Spurred by invitations to weddings this June, the traditional month for them in Western society, I took pleasure this past week in reading vivid, skillful graphic novels about non-Western weddings and ways. Just published, Danica Novgorodoff’s The Undertaking of Lily Chen (2014) centers upon a dramatic marriage custom that is atypical in far away (from us) modern China. Kaoru Mori’s manga series A Bride’s Story (2009 – 2013), on the other hand, recreates what typical life and marriage customs were like during the late 19th century, in what is now Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Kazakhstan. These countries were once part of the famed Silk Road trade routes, stretching from western China to Baghdad and Antioch.
Japanese author/illustrator Mori explains in the lively “AFTERWORD TAN-TA-DAAH MANGA” to Volume 1 of A Bride’s Story how her fascination with Silk Road life began in middle and high school. Books, museum exhibits, and carpet displays fed the now-36 year old’s enthusiasm, as she began to think “about what kind of woman I’d like to see in a central Asian setting.” That is how she came up with the character of Amir, the 20 year old bride central to the first two volumes of this five volume series. (Volume six will be published in English in October, 2014.) Amir, from a highly nomadic tribe, is more daring and athletic than the women of the primarily village-dwelling family into which she marries. Yet she is also eager to please her new husband and relatives, not always understanding how their customs differ as well as overlap with hers.
Early in the first volume, this difference is captured wonderfully in a series of wordless pages depicting Amir’s impetuous horse ride to hunt down rabbits for dinner. Long and mid-distance panels of Amir galloping after a rabbit alternate with close-ups of the fleeing animal and of Amir drawing an arrow through her bow, aiming, and letting it fly.
A ground-view panel then breathtakingly unites both figures, depicting the rabbit pierced mid-leap and horse hooves mid-gallop. Her worried husband Karluk, who with friends has raced after Amir, sees her swoop up her first kill while she is still on horseback! Later, Amir proudly displays and prepares rabbits for the family’s meal. Reading about this arranged marriage, I was relieved that author Mori showed Amir’s new family adapting to Amir, accepting many of her differences even as she learns their customs, too. Another point of relief was Mori’s treatment of the young couple’s age difference: groom Karluk is (not unusual for his time and place) twelve years old, but the pair is depicted in a ‘big sister and little brother’ relationship. Karluk sleepily thinks at the end of the day that a “lamb sleeping with its mother . . . must feel just like this.” The series contains brief scenes of nudity during baths and at night, but this nudity is not sexual for the characters.
Despite its title, the first two volumes of A Bride’s Story are more about family life and children acquiring adult skills and responsibilities than they are about romance. In volume one, Karluk’s younger brother Rostem wanders off to observe a carpenter, whose woodworking talents include elaborate, detailed carving. Through wordless close-ups swirling with energy and others begging to be touched, Mori makes us feel Rostem’s fascination—an interest that may direct his childish energies towards adulthood. Similarly, in volume two, Karluk’s niece Tileke—whose idiosyncratic, ‘tomboyish’ love of hawks is tolerated by her family—learns how the intricate, embroidered patterns of clothing and bedding contain the history (and personalities) of her female relatives. Tileke comes to value this heritage. In wordless close-ups and then in a narrated double-page spread, Mori’s detailed drawings communicate the richness of central Asian culture. We understand why she enthuses, in that second volume’s “AFTERWORD,” that when she sits and draws “horses’ legs, or embroidery . . . details, details . . . . YES, I FEEL SO ALIVE!”
Volumes three through five follow a British guest in Karluk and Amir’s household as he journeys onward, meeting other would-be and actual brides. Tradition thwarts the hopes of one young widow for remarriage, while fifteen year old twins Laila and Leily humorously scheme to matchmake for themselves. These clever, bold, sometimes annoying teens are determined to marry wealthy brothers—so as married women they can continue to live near one another in comfort. Most of their schemes fail, but the pair end up pleased with their grooms—neighboring young men, brothers with limited income, whom they have known lifelong. Mori’s words and images also show this courtship and marriage from the brothers’ viewpoint, enriching our understanding of how familiarity ultimately leads to friendship, and then affection and devotion. Enduring the formal festivities of a typical, weeklong wedding celebration is one stress that draws the couples closer. While these central events take place, Mori reintroduces Amir and Karluk, as they travel with other relatives on tribal business. We see that couple’s increasing closeness, which by the end of volume five has Karluk chastely kissing his bride and jealous of her time spent away from him. Their ‘big sister and little brother’ relationship is slowly changing, even as Karluk himself seems unaware of this change and Amir does nothing to hasten it.
