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Beetle, Bitter, Better

Miné Okubo’s Almost-Comic Works
By Tony Wei Ling

I can never stop thinking about this one joke because I am never sure how to take it: Miné Okubo, circa 1972, moving amid her unearthed piles of paintings, says offhandedly to her interviewer, “It’s tragic—life, in every shape and form. In my next life, I’ll come back as a Japanese beetle!”


I know enough to hear the joke there, but not enough to be sure I get it. I don’t know, for example, whether she really said both these sentences in the same breath, or visit; whether by 1972 the Japanese beetle already gotten its reputation in the US as a highly invasive, destructive pest; how Okubo felt about gardening (her landlords had long ago ripped out the terrace where she might have grown things); and whether both of these statements are jokes. Because they both have the sound of a joke, don’t they?


Miné Okubo was usually described in terms of a bustling, industrious, forward-facing energy, the kind of person who would “work hard to keep [herself] going, and to keep from thinking.” At the same time, her legacy has been shaped in significant ways by the political and artistic promises of critical retrospection, pinned to an insistent backwards gaze at the USA’s 1942—46 mass incarceration of “enemy aliens.” Okubo lived a long time (passing away in 2001), but her best-known work is still the book she published at 36—Citizen 13660, a cartoon document of “camp life.” Citizen 13660 is the place where these two versions of Okubo (the energetic, too-busy-to-linger one; the ever-retrospective, mournful one) meet, contradict each other, and hold each other up.


There is a Solmaz Sharif poem that goes: “Studies show to negate something is to think it anyway. I’m not sad. I’m not sad.” The poem’s joke is that “studies” in positive psychology would prefer to eradicate even this half-erased negativity, since even to say “no problem” is a hint there might be one.

Okubo prefers to put her own negated claim, I’m not bitter, in someone else’s mouth. Her 1983 preface to Citizen 13660 concludes: “I am often asked, why am I not bitter and could this happen again?” Already, the handoff between these two questions is rather fascinating, but wait: the catalog to her 1972 solo show, written by Shirley Sun, opens with a near-identical anecdote in bold. Hanging above the longer, in-depth engagement with the Okubo’s body of work, the “not bitter” line becomes a frame to everything that follows:

‘Why are you not bitter?’ is one question often asked of me now. For one thing life moves on. There is not time enough to sit back and worry about an event of the past. It is human nature to look ahead and to hope and to strive for a better tomorrow.


This optimistic bit of wisdom comes just before Sun recounts Okubo’s odd mix of “bitter insights” and “irrepressible humor”: In my next life, I’ll come back as a Japanese beetle.


It’s a strange and hard-to-place sense of humor that characterizes this artist and her cartoons. Both kind of teeter between the “amusing” description often given of her book and the “bitter irony” of implicit/secret critique that was increasingly identified with the book during the redress movement. For me, the beetle joke is an exemplar, an anecdote that stands in for all the other readerly problems that accompany her work.


Both formally and tonally, the book is “almost comic”—a phrase I’m borrowing from an essay on artist Laylah Ali (who shares with Okubo both the cartoon/comics idiom and the interest in funny/flattened absurdities). Citizen 13660 has an understated and pseudo-objective kind of tonal flatness, a voice that registers as either inhuman or ironic. In the 1940s, early readers discussed this “commendable objectivity” with either admiration (relief?) or bitter complaint, and at least one—sociologist Setsuko Nishi, herself a former internee—found that what “is not evident to most readers is the disillusioning torment that evacuation meant to them.” The situation and its discomforts are precisely recorded, but what is not evident—not available as evidence—is the intensity of what this experience of suspended citizenship meant: “disillusioning torment,” which is not only a feeling but a new orientation to the nation-state and its promised futures.


Paradoxically, though, this same flatness that grounds the book’s “objectivity” is also the ground for its incredible instability; its amusements often leave you feeling wrong-footed, unsure where the butt or point of the joke is. The almost-comic form of Citizen 13660 (which invoked newspaper “funnies” and children’s picture books to an audience not yet acquainted with self-serious “graphic memoirs”) only adds to this uncertainty of mood, of political (un)seriousness, of the reader-narrator relationship.


