Comics Are Trying to Break Your Heart #123 by Drew Barth

Looking Through History

The true start of comics and graphic novels is a contentious subject. Depending on who you ask, the idea of the graphic novel didn’t until begin until 1978 with Will Eisner’s A Contract with God. Others would contend it can go back as far as 1828 with The Adventures of Obidiah Oldbuck by Rodolphe Töpffer or some of the woodcut work in the 1920s. Even still, if we’re talking about comics in the form we recognize today—panels arranged chronologically with dialog in bubbles—one of the first examples of what could be called a “graphic novel” actually came about in 1931 as a graphic memoir. This is where The Four Immigrants Manga by Henry (Yoshitaka) Kiyama, and translated in 1998 by Frederick L. Schodt, comes into comics history.

Written over a period of twenty years, The Four Immigrants Mangachronicles Kiyama’s experience as an immigrant in San Francisco at the turn of the previous century. Following four Japanese immigrants who have taken on American names—Henry, Charlie, Frank, and Fred—we see much of their lives over the course of twenty years. While the Henry of the story is Henry Kiyama the writer, the bulk of the story instead follows Charlie through much of his life. Between day laboring and acting as house servants, we’re given an intimate look at Japanese immigrant life at the turn of the century. Much of what we see here is either pulled from Kiyama’s own experience, experiences of his friends at the time, or the stories he would hear from others.

Besides being a twenty-year look at the Japanese immigrant experience in the early 1900s, Kiyama also provides a snapshot of comics culture in the US at the time. One of this main goals in creating this manga was to emulate American styles of comics—most notably newspaper comic strips. From the left-to-right panel and word order to the usage of speech bubbles, Kiyama created a series of comic pages that encapsulated American comics, along with their caricatures and prejudices, at the time. And that these pages stretch from the turn of the century through prohibition, World War I, and the San Francisco earthquake allows us to see how Kiyama’s life as an immigrant had evolved through the decades, or, rather, how little things would still change for him at the time.

As I had mentioned in a previous article going over The Swamp by Yoshiharu Tsuge, there are pockets of comics the world over that tell a comic history that has nearly been lost to us over the decades. The Four Immigrants Manga might have gone untranslated for many more decades if Schodt hadn’t remembered seeing the volume at a university library in the 80s. These kinds of deep dives into libraries have become more and more necessary as comics grows as a medium—the stories still hidden in obscure catalogs are just waiting for someone to come by and rewrite what we know about the history of comics.

Get excited. Get historical.

Drew Barth at Miami Book Fair in 2019.

Drew Barth (Episode 331) is a writer residing in Winter Park, FL. He received his MFA from the University of Central Florida. Right now, he’s worrying about his cat.