Tag: miné okubo

An alternative history of graphic novels

The common history of graphic novels, and the one I learned, follows comics aimed mainly at children and the publishers who made them. We hear about the rise and fall of EC, the birth of Mad, the undergrounds, Will Eisner, and then we miraculously get to Maus. This history isn’t wrong so much as the work it presents is very conscribed. Gil Kane’s Blackmark may have broken new ground, but it was basically an extension of the kind of adventure stories already being told in comics. Even the comics of the underground movement were just a step away from the work in Mad Magazine.

This is why I’ve always been excited to find works that fall completely outside this established narrative. Often, these works come out of the art world, not the publishing world. They are usually aberrations, almost never inspiring other works. Because of this, they don’t fit neatly into a causal narrative of the graphic novel. Yet for those of us who are creating today, these earlier works provide both inspiration and proof that comics can go in completely unexpected directions.

I just want to quickly mention that this is not meant to be a complete list. These are simply works I have discovered over the years and have found inspiring. Still, if you know of some other work that would fit here, please feel free to mention it in the comments.


Simplicissimus was a German magazine started in 1896 that was often critical of the politics of its day and ran work by writers such as Thomas Mann and Rainer Maria Rilke. It also featured artwork by people like Kathe Kollwitz and George Grosz. It also had comics. Yes, of course, it had cartoons, many satirical. But it also had multiple panel comics by artists such as Bruno Paul and Olaf Gulbransson. It’s not so much the subject matter of these comics that I find so inspiring, but their style. It’s German Expressionism brought to bear on comics. The only similar approach is Lyonel Feininger’s on The Kin-der-Kids.

You can view all the old issues here. 

Olaf Gulbransson

Bruno Paul

W. Schulz

W. Schulz


L’Assiette Au Beurre
L’Assiette Au Beurre was France’s answer to Simplicissimus and looked very similar. Again, the magazine was mostly full-page satirical illustrations. Yet every now and again there would be multiple panel strips, most notably by Caran d’Ache.

You can view individual issues by date here.

Caran D’Ache



Frans Masereel
Masereel was a Flemish woodcut artist who worked mostly in magazines. Yet at some point he decided to make a series of woodcuts and publish them as wordless novels. The first of these, 25 Images of a Man’s Passion, was published in 1918. Yet he is best known for his 1919 work, Passionate Journey. The story spans 165 woodcuts and captures politics, culture, and the unyielding spirit of the individual. It uses images both representationally and metaphorically. It’s an incredible tour-de-force and a must-read for anyone who wants to make graphic novels.

Lynd Ward
Ward followed in Masereel’s footsteps, and while he also had similar political interests, his stories became more layered and subtle than Masereel’s. This culminated in Ward’s 1937 book, Vertigo. The book portrays a narrative from the view of three different characters, each with their own time frame: years, months, and days. It’s an ambitious work and unlike anything else before or since. Ward remained an artist for decades afterwards, mostly doing book illustration. To my knowledge, he did at least one other wordless novel, The Silver Pony in 1973.

Miné Okubo
As I mentioned before, in middle school I was told that Farewell to Manzanar was the only novel written about the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II. Yet No-No Boy was published almost twenty years earlier in 1957. And even before that, in 1946, there was Miné Okubo’s Citizen 13660. The book captures the steps that lead up to the internment and the realities people faced once they were interned. I don’t know if Spiegelman read this or not, but Citizen 13660 is a spiritual mother to all the autobiographical graphic novels that would come decades later.


Edward Gorey
My parents had a few of the Gorey collections, Amphigorey, and so personally his work is some of the first comics I ever read. It took me a long time to realize that they were comics, though. The Gashlycrumb Tinies seemed to have no relation to Daredevil, which is the first comic book I began reading. Again, Gorey is not part of the standard comics narrative. But of course his work is comics. He first began publishing his macabre little books in 1953. In 1965 he published The Remembered Visit. While this story has the Edwardian characters that populate all his works, it isn’t morbid or humorous. Instead, it’s a quiet little tale of youthful promises and adult regret. It’s surprisingly emotional.


Martin Vaughn-James
Some people argue whether or not the works of Vaughn-James are comics. While not narrative, they contain pictures and words deliberately put into sequence. They have too many images to be poetry and too much sequence to be simply a collection of drawings. Vaughn-James’s work reminds me a bit of the psychedelic comics of Victor Moscoso in Zap Comix, but taken even further. 1975’s The Cage is the longest and best known work by Vaughn-James and it’s difficult to describe. I tried to write a review of it once and fell short. So I’d say it’s just a work that you have to experience. If you’re an artist it will open you up to completely new possibilities for the medium.


