-6th Sense’s 4a.m. Instrumental for the theme music.
-It’s another Girlcast! We’ve got a couple of book reviews this time.
-First up is Marguerite Abouet and Clement Oubrerie’s Aya of Yop City
-Aya of Yop City is basically a straight up soap opera.
-Second is Raina Telgemeier’s Smile
-Smile is also pretty soap opera-y– it covers a few years of Telgemeier’s middle school/high school life, with the connective tissue being the fact that she had to get braces after a very relatable catastrophe.
-See you, space cowgirl!
-6th Sense’s 4a.m. Instrumental for the theme music.
I almost called this one “The Importance of Being Aya,” but Mos Def’s “Life In Marvelous Times” from The Ecstatic is a much better fit. In it, Mos Def paints a picture of the intersection between the past and the present, conjuring images of starving children with gold teeth and life in the projects, before ultimately concluding that “we are alive in amazing times,” despite all of the poison and destruction and hate. This 360 degree view of life allows him to say that we are living in marvelous times, with “wonders on every side.”
Black history, as it was taught to me growing up, was more limited. The picture that was painted for me portrayed a very poor, down-trodden, and miserable existence. An existence punctuated by regular lynchings, scarred backs, and burning towns. We learned about Martin Luther King, Dred Scott, WEB Du Bois, the high points of the Harlem Renaissance (pretty much Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston), a little bit about the Great Migration (black people moved, the end), a little bit about Malcolm X as Boogieman, and maybe a little something about Marcus Garvey, if the teacher was brave. Black history generally stopped with the death of Martin Luther King.
The problem with this teaching is that you don’t get the whole picture. The idea of blacks as victims is left reinforced and ingrained in your head. It turns life into warfare, a constant struggle for life, liberty, and happiness. Due to that, you miss out on hearing about the other parts of black history. The dapper dressed gentlemen taking their lady friends out to cut a rug, the kids in the ’60s who were born into a brand new world, and the normal folks making a normal living. Black is never normal.
It’s fair to say that we’re in a new age of comics now, one that allows for comics that I would’ve never found when I was a kid. Take Aya for an example. I can go out to the store and buy a hardcover book about a black (strike one) girl (strike two) living in the Ivory Coast (strike three) who is basically living a soap opera (you’ve been out for ages kid, get out of here). Back when I was trapped in the bad old days of Wizard and superheroic speculation, the weirdest thing I read was Frank Miller’s Sin City, a book with no capes, a lot of actual curse words, and a healthy dose of nudity. Nowadays, if I want to read a soap opera starring a girl in Africa and her friends, I can do that.
I never saw that kind of thing when I was a kid. Black folks in comics were generally sidekicks or supporting characters. They were Ron Troupe and Robbie Robertson, or Luke Cage and Bishop. Born and bred in misery, but managing to struggle above into the light, or simply there to dispense useful advice or be the token negro in an otherwise all-white cast. Sometimes both. Sometimes neither.
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I think what I enjoy the most about Marguerite Abouet and Clement Oubrerie’s Aya is that it isn’t really about anything. I don’t mean to say that it’s aimless, or doesn’t have a plot, or anything like that. What it isn’t, is an afterschool special or sociopolitical statement. It isn’t a book about how “Africans are normal people, too!” It’s just a story about young girls living in Côte d’Ivoire.
In a way, it succeeds as a statement for those same reasons. The usual mental image the word “Africa” conjures is one of mud huts, bone noses, and warlords running roughshod over the countryside. Aya presents a scenario that is made of the same kind of drama that small town life anywhere is buried in. There are teens going out to the designated make-out spot, a father sucking up to a local high powered businessman, a girl who wants to sidestep all that drama, and surprise pregnancies. Who hasn’t had a friend hook up with somebody you liked? Aya is, at its heart, about small town relationships.
Aya is the main character of the book, though a few characters end up being the ones who drive the story. Aya observes what’s going on, dancing in and out of the drama, while trying to make her own way in the world. One of the first things she does is ditch a party to finish her homework. Later, she explains to her father that she wants to be a doctor so that she can help people. She isn’t a nerd. It isn’t about how a Nerd With a Heart of Gold walks through the valley of the shadow of death, showing the Jocks and Frat Boys and Mean Girls what’s what. No, she’s just a normal girl. She’s studious, and aware of who she wants to be, but that’s not anything exceptional. She isn’t a flower.
Aya’s surrounded by a decent sized cast. She’s got her family, including a little sister, her friends, who in turn have their own family, and then the various boys that are interested in one girl or another or both. Oubrerie’s art does a good job of differentiating between them. Their faces are distinct, obviously, but there are even little differences in posture and body language.
The scene where one girl explains to her boyfriend that she’s pregnant is a great one. Oubrerie isn’t afraid to do a bit of cartooning, and it’s employed to great effect here. I like that he employs some classic techniques to get his point across. Proportions warp, eyes bug out, shadows cover a face, stars and sweat drops abound… I like it. I could totally see this as a cartoon. Something like Home Movies after it dropped Squigglevision.
I really dug Aya, and I’m probably going to order the next volume, Aya of Yop City, this week. I’m a little irritated at myself for never having tried it before now, but Drawn & Quarterly did good bringing it over.