Memoirs and graphic novels go together like peanut butter and jelly. It’s a combination that can be delightful and deeply moving. There is nothing like a first-person narrative rendered in a unique artistic style that can bring the whimsy and introspective delight. The American Dream? embodies that and more.
So what’s it about?
The official summary reads:
As a child growing up in Malaysia, Shing Yin Khor had two very different ideas of what “America” meant. The first looked a lot like Hollywood, full of beautiful people and sunlight and freeways. The second looked more like The Grapes of Wrath – a nightmare landscape filled with impoverished people, broken-down cars, barren landscapes, and broken dreams. Those contrasting ideas have stuck with Shing ever since, even now that she lives and works in LA. The American Dream? A Journey on Route 66 is Shing’s attempt to find what she can of both of these Americas on a solo journey (small adventure-dog included) across the entire expanse of that iconic road, beginning in Santa Monica and ending up Chicago. And what begins as a road trip ends up as something more like a pilgrimage in search of an American landscape that seems forever shifting, forever out of place.
Why does this matter?
This story is written and drawn by Shing in Khor as she navigates the historic Route 66. An American citizen of 4 years, Khor embarks on a road trip to better understand her fascination with this old and almost forgotten part of America. The story is of course about her own identity, but it also explores an older America and what has become of it.
Fine, you have my attention. What’s good about it?
This story is organized by the state as Khor first embarks from Los Angeles and then heads East to experience Route 66. Accompanied by her trusty dog and a few accessories to camp in her car, Khor takes a trip to better understand this somewhat forgotten part of American history. The story is not unlike Craig Thompson’s Carnet de Voyage, which explored Europe in a whimsical and informative sort of way. Khor sketches out her trip state by state, pit stop by pit stop, giving readers an informative journey of Route 66 while imparting her own observations. It’s an entertaining narrative and Khor is a great writer. Her prose is strong and you’ll find yourself thinking about her journey and relishing in her own observations. Native American culture is largely exploited on the trip, but it’s also the way many Native Americans make a living too. Highly trafficked locales are now forgotten while other spots are important stops for the bikers on the route. The story here gives a good feel for what Route 66 is all about.
It’s also about family and camaraderie. Khor meets strangers and ends up bonding on some level. She visits friends who are as good as family. There are many moments where you feel the love Khor is experiencing across the nation and it feels good. Khor speaks to what it means to be American and how the American Dream may feel like it’s disappearing, but it’s still in our grasp. It’s a hopeful look at what it is to be American.
The art has an endearing quality that’s rustic. The whimsical feel of the book is largely due to the watercolor and simple looking art. I have to commend Khor for the word bubble placement which is efficient and tends to draw your eye where it needs to be. It’s clear most pages have the perfect word balloon placement.
It can’t be perfect, can it?
I tried very hard to like the art on every page, but it’s so simplistic and rough it’s hard to love. The way Khor draws her character’s eyes as dark dots can be haunting and oddly inhuman. I understand what Khor is going for, but the art can take you out of the narrative. It can feel unfinished at times.
Is it good?
The journey The American Dream? takes you on is informative, interesting, and whimsical. Route 66 is historic on many levels and Khor does a fantastic job of capturing its beauty.