Every now and then you stumble across something and think, “Why isn’t this considered a landmark in its field?”
Citizen 13660, published in 1946, is one of those things. It’s not quite a comic, but should be hailed among the important works of graphic literature. Somehow, though, despite being an avid comic/graphic novel reader, this has slipped under my radar and the radar of every other fan of the comic medium I know.
That’s too bad. This deserves to be widely known in such circles.
In 1946, just after spending time in two internment camps, Japanese-American Miné Okubo published an illustrated memoir of her experience. It was called Citizen 13660, after the family number given to her in the camps.
The novel/graphic novel hybrid was introduced to me by my wife, who read it for an Asian literature class. Prior to that exposure, I had never seen or heard it mentioned in all my years of reading about, discussing, writing about, and debating comics and graphic novels. (I have an infrequently-updated blog of reviews here; you can also see my commentary on Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series here, and some commentary on Dave Sim’s Cerebus here.)
Now in all fairness, it’s not quite a graphic novel. Certainly not in the way we think of them. Its formatting is more akin to a picture book. Each page is illustrated (a single image per page) with accompanying text, usually brief. There are no panels, per se, and the illustrations are snapshots, not sequential storytelling.
The nature of the illustrations, however, screams comic. Were Citizen 13660 produced today, it’s likely it would be hailed by the independent comic crowd. The illustrations are beautiful. The writing is simple and direct. The story is a window into a short period of American history many still can’t fully picture.
One thing I appreciated about the book is that it wasn’t pushing a viewpoint or casting judgments. It was her experience in the camps. That’s it. That’s all it seeks to do and all it accomplishes. Very direct, just, “Here is what I experienced.” At times it borders on the mundane, dealing with simple topics such as how Japanese internees ate, entertained themselves, and passed the time in camp.
So no, it’s not a wild ride full of adventure, or political commentary, or criticism. It’s a memoir. It’s a brief snapshot of a woman’s time in the internment camps. Despite straying from the traditional comic format — again, no panels, no sequential illustrations, just images and text — this is a work begging to be embraced by the comics community. Panels or not, it’s an important work.
Those of you interested in graphic literature that explores history, social issues and so on should check your local library for Citizen 13660. It’s very much worth reading.
Those interested in knowing more should read this in-depth story from Indy Magazine. It has dozens of sample pages, a full history of the work and creator, and thoughtful analysis of why the work is important. It’s still in print and is only $10 from Amazon. Check it out.