In Times Of Chaos, Testifying To The Human Condition

Nineteen by Ancco (Drawn & Quarterly, Sept. 2020; tr. Janet Hong

3 Panels is a monthly column examining graphic novels and their influences on everyday life. 

With nowhere to go last year, and the world constantly on the brink of catastrophe, television shows and books provided a ready escape. I delighted in colorful worlds with wonderbeasts and traipsed across universes with gods, assassins, and witches. In thirty minutes or two hours, I cheered and laughed. My spirit lifted for a moment, only to plunge once more as soon as I put them aside. Over time, even these pleasant distractions became wearisome. The one constant was social media. That’s not to say that I didn’t get bored with it, I did, but I couldn’t separate myself from the one medium that was cause for pain, information, pleasure, and delight all at once.

Two of my favorite refuges were relationships.txt (@redditships) and Am I the Asshole? (@AITA_reddit) on Twitter. Both accounts featured the type of grotesque theater that would melt your brain and loosen your hold on hope. But in the muck were a lot of questions about love — how to express it, nurture it, or at least identify it. The online community also rallied around those unaware that they had been victim to abusive behaviors and here, in someone else’s trauma, I finally came to identify a personal event that had disturbed me for years. In the miasma of the best and worst of ourselves, I found both company and a better understanding of my own humanity.

We are often encouraged to suppress our darkest moments, to keep them hidden or else they’ll be used against us. Or, maybe they just frighten those who witness them. Yet in laying out these moments, they become a necessary reflection pool for others. Ancco illustrates this well in her story collection Nineteen (Drawn & Quarterly, Sept. 2020; tr. Janet Hong). The comics are a mix of autobiography and fiction with Ancco exposing the vast spectrum of personal turmoil through the lives of her characters. The collection starts with “Mom,” which depicts a high school student struggling to study for her exams while her alcoholic mother abuses her. In “Life,” an HIV-positive young man wanders the city, debating whether he should tell his family his results. He debates all the ways the diagnosis will affect how he interacts with (and loves) his family and how their interactions might change too. “Do you know Jinsil?” is just as emotionally hefty as it tests the main characters’ moral ambiguities while they critique the tragic life of a local homeless woman. 

Nineteen by Ancco (Drawn & Quarterly, Sept. 2020; tr. Janet Hong

Ancco intercuts the collection with lighthearted autobiographical moments where she gives her boyfriend a terrible haircut, ponders aging, and learns how to play guitar. But these interludes do not completely alleviate the weight of the surroundings stories. These aren’t tales of epic adventures but the harsh realities of our lives behind closed doors. One of the most jarring aspects of Nineteen is Ancco’s honest portrayal of teenage girls and young women. They are abused and neglected. Too much responsibility is placed on them to the point that it affects their sense of self-worth. But they are also rebellious, violent, drunkards, and selfish. It’s an uncomfortable truth that Ancco doesn’t allow us to shy away from. These are real versions of ourselves. There’s no veneer to slap over the unsightly blemishes.

Maids (Fantagraphics, Oct. 2020) by Katie Skelly also highlights this tenuousness of self and society in unsettling ways. The novel is the fictionalized retelling of the real life murders committed by Christine and Léa Papin in 1933. The sisters work as live-in maids to the Lancelin family. They suffer abuses and disenfranchisement for years before abruptly killing their employers. Skelly neither favors the Lancelin family nor the sisters in her brief narrative. She walks a razors edge to situate us in the complex entangling of class, inequality, power dynamics, gender, and sexuality.

Living in a pandemic as politicians debate the merits of increasing the minimum wage all while billionaires accumulate and hoard wealth, it’s not difficult to understand how this inequality and callousness engenders the type of anger that would make someone loot or set fire to a few buildings. But does that justify murder? Skelly removes so much of the emotional and overt storytelling from the narrative that this historical atrocity could serve as a parable for today. Yet calling it a parable is an oversimplification of what the story details. 

Maids by Katie Skelly (Fantagraphics, Oct. 2020)

With the slightest shift in illustration and tone, the Papin sisters morph from being subjugated to subjugator. In a chilling scene before the murders, Christine says, “From now on, Léa, what we make is all ours. It’s just you and me. This is our time to be happy. No one would ever even know who we were before.”

The larger question, is what is the price for this life? How much does it cost to change your station in life? To reject everything that ever happened to make you who you are today? Would you still even be yourself?

Kuniko Tsurita answers this many times over — and rather obliquely — in The Sky Is Blue With A Single Cloud (Drawn & Quarterly, July 2020; tr. Ryan Holmberg). The manga, published from 1966 to 1980, centers women while exploring the human experience through misogyny, sexuality and gender, patriarchy, politics, social disruption, and existential identity. If ever there was a time for us to be pummeled across the head with these themes, it’s now.

In “Sounds,” the protagonist wakes up to discover that they are invisible and a strange woman, drawn and styled androgynously, is in their home. The two debate the protagonist’s existence when the woman argues, “But in order to ‘be,’ you have to keep on making noise, even if it means you eventually lose your voice.” The narrator becomes aggressive, cruel, and starts speaking nonsense before succumbing to anxiety and doubt. They then become silent. Their last thoughts are, “It was then, when I stopped talking, that I ceased to exist.” Like Skelly’s Maids, so much of Tsurita’s collection is about how personal reality is determined by one’s own agency.

The manga relies heavily on abstract visual storytelling and features few lines of dialogue. You have to puzzle over them in multiple readings to find their meaning – and sometimes you don’t find it at all. But this abstraction compels readers to reflect and confront reality as it appears (or does not appear) on the page.

The Sky Is Blue With A Single Cloud by Kuniko Tsurita (Drawn & Quarterly, July 2020; tr. Ryan Holmberg)

Despite their original publication, Tsurita’s stories have incredible modern relevance. “65121320262719” is about a woman who tries to establish herself and her voice among a group of male student protestors who refuse to take her seriously but depend on her labor. “Calamity” describes hypocrisy and capital punishment. The eponymously titled manga could be a take on life and perspective, narcissism in the face nuclear warfare, or whatever might strike you. 

Much of the human condition is on display, especially its nastier sides, in these graphic novels. Part of me wishes that I had read “happier” books, escapist literature to help me cope with the chaos around me. These escapes are necessary to our healing, but then we must also come back to our reality. While I was writing this column, I procrastinated a little by sorting through a pile of detritus on my desk that I have been pushing around for a literal year. A slip of paper fell out and when I opened it, I recognized it as a quote that I had carried in my wallet for years. I had written it down in 2016 as I sat in a darkened movie theater alone. It said: “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced. – James Baldwin.” It’s an apt reminder that we should heed, especially in the chaos.

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