It wasn’t until I started following Kristen Radtke on Twitter that I found out about Believer Magazine, a bimonthly publication that focuses on literature, arts, and culture. Radtke is the comics’ editor, and in early February she posted on Twitter about Matt Huynh’s “Cabramatta” being a National Magazine Awards finalist for Digital Innovation. When I saw this, I immediately went to Believer Magazine‘s website and read Huynh’s “autobiographical comic about growing up in a community of Vietnam War refugees resettled in Australia’s heroin capital.” Today, I want to look at some of the elements of the interactive version of “Cabramatta” that makes it so engaging.

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Interactive comics are nothing new. They incorporate movement and sound to bring the text we would normally see on the printed page to an animated life, with panels moving in and out, objects moving within panels, and sound. The user, of course, controls each of these things, moving forward or backward throughout the narrative. While a printed comics page calls upon readers to engage with every panel on the page, or pages, in his or her own manner, the interactive version presents readers with a stricter trajectory throughout the text. This, however, does not diminish the effects.

The first thing, of course, that stood out to me when engaging with “Cabramatta” was the sound (music and effects) and the tactile nature of scrolling through the narrative. When we read comics on the printed page, we engage with sounds; however, as Scott McCloud points out, we do not hear anything when we see sounds on the page. At the beginning of chapter two, “The Vocabulary of Comics,” McCloud uses Renee Margritte’s “The Treachery of Images” to point out the ways that we think about reality and engage, mentally with texts. A the end of his introduction, he looks at the reader and asks, “Do you hear what I’m saying?” In the next panel, he has the same pose, answering his own question, “If you do, have your ears checked because no one said a word.”

Our mental ability to simulate sounds in our brain when we read words on a printed page is not unique to comics. In fact, we imagine what authors or characters sound like when we read essays, novels, short stories, and more. What is different, with comics, is that they call upon readers to engage in with the text in multiple ways, specifically visually and textually. While we may fill in he gutters, creators present us with images for the world, the ways characters looks, and we assume, I would say more than just reading a novel, what the character may sound like based on appearance.

With an interactive comic such as Huynh’s “Cabramatta,” we do not get characters’ voices, but we do get background music, ambient sounds, and sounds that directly engage with the narrative. Along with this, we get television broadcast of commentators and politicians spewing xenophobic rhetoric against Vietnamese refugees after the war and then Muslim refugees in the twenty-first century. These moments add to the overall feel of the narrative, a feeling of fear about the ways hat Australians view Huynh, his family, and others.

“Cabramatta” begins with someone knocking on the door. Huynh shows a closeup of the multiple locks on the door as a television and music plays in the background. He narrates, “The door to my house locked on both sides.” This statement, coming at the beginning of the narrative, highlights the isolation and fear that grips the Huynh family, both fears of the xenophobia of Australians and the fear of becoming overwhelmed by too much exposure to that culture.

When someone arrived at the door, Matt and his mother would hide away from the windows so no one would see them and remained silent when answering the phone until the person on the other end announced themselves. In one panel, we see Matt and his mother crouched behind a wall in what appears to be the kitchen, the locked door in the background and the phone hanging off the hook to the right. During this opening, Huynh talks about the location of his house, “at the end of a cul-de-sac” that did not appear in the street directory because it was so small.

During this opening sequence, the background, in between panels, zooms outward from the house. Over the course of the first six panels, the background moves from the house to the cul-de-sac to Cabramatta. Throughout the course of “Cabramatta,” the expands to Australia, the world, then to space, thus connecting Huynh’s story not just locally but globally. This becomes evident during the panel where Matt and his mother watch television. In the center of the background, behind the panel, is Australia and some of Asia. We can see the entire world–Europe, Africa, North America, Central America, and South America–behind the panel.

The panel shows Matt’s mother fiddling with the television antenna as a blurry image of a woman appears on the screen. She states, “I believe we are in danger of being swamped by Asians. They have their own culture and religion and form ghettos and do not assimilate.” The woman’s rhetoric is xenophobic and nationalistic, claiming that Matt and his family will ruin Australia, a theme that runs throughout “Cabramatta.” Juxtaposed with this statement, though, is the background image of the most of the world, highlighting that people are connected, even if some not want to admit it.

After moving outwards, the background starts to zoom back in. There are items in the background that connect to the story such as a stethascope and thread for the section where Matt relates how his mother worked and her visits to the doctor; a measuring tape and a stethoscope when Matt talks his schooling; and needles, knives, and crossing signs when we see the 5ts. Each of these things adds to the narrative, providing symbols that we connect with what occurs in the panels.

As the background zooms back in to the cul-de-sac at the end of “Cabramatta,” we get a few panels that show the disparities in Matt’s life compared to the rich white kids he went to university with. In a bar, Matt sits drinking a beer and narrates, “I was surrounded by rich white kids across the Harbor, who grew up on Sydney’s beaches.” The panel follows one where we see a man at the counter sneezing and the man Matt sits with asking where he is from and how he got here. The sound contains a sneeze and slight laugh from the man at the bar as he looks at Matt and says, “Guess I’m allergic to Chinese.” The man’s racist comment, which mirrors an earlier comment from another man, shows that they do not think about the individual or even Asian ethnicities and nations, instead lumping Matt in with a culture he is not part of.

Following this panel, as we move closer to Matt’s home on the cul-de-sac, we get an image of those Sydney beaches, a fishing boat on the water being tossed back and forth as beach goers sun in the sand or get ready to go surfing. Matt narrates that his classmates grew up “by the same ocean that had cradled my family in a cramped fishing boat.”The juxtaposition here, with the different visual styles of the beach and the water shows both a distancing but also a coming together of two cultures. The water, to me, looks like Katsushika Hokusai’s “The Great Wave off Kanagawa,” thus highlighting Asia. The choppiness illuminates the family’s struggles in Australia as well, and all of this is countered by the carefree beach goers.

“Cabramatta” ends with Huynh showing how Cabramatta has gone from Australia’s heroin capital to tourists’s “Little Saigon,” and before we come completely full circle back to the knocking on the door, we get another talking head on television. This time, the woman says, “We are in danger of being swamped by Muslims who bear a culture and ideology that is incompatible with our own.” This moment drives home the ways that power recycles hateful and xenophobic rhetoric to create new enemies.

Huynh’s “Cabramatta” ends on a hopeful note as he returns home to visit his parents. He knocks on the door, and they wonder who it can be because they do not know anyone. As they come to the door, he narrates, “When I go back, I can’t avoid wondering how we let ourselves dream of bigger lives for ourselves with our heads down, keeping to ourselves a the back of a house, in the back of a cul-de-sac, in a ghetto.” He answers, in the final panel, by simply stating, “But it was our parents, really, who dared to.”

With the ending and the background movement out from the house on the cul-de-sac and back to it, Huynh showcases that the dreams of his family are the dreams that most parents have their children and ancestors, the dreams of a better life, whatever that life may be. The background movement drives home the fact that this dream is not unique to one ethnicity. It is something universal. It is something that, along with so many other things, connects us to one another. That is what I like about the interactive experience of Matt Huynh’s “Cabramatta.” It shows us that we do not need to buy in to the fearful rhetoric. We need to remember that we are all human with dreams for ourselves and those we love.

What are your thoughts? Let me know either in the comments below or on Twitter at @silaslapham.

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