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.**
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