Required Reading is DoomRocket’s love chest, opened once a month to champion a book that we adore. This week Arpad recommends ‘We Served the People’, available now from Archaia, an imprint of BOOM! Studios.
by Arpad Okay. If you want to tell a radical story, set politics aside. Let someone who has lived through it talk about the experience and you’ll find the reasons for and methods of resistance. Better still: you’ll hear their story.
Emei Burell’s We Served the People: My Mother’s Stories does this, and her method is true New Wave. The beauty in life lived, the sublime mundane. The defining moments in life arguably don’t chart. Calling in sick to a crooked job. Driving a tractor into a ditch. What might have been an innocent digging contest with a fairy-tale orphan ends up opening doors not even dreamed of yet.
We Served the People is about Burell’s mother, Yuan, with China’s Cultural Revolution playing the main character opposite her. Yuan was a teen when Mao shut down schools and sent all the students into the countryside to do manual labor. It was a one-way ticket; the government barred return to the city, and gave power to small men to stifle Yuan otherwise. Her past was obliterated. The past was obliterated.
And yet We Served the People is about none of that. All things center on the agency of a single woman. A mother. A student. Burell’s mom is obviously her hero, but now she’s kind of mine, too.
It’s future comics. A versatile blend of traditional, paneled comic storytelling, straight prose, and blended images with text—not quite illustration, not an infographic, just that Lucy Knisley sweet spot. It’s encyclopedic, recognizing with the tools of academia the importance of one mom’s life.
There is a comfort in the art, a purpose to that comfort. Burell’s indie style is perfect for a biography of a loved one, drawn by hand because the story matters enough for a person to craft it. Feeling like someone drew this is an eye-brain connection that works like a voice tells you a story. The purposeful exclusion of details to suit iconic emotions to the maximum reminds me strongly of radical stencil artists like Peter Kuper.
Love the mouths. The hands are exquisite, powerful and perfect. Katrin de Vries sensibilities and I am utterly here for it. The framing of the bodies, the throw of shoulders conveys energy and presence beaten down into a static image with the tip of a pen. We Served the People makes a movie moment out of mom checking her watch.
Give Emei Burell ten lines and she will give you a look of determination you will still be able to see after you turn the page.
It is also a somber book. Something that, for all its hope, has no shortage of tragedy. I always took the rustic ideal for a deep appreciation of making the most out of the least. Nature does so much with so little. But the “rusticated” students being taken to sap trees on the other side of the country, the deafening miasma of parents as the train leaves the station, Burell makes it transparent that even the most causal austerity was still criminal. The circumstances strongly feel like the terror America set upon its “backyard,” running wild with Nazis and despots.
Yuan’s uncompromising drive to speak the truth is essential, but it is bleak. There were men in power above her, over her. Some men were good, some were not. But for the first decades of her life, there was a limit on Yuan’s agency she had no control over whatsoever.
We Served the People is about her strength despite it all. The triumphs of Yuan’s life. Emei’s love for her mom is so strong that it permeates the page, the reader. How could you not look up to this amazing woman? Despite the list of men trying to keep Yuan from success, she surpassed them all and liberated herself.
BOOM! Studios / Archaia / $24.99
Written by Emei Burell.
Illustrated by Emei Burell.
Lettered by Emei Burell.
‘We Served the People’ is available now.
Enjoy this 11-page preview of ‘We Served the People’, courtesy of Archaia, an imprint of BOOM! Studios:
More Required Reading…