For many in the United States, there are huge portions of national history that remain obscure, if not forgotten entirely. Thankfully, there are educators and creators working to fix that problem.
Ten Speed Graphic brings us Sí, Se Puede: The Latino Heroes Who Changed the United States. The comic opens with a set of guests arriving at an immersive museum experience dedicated to preserving Latino history. They are immediately welcomed by Camilo, who serves as guide to these characters and the reader through centuries of Latino history. From the early Aztec and Mayan empires right up until the modern day, the book covers politics, sports, entertainment, science, social movements—a whole range of places in society where Latinos have left their mark. Along this journey, the immersive nature of the museum drops the characters into vibrant recreations of key moments with a readily accessible mix of factual information and natural dialogue about the process of learning a history so often overlooked.
Written by Julio Anta, the book is upfront that its primary purpose is one of celebration. From broad cultural achievements to specific individuals who have shaped the nation, the book is brimming with cultural pride for the rich heritage it describes. Even with its primary focus being educational, the text never feels like a dry recitation of facts. The information is direct, but its delivery is bursting with energy befitting a celebration of Latino culture. In broad strokes, it’s a familiar style for other educational materials aimed at youth, though never so juvenile in tone that older teens or adults will be put off.
The book touches lightly on some of the terrible hardships and atrocities faced by Latino communities of the past and present, but these are not dwelled on, as Anta keeps the primary focus on the success and endurance of these historical figures. It’s a complex topic to distill down to a single volume. The text does touch on useful and sometimes uncomfortable considerations when discussing such a broad group of people—debates about terminology, colonialism, colorism, and often conflicting worldviews that have complicated the Latino journey throughout time. The book is not a complex examination of the figures it highlights, nor does it claim to be. It is not intended to be the final word on any of the subject matter it illuminates. Rather, it feels as though Anta positions the text as a first step, to ignite pride in Latino history and encourage the curiosity to dive deeper.
Yasmín Flores Montañez provides the illustrations throughout the volume, and each page of art captures a colorful palate of diverse people and rich history. Balancing moments of triumph with the multitude hardships Latinos have had to overcome, the visuals keep pace with the shifting tone of the writing, propelling the reader along with the museum guide and guests. Emotions and action are clear, the art is a pleasure to look over, and the representations of individuals across the pages show a full spectrum of skin colors, body types, ages, and genders. Through each chapter, Montañez matches the pride and energy of the writing, bringing these chapters of history to life in dramatic fashion.
Whether Latino or not, any reader seeking more familiarity with Latino heritage or forgotten moments of history will find plenty to enjoy here. The cultural pride is evident as each new story unfolds and it is both enlightening and emotional to gain insight into this wide range of figures who have changed modern life in sometimes subtle and sometimes dramatic ways—figures whose names are unknown by far too many. There is plenty more depth that could be provided about the information presented here, but Anta and Montañez succeed in their primary goal: to celebrate the tapestry of Latino history and welcome readers into a better understanding of the threads that make up the whole. The volume ends with an index of topics and a list of additional resources for anyone wishing to dive deeper, while the finale of the narrative seeks to empower Latino readers to embrace the strength of their own heritage.
As an entry point into the subject, as a work of graphic nonfiction, and as a celebration of the proud history of a rich ethnic heritage, Sí, Se Puede is a work well worth adding to any collection and can hopefully serve as a jumping-off point for further conversation, learning, and celebration of the vital diversity that has shaped the United States since its founding.
Sí, Se Puede: The Latino Heroes Who Changed the United States By Julio Anta Art by Yasmín Flores Montañez Ten Speed Press, 2023 ISBN: 9781984860910
NFNT Age Recommendation: Older Teen (16-18), Teen (13-16) Creator Representation: Colombian, Cuban, Puerto Rican Character Representation: Black, Latinx, Queer, Genderqueer, Trans
The Nib compiles approximately fifty webcomics (many of which were previously published on thenib.com) from forty creators on a wide variety of LGBTQ+-related topics into this Kickstarter-backed anthology. The comics run the gamut from one-page funnies to ten-plus-page detailed glimpses into queer history. Associate Editor Matt Lubchansky’s introduction explains the origin of the title’s source, the phrase “Be Gay, Do Crime.” Lubchansky also discusses the significance of comics as a means to express queer identity in a singularly accessible manner.
