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7. Migration: Crossing borders in graphic enactments

Inge Lanslots, associate professor in Italian culture and translation at KU Leuven, has published on Italian culture and literature, graphic narratives, cultural memory, transmediality, and adaptation. Her current project Éxodocs examines the representation of migration in contemporary documentaries.

This chapter focuses on contemporary graphic novels that enact the practices related to the porosity of the US–Mexican border in combination with the traumatic aspects of migration. Despite their common focus on the spatial representation, most novels, including Ruins by Kuper (2015) and Feeding Ground by Lang, Lapinski and Mangun (2011), turn into creative mono- and multilingual narratives where the use of English prevails. Others, such as Tan’s The Arrival (2006), become a wordless depiction in which pictograms and other graphics establish an unsettling relationship between characters and readers.

Keywords: graphic novels, border, spatiality, migration, multilingualism

Redefining the border?

Graphic narratives (Eisner, 2008, p. xvii) are often read as “literary experiences that are deceptively immediate” (Bladow, 2019, pp. 39–40), even when they deal with difficult topics. It is their multimodal nature that construes meaning-making in collaboration with the reader, since the combination of the visual, verbal, and audio modes serves the textual function of the narrative (Fisher Davies, 2019). In light of this, it would be highly interesting to analyze how this medium, which addresses a wider audience as opposed to exclusively textual narratives, constructs the border; contrary to the (documentary) film genre, it has not been sufficiently studied. Although scholars and other critics working at the intersection of border studies, Latino studies, and comic studies have hitherto noted “that it is common for mainstream comics to ignore borders” while maintaining a Eurocentric perspective (Montes, 2016, p. 278), they nonetheless recognize that mainstream comics problematize ethnic representation by particularizing character iconography clearly within the limited space of the given narration (Royal, 2007, p. 9). Though at the same time, they also agree upon the fact that, given their long-form dimension, the specific use of multimodal strategies, and their more complex language containing both audiovisual and verbal components (Grant, 2012), graphic novels offer more opportunities to discuss borders as well as the related topics of identity construction and power relations. Graphic novels become sites of disputed inclusion and exclusion processes.

In the present chapter, I will address the multimodal representation of the border via the analysis of three graphic novels: Peter Kuper’s Ruins (2015), Shaun Tan’s The Arrival (2006), and Feeding Ground by Swifty Lang, Michael Lapinski and Chris Mangun (2011) (Figures 7.1−7.3).1 I argue that they offer complementary views on and interpretations of the US–Mexican border. I have purposefully selected these graphic novels because they question border-related issues, in the sense that they recount how the border enhances a variety of flows, often linked to different types of migrant experiences (Ganster & Collins, 2017). The novels have been published in English, the language that seems to dominate the debate on migration in the so-called multilingual, globalized era, and as such they paradoxically embrace the paradigm of monolingualism, or linguistic homogenization (Gramling, 2016; Pandey, 2016; Yildiz, 2012).

Figures 7.1–7.3.

Covers of Ruins, © Peter Kuper 2015; The Arrival, © Hachette Australia, 2006; and Feeding Ground, © Lang, Lapinski, Mangun and BOOM! Studios 2011.

Before moving onto the analysis of the three graphic novels, let me first offer a brief summary.2 Feeding Ground narrates how a Mexican “coyote” (a trafficker of illegal immigrants) named Busqueda is forced to smuggle his own family into the US, crossing the border via the Devil’s Highway, the prehistoric and colonial trail running through the desert between Arizona and Sonora. During their journey, the Busqueda family members get separated from one another and try to avoid border patrol, or any other instances that might detect their illegal presence on American soil. Feeding Ground takes a horror twist as visionary or dreamlike elements are interwoven into the story, with some family members even being chased by mutant werewolves inhabiting that same border zone.

