NONFICTION COMICS have never really caught on in the United States, a fact that may fill you with wonder. For me, there’s also frustration, because as someone who’s been doing journalism in comics form for several years, I’m regularly confronted by folks who assume the stories are made up, who have no idea that there may be a means of forging fact through line. Although why fact is presumably capturable in letters — also collections of lines — is never explained.
Most comics can be placed along an established binary of superhero comics and their opposite, “indy comics” — dudes in tights, or dudes definitely not in tights and feeling sort of awkward about it. There are a few notable exceptions, including one-offs by established fiction creators, recent work from Lynda Barry, Joe Sacco’s reportage, and, if we stretch the definition a bit, bible tracts. Yet the closest thing we get to popular nonfiction comics in the United States tend to be rooted in autobiography, a form rife with self-indulgence. “I continue to be disappointed that people don't try and diversify the kind of work they are doing in comics,” early pioneer of American nonfiction comics Harvey Pekar once noted.
Elsewhere, Pekar knew, the conveyance of truth in comics form is not unheard of, and three recent English-language releases from Japan, France, and Finland explore what comics can accomplish when freed from the constraints of fiction.
Drawn and Quarterly’s 2013 English translation of renowned manga artist Shigeru Mizuki’s Showa 1926-1939: A History of Japan is a massive tome, a beautifully rendered overview of the first quarter of Japan’s strife-filled Showa period from the author’s youthful point of view. (Indeed, Drawn and Quarterly will publish three more translated volumes to present the entirety of Mizuki’s series, which first appeared in Japan in 1988. The next comes out in June.) Initiated with the death of an emperor, a massive earthquake, and the crash of a financial market, this volume of Mizuki’s story ends, of course, with war. The book is immersive and totalizing.
First Second’s new How the World Was: A California Childhood, by Emmanuel Guibert (translated from the 2010 French edition by Kathryn Pulver), is a smaller tale. Also historical — the biography of a war veteran who grew up in California in the 1920s and ’30s — Guibert’s story relays history through nuance and aspersion. He allows the original voice of his aging friend and subject to shine through the narration, then mimics this setup visually, in an illustrational technique heavily reliant on photography. A slim paperback in black and white (following a full-color introduction), How the World Was is thoughtful and reflective.
Tinier in scope still is a recent work from Finland by Kaisa and Christoffer Leka, a married couple of adventure fanatics who document their excursions in comics. Expedition No. 3: Cycling Around Iceland was published by Absolute Truth Press in English in 2012. It is also, physically, the smallest of the three books. Slightly taller than a CD cover, although much thicker, the beautifully printed two-color book is hardbound and gold leaf inlaid with cartoon character versions of our heroes on each cover. The wraparound sleeve depicts Kaisa and Chris in a full-color photograph, but instead of projecting narcissism, the image is assuring. Their story, however simple, may be hard for some readers to believe. The notion of biking around Iceland may strain credulity on its own — not to mention biking while camping in horrible weather and drawing comics — but Kaisa has two prosthetic legs. Even this is not the biggest challenge to reader acceptance, for despite all this, much of the story concerns the challenges able-bodied Chris faces en route. In tone, their road narrative is silly and the book’s minimal heft is charming. They may present themselves as cute animals (Kaisa is a mouse and Chris a duck), but the Lekas’ tale is unexpectedly enduring.
The hallmark of good nonfiction creators in any medium is that they know how to choose and disseminate a story. Mizuki, known more for manga than histories, was born in Sakaiminato, Japan, in 1922. (He ate, as we learn in his book, everything he could fit in his mouth.) He published his first comics in his forties, and soon thereafter began describing himself as a product of the Showa period. In his sixties, he began publishing his take on this time period in Japan. His relation to the story is, therefore, important for our grasp of it. He portrays himself cartoonily — think Joe Sacco’s own character in his works of comics journalism — whereas purely historical events are cast in somber lines and refined crosshatching. We are treated, in other words, to a turbulent time in Japan through the goofy eyes of a growing boy with insatiable hungers, and it is Mizuki’s renown as a creator that allowed the story to be published, first in Japan’s healthy comics publishing scene, and now in translation in North America.
Paris-based Guibert works in a variety of artistic styles, including collaborating with Joann Sfar on young adult comics, and he has created previous works of nonfiction, including The Photographer (translated into English in 2009) with Didier Lefèvre and Frédéric Lemercier. How the World Was is a follow-up to Alan’s War, the story of Guibert’s pal, American GI Alan Cope, in France during World War II (translated from the French in 2008). First released by renowned French publisher L’Association in 2010, How the World Was delves into Cope’s childhood during the Great Depression, and it is notable that so few American comics compete for shelf space to share this history. The story suffers a bit from foreign-ness; it is always awkward when someone who doesn’t live somewhere tries to tell you things about it. But it is a valuable tale, well told, deserving domestic readership.
Finland’s comics-publishing scene is less established than that of France or Japan, certainly, and full-length books are often self-published with funds from grants or prizes. Absolute Truth Press, the publisher behind Expedition No. 3, is run by the Lekas, who have few other options to make work available within or outside of Finland despite receiving several national comics awards for it. Self-publishing inherently limits a book’s potential for international distribution, which can be important for any artist hoping to establish a career in comics from a base in Finland. Of course, language matters, too: Finnish is difficult for foreigners to learn, and the second national language, Swedish, is not widely understood outside of the region. Publishing in English then — or German, or French, or Russian — is a professional imperative, even if few structures exist to ensure books are widely available to English-speaking audiences. In other words, this isn’t a tale US readers are likely to stumble across, however accessibly it is presented in both image and text.
Stylistically, the three works take different approaches to nonfiction narrative: Mizuki conveys, in line, a difference between his memory and documentable fact, and the seamless interplay between the two in Showa is skilled. His mastery of manga, a form with structural allowances for distinct unfolding narratives, serves the story, and history emerges through it instead of meekly conforming to a plastered-on style. (In fact, the book reads from right to left, a demand on the Western reader that only increases investment in the narrative.)
Guibert, on the other hand, chose from his varying styles a photographic approach. It’s a safer choice than Mizuki’s, and works ably to convey history. But hyperrealism asks little of a reader and gains little as a result: the biggest audience challenge, in the end, lies in determining what is photographic and what hand-drawn. The story, sweet and thoughtful if a bit slight, recedes in importance next to the gimmick.
The Lekas, for all the tininess of their story, risk significantly more than Guibert. Cast as cute animals and aiming to convey a universal experience through an adventure few would or could undertake, what seems likely to fail as navel-gazing here thrives. The extremely personal nature of the story is sifted through, and spiritual lessons are sought and shared, made palatable by simple, friendly lines. The gravity of a bike trip through bad weather around Iceland becomes real, and the genuine and charming characters, cast in red and blue against the white paper of a clear-line format (as opposed to Mizuki’s starker backgrounds) convey much. The events may strain believability, but the openness of Kaisa’s illustrations fosters trust. Indy autobio comics could learn much from the subtle shedding of self-indulgence of Expedition No. 3; this is nonfiction less as history-establishing than as truth-sharing.
For this is the question that matters most, in the end, in nonfiction work: can we tell that something happened, and is its impact clearly expressed? Three extremely diverse approaches answer the question for comics in the affirmative, but it’s a question we, in the United States, have barely figured out needs to be posed.