If you dismiss history told in comic book graphic form* as the non-fiction equivalent of Classic Comics, you’re missing out. At its best, graphic non-fiction uses visual elements to tell stories in new and powerful ways.**

In her graphic memoir, Fatherland: A Family History, Serbian-Canadian artist Nina Bunjevac tells the blood-soaked history of the former state of Yugoslavia through the lens of one family’s story.

Fatherland centers on Bunjevac’s father, whose involvement in a Canadian-based Serbian terrorist organization led her mother to flee with her daughters to Yugoslavia in 1975 and ended with his death in a bomb explosion. Moving back and forth in time and place, from modern Toronto to Yugoslavia during both the Nazi occupation and the Cold War, Bunjevac explores the steps that led to her father’s extreme nationalism and its tragic consequences. Using a combination of strong lines, pointillism and cross-hatching that evokes the feeling of an old newspaper, she tells a story in which there are no heroes and every choice, personal or political, has traumatic consequences. (Bunjevac’s mother is forced to make a classic “Sophie’s choice”: the only way she can take her daughters to Yugoslavia is to leave her son behind.) Both the country and Bunjevac’s family are torn apart by the bitter divisions between Serbs and Croats, partisans and collaborators, royalists and communists.

Bunjevac makes no moral judgments about her family’s choices. Instead she approaches their history from several viewpoints, introducing increasing complexity and moral ambiguity with each new layer. The only thing that is black and white in Fatherland is Bunjevac’s exquisite and often grim illustrations.

*As opposed to what we call “comic book history” here at the Margins–stories that are culturally entrenched and often emotionally satisfying but untrue.

**At its worst, graphic non-fiction is garish and heavy-handed. But if we abandon entire genres of literature based only on the worst examples we’ll have nothing left to read.

Much of this review first appeared in Shelf Awareness for Readers


  1. Lorraine on February 14, 2015 at 1:33 am

    I’m almost afraid to read this, but as Canadian with a neighbor who was a peacekeeper during the war I feel compelled to at least take a look. The story told in graphic form will be an added twist.

    • pamela on February 14, 2015 at 1:45 am

      Lorraine: It’s grim, but brilliant. And short, which makes the grimness easier to take. Let me know what you think.

    • Lorraine on March 1, 2015 at 5:08 am

      Just finished reading Fatherland, which was also my first graphic novel. (Had to laugh. When I picked up the book the librarian said “you know it’s a graphic novel, right?”)

      There’s a lot to think about in the book and could easily be read several more times to sit with images, really absorb what each family member and generation was going through in addition to the history itself. Several times while reading I thought how glad I was to be born where I was and when I was.

      • pamela on March 1, 2015 at 3:11 pm

        I’m thinking a lot about nationalism in the former Yugoslavia right now, and Fatherland has become one of my go-to texts. I think it does exactly what a graphic novel should do: use images to tell the story in a way that words alone cannot accomplish.

        I must admit I’m curious as to why your librarian warned you that it was a graphic novel.

      • Lorraine on March 1, 2015 at 7:39 pm

        The graphic element definitely was an additive to the overall experience. I too am curious as to the librarian’s comment. Maybe it goes back to the stereotype of what a graphic novel is.

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