The acclaimed Ruins is the fictional diary of a young American couple, who take a sabbatical in Mexico.3 Samantha has planned to write a book on Mexico’s indigenous cultures, and George, who has recently lost his job, wants to dedicate himself to his research on insects. Both protagonists, however, get distracted from their plans: Samantha falls in love with a Mexican artist while her husband gets involved in a teachers’ protest, and they eventually part ways.

The Arrival is a retrospective narration of the migration of a man who has left his impoverished town in search of a better life. Upon arrival, he finds himself in a city where he seeks shelter, food, and employment. It is a city with no apparent original inhabitants; because of its skyline, the many water tanks, and the recreation of the application process at Ellis Island, it strongly resembles New York. Depicted in a surrealistic way, the otherwise anonymous city offers a bewildering setting where each immigrant who disembarks at the city’s port carries their own story and past.

The three graphic novels – created by acclaimed or, conversely, new authors – were published in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks. These entailed a more intensified border policy/control and altered the valorization of the US–Mexican border and its borderlands; “complex transnational circuits embedded in the flows of migrants and (more or less legal) goods” (Amilhat Szary & Giraut, 2015) determine not only the topographic and spatial perception of that border (zone), but also the communication and power relations between inhabitants and migrants, and the identity construction of minority groups, that is, the most relevant border-related questions or “borderities” (Amilhat Szary & Giraut, 2015, pp. 2–3). As I will demonstrate, the representation of the dynamics of a continuously shifting border is hardly ever realistic, but highly creative, while it rejects the “taylorized way of working in the cultural industry” (Baetens & Frey, 2014, p. 18). Color schemes, for instance, become symbolically charged as the authors explore the boundaries of the graphic medium. Moreover, irregular lines, frames, and fences not only visually complicate the narratives’ tabularity, but enhance the notion of the border, as is the case in Ruins and Feeding Ground. In The Arrival, migrants overcome linguistic barriers via signs, pictograms, drawings, and fantastic creatures which seek to establish a type of nonverbal communication. In addition to the fragmentation of space, there is a spatial multilayeredness, juxtaposition, or overlapping that represents different time zones or historical periods. This type of spatial representation is closely connected to the identity issues the authors address. Thus, in Feeding Ground, the sense of belonging is problematized as the descendants of white settlers in the US and migrants from Latin America are abruptly transformed into bloodthirsty monsters.

The shifting border

Over the last 20 years, border studies have gained a more prominent place across a range of disciplines, such as Urban and Community Studies (Edward Soja), Chican@ Studies (Gloria Anzaldúa), Postcolonial American Studies (Theo D’haen), and Visual Cultural Studies (Nicholas Mirzoeff). Among others, Raka Shome (2003) has pointed out that the border, along with space, cannot be seen exclusively as a metaphor (pp. 39–40). In the case of the US–Mexican border, it is clearly a demarcation line that divides the north from the south, and which consists of land or water, namely the Rio Grande. Despite the extensive protection it offers, the border itself remains permeable and expands to border zones situated at both ends of that border. As Shome (2003) puts it, the border cannot be understood as “a static, closed thing [but as] a product of relations that are themselves active and constantly changing material practices through which it comes into being” (p. 41). The border needs to be interpreted as a catalyst for political power, socio-economic and cultural-historical relations, both legal and illegal activities, and documented as well as undocumented crossings.

Figure 7.4.

The monarch butterfly on its journey. © Peter Kuper 2015.

