howtheworldwasHow The World Was is just as melancholy as its title and cover image suggest, but the project of the story being told is a bit stranger than the title lets on. French cartoonist, Emmanuel Guibert, befriended an American World War II veteran, Alan Cope, and drew the story of his G.I. experience in Europe in Alan’s War. How The World Was takes a few steps back to Cope’s childhood during the Great Depression in California. The combination of Cope’s personal story and Guibert’s gentle narrative is powerful and sad in a profoundly haunting way.

How The World Was is essentially an oral history, though Guibert does an amazing job making the story feel as though it’s being told directly rather than secondhand. Cope’s memories, translated through Guibert, are both small and immense: he remembers the cruelty and kindnesses of family members, trips to the beach, and intimate corners of his childhood homes. Guibert accompanies these with a deluge of intricate still shots of a bygone America, and the feeling the reader is left with is a series of postcards and photos of the past – a scrapbook of childhood. The story moves slowly and seemingly without much structure tying the vignettes together, but that’s as it should be. It creates a sense of both childhood and the past as a foreign land, ending with a truly tragic moment that’s both hard and necessary to understand –the reader gets the sense that the events recounted here really shaped Cope as an adult. Many of Guibert’s illustrations are miniature masterpieces, so labor-intensive that Cope passed away before it was completed.

Though it’s slow and may seem a bit rambling, the overall effect of Guibert’s project is earnest, mournful, and most importantly, long-lasting. A childhood in the 1930s was different, but any past and any childhood will always be different and strange and sad. The importance of keeping Cope’s story so intensely personal creates a real universal emotion of loss and longing that lingers long after the book is closed.

How The World Was: A California Childhood
by Emmanuel Guibert
ISBN: 9781596436640
First Second, 2014

  • Emilia Packard

    Past Reviewer

    This reviewer is not longer actively working on our site, but we would not be here if not for our many dedicated contributors over the years. We thank all of them for their reviews, features, and support! Emilia has been reading graphic novels rabidly since her best friend handed her Craig Thompson’s Blankets over winter break during her sophomore year of college. From that day, her fate was sealed — at Grinnell College, she created, edited and drew strips for a student comics magazine called The Sequence. As an MLS Student at the University of Illinois, she spent way too much time filling up her backpack (and her roommate’s backpack) with the treasures of the Undergrad Library’s comics collection — never less than 40 books at a time. Just in the past few years, she’s worked at libraries and archives in Washington, D.C., Minneapolis, Indiana, and Austin, Texas and consumed their graphic novels collections with great gusto. She has been drawing her stick-figure avatar, Flippy-Do, since she was about 10 years old.

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