Book Spotlight: The Stonekeeper – Kazu Kibuishi

To learn more about Book Spotlight, read this first.

The Stonekeeper, written and illustrated by Kazu Kibuishi, is the first in the Amulet graphic novel series and introduces us to Emily, a girl with the ability to wield a mysterious, powerful stone gifted to her by her great-grandfather.

Note: As of the writing of this post, I’ve read books 1-3 of this series. Instead of writing a post for each book, I’ll probably do a post with continued/wrap-up thoughts after I finish book 7 (latest release).

What I liked:

  • I’m still slightly in shock at how much I liked The Stonekeeper. Honestly, this book/series was on the ‘I’ll get to it when I get to it’ part of my TBR, and I picked it up because the bookstore didn’t have the title I really wanted that day. Now I’m seriously considering sending a copy to a cousin in Japan who loves manga.
  • Kibuishi draws fantastic settings. I’m not a huge fan of his character designs, except for maybe a few of the robots, but I love how he draws backgrounds and Silas’s house. Also, he’s a master of the epic panorama scene. I have a feeling his worldbuilding techniques are influenced by Miyazaki and other manga/anime creators, and I wonder why he didn’t model his characters the same way.* I also wonder how much editorial input he had to accept before the book reached its final form. If he ever publishes a book chronicling his personal artistic journey and the development process behind Amulet, I’ll definitely take a look.
  • SILAS’S HOUSE IS A GIANT ROBOT. HOUSE ROBOT. I didn’t check the dates, but the similarity to Miyazaki’s rendition of Howl’s moving castle (lowercase deliberate) is definitely present. (Or any of a number of characters from his other films – 風の谷のナウシカ or 天空の城ラピュタ anyone?) Kibuishi also hails from the culture which brought the world Gundam and other giant robot delights, so maybe it wasn’t Miyazaki. Either way, details like this from Kibuishi’s worldbuilding felt like small homages to our culture and absolutely made my reading experience more enjoyable.
  • Did any fellow JA/Nikkei readers look at Miskit’s first appearance (in disguise) and immediately see a signature Miyazaki character type and/or possibly also a very common manga/anime reference? I realize I might simply be projecting my very great desire to see US Japanese/Nikkei creators engaging with the awesomeness of our cultural artistic heritage, but I seriously doubt the greats like Miyazaki had zero influence on Kibuishi’s work.

What I learned:

  • This might be the first non-comic, non-manga graphic novel series to really capture my interest, and I credit Kibuishi’s masterful blend of gripping plot and beautiful artwork. I didn’t think I would ever find anything like Amulet outside of manga,** so it was a pleasant surprise to realize how much I was enjoying Kibuishi’s story. Now that I know I can appreciate this medium, I’m excited to look for similar works!

Questions I had:

  • Did Kibuishi ever consider making Emily and her family Asian/POC? From what I’ve read so far, the story would proceed in exactly the same way if Emily happened to be, say, an Asian American girl instead of a white one. Given the popularity of the Amulet series (not that Kibuishi could have predicted it), this would have been a great opportunity to normalize POC representation in US children’s media. I haven’t looked up any interviews with Kibuishi, but I wonder if other Asian/POC readers have asked him the same question.
  • On a related note, why did Kibuishi choose Emily’s dad’s death as the catalyst for their move to Silas’s house? I wonder if Kibuishi wants children who have lost a parent to see themselves in Emily and Navin, or if he had some other reason for constructing the plot this way. To return to my above point, I do think if Kibuishi wants readers to (re)consider what a ‘standard’ family can or should look like, making Emily and her family Asian/POC might have served the double purpose of normalizing single-parent POC households. After all, white people don’t need to be and shouldn’t be the only examples for teaching children about significant family events. I also can’t help thinking of how single-parent households are often stigmatized in Japanese culture, and how meaningful it could be if a high-profile Japanese/Nikkei creator like Kibuishi used his work to challenge this perception.
  • Is Kibuishi’s work available in Japanese? I think Japanese kids would enjoy the Amulet series, if perhaps more for the perceived foreign-ness of it than for the qualities Nikkei kids might notice. For that matter, does Kibuishi envision 日本人 as one of his target audiences?
  • Does Kibuishi identify as Japanese, Japanese American/Nikkei, or something else? From what little I’ve read about him, it sounds like he moved to the US from Japan at a young age. I’m assuming he grew up in a more Japanese than Nikkei household, if his parents are both Japanese. His background interests me because I’d like to know how he feels his personal experiences influence his art and writing. Given the history of colorism and anti-blackness in both Japanese and Nikkei communities, I paid particular attention to how Kibuishi created his fantasy/non-human races. As of now, I haven’t noticed any overt racism or cultural appropriation, and I hope the rest of the series bears this out. Part of me wonders if Kibuishi consciously populated his world with many non-human races to avoid the representational faux pas of works like ATLA. I guess I’ll have to wait and see if any kind of hierarchy emerges among the human, humanoid (like elves), and visually non-human (animals, robots) characters. I just hope we don’t discover white(-coded?) humans like Emily being held up as some kind of ideal race/species.

Follow-up:

  • As will be evident by the time this post goes up, I’ve already purchased the rest of the series through book 7. I’m not sure if book 7 is the final installment…I hope not.

