The world of comics and graphic novels are full of origin stories. To have an origin is to have a beginning and thus a reality that is to be believed. The two installments from creator Thi Bui, Labor and Backwards, find both literal and metaphoric meaning in the origin story concept. Bui, writing autobiographically, tells the story of the birth of her son intertwined with a look back at her family history.
Bui’s parents immigrated to the U.S. after living through the conflict of a war torn Vietnam. In the two single issue chapters, she reflects on the meaning of becoming a parent and the physical journey that it takes to arrive at the state of being a mother. In Labor, Bui struggles with the very basic issues of bringing life into the world during a delivery that does not seem to be going as planned. Should she induce labor and have an epidural and succumb to the doctors wishes for many seemingly invasive procedures or try to wait it out? Bui’s writing presents the stress and lack of control with a honest and personal style.
The moment of giving birth has often been depicted as a moment of either grand divinity or great comedy in the media. Bui, however, allows this moment to be uncertain, overwhelming and slightly scary. The ink drawings that constitute the first chapter find a moment of rest and sparseness when depicting the image of her sleeping newborn, in a way that only someone who has studied a form a thousand times can render it. The rest of the drawings retain a heavy energy and distortion as they depict the hospital and the return to the demands of life immediately after giving birth. Bui describes her hospital roommate and how they take turns all night getting up to attend to their screaming babies on that first evening and how the hospital television warns of shaken baby syndrome. In this dark hospital universe, Bui makes space for poetic contemplation and quick looks back, often finding Ma, her mother, as the catalyst for this emotional space.
Bui continues this contemplation in Backwards. In this second chapter the author continues to look at Ma as both as a parent and as a woman. The reader is taken on a nonlinear trip back in time through the birth of the author’s brothers and sisters, some of whom survive and others that don’t. Her parents, depicted as young and stylish Vietnamese at the beginning of their family journey, deal with a world that is changing emotionally within them and politically in front of them. Ma is the metaphor for how people continue on in the face of adversity. She loses children, a homeland, and life that she was expecting. Bui writes writes after gaining the perspective of what it means to be someone’s mother, “It is strange, now, to also be someone’s child.” Bui occupies this dual role of mother and child with an insight that is well constructed and sympathetic both towards herself and her mother.
Both Labor and Backwards have a publication date of 2011 and Bui’s website lists them as both part of a 15 chapter graphic novel entitled The Best We Can Do. As with many independent artists that have a big vision, but probably not vast time or economic resources, I hope that she manages to produce the other 13 chapters. As individual elements Labor and Backwards are quick, well constructed reads. Hopefully, they will in the end, be only the intro to a complex and unique vision of a real life origin story.