Mori’s series is enriched by “Bonus Chapters” and “Side Stories” which detail more about background characters. In volume three’s “Pariya Is At That Age,” we discover how this feisty teenager from Karluk’s tribe is happy that her temper and strong opinions are scaring away potential grooms! Her story becomes a subplot in later volumes. In volume five’s “Queen of the Mountain,” Karluk’s wise grandmother, herself from a nomadic tribe, surprises village youngsters by riding a mountain goat to rescue a stranded child. The complete A Bride’s Story series recently won Japan’s 2014 Manga Taisho (Cartoon Grand Prize), an honor bestowed by booksellers. In 2012, the first volume of this engaging series was named one of YALSA’s Top Ten Graphic Novels for Teens.
Like Mori, author/illustrator Danica Novgorodoff in The Undertaking of Lily Chen makes extensive, effective use of wordless panels. This is evident right from the Prologue, where readers may deduce the fatal consequence of two brothers’ fist fight from its climactic panel, an image of one young man’s broken eyeglasses next to a puddle of blood. Unlike the black-and-white Bride’s Story, though, Lily Chen uses a full color palette. In an online interview, Novgorodoff explains that she used “watercolor paper with a combination of watercolor paint and ink, using . . . long flexible animal hair brushes . . . as well as tiny brushes for detail” to reproduce landscapes she had seen on two trips to China. The ‘painterly’ look of many pages in this novel—as well as its tone—is often very different than the detailed drawing and general high spirits of Mori’s manga series.
Novogorodoff explains that she was inspired by a magazine article in 2007 describing the reoccurrence today in northern China of an ancient tradition: providing a man who has died unmarried with a ‘ghost bride’ to keep him company in the afterlife. This is accomplished by holding a wedding ceremony before the man’s funeral, marrying him to a woman who has died earlier, and then reburying this ‘bride’ alongside her new ‘husband.’ Novogorodoff poetically notes how this tradition is said to have begun with an ancient emperor grieving the death of his 13 year old heir: “Dear Son . . . who will hold your hand as your approach the gates of heaven? Who will lie with you in the dark eternal bedroom?” In the novel, after their favorite son, college-aged Wei, is accidentally killed in that fight by his slightly younger brother, Deshi, their parents order Deshi to find such a ‘ghost bride’ for Wei. He will need to purchase or otherwise obtain a corpse for this purpose.
Deshi has a little more than a week to accomplish this task—an enormous “undertaking” in emotional as well physical terms. Illustrations accompanying each new chapter—the stylized faces of traditional Chinese gods and demons, an abacus with shifted beads that mark each passing day, and the ‘wedding gown’ that Wei’s mother painstakingly makes for the corpse bride—highlight the mounting pressure on guilt-ridden Deshi. This young man must deal with criminals as well as sharp-tongued Lily Chen, a runaway young woman who wants a new, exciting life for herself in ‘the big city,’ as he desperately tries to satisfy his parents’ strident demands. (They brutally tell Deshi that they wish he, not Wei, had died.) Along the way, Deshi even has to come to terms with what appears to be Wei’s ghost, called upon at night by monks in a Buddhist temple. Parts of his blue-tinged, ghastly face are the sole, central images on several otherwise white, wordless pages in this chapter titled “Temple.”
The Undertaking of Lily Chen balances many elements: its plot contains romance as well as violence, humor as well as grief, a villain’s casual purchase of sex as well as Deshi and Lily’s spontaneous, heartfelt coupling, silhouetted against the glowing embers of a riverside campfire. Novogorodoff herself even humorously describes this episodic graphic novel as “a sort of western, complete with a journey on horseback, a bad guy with a pencil mustache, a knife fight, and a fistful of dollars (well, yuan).” (That sort of wry humor also shows up in the novel when its pictures conflict with what is said. For instance, the cartoonlike misfits Lily’s father calls upon to help him track her—lame, old, or doltishly nose picking—are not, one assumes, really his “town’s bravest, strongest, and most trustworthy men.”)
While this mixture of genres and visual styles might sound too strange to work, I think the novel’s consistent color palette, along with the water color, ‘painted’ images conveying the feelings and dreams of both Deshi and Lily, unite all these elements into a successful whole. Deshi’s early fearfulness and self-doubt are offset and finally overcome by Lily’s bold confidence. Together, the pair face down dangers, including some self-imposed ones. Novgorodoff shows Deshi and Lily breaking away from tradition and their past roles as dutiful children without destroying those traditions or relationships—just she depicts the steel cranes and modern highways which exist in China today alongside misty mountain scenes first captured in thousand year old, hand painted scrolls.
(These scenes echo the photography of 21st century Shanghai artist Yang Yongliang , who manipulates images to spotlight such connections.) But I do not want to spoil the ending of this memorable, entertaining book for you. To see how Deshi and Lily end up showing respect and regard for both his cruel if grief stricken parents and her angry but concerned father, you will need to read The Undertaking of Lily Chen yourself! If, having read the novel, you think as I do that Deshi has been too respectful to his narrow-minded, verbally abusive parents, please let me know.