An interesting and emerging sub-genre of graphic novels has emerged over the last few years. These books tell true stories of life in remote and fascinating places. Well . . . they’re remote for those of us in North America and Europe. For those who live in those places, there’s nothing exotic about one’s home.
The first of these travelogue comics that I knew about was Cindy Goff’s Tales from the Heart from the mid 1980s. In that series, Goff tells about her life as a Peace Corps volunteer in the Central African Republic. She set the pace with her unsentimental and thoughtful portrait of an ordinary Minnesota girl assimilating into an alien culture.
Several more books have emerged in this sub-genre over the last dozen or so years. Guy Delisle has traveled to North Korea, Burma, and China while Joe Sacco has delivered critically acclaimed books about his travels in Palestine and Bosnia. The latest travelogue comic to appear is the intriguing graphic novel Joe and Azat by Jesse Lonergan.
Joe and Azat takes place in the isolated and odd country of Turkmenistan. Nestled between Iran and Afghanistan to its south and several other former Soviet republics to its north, Turkmenistan is a complicated and fascinating place. However, what makes this book really memorable isn’t the place as much as the people who live there.
Lonergan’s graphic travelogue tells the story of Joe, a Peace Corps volunteer who is assigned to work in Turkmenistan. Joe gradually becomes close friends with Azat, a Turkmen who comes to symbolize everything about that strange and fascinating nation.
Azat is a dreamer–he dreams of fame and money, of marrying the girl of his dreams, and of going to America to become a millionaire. He is an absolutely charming figure–not just for who he is and what he represents, but also for his complete sincerity. Azat seems to be a Turkmen Everyman who embodies all the best and worst aspects of his native country.
Through Azat we see the splendor and excitement of a Turkmen wedding, and we feel the complicated relationship that the Turkmen have with their government. We also feel the warmth of family life and the crowded chaos of the bazaars. Most of all, Azat is a kind of tour guide through the landscape and values of Turkmenistan–giving readers a feel for so much about ordinary life in that isolated country.
For instance, through Azat we get a view into the complicated rules around dating and marriage. In Turkmenistan, a girl is considered a harlot if she so much as holds hands with a boy–which means that even conversations between the sexes have to be circumspect.
We also get a view into the way the Turkmens perceive capitalism through Azat’s odd scheme to create an “arcade” in his mother’s house–actually a set of several PlayStations in a shed in the back of his house. Because Turkmenistan transitioned directly from Soviet communism to capitalism, most people in the country have no clue how to run a business or manage a budget. Thus, it’s rather entertaining to see how Joe walks Azat through the process of opening his business. Azat had dreamed of getting rich through his little business; in the end, though, it doesn’t change his life too drastically.
If I have one complaint about the book, it’s that we never really get a sense of who Joe is–nor what occupies him throughout his days. We know he’s in Turkmenistan as a Peace Corps volunteer, and we get some sense of his confusion and dislocation while there. However, we don’t get a sense of what Joe’s particular specialty is.
We never really see him with any friends other than Azat. In fact, we don’t even know where in the US Joe calls home or how old he is–we know nothing other than he’s in Turkmenistan, wears glasses, and doesn’t want to marry a Turkmen girl.
Lonergan adopts a charmingly simple illustration style for this book. His linework is very cartoony and straightforward, but that style somehow manages to make the story feel more universal. He is also terrific at capturing a unique look or emotion that his characters might be feeling. There’s an opening scene involving an overheating car that was quite well-told.
Lonergan is also very good at balancing straightforward storytelling with a more exaggerated style when he’s depicting comedic scenes.
Maybe the highest compliment I can give this book is that, after reading it, I felt I knew a lot more about a country that had previously just been a very remote dot on a map. I’ve come to appreciate life in Turkmenistan through Lonergan’s work, and I now find myself much more interested in the country than I ever was before.
I would happily follow Jesse Lonergan to other remote destinations.