Drawing From Memory / The Inker’s Shadow
I wasn’t previously aware of the work of Allen Say, but he won the Caldecott Medal for Grandfather’s Journey, a picture book about immigration and how it can leave one feeling rootless, based on Say’s grandfather’s travels.
Drawing From Memory continues that theme, only this time, it’s autobiographical. It’s a beautifully illustrated memoir (with comic-format sequences) about Say’s struggles to be an artist. His dream wasn’t supported by his father, who thought, “Artists are lazy and scruffy people — they are not respectable.”
He began reading comics because his protective mother wanted him to stay home instead of wandering their fishing village, and his goal was to become a cartoonist. At the age of 12, he was living alone in order to go to a good school, and he began apprenticing with his favorite comic strip artist.
I love the way he scatters the art on the page, using whatever is best to convey the meaning he’s aiming for: photographs, sketches, color illustrations. Say doesn’t go into emotional detail, but it had to have been hard to split up their family during World War II, which led to his parents’ divorce during a time when that was a disgrace. His narration is succinct and straightforward, focusing only on the events that happened, with the exception of conversations with his mentor and his family at key moments.
As we move through Drawing From Memory, we follow Say in his artistic education, inking backgrounds, fine art classes, figure drawing, sketching from life, and oil painting. The book ends with Say deciding to go to America with his estranged father and his new family. There’s also an author’s note with photos of his sensei and more information on Say’s later reunion with him, a touching epilogue. It’s a powerful story of the struggle to make art and follow a dream, filtered through learning of another culture during a historical turning point and accompanied by inspiring, lovely images.
The new book The Inker’s Shadow continues Say’s story, opening with his arrival in California in 1953, at the age of fifteen. He wouldn’t be living with his father, but attending a military academy and working his way through school, sponsored by an American friend of dad’s.
Say is inspired by the adventurous character from the comic he used to work on, seizing strength wherever he can to deal with this strange new existence. He has to learn English and American culture, all while struggling to find time to draw, given his load of chores: dishwashing, painting buildings, and landscaping work.
Much of this volume is about tasks other than making art, given his struggles to survive. He’s exiled from the barracks, learns to drive, works hard to buy an old car, and is once again living on his own, this time in the face of bigotry due to his ethnicity. His feelings are masked, with the exception of this comment:
I discovered that anger is good for cartooning. The angrier I drew, the funnier the drawings turned out.
Thankfully, there are kind people to help him on his way. A principal of a nearby high school loved Japan when he was stationed there, so he gets Say registered in school and working at a print shop. A teacher who appreciates his talent gets him a scholarship to an art institute. As the book ends, Say is on his way to San Francisco, now graduated and ready to start his adult life. I hope that means that there will be another volume, continuing his story. (The publisher provided a review copy.)