December 8, 2014

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Never Forgets by Yumi Sakugawa

Written and Illustrated by Yumi Sakugawa
Self-Published

After radically changing her appearance, Ellie returns to the life she used to lead, with support from a friend and friction from her parents in a mini-comic that brings up a lot of thought-provoking questions.

I don't think it's unfair to say that a large number of people grow up to be very different than how their parents envisioned them to be. Whether it's taking a different career path, diverging politics, or even realizing that the gender you were born with isn't the gender you truly are, children grow and change.

Stories of that change aren't new to comics. Not by a long shot. But what makes this one different to me is that it's not just about the perspective of the main character. Sakugawa not only shows her feelings, but those of the parents as well. It definitely adds a layer of ambiguity to the proceedings, and how you feel about Ellie from the start of the story to the end may change--or it may not.

We know that Ellie has re-made herself, but the dramatic nature of that change isn't clear right away. She's seen doing normal things, like meeting a friend, getting a manicure, and posting to Instagram. (One of the neat tricks here is how Sakugawa uses the format of the image-sharing service to move the story along.) But there's a sense of unease as we watch Ellie come to life as a person. For example, she and her friend complain about the small creatures who do their nails talking in their own language, worried they're "talking shit." That's a clear indication of racism and pulls Ellie away from being a sympathetic character. The feelings of understanding we have for when she is reluctant to talk to her parents start to drift.

When we meet her parents, and discover that she's changed herself to effectively be completely different from them (I won't say how, but there are clues in Ellie's name as well as the title of the comic), it also gives us pause. Was this identity shift because of a real need, or just a desire to look more like everyone else in the world? Sakugawa doesn't tell us for sure. She purposefully leaves that information out, preferring to focus on the immediate emotional reactions of Ellie and her parents. The closing visuals are on the parents looking at a photo from before Ellie's change, and their body language indicating loss. Meanwhile, Ellie is also feeling abandoned.

A mini-comic that uses a full 8x11 page, Sakugawa uses the larger amount of space to let the story unfold within a larger world. We open with seven panels showing an upscale neighborhood, based on the clothing of the background figures, and most of the pages have extra establishing panels that help set the world of Ellie, freed from some of the compression needed when working in quarter or even half-size zines/minis. Her figure work is mostly in outline, with clothing draped over them that's given more of the detailed attention. Even the more intricate designs of the parents feature clothing that has patterns on it.

Sakugawa's main line work comes from filling in the details. Shoes have recognizable logos, as do the various bottles of cooking oil and supplies in Ellie's parents' house. Buildings are individualized within a shot of the highway. Window blinds and trees are shown with every slat and branch depicted. As I mentioned above, clothing styles are varied and show great care. This holds true throughout the entire comic, whether it's the design of a doily or showing that some windows have lights on in a passing office building. It's a different approach from other mini-comic creators, who often focus on the characters and leave the backgrounds to the reader's imagination. I found it very captivating, and it also helped keep us a bit removed from Ellie, even if that was unintentional on the part of the artist.

I really like how Never Forgets doesn't just pick a side. There's a lot to think about and digest. It's a comic you'll want to mull over, re-read, and try to decide what side the author is on, but don't expect to be able to figure out the answer. This is a comic with deep layers, and it's not a surprise at all that it was an Ignatz Nominee. It's a great comic, and well worth seeking out.

You can pick up a copy of Never Forgets at Sakugawa's website.