Some of the most interesting comics in the anthology serve to educate readers about various aspects of the queer experience. These include histories, cultural and national disparities in treatments of queer people, and procedures like embryo adoption and securing birth control as an asexual person. One historical highlight is The Life of Gad Beck, written by Dorian Alexander, which details gay Jewish Beck’s resistance under Nazi Germany. Levi Hastings’ gorgeous illustrations are rendered in black, white, and pale blue, with thick outlines (there is no art tool information in the book, but it looks like Hastings used oil pastels). Another particularly informative contribution is Sam Wallman’s A Covert Gaze at Conservative Gays, an illuminating piece about historical and contemporary right-wing activism among queer people. At first glance, Wallman’s panelless comic closely resembles a infographic by a Mad Magazine artist; Al Jaffee comes to mind. But this black, white, and pink comic strikes a perfect balance between discussing “gay supervillains” like Milo Yiannopolous and more sympathetic conservatives like gun advocates in the wake of the Pulse Nightclub shooting. Kazimir Lee’s What’s It Like to Raise Kids in Malaysia When You’re LGBT? is another interesting piece which details political perspectives and individual experiences of queer people in Malaysia. The standout art is reminiscent of a mid-20th century picture book; the full-color illustrations are predominantly in earthy reds, pinks, yellows, and browns, and there are minimal outlines in the characters’ block-like head and body shapes.
The anthology balances its drier informational pieces with funny one-page strips and relatable memoirs. A memoir highlight is Dancing with Pride by Maia Kobabe (Gender Queer) and is about eir experience in a folk dancing class where dancers are assigned different roles based on their perceived genders. The simple illustrations appear to be in pencil and watercolor, and feature a page where the dancers are lined up in order so their shirts make a rainbow, a very subtle and sweet nod to queerness in non-queer spaces. Another moving piece is written by Sarah Mirk and details activist Pidgeon Pagonis’s experience as an intersex child. The piece, Gender Isn’t Binary and Neither Is Anatomy, is illustrated by Archie Bongiovanni (A Quick & Easy Guide to Pronouns, Grease Bats). A couple laugh-out-loud funny highlights include Joey Alison Sayers’s The Final Reveal, in which the extremes of gender reveal parties are spoofed, and Shelby Criswell’s Astrological Signs as Classic Queer Haircuts.
As is always the case when I read comic anthologies, there were pieces that didn’t resonate as well with me as those I’ve named above. Rather than specify them, I will argue that it is because this book features something for every reader. If a piece didn’t resonate with me, it is sure to resonate with someone else. The queer representation is so varied, with gay, lesbian, bisexual, trans, nonbinary, intersex, and ace representation, and with countless intersectional queer identities, that I am confident every queer reader will find something to relate to in this book. Due to its array of art styles and queer representations, I would particularly recommend Be Gay, Do Comics for fans of Iron Circus’s anthologies, like FTL, Y’all, Smut Peddler, and The Sleep of Reason.
Be Gay, Do Comics Edited by Matt Bors ISBN: 9781684057771 IDW, 2020
Title Details and Representation NFNT Age Recommendation: Adult (18+), Older Teen (16-18) Character Traits: Asexual, Bisexual, Gay, Lesbian, Queer Gender Nonconforming, Genderqueer, Intersex, Nonbinary, Trans Creator Highlights: Black, Filipino-American, Puerto Rican Asexual, Bisexual, Gay, Lesbian, Queer Gender Nonconforming, Genderqueer, Nonbinary, Trans
Included in the ever-growing demand for graphic novels of any genre is graphic non-fiction. To Dance: Special Edition is an expanded edition of the Robert Siebert Award Honor book from 2007, To Dance: A Ballerina’s Graphic Novel. The Robert Siebert Award goes to authors and illustrators of “informational books for children.”
The autobiography is written by Siena Cherson Siegel and illustrated by her husband, Mark Siegel. It tells the story of Siena’s early childhood in Puerto Rico, where she dreamed of dancing, and her journey to New York, where she entered the School of American Ballet at age eleven. She studied at the school, founded by George Balanchine, and performed as a child dancer on stage with the New York City Ballet Company alongside the likes of Mikhail Baryshnikov.
The memoir is told with a child’s view of the grueling physical work of studying ballet, including injury and sacrifice, but without a trace of darkness. The pure, childlike joy of dance and movement is portrayed with sweet simplicity in the writing and illustrations. The graphic novel shows Siena balancing her home life with her studies–even her parents’ divorce and her eventual career-ending injury—with the peace she found through dance.
