In this review, I discuss two of Lynda Barry’s fantastic “graphic” narratives: One! Hundred! Demons! and The Good Times are Killing Me. One! Hundred! Demons! is probably the one of hers that I’m most familiar with because I saw the book floating around Asian American Studies classes as a graduate student, but I never actually read it. As part of my reward for surviving the quarter, I’ve been reading a lot of graphic novels and Barry’s work did not disappoint. One! Hundred! Demons! is perhaps better understood as a graphic memoir, as it details much of Barry’s complicated upbringing as a mixed-race Filipina American. Barry renders her “cartoon self,” as a young child with flaming red hair and a body full of freckles, as her legibility as a Filipina and Asian is of course very vexed. As Barry details early on in One! Hundred! Demons!, she was inspired to write the graphic narrative, after a paintbrush exercise in which she created various demonic figures. While she was at first bothered by the activity, she grew to realize she actually enjoyed it. The demons that populate the graphic narrative appear in multiple places, both outside of panels and in the margins, but also function as thematic headings. For instance, one of the demons, known as “dance,” details how Lynda comes to understand both the limits and the freedoms that bodily movement can allow. The section on “dance” begins with Lynda being extremely open to dancing, believing that she could excel at it, despite the fact that a friend seems less optimistic. The chapter based on this demon is one in which Lynda comes into a kind of tragic self-consciousness. As Lynda realizes that she’s not as good at dancing as she thought, nor are the people who dance around her aware of how odd they might look to others, this self-consciousness takes a toll on her ability to let go, to not care about what others might think of her based upon how she might look while swaying to music. Clearly, this chapter also functions as a metaphor for racial problematics, where Lynda must also understand that she cannot always control the way she may be viewed and that she must, at some point, simply find her own path, despite what other people may think of how she looks.
The Good Times are Killing Me is less of a graphic narrative then a novel with a couple of picture inserts at the beginning of each chapter; it’s more of a standard novel perhaps pitched at a slightly younger audience. This book, though, made me realize that my long held refusal to read young adult-ish type narratives should probably end. This novel really works in the vein of something like The House on Mango Street, where problematic events are filtered through the eyes of a young character (in this case Edna Arkins) who leads us through various events and challenges that are related to growing up. In this way, The Good Times are Killing Me is sort of a bildungsroman in which Edna comes to understand both class and racial conflict in her local community. The primary site of antagonism occurs between Edna and another young girl named Bonna Willis, who also happens to be African American. Because the novel is set sometime in the past, where racial segregation could still be a problem and where Edna’s developing friendship with Bonna must be kept a secret, we know that the collective youth and innocence that opens the work will have to be lost. Much of the narrative is filtered through the conceit of musical appreciation, but this focus slowly gives way to weightier topics, as Bonna and Edna face a climactic confrontation at the novel’s conclusion that will definitely leave you bereft as a reader. Despite the novel’s somber ending, it does fit perfectly within the narrative logic of the story and both One! Hundred Demons! and The Good Times are Killing Me are certainly both books that I would teach in the future. Again, though, I keep wondering if anyone is aware of other books by Southeast Asian and South Asian American graphic novelists?
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