Last post, I started discussing the separation of illustrations into multiple panels in works such as March and They Called Us Enemy. Today, I want to continue that discussion by looking at some more examples in Takei’s graphic memoir and the ways that Harmony Becker separates larger images into multiple panels to highlight multiple thematic aspects of the narrative, notably the generational trauma that the incarceration individuals during World War II wrought on families and the community. This theme appears at multiple points in They Called Us Enemy, most notably during the conversations that Takei, as a teenager, has with his father about the incarceration camps.
Leading up to his conversation with his father, a large, half-page panel depics Takei looking backwards as he narrates: “Years later, the trauma of those experiences continued to haunt me. Most Japanese Americans from my parents’ generation didn’t like to talk about the internment with their children.” Here, Takei’s positioning, and the darkened background, signify both his looking to the past, reflecting on his own experiences, and the trauma associated with his unconstitutional incarceration. The next panel, another half-page panel, shows older Japanese and Japanese Americans looking off to the right of the panel as Takei narrates, “As with many traumatic experiences, they were anguished by their memories and haunted by shame for something that wasn’t their fault. Shame is a cruel thing. It should rest on the perpetrators.”
The sequence then moves to Takei and his father talking over a coffee as the son asks his father why he would “comply with something that was fundamentally wrong.” Takei’s father tells him that he doesn’t realize what it was like and that he had to think of Takei and his siblings. Takei pushes back, telling his father he would have protested. Here, we get two panels, one on the left and one on the right which depict Takei’s father and Takei himself staring towards the middle. While these panels do not make up a single image, as others I have discussed do, they nevertheless could. Takei’s father acknowledges that his son would have probably protested, but he also tells his son that one day he’ll understand his father’s actions. His face is calm as he speaks with Takei.
In the other panel, Takei screams at his father, telling him he is grown up. He continues by yelling, “Daddy, you led us like sheep to slaughter, into a barbed-wire prison.” The gutter separates the two men. It dissects the image, positioning each of them in different panels with a break, or chasm, in between them. Here, we see the visual representation of the generational effects of the trauma that Takei and his family endured. We see the ways that Takei himself thinks about it, now as a teenager, and the way that his father thought about it at the time and thinks about it in this moment. These positions differ, and in many ways, they remind me of Ichiro Yamada in John Okada’s No-No Boy, notably the ways that Ichiro relates to his mother and even to those in the community, like Kenji, who went along and entered the draft.
At the end of the memoir, after Takei mentions Ronald Regan and the reparations and apology from the United States government, we see four final images of the teenage Takei and his father. In the first two, we again see a split with Takei’s father on the left, the gutter, then Takei on the right. Takei’s father, hands clasped just below his chin, tells his son, “of all the forms of government that we have, American democracy is still the best.” Across the gutter, Takei again screams at his father, asking, “Daddy, how can you say that?! After all you went through. Losing everything you and mama had worked for!” Here, Takei does not fully understand why his father still feels that way that he does, especially in the face of the United States’ treatment of him and his family. We see, as well, the divide that still exists between them. This divide, though, gets overcome in the next panel.
Here, we see Takei and his father at the table in one single panel, no gutter separating them and keeping them apart. Takei’s father tells his son that even though Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 he pulled the country out of the depression and “did great things,” but the man, “was also a fallible human being.” Those things directly impacted Takei and his family, leading to the trauma they endured, trauma that Takei’s father reexperienced when Eleanor Roosevelt came by the campaign office for Adali Stevenson when Takei and his father worked on the campaign. Takei’s father, upon learning of her arrival, became nauseas and left, not want to see the wife of the man who incarcerated him and his family.
Even with all of this, though, Takei’s father reiterates that “American democracy is still the best,” telling his son, “but despite all that we’ve experienced, our democracy is still the best in the world . . .” At this, the next panel shows Takei’s face as his father continues, “because it’s a people’s democracy.” As Takei’s father finishes by saying that “the people can do great things,” we move to see panels of the Civil Rights Movement, Takei running for Los Angeles city council, Takei on NPR, and Barack Obama at his inauguration. We see, in that panel of Takei and his father at the table, the bringing together, through the removal of the gutter, of generations. We see the mending of that separation and Takei embracing his father’s views on American democracy and its ability to bring about change and equity for all. However, even with this knowledge, Takei and his father knew that in order for the democracy to sustain itself it must be supported and fought for if attacks come against it in any way shape or form. This is when Takei mentions the separation of families at the border, Fred, Korematsu, and the Muslim Ban.
Along with these moments, one other illustration stands out for this discussion. When Takei and his family get taken to Tule Lake, an illustration appears showing imprisoned individuals. At the top are parents and on the bottom children stand in front of their parents. The illustration has a gutter running through the middle, separating the parents from the children, even though we see the parents’ hands on some of the children’s shoulders. Here, Takei narrates, “Tule Lake was the most notorious, the most cruel, and by far the largest of the ten camps. At its peak, this heavily militarized facility held 18,000 internees. Nearly half of them were kids like us.” The illustration highlights the fact that half of those at Tule Lake were children, but it also serves to highlight the separation that Takei talks about with his father, the differences in their recollections of events.
The gutter does not merely serve as a space for readers to fill in the gaps in the narrative, providing the action that does not exist physically on the page. The gutter works, in the examples I’ve discussed, to provide an emotional moment and impact to drive home the severed relationships from the trauma of incarceration. It works to both highlight this severing but also to bring individuals together in a suturing and elimination of the gutter. This, of course, is not all I can say on this topic. What are some similar moments that stand out to you in some comics or graphic novels? Let me know in the comments below, and make sure to follow me on Twitter at @silaslapham.