Mark Siegel, editorial director of First Second, whose most recent creative work includes the science fiction children’s graphic novel series, 5 Worlds, captures the fluidity of dancers well. The best illustrations feature panel-less layouts that stretch across the page with the elegance and beauty of a prima ballerina.
This book embraces childhood hopes and dreams, without the bittersweet aftertaste of adulthood. Siena Cherson Siegel’s dancing career may have ended too soon, but she continues to embrace the spirit of dance in a way that will enchant readers young and old.
Libraries that don’t already own this book would be smart to add it to their graphic novel collection.
To Dance: Special Edition By Siena Cherson Siegel Art by Mark Siegel ISBN: 9781481486644 1481486640 Simon & Shuster, 2019 Publisher Age Rating: 8-14 Series Reading Order: (Wikipedia or Goodreads)
Browse for more like this title NFNT Age Recommendation: Middle Grade (7-11), Tween (10-13) Character Traits: Puerto Rican
“Which is better—the sweet lie, or the bitter truth?”
Elysia Puente grapples with these options as she explores the New York City subway system during a Category 3 hurricane. She’s looking for her little brother, Angel, who called her in a moment of desperation. Even though they are both adult age, she sees herself as his protector and braves a series of supernatural challenges in search of her brother as well as the truth between them. Her complete story envelopes not only her and her brother, but an entire family history’s worth of deceit.
Submerged is a taut, imaginative look at family trauma through a series of lenses. Over the course of its four chapters, Elysia’s journey sees her gradually coming to terms with the impact her parents had on her and her brother. For example, at one point, Elysia runs past a couple of posters on the subway station wall: one saying ‘Don’t give up on yourself—Seek help,’ the other, ‘Judy’s Pies—Just like mom’s!’ This background detail foreshadows the spectre of Elysia’s mother, a real piece of work. She always pushed a rigid standard of living on Elysia’s life to the point of abuse, followed by forcefully apologizing to the point of a different but equally harmful abuse. She hugs Elysia too tight when she’s a child and forces her to switch schools so that she can’t see her girlfriend. She argues with teenage Elysia to not go to college. The mother’s reasons are always presented as for the father’s sake, but she is still enforcing that dominance on her daughter.
The story is straightforward enough on its own, with Elysia witnessing flashbacks to her childhood that gradually build an overarching narrative with a couple of concluding twists. However, readers who engage with the mythological name-dropping and symbolism will have plenty to digest. True to Greek myth, Phlegethon Station is all fire and smoke, just like its Greek underworld namesake, the river of fire. News reports about the hurricane above reference areas of New York City being submerged in “the river,” begging comparisons to the River Styx and the passage of the dead to the afterlife. Elysia even uses tokens to get in and out of the subway system, and the train conductor is blind like Charon, the ferryman of myth. Parallels to Odysseus’s and Orpheus’s classic journeys abound for readers to recognize.
Elysia is an entertaining character to follow. As she witnesses memories of dramatic arguments with her family, she makes self-aware comments such as, ‘If I live through this I’m never having kids, I swear to god’ and ‘My therapist is going to have a field day with this.’ She and her family are bilingual, and the parents consider Elysia’s consistent use of English a sign of disrespect. Elysia’s preference for girls is treated more severely, almost like a betrayal. Elysia uses the word ‘dyke’ to describe how she thinks others see her, and graffiti in the station uses that word as well, reflecting the pain she is revisiting.
A number of lettering effects are employed throughout the story. Dotted word balloons are used to show whispering. Gray lettering conveys an echo. Spiky balloons broadcast phone messages. Big, bold, yellow letters are used for sound effects. A variety of coloring and layout effects are also used. For example, in a scene of tracks changing direction, the page layout turns sideways, though it presents no additional difficulties in reading the content. As the storm worsens near the end of the book, the gutters themselves become watery blue lines of water running along the page. While the station is often bathed in shadows and populated with colorful ghosts, the train cars that display Elysia’s flashbacks each use different palettes, including black outlines switching to light browns.
The story also addresses gender roles from Elysia and Angel’s points of view. Angel fights Elysia over a dinosaur toy in childhood, saying it’s for boys, then apologizes. Elysia always bears the nickname La Princesa from her father, a term of affection but also control. Their father’s criminal empire places uniquely violent burdens on Angel’s shoulders. As a young man, Angel wants to prove himself to his father and freaks out the first time Angel impulsively uses a gun to kill someone—he says it was an accident. Later on, when he is assigned a hit, he refuses to pull the trigger and says about it, ‘It felt good, okay? I felt like a goddamn man, for once in my life.’ Later on, Elysia reflects, ‘If I don’t let go of the anger and resentment about the past, I’ll never leave it behind.’ Escape from the supernatural subway is an exercise in reflection, confession, and ultimately forgiveness.
