Johnson declares in a rather funny passage: "They're going to blow my black ass up!" Dabny mutters to Emmitt, when he hears the plan to steal the money and demolish the bank. Emmitt replies, "I don't think it's a race thing. My white ass is specifically threatened, too."

Driggs, the evil colonel in charge of Dark Rain, is the main flaw in Johnson's otherwise complex story. IncogNegro had a similar sneering, scenery-chewing villain who served to unite our flawed heroes against social injustice, but who flattened the story a bit.

I hope that Dark Rain and IncogNegro stand the test of time; one brings us to terms with an almost-forgotten chunk of history while the other tries to comprehend a much more recent atrocity.

American Born Chinese is a wonderfully different animal. It appears to be three very odd, different stories: one, the Chinese legend of the Monkey King, one the semi-autobiographical tale of the author growing up as one of three Asian kids in his suburban school, and the utterly strange, racist sitcom "Everyone Ruvs Chin-Kee," in which a glaring Chinese stereotype invades the life of everyday white American Danny.

The three are connected, although you'll be scratching your head over how, when you're not being utterly entertained by the three interlocking stories.

The Monkey King, ruler of a peaceful kingdom of monkeys, having mastered the four magical disciplines of kung-fu, attempts to join a party in heaven, but is told, among other things, that monkeys are not allowed, and he ought to wear shoes. Being a master of kung-fu, he beats up everyone at the party and returns home to his mountain, where he notices, for the first time, the smell of monkey.

Danny, meanwhile, is one of three Asian kids with immigrant parents at his school, fighting his overwhelming sense of difference, trying to date a white girl and get past his unintended position as "head of the Asian clique."

His counterpart, a white American Danny, has to lug around Chin-Kee with him to school, where Chin-Kee drools over American girls and proclaims "Must leturn my ruv and bind feet to be Chin-Kee's rittle bride!"

While author Gin Luen Yang probably intended the readers to see the literal connections in the story, the three seem like three different stories that have only a thematic connection, at least until the end, when the more bizarre and magical elements interact with the mundane story of Danny-the-Asian-kid in a brilliant conclusion. And I'm not tossing around "brilliant" in the casual British sense; I am reserving it for a moving, surprising, funny ending.

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