When Comic Books Aren't So Funny

02/12/2012 01:48 EST | Updated 04/12/2012 05:12 EDT


"Skim is Kimberly Keiko Cameron, a not-slim, would-be Wiccan goth stuck in a private girls' school in Toronto. When a classmate's boyfriend kills himself because he was rumoured to be gay, the school goes into mourning overdrive, each clique trying to find something to hold on to and something to believe in. It's a weird time to fall in love, but that's high school, and that's what happens to Skim when she starts to meet in secret with her neo-hippie English teacher, Ms. Archer. But when Ms. Archer abruptly leaves, Skim struggles to cope with her confusion and isolation, armed with her trusty journal and a desire to shed old friendships while cautiously approaching new ones."

Description from Groundwood Books, Anansi Press

Skim. Mariko Tamaki, text. Jillian Tamaki, artwork. ISBN: 978-0-88899-753-1.

Image reproduced with permission of Jillian Tamaki.

This blog presents selected long-form comics for adults, to give added exposure to some of the most interesting areas. The last one was about medical memoirs, and this one is about comic books detailing experiences of racism, often deriving from expressions of white privilege. In the enormous wake of Art Spiegelman's two-volume Holocaust memoir Maus, comics are routinely included in high school and university syllabi and just as routinely purchased for adult reading pleasure.

They are effective in conveying the emotional and embodied aspects of lived experience. That makes them tremendously powerful tools for giving new life to memory. And racism is always tied up with memory, from lived experiences of being racialized (and the simultaneous experience of others' denial or ignorance) to the repetitive efforts of multiple bodies including nation-states to represent racism as a thing of the past: nothing but memory, or only memory, one of the most dangerous of fictions. Skim is one of many excellent recent works that does not posit racism as a thing of the past, but shows, instead, that it manifests everywhere from slumber parties to nicknames.

Skim is both a coming-of-age story and a graphic rendering of white privilege in a Toronto private school, not-so-loosely based on Havergal College, where Mariko Tamaki was a student. Why is the title character called Skim? Because she is not: not white, not slim. The 'k' of course comes from what would ordinarly be the short form: Kim. You don't see homophobia, racism or fatphobia in the press description or anywhere in the book itself, and yet I can't think of a recent comic book that more beautifully challenges readers, and Canadian readers in particular, to acknowledge those things in the minutiae of everyday life. A scene in which two "Asian" girls are thrown out of a slumber party as a joke is rendered in glum, inky frames with spare, effective text. The word SLAM as in door-slam is separated into SL - AM centred around a pair of awkward schoolgirl legs. At the bottom of the page: "Hien's parents adopted her from Vietnam two years earlier and she never got invited to parties. Maybe she thought that's how people left parties in Canada. Asians first." (p86)

Skim came strongly to mind when I encountered the November 2010 Maclean's Magazine issue on "The Best Schools in Canada," which contains an article titled "Too Asian?" (Vol 123, Issue 45, Nov 22). Online, the original article was retitled with speed as people reacted negatively to both title and content. You can see both the original and the retitled versions by clicking here and following the links on the page to each. Based in part on interviews with two anonymous white Havergal graduates, the piece suggests that Asian students (immigrant Asian students and Canadian-born Asian students are lumped together) are dominating top programs at certain Canadian universities. The language of the article is all about cultural differences, implying the existence of a cultural imbalance that favours Asian students with great grades but poor social skills and thus constituting a threat to a Canadian vision of a cultural mosaic. Here is the "dilemma":

Canadian institutions operate as pure meritocracies when it comes to admissions, and admirably so. Privately, however, many in the education community worry that universities risk becoming too skewed one way, changing campus life...far from the cultural mosaics they're supposed to be - oases of dialogue, mutual understanding and diversity - [Canadian universities] risk becoming places of many solitudes, deserts of non-communication. It's a tough question to have to think about. (p78)

I won't rehash the controversy further. This is not an attack on Havergal, and neither is Skim itself. However Tamakis' comic heterodyned with this incident for me in interesting ways. I've been thinking a lot about not just what comic memoirs are but about what they can do -- what art activism, you might say, can do. While I was reading the Maclean's piece, I could almost see Jillian Tamaki's artwork coming to live, giving shape and form to the nameless interviewees. Not only does the work merit attention in its charm and sweetness, it sheds light on ongoing systems of privilege in effective ways.

I'm writing from a position of racial privilege, and indeed of various other sorts of privilege. Skim made me a better reader of that incident and a better critic of my own school experiences as a person embodying and speaking with white privilege, yes, at Havergal (grades 7-9) and beyond. Comic memoirs facilitate emotional, intellectual, and ethical investments in the experiences of others. It is not about appropriation, or belittling empathy, nor is it a search for satisfaction via vicarious experience. It is about imagination and the transformative power of visual/verbal works that document the world around us, as anti-racist work calls for the re-imagination of that world.

So here I recommend just a few further comics that I view as transformative - all graphic memoirs of one sort or another - and that speak to racialization and disenfranchisement in profound and also profoundly different ways. Starting with Spiegelman's Maus remains a good idea. I just returned from the Angoulême comics festival which featured a stunning exhibit of Spiegelman's work, including detailed preparatory sketches for all of Maus. There was total silence as people looked at rough sketches of screaming mouse faces in the sections on Auschwitz. Next I'd recommend my personal favourite of Lynda Barry works, One! Hundred! Demons! This marvellous book does not reject the demons of the past but instead gives them form and function. I also recommend Joe Sacco's Palestine, which has a more journalistic style. It details his experiences in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip in the early 90s.