by KEVIN KNODELL
Vietnamerica isn’t just one of the best comics I’ve ever read. It’s one of the best stories I’ve ever experienced — through any medium — in my entire life.
The book came out in January 2010. I first read it as a college student living in the basement of a chicken farm. Since then, I’ve reread it several times … and at no point has it gotten stale.
I knew I loved comics before reading it, but this book influenced my view of what comics can be. It’s partially responsible for my own forays into comics writing.
Vietnamese American cartoonist G.B. Tran tells an inter-generational tale about how Vietnam’s wars shaped his family, how the fall of Saigon turned them into refugees and how they began a new life in the United States.
It’s a war saga, an immigrant story and a coming-of-age tale all wrapped up in one beautifully drawn comic.
The book begins with Tran — the only member of his family to be born in America — visiting Vietnam with his parents. They return to pay their respects to Tran’s maternal grandmother and paternal grandfather, who both died at almost the same time.
Tran grew up in Southern California. Born in 1976, he has no memory of his ancestral home nor of the war that tore it — and his family — apart. It didn’t preoccupy him. Instead, he focused on comics, cartoons and Atari video games.
His family has a complicated past. Tri — Tran’s father — hated his own father Huu Nghiep, a man many communist Vietnamese consider a hero. Huu left Tri as a young child in order to join the Viet Minh and fight against the Japanese.
Huu never returned to the family.
The story isn’t a linear narrative. It starts in present-day Vietnam, then jumps between Tran’s experiences growing up in America and different members of his family recounting their lives in Vietnam.
Tran juggles the points of view of his father, mother and siblings, his uncle Vinh — a former South Vietnamese soldier who stayed behind after Saigon fell — and his grandparents.
He recounts their difficult and often consequential choices. Tran’s parents left Vietnam to keep their children safe, but their decision divided the family.
The jumbled narrative challenges readers. It can be tough to follow the shifting narrators, but there’s an illustrated family tree at the beginning of the book for reference.
The inter-generational aspect gives the story an epic scope. The book does for the Vietnam War and its refugees what Maus did for the Holocaust and its survivors.
The artwork is spectacular. Tran knows how to take advantage of the comic medium’s unique potential, and he does things that only work in a comic book.
Tran uses simple color to communicate complex ideas and emotions. He aptly applies graphic design tricks — not as gimmicks, but as powerful storytelling tools.
If you’re interested in comics at all, read it. Or pick it up even if you’re not into comics — because Vietnamerica is one of the very best contributions to the literature of the Vietnam War.
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