Vietnamerica: A Triumph of Nonfiction Comics
Posted by Tyler Chin-Tanner on Jan 14, 2011
It’s been a tenet of great writing as well as art that a creator’s best work often comes after an experience of personal growth. It’s this new perspective that provides the author with something meaningful to share. This is very much the position that GB Tran found himself in just before he set out to work on his new graphic novel, Vietnamerica, which comes out this month from Villard Publishing.
Gia Bao (GB) Tran didn’t grow up with much of an awareness of his family’s history. He was born in South Carolina a year after his family fled Vietnam during the fall of Saigon. During his childhood, his family didn’t speak much of their past, preferring instead to focus on their children’s future. For GB, this future took the form of comics and illustration: he started to draw at an early age and continued his development throughout high school and college. After graduating from the University of Arizona, GB moved to New York where he got a job in apparel graphics and worked in comics on the side. This included self-publishing his Xeric Grant winner, Content, as well as a short story in the anthology, Awesome.
But in was in 2001, during GB’s first trip to Vietnam that the possibility of a much grander comic project began to develop. GB started to hear stories about his parents and their past in Vietnam. These stories weren’t always easy to hear, but they gave him a personal account and a new understanding of what his parents and other Vietnamese people went through. This was a story he knew he would have to tell.
But it wasn’t until several years later that GB even thought of creating the graphic novel that would become Vietnamerica. Not only was it a lot to process, but he felt that he needed more time to develop his craft and his confidence. Part of this process was doing a sort of practice run of the first chapter in Content 2.
The next step for GB was to make another journey to Vietnam, this time specifically for research, conducting interviews, taking photos, and a drawing numerous sketches in an attempt to capture the feel and energy of the country.
But it was still another year or so after he got back from this trip that he was ready to begin, as it took him so long to simply transcribe his notes and sketches. And when he did begin putting the story together in early 2008, GB felt it was important to lay out the complete story from beginning to end before starting work on the first page. Not only did he want to make sure that the story held together as a cohesive narrative, but it was important to him that it stood out distinctively as a graphic novel, taking full advantage of the strengths provided by the medium.
We can see evidence of this within the book itself where there are numerous examples of the art and page layout matching the mood of the story and feelings of the characters in a highly nuanced way, whether it’s to convey the overwhelming sensation of experiencing a new country and culture for the first time, or the desire to bury one’s past and the painful memories it contains.
GB knew that the task of presenting this story would not be easy. Although many Americans are all too familiar with the history of the Vietnam War, good and bad, they are not often exposed to it from the perspective of the other side, the Vietnamese who had their country torn apart by war, and many times, like GB’s parents, having family members fighting for both sides.
GB tells this story without judging which side was right or wrong, choosing instead to focus on how his family’s past has influenced the current shape or their lives and their pursuit of the American dream. Vietnamerica is the kind of work that pushes the boundaries of the graphic novel medium in its capacity to grapple with emotional, cultural, and political complexities in an artistically sophisticated and seamless way.
Vietnamerica comes out on January 25th. If you’re interested in a copy, ask your comic retailer about it, or get it for an amazing 43percent off now at Amazon.com. For those of you in the New York area, there is a release party for Vietnamerica at the Museum of Cartoon & Comic Art on January 27th.
Tyler Chin-Tanner started his own publishing company, A Wave Blue World, where he wrote and drew layouts for Adrenaline, its flagship series, Adrenaline, and wrote its latest graphic novel, American Terrorist.
© 2010 Tyler Chin-Tanner. All rights reserved.