In Feeding Ground and Ruins, the characters cross the border in both directions, mostly illegally: the protagonists travel respectively from south to north and vice versa – the itinerary of the monarch butterfly, headed towards Canada, seems to compensate for the American couple’s unexpected, southbound destination (Figure 7.4). Immigrants face many obstacles, epitomized by the border control in The Arrival and, to a lesser extent, in Ruins. The border crossers travel via land in Feeding Ground, via water in The Arrival, and via air, land, or water in Ruins, where the monarch butterfly witnesses how migrants try to cross the Rio Grande. In those occasions, the border presents itself as a line and is mainly visualized – within the panels – via fences, walls, fencing partitions, and gates, which often imply an imminent danger. Moreover, the borderline reproduces itself through other physical or geographical demarcation lines, sometimes signed on static and factual country maps as in Ruins and The Arrival. Within the visualization of the border crossing “for the promise of something greater” (Lang et al., 2011, p. 66), the color schemes vary accordingly. While the retrospective narration of The Arrival imposes a continuous use of sepia tones, in Ruins, daily life in the US is depicted using blue-grayish tones. Only the butterfly stands out because of its orange wings, whereas on Mexican soil, life has vivid colors, all created with pen, ink, watercolor and – as the author mentions – some computer pixel dust. In Feeding Ground, the dominant color is sepia or similar, monochromatic tones, accompanied by a red, blue, or yellow undertone: red is used in combination with violence, destruction, or devastation; blue comes to the fore when the US-related topics increase in importance; and yellow prevails when the link with Mexico is stressed. This particular color scheme contrasts with the bright neon colors used for the cover and for the chapter pages (Figure 7.5), recalling the authors’ background in animation filmmaking.

Figure 7.5.

Chapter pages of Feeding Ground. © Lang, Lapinski, Mangun and BOOM! Studios 2011.

As for the further embedding of the border into space, Feeding Ground resorts to very detailed and realistic references, such as the coordinates that contextualize the itinerary of the Busqueda family. Yet, the representation of space itself remains fragmented or limited, in the sense that the reader is offered very few spatial overviews in the panels, which creates an oppressive atmosphere. Most exemplary of this are the panels in which the journey through the Sonoran Desert is narrated. In these sequences, which take place at night, the gutters between the panels turn black, while the panels themselves are arranged in a more irregular way, or within a meta-panel. Within the drawings, the reader detects several circular movements, which visualize the disorders the migrants might experience, such as disorientation, dehydration, the inability to walk, and even delirium.4 Ruins, in turn, puts the narration in a broader context; along with the chipped monarch butterfly, the reader literally flies over several American states, thus getting a variety of aerial viewpoints. The butterfly’s itinerary is visualized on maps that are spread across the graphic novel, allowing the reader to discover “tenements in New York City, nuclear power plants in Pennsylvania (echoes of Three Mile Island), strip-mining in West Virginia, migrant farmer abuse in Florida, the brutality of the border patrol in Texas, and a drug deal gone wrong in Monterrey” (Clough, 2016, para. 3), as well as the remnants of the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina. In order to visualize these different spaces, Kuper employs a set of differently shaped panels, with overlaps in which the gutters tend to disappear. The author also zooms into details, which contrast nicely with the spatial overviews, and which create a multilayered narration. From the beginning, the reader is confronted with these complementary views, whereas the protagonists fail to combine them. Upon his arrival in Mexico, for example, the physically nearsighted George only has an eye for small details, which is illustrated by the many panels where he excitedly discovers insects and photographs them; it will take time, however, before he actually notices the teachers’ protest of 2006. In The Arrival, Tan sticks to a more regular tabularity, in line with the format of a photographic album, arranging and juxtaposing equally sized panels with rounded corners. He does insert some larger panels, though, in order to stress singular situations or to enhance the threats immigrants might have to face, such as large fire extinguishers or tentacles that seem to threaten the new residents. As mentioned before, the surrealistic shapes used to create the photographic realism of The Arrival force the reader to empathize with the immigrants’ unsettling experiences (Rhoades et al., 2015). Dimensions, scales, proportions, shapes, forms, as well as animal-like creatures change in the course of the story, resulting in size reductions and enlargements. Thus, everything seems to fold into new forms thanks to a graphic application of the origami technique, initiated at the intradiegetic level by the protagonist himself, which – in interviews about the graphic novel – Tan associates with a universal and mathematical language. These textual transformations of materials or artistic techniques contribute strongly to the fluidity of spaces; this, in turn, visualizes the immigrants’ struggle to get to grips with their new reality.5