Submerged is an excellent graphic novel that fits in a number of categories, such as queer, Spanish-language, horror, magical realism, and crime. The horror/violent content is fairly mild, with some tears of blood here and stabbing a giant caterpillar with a sword there. Other mature content, such as alcohol consumption, multiple four-letter words, and the aforementioned homophobic slur, place this squarely in older teen and adult territory.
Submerged By Vita Ayala Art by Lisa Sterle ISBN: 9781939424426 Vault, 2019
Browse for more like this title NFNT Age Recommendation: Older Teen (16-18), Adult (18+) Character Traits: Afro Latina Lesbian Creator Highlights: BIPOC Creator, LGBTQIA+ Creator
Biographical comics strike me as one of the most difficult genres in the world of graphic novels. How do you sum up a life, particularly one that is well-known and researched, in 200-ish pages, using a format that can consume pages at a time with a single picture? You can pare down your story to key moments, ones that reflect the subject, how they lived their life, the choices they made, and the impact they had on the world around them. Inevitably something gets left out, but depending on the story you tell and the way you tell it, your omissions may make for a stronger tale. But then again….
21: The Story of Roberto Clemente revolves around the September 30, 1972 game, when Clemente made his 3000th hit. We bounce back to his childhood, growing up in Puerto Rico and playing baseball with a homemade bat and bottle caps. We see his family tragedies, his time in the Puerto Rico Baseball League, and his struggle with Jim Crow segregation. Santiago intermittently returns to the 1972 game, but also explores Puerto Rican history and the debate over its independence, as well as Clemente’s humanitarian work. Throughout the biography, Santiago weaves in the story of the three magi kings, visually tying it in with the plane crash that ended Clemente’s life in December, 1972. His 18 seasons with the Pittsburgh Pirates are portrayed in scattered episodes, with focus on their 1960 World Series run against the Yankees.
The art is done in bold strokes and sepia tones. Santiago fills the page with warm tones, using a style reminiscent of charcoal and mixed with off-whites, bright oranges, and brown-blacks (as a Giants fan, I have to say the color scheme reminded me more of San Francisco’s than Pittsburgh’s). Many of the side characters are drawn as caricatures, particularly the crowds attending the games, while Clemente, his teammates, and family members are drawn more realistically. Anyone familiar with the iconic pictures of Clemente will see the similarities between those and Santiago’s art. This style beautifully portrays the intense games and Clemente’s epic playing style.
Santiago’s art is the star of the book. The writing is fractured, leaping to different points in Clemente’s life with little reference for the reader. The story shifts quickly and the panels on the page are inconsistent in their flow – I often felt disoriented by the narrative. The book suffers from its lack of focus – is it about Clemente’s amazing career? The racism that he and other players overcame? Or Puerto Rico’s history? It’s about all of these things, and yet doesn’t cover any of them satisfactorily.
As someone who follows baseball but has limited knowledge of its history, I was eager to read about this important player. I came away knowing little more about Clemente and his career. Perhaps those with a stronger background in baseball history would find more to enjoy about this biography, but I’m not sure that they’d glean anything new about Clemente or baseball in the 1950s and 60s. I was inspired to research more about his life and career, particularly his impact on the game and humanitarian efforts; for such a fascinating person, 21 gives you a limited glimpse of his life. It’s the depictions of Clemente’s games that create the most powerful moments in the book, and those don’t make up a large part of the story.
This book is listed on YALSA’s Great Graphic Novels for 2012, but it’s hard to see the teen appeal in this biography. Baseball fanatics may pick it up, but might be disappointed with the minimal amount of games featured in the story. When they are the focus of the story, they’re gorgeous, relying on a classic, old-school style and color scheme. As a biography, though, there are large gaps in information about Clemente and his career. The narrative style is confusing and may leave veteran graphic novel-readers rereading pages at a time. While the book is a visual treat, the story leaves a lot to be desired. For those interested in learning more about Clemente, Santiago provides a list of online and print references.
21: The Story of Roberto Clemente by Wilfred Santiago ISBN: 9781560978923 Fantagraphics Books, 2011