Friday 4 December 2009

Two Books Deal With Different Social Issues

Like it or not, we're all born into groups.

That fact is largely the focus of both books reviewed this week: Shortcomings and The Big Kahn.

The first one we look at, Shortcomings, written and illustrated by Adrian Tomine, is a reprint book collecting Optic Nerve#9-11.

Its protagonist is Ben Tanaka, a 30-year-old Japanese-American movie theatre manager in Berkeley, California. His girlfriend, Miko Hayashi, also Japanese-American, is involved with the local Asian-American cultural scene.

Their relationship appears to be headed off a cliff because they regularly argue. Miko continuously accuses him of being "ashamed to be Asian" and accuses him of cheating on her after seeing his new employee, a cute 22-year-old blond named Autumn.

One day, the heat goes up in their arguments when she finds porn DVDs in his desk. "The thing that kind of bothers me is that all the girls are white", she tells him.

Not long after that event, she moves to New York for a four-month internship at the Asian-American Independent Film Institute. Due to her departure, they inevitably take some time off from each other.

After a brief fling with a bisexual woman, Ben receives a telephone call from his best friend Alice, a Korean-American lesbian, while she's in New York visiting friends. She tells him to join her there because, as she puts it, there's something he has to see with his own two eyes.

Tomine's art and storytelling style are absolutely top-notch. He presents the characters in a realistic way to the point where all of them have noticeable personal problems and flaws. Adding to the realism, the dialogue between characters is as realistic as it can get in a graphic novel.

Via empathy for his characters, Tomine forces readers to ask themselves important questions. Of course, based on the story, as you may have guessed, most of those questions are related to race and sexuality. However, it does contain moments of humour, like when Ben is watching Autumn's band perform at a gig.

The second book this week is The Big Kahn.

Written by Neil Kleid and illustrated by Nicolas Cinquegrani, The Big Kahn is about Rabbi David Kahn who is, once deceased, revealed by his brother to never have been Jewish in the first place.

It focuses on how such devastating news about the rabbi, along his death, affects his immediate family, which consists of his wife and three children.

Before the revelation of his faith, his eldest child, Avi, was to be his successor as a rabbi in their synagogue. Unfortunately, now some people with influence and power in that synagogue don't see it that way anymore because Avi's not "100 per cent Jewish".

He's not the only person being treated differently. His mother and brother are, too, in different ways. Oddly enough, his sister, the family's bar-hoping rebel, is becoming more spiritual.

The Big Kahn touches the fact that there are always snobs in all groups, including religions. As a result, there's always the chance of discrimination, too.

I don't know if the problems Avi had in the book would happen in real life but, really, so what if a Rabbi's parents weren't Jewish?

In brief, the book's visuals look good. Its overall message, despite a (spoiler alert) cliffhanger-style ending, appears to be too pro-religion/faith, especially when one of the characters is described on the back cover as "re-awakening".

Don't get me wrong: being religious can be okay except, in my opinion, it doesn't make much sense for the characters to be discriminated by the religious institution that they are members of and then continue to want to be affiliated with the organization.

Generally speaking, Shortcomings and The Big Kahn are still good books to trigger thoughts within the readers of their own lives.

Shortcomings: 8/10

Publisher: Drawn & Quarterly

The Big Kahn: 8/10

Publisher: NBM

Bernard C. Cormier is, among other things, a freelance writer and broadcaster. E-mail: © Bernard C. Cormier 2009