There are other names that could be here, like Dino Buzzati, Guy Peellaert, and Milt Gross, but I wanted to stick to artists I was personally inspired by. Still, if you can think of names that fit here feel free to comment.

Citizen 13660 by Miné Okubo

When I was in the seventh grade, I read Farewell to Manzanar and was told that it was the only book about the U.S. internment of Japanese-Americans during World War 2. Fifteen years later, I found out that this wasn’t true. There was in fact another book about the internment and one that was published long before Farewell to Manzanar (1946 versus 1973). Moreover, it was told from the point of view of a young adult, not a child, which meant it had many more details about life in the camps. More incredibly, it was a story told in words and pictures.

I’m not sure whether or not it’s the picture book aspect of Citizen 13660 that has made it less popular than Farewell to Manzanar, but I think it can be a strangely empty book for people who are unaccustomed to reading visual narratives (I definitely felt this upon a first reading). The text in the book is encyclopedic in style. There is no characterization, no dialogue, and little opinion. Details are given matter-of-factly. On the one hand, this makes the things depicted all the more monstrous, because they are so out in the open. But on the other hand, it can make the book seem a little flat.

That is, until you look at the images. Like a picture book, there is one image per page, set above the text. This separation is not popular in graphic novels today, but in Citizen 13660 the separation creates a tension between the text and the images. This is intentional, because the art serves to subvert the encyclopedic narrative. As Megan Kelso says in her review of the book, “new meaning arises from the discord.”

Citizen 13660 page 12

First of all, there is the nature of the figure drawing. Okubo was trained under Diego Rivera and her figures have a similar roundness and abstraction to them. Faces convey emotion, but are not heavily detailed, and everything is inked in a simple line black-and-white. One curious effect of this is that in some panels it is difficult to tell who is Japanese-American and who is not. On page 12 Okubo says that “people looked at all of us, both citizens and aliens, with suspicion and mistrust.” The accompanying image makes effective use of the intersecting lines of a bus window to highlight the figure of Okubo herself and underscore the tension. Yet when one looks at the other figures depicted in the bus, Okubo is not obviously more Japanese than any of them. This is due to the simplicity of her art of course, but it also adds a counterpoint to what is going on. She is a citizen like the rest of them. She isn’t any different. In fact, Okubo had been painting mosaics at a military base, Fort Ord, when talk of internment began (ironically). So while the text mentions a growing desire to make the Japanese-Americans into untrustworthy others, the image shows sameness. The reality the art depicts is not the one that the history book narrative allows space for.

The pictures are also the place where Okubo’s emotions become clear. On page 18 she tells of registering at one of the Civil Control Stations. The text simply states the rules regarding this and the fact that she did it. There is no point of view provided. Yet in the illustration above Okubo is giving a stern look to one of the soldiers and he is looking back at her with an expression of surprise. Likewise, on page 59 she talks about curfew at Tanforan and the roll call done by the house captain twice a day. Again, plain factual text. Yet in the picture Okubo seems to be sticking out her tongue at the house captain. On page 108 is perhaps my favorite scene. In the text, Okubo tells the reader that every room was inspected for “potentially dangerous tools” and the like. At the very end, she mentions that her room was almost not inspected due to a sign on her door. And that’s it for the text. The image, however, depicts the inspection of her room. The house captain is going through her drawers while a soldier stands guard. The soldier looks at Okubo with a harsh expression. Okubo looks back, her glance similarly stern. Yet she holds a pair of scissors in one hand and a piece of paper in another, and on her head is a floppy spiral cut out of paper, a whimsical counterpoint to the mood of the scene. Since Okubo is an artist, many of her tools could be construed as being “dangerous” by suspicious minds and yet the image shows the absurdity of such a claim. Not only does the image show a different reality than the text, but also the art within the image, the paper spiral, similarly resists the assumptions made by the other people in the scene. Art is the only sane response to such surreal inhumanity and the only possible recourse for resistance.

Citizen 13660 page 108

So it is the words in the book that provide the stark reality, just like it was the wording of Executive Order 9066 that made the internment a legal reality. Through words, people are able to convince themselves that stealing others of their civic rights is acceptable and even necessary. Words have the ability to create a new reality, but do so at the expense of human emotion. So it is left to visual art to subvert the inhumane effects of words. And that is exactly what Okubo does all throughout Citizen 13660. So the book is not simply an act of trying to remember the past, as Farewell to Manzanar is; it is a book about the necessity and humanizing power of art.

Megan Kelso wrote an insightful review of the book, but it seems to no longer be available on-line.


(written May 30, 2009)