*To be clear, I don’t think there can be any kind of ‘objective’ standard for categorizing manga/anime-style characters as ‘better’ than characters drawn in other styles. I also don’t mean to say Japanese artists should only draw in recognizably manga or anime styles. Instead, I mean my personal aesthetic preferences, as influenced by my background and experiences, tend toward manga/anime-influenced styles as opposed to styles more popularized in the US by white artists. For example, I deeply admire Sana Takeda’s artwork in Monstress, which, though not what I would call manga or anime style, certainly appears to be in dialogue with both.

**The closest thing I’ve read in terms of English-language graphic novels is probably Gene Luen Yang’s American Born Chinese. I enjoyed Yang’s work, of course, but the genre, narrative style, and art work were so different, I hesitate to even mention it as a comparison.

Book Spotlight: Heroes – Ken Mochizuki

To learn more about Book Spotlight, read this first.

Heroes, written by Ken Mochizuki and illustrated by Dom Lee, follows a day in the life of Donnie Okada as he navigates racism, friendships, and family history to discover the meaning of heroism.

What I liked:

  • I guessed what Donnie’s dad and uncle were going to do as soon as they said they would pick him up from school, but I still cheered inside my head when I flipped the page and saw them standing there. I don’t remember seeing any heroic representations of Japanese people in the non-Japan-sourced media I consumed as a kid. Even though I knew about the 442nd, I heard about them in the context of history, of a piece with the concentration camps, and never saw them valorized in literature or other cultural media. I wonder how much sooner I might have looked into JA/Nikkei history if I’d been introduced to Heroes and similar books as a kid.
  • The combination of underplaying achievements and badass reveals is so Japanese. さすが日本人。I also appreciate Mochizuki making a point to tell us Uncle Yosh never talks about the war or watches war-related television. I suspect most Japanese/Nikkei readers will note the subtle tension there and either take the implicit lesson from it or use it as a starting point for questioning the costs of war, decorated uniforms notwithstanding. I do wonder how many JA/Nikkei readers will follow the line of thinking all the way to discussions about the role of militarism in maintaining US/white hegemony and how utilizing this perspective to reflect on groups like the 442nd might result in conflicted representations of Japanese American history.
  • Dom Lee is an amazing artist! Looking at his hyper-realistic Asian portraits is just like leafing through a family album. Additionally, the detail with which he renders the facial features and body language of characters of different races suggests close observation of real-life scenarios. As I was reading, I found myself thinking, here is an artist who knows how it feels to experience racism and who has thought deeply about the visual aspects of those experiences. I would love to know what kind of references (photos or otherwise) he used to create these illustrations. To me, Donnie and his relatives look specifically Japanese – I can see bits of my own male relatives in their features – as opposed to the vaguely ‘Asian’-looking characters sometimes produced by non-Asian illustrators. Although I think there is a time and place for ‘generally Asian’-looking characters, as drawn by Asians, for a story deeply rooted in Japanese American history like Heroes, I very much appreciate Lee’s efforts to produce Japanese-looking characters. I would gift this book to any of my family members on the strength of the illustrations alone.

What I learned:

  • It sounds like Donnie’s dad owns a gas station. This isn’t exactly a common occupation among contemporary JA/Nikkei and it got me thinking about what other types of occupations Japanese Americans found themselves in after the camps closed. I feel like this could segue into a broader discussion about classism and the significance of one’s socioeconomic status in our community today, but I think I need to do some more reading first. If I recall correctly, a few of the books on my TBR focus on JA/Nikkei experiences in the immediate postwar years, so those might be a good place to start.

Questions I had:

  • Are the sunglasses references deliberate? In my post about another of Mochizuki’s picture books, Baseball Saved Us, I noted the appearance of sunglasses in the text and made some guesses about why they were so prominently featured. It seems funny to me how, in Heroes, we see our ‘heroes’ wearing sunglasses. Mochizuki even goes to the trouble of telling us in the text, through Donnie’s eyes, about their sunglasses, so I wonder if this is his subtle way of saying, ‘maybe the camp guards wore sunglasses back then, but look who wears them now!’
  • In the illustration showing Donnie’s friends leaving the gas station after chasing him there, Lee depicts the white boy turning to look back at Donnie and his dad and uncle, while the Black boy walks away, facing forward. Why did Lee make this compositional choice? I can think of several interpretations, but my favorite is imagining Lee wanted to capture several layers of racial tension as succinctly as possible. At no point does the text indicate Reggie sees any kind of shared racial experience between himself and Donnie. Instead, Reggie is shown as consistently siding with white kids in designating Donnie the ‘enemy’ because of his Asian features. Nevertheless, I like to think Lee drew Reggie facing forward because he accepts, on some level, why it is wrong to conflate Donnie with the ‘enemy’ because of his race, whereas the white boy (whose name, frankly, I don’t recall) is looking back in defiance because he can’t or won’t acknowledge the racism at the root of his actions. Of course, I don’t actually know why Lee composed the illustration this way, but I wonder if other POC/Asian readers, especially kids, will draw the same conclusion I did.

Follow-up:

  • I might read Passage to Freedom, Mochizuki’s third (I think) collaboration with Lee, though if I did, it would probably be mostly to enjoy more of Lee’s illustrations.