Linguistic barriers

The disorientating effect extends to the verbal level, or mode, of the graphic narratives. In The Arrival, linguistic barriers are metonymically represented; alongside the characters, readers are invited to decipher unrealistic symbols, which are partly in roman, partly pictographic:

As Tan states, the disorienting effect of this unreadable text reminds the reader of their ‘dependence on the written word for security and authority when it comes to meaning’ […]. The pictographic language engenders a point of narrative frisson between the text and reader, as the reader’s encounter with this unknown alphabet rehearses dilemmas that migrants face in negotiating a new system of signification. (Nabizadeh, 2014, p. 367)

This is a system that characters further negotiate via gestures, or visuals; for example, the use of the letter ‘x’ for the signature, instead of the character’s name, recalls both the immigrant’s application process and materializes the search for a new meaning system (Figure 7.6).

Figure 7.6.

Linguistic and gestural signing in The Arrival. © Hachette Australia, 2006.

Moreover, in The Arrival unfamiliarly familiar letters are inscribed in notebooks but also into surrounding buildings: the letters are almost recognizable yet at the same time do not reveal their meaning. Contrary to this wordless graphic novel, Ruins and Feeding Ground revert to the interaction between existing languages. In these two graphic novels, the use of English prevails, while the use of Spanish seems to be restricted to specific contexts or circumstances. The use of Spanish not only seems to challenge the dominant role of a powerful language such as English, but also forces the reader to perform some sort of translation process (Delabastita & Grutman, 2005), thus reverting – albeit temporarily – hierarchies of power (Polezzi, 2012, p. 353). In Feeding Ground, the use of Spanish is indicative neither of a strategic exoticism aimed at producing couleur locale (Alvstad, 2020), nor of some linguistic exhibitionism (Pandey, 2016); on the contrary, it has a strong connotational meaning. These marked linguistic inscriptions defy monolingual normativity, and occur in particularly emotional or violent moments, or they stress affectionate family ties or memories. At one point, an ironically bilingual expression is used to describe an unidentified body, a “Juan Doe”, which brings us to the use of Spanish in relationship to the migration topic: “pollero” replaces the better known yet – as mentioned in the introduction – less common “coyote”, a term which is frequently used in the text. This is because “pollero” evokes the image of livestock, which is often used to indicate immigrants. Within the narrative, immigrants are called “pollos” (livestock) by border control. Immigrants, in their turn, refer to the top of the migration police with the word “La Migra”. The term “Flaqita”, which means sweet, skinny girl and is often used in a more affectionate way, or as slang for Latina, is recontextualized in a negative way when an older man expresses his indecent intentions towards Busqueda’s daughter – a clear reference to widespread gender-based violence in the Mexican border zone. Ruins, finally, reflects a more balanced and mixed use of Spanish and English. Although the latter might dominate, Spanish is not only used in more intimate or violent settings. It becomes a clear sign of respectful linguistic and cultural valorization (Pandey, 2016, pp. 272–273); the openness of non-native Mexican characters towards the culture they live in facilitates multi- or even translingual frameworks. That openness, or “translingual knowingness” (Noonan, 2013, p. 159), is further visualized towards the end of the story, after George has decided to stay in Mexico and artistically portray the country. Thus, in the final meta-panel, in which George is finishing a painting of Mexico’s rich and troubled history, a monarch butterfly is shown pausing at the top of the painting: a sign that George’s restlessness and dissociation have come to an end.

