American publishers First Second call How The World Was: A California Childhood by Emmanuel Guibert a “nonfiction graphic novel biography,” which is a mouthful, though it’s actually more than that: it’s a graphic novel version of what the radio journalist/writer Studs Turkel did in Hard Times: An Oral History of the Depression, where French interviewer/artist Emmanuel Guibert records the words and stories of his American friend Alan Cope and, with some artistic selective editing, allows the text, allows Cope, to speak for himself.
The text, Cope’s voice, is so engaging it could stand on its own, à la Turkel’s interviews, but Guibert’s art adds a nice extra layer—mostly all in black & white, but a soft black & white, more in the grey middle area, more sepia-toned, like old, aged, photographs from the very era in which Cope’s story takes place. Some of the panels are drawn from actual photos, but the whole book feels as if we are looking through an old photo album with Cope sitting next to us on the couch telling stories as we turn the pages.
The magical thing about How The World Was is its ordinariness. That is, that Guibert takes his friend Cope’s ordinary-ish life and makes it magical. Meaning, he’s really showing us the magical-ness in all life, in everybody’s life. Yes, since this is the 1920s and 1930s, there is a touch of both exoticism and nostalgia, and the images and text may seem somewhat more familiar to American readers than French readers, but really, the book is about seeing, or recognizing, that we all have our own stories, with just as much sadness and humor. And our friends do too: What would happen if we took as much time and care in listening to our friends’ stories as Guibert has done with Alan Cope?
The key is the text, and just how plain and simple the language is. Guibert does a great job of editing down sections from what I assume was a longer conversation between he and Cope, and yet he keeps that natural spoken word feel. Credit too to the English translator Kathryn Pulver for keeping that feel: nothing seems lost in translation. In fact, I don’t know, can only speculate, since Cope lives in France, if his telling, his story, to Guibert was in English or French, in which case there may even be a double filter of translation.
If there’s a weakness to the book, it’s how short it is, and how selective. Cope is a white male, and we only ever see his family, and some interactions with other white kids, though that might just show how segregated white middle class families were, and are. Still, there’s a photo that appears in the first couple of pages, before the story even starts, of a young Alan Cope—it looks like a class photo, from maybe 3rd or 4th grade—in which Cope is surrounded by two black boys, an asian boy, and at least two latina/hispanic girls, as well as some other white kids. I was actually thinking, based on this photo, that some of the text, some of the story, might be about race relations in the schools, and in California, at this time, but there’s not a word, and the photo is never mentioned.
Still, it’s a good thing that a book leaves me wanting more. I really like the format of Guibert selecting which parts of Cope’s life story to work with. Sometimes with memoirs, text-based and especially in graphic novel form, writers and artists can be a little too self-indulgent, and things that seem very important to them, that they urgently need to confess, may not be important to readers, or even ‘to much information.’ This is the power, and unappreciated art, of the editor, who offers an impartial set of eyes and ears, though not so impartial that they don’t care. Guibert cares very much for Cope, and Cope’s story. The result of How The World Was is that it makes us care too. Makes us want to listen too.
Available in bookstores and comic book shops in August 2014. Pre-order now, and while you’re waiting, check out Guibert’s earlier graphic novel about Alan Cope’s experiences in World War II, ALAN’S WAR: The memories of G.I. Alan Cope.