It is a funny version of the inscrutable Asian, not knowing how to take a joke, in part because the effect may leave the reader inscrutable to themself, unsure what to say about how they feel. Katherine Stanutz, combing through early responses to the book, finds confused, faint, and/or distracted accounts of feeling, concluding that “inscrutability here takes the form of indistinct emotional vocabulary; we can only allude to the vastly complex way that the text affects us.” Unlike and because of the almost-comic’s “objective” flat surface, feeling remains a poor kind of evidence.


Sarah Dowling brings our attention to this slapstick moment:

Whether Okubo’s jokes hide or heighten the meaning/feeling of “camp life” continues to be debated. It has a lot to do with the reader’s moment and their accompanying desires: the work you want the book to do in the world. You could take its humor as barbed testimony, “bitter irony” exposing absurd gaps between the promises and realities of US democracy/citizenship, for example. Which is a way of making humor into a kind of revelatory evidence in itself. Or you might take gags like the one above as part of a state-mandated visual rhetoric of “good cheer,” as Elena Tajima Creef puts it when she writes about Ansel Adams and his Manzanar photographs. If you are this kind of reader, humor is a stabilizing kind of evidence, papering over what the absurdities mean even if it also points them out.


An extra irony, then, is that about a decade after Okubo’s beetle-joke—1981—her work would serve as literal evidence before the Congressional Committee on Wartime Relocation and Internment. Okubo herself testifies, perhaps as a supplement to her book’s own testimony, and tells the committee that she kept the drawings “objective.” [1] Her testimony emphasizes that knowledge of these events is necessary, lacking, and in some senses impossible: others must know what happened, but they cannot really know what it was like.


Do cartoons make for good evidence? Okubo’s drawings are often described as “sketches,” therefore more observational in nature, and of course more serious, though it seems obvious that this book was called to testify to—was asked to make evident—the subjective experience of incarceration, the “human” experience of being “reduced to one status and one condition.” As evidence of humanity, Citizen 13660 occasionally seems to fail for the same reason it makes for “good evidence”—careful tonal control, objectivity. One early review called the book “almost inhumanly quiet,” a phrase that has gotten stuck to the inside of my skull.


What kind of work are comics (or almost-comics, or graphic memoir) tasked with doing? The selected blurbs on the 2014 edition charge the book with bringing an “oft-overlooked portion of American history […] poignantly to life” through its “expressive ink drawings”; “poignant,” in fact, is repeated in both blurbs to suggest a sharp and moving melancholy. (Such are the “affordances” of graphic narrative—making a subject visceral, immediate, and alive for the reader are some of the assigned “upsides” that we use to articulate comics’ value and relevance.)


I wonder what this means—for Okubo’s cartoons, or any cartoon, to be called objective, “almost inhumanly quiet” in one moment and then “expressive,” enlivening, in another. If the two value-lending promises of graphic stories are (1) that they work effectively as a chart/diagram/visualization of complex info and (2) that they vivify that data, animate it with intense inner life—how does Okubo’s flatly funny cartooning square with that obligation?


What if the “almost comic” doesn’t humanize or vivify this history, i.e. make historical experience sharply available as legible feelings in the reader? I’ve always felt like the constant gags leave its forms of life more indistinct.

At least one scholar who met Okubo has recalled her saying: “You’re always trying to get something out of me.” A joke is sometimes what we call a contradiction that we can’t get anything solid from except (nervous) laughter: maybe my desire as a reader is to keep that indistinctness, to let Citizen 13660 demonstrate that comics do not always, reliably, afford their readers a stable or visceral kind of access to the other’s experience.

I’ve noticed though that the hinge of Okubo’s jokes often use some element of ecology: there are “spiders, mice, and rats” to befriend, trees to trip over, and of course, interminable dust to sweep, breathe, endure. Many decades later, there are also Japanese beetles to be in the next life. Is that spiteful, affectionate, aspirational, or what? 


Life, in every shape and form, is tragic. According to pest-control websites, Japanese beetles are most destructive in their larvae/grub form, eating up the root systems of turf grass in lawns and golf courses. Their populations were apparently spread by human movement from New Jersey to the West Coast sometime after 1916: the opposite direction of the WRA’s post-camp dispersal of incarcerated people. 


In Citizen 13660, the desert environment is an invasive, pervasive thing, just as painful (and absurd) as the camp’s governance over people’s bodies. At the Tanforan detention center, south of San Francisco, the first month is one big flurry of mandatory medical inspections, vaccinations, and—regardless, because there’s little shelter from the wind and dust—constant illness. Okubo’s brother complains that his last vaccination shot “was meant for a horse,” a joke (is it one?) that references the location of their incarceration within a former racetrack. 


Their living spaces are former horse stalls, where the differences between human and nonhuman habitation are mostly cosmetic: “Spider webs, horse hair, and hay had been whitewashed with the walls,” reads the caption to a diorama-esque cartoon of the stable. “A two-inch layer of dust covered the floor, but on removing it we discovered that linoleum the color of redwood had been placed over the rough manure-covered boards.” 


The accompanying cartoon gives an X-ray view into this mess, diagramming the stalls like anatomy, or like a dollhouse.

All this makes me acutely aware of Okubo’s frequent images of incarcerated people in groups, crowds, lines—herds—a visual that Ansel Adams notably avoided in his individual, close-up portraits and emptied landscape pictures of Manzanar. Creef observes that Adams wanted to visually recode ethnic Japanese as loyal citizens by reproducing the stable American units of the individual and nuclear family in his photographs, intentionally de-emphasizing the communal or “mass” grouping even though the camps structured life around prison barracks. His treatment of the (empty) desert landscape is, likewise—and characteristically—romantic, noble. Okubo, by contrast, frequently attends to the visual sameness and biopolitical scale of “population” that camp life enforced.

In this situation of (enemy) pest control / (loyal) animal husbandry, the cartoons almost become a creepy inversion of the “funny animal” comic. Throughout, animals and the landscape’s other features, irritants, are a compulsory point of racial comparison, resemblance, closeness. Why should the jokes that come out of this closeness have just one tenor or function?

The famous final page of Citizen 13660 positions Okubo’s body toward the bus that will take her to the rest of her life, away from Topaz; her head swivels back, watching over her shoulder at the remaining prisoners crowded at the gate.

“There was only the desert now. My thoughts shifted from the past to the future.”  


I am not the first to notice how the text here hurries ahead of the final cartoon image, how it stretches on into a new moment while the drawing snaps us back to backwards glance. In the text, we are in a future-present and what is in view is the desert, “only the desert now”; in the picture, the composition draws our view back toward the camp’s horizon.  


Left to be imagined from text, “only the desert now” registers as one more flatness—though not without its possibilities. The desert ecology has been part of confinement, part of the discomfort, part of the whole racial quarantine and re-education; with Ansel Adams’s landscape photos, it has also been part of the positive propaganda about camp life, an ennobling romantic test of ethnic citizenship. The reader may also anticipate the erasure of these concentration camps which, like the expansionist violence preceding it, the desert’s imagined bareness/flatness helps naturalize: it has always, only, been the desert—no one still alive has lived here, terra nullius


We hear a lot more about pictures that express what language can’t, but here we have language without an image, for which there can be no picture: the desert as the path forward out from itself. As a switchpoint between evidence and erasure, this desert that Okubo does not visualize has stayed with me as a funny kind of feeling, too: I don’t know how to say it.

[1] Supplement as Derrida had it: what appears to be a light, additional afterthought, also implies that the “original” already carried the specific negative shape of this lack, like the Amigara Fault. I’m not sad. 


Tony Wei Ling is a managing editor at Nat. Brut and a comics researcher at UCLA.

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