Border time

George’s painting visualizes how graphic novels make use of framed space in order to represent history, and, more generally, the passing of time (Groensteen, 2011), just as the two-page series of cloudy skies in The Arrival symbolizes the long journey across the ocean. In Ruins, Samantha’s troubled and traumatic memories of both an ongoing love affair and a previous relationship – she lost her unborn child and first husband, a Mexican, during their honeymoon in Puerto Escondido – are depicted in sepia or gray tones. They also run parallel to the recollection of Mexico’s indigenous and colonial past. While writing her book on Mexico’s archeological past, she compares her life to the sacrifices reflected in Mesoamerican symbols and rites. The panel arrangement creates a non-linear temporal simultaneity, which leads her to say the following: “You had worked to distance from your past and buried the memories, but what treasures had gotten lost along the way? Could you excavate them, reclaim them now and separate the gold from the skeletons?” (Kuper, 2009). This explains why she recognizes herself in the treacherous Malinche, the interpreter of Nahua origin, who played a key role in the Spanish conquest by Hernán Cortés and his army. Samantha gradually embraces the idea that her life and future are built on ‘ruins’, the remnants of a collective past, as do the protagonists in Feeding Ground. In the latter, Mesoamerican symbols emerge from the rocks as soon as the illegal immigrants, during their passage through the Sonoran Desert, are overcome with exhaustion. Other sequences recall current memorial sites, made of found objects and erected in memory of the many anonymous victims of illegal immigration (De León, 2013; De León, Gokee & Schubert, 2015; Goodman, 2017), illustrating that undocumented immigrants cannot erase their tracks (De León, 2013; Lang et al., 2011, p. 78).

In The Arrival, there is no overlapping of spaces, but the tension between the past, that is, the departure from the land of belonging, and the future, when the immigrants settle into the new town, are rendered via horizontal and vertical lines. These lines intersect with curves that manifest a strong melancholy. As Golnar Nabizadeh (2014) points out in her article ‘Visual melancholy in Shaun Tan’s The Arrival’, an elaborate graphic recreation of the photographic album format allows Tan to install vertical temporalities within the diegesis. Indeed, the retrospective narration itself looks like a photographic album, in which different collections of stories are mixed, as if they belong to an extended family. Together, the stories produce new meanings, because they present similarities and divergences, through which immigrants hold on to their past. However, this process also implies a sense of loss, which is rendered by the fact that the panels “bear the imprints of time, through faux defects, foxing, stains, rips, creases and partial erasure, and in some places the image has crumbled away entirely” (Nabizadeh, 2014, p. 369). The sense of loss is literally carved into the graphic novel’s front and back cover, as the part that surrounds a panel is hollowed out in the form of a frame, while the panel within that frame seems to cover an older panel, or photograph. Through the mise en abyme, the cutouts evoke loss, a presence in absence, while also displaying the narration’s multilayeredness, as does the stone-like relief of the title on the front cover of Ruins.

Uprooted border crossers

In The Arrival, the graphic recreation of the photographic album clearly extends to the paratext of the graphic novel. The reproduction of 60 photographs on the final pages illustrates this further. The photographs indiscriminately show people from different ethnicities. Noteworthy is the fact that not long after the novel’s publication in 2006, Tan was criticized for having chosen a protagonist with European features, thus enhancing a Eurocentric perspective. However, it might be more correct to say that Tan’s main character has Asian-European features, like its Australian-born author, who has Irish, Malaysian, and Chinese roots. The fact that the author inserted a copy of his father’s photo can only be interpreted as a homage to his family’s origins.

In her article ‘Creating a “well-fitted habitus”†: material culture, homemaking and diasporic belonging in Shaun Tan’s The Arrival’, Bidisha Banerjee (2016) rightfully recalls how Gloria Anzaldúa described her life on the Mexico–Texas border. In her authoritative semi-autobiographical work, Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza, the Chicano Studies scholar defined herself as a turtle who carries her home on her back (Anzaldúa, 1987, p. 21). Anzaldúa’s turtle shell houses intersecting identities (i.e., American, Mexican, and indigenous), with all their juxtapositions and contradictions. In The Arrival, the shell is replaced by a suitcase (Figure 7.7) that the protagonist carries around; it contains reminders of his previous life, among which a photo of his wife and daughter, but it also collects (in)tangible traces of life in the new world. As stated before, the tension between past and future is visualized in a single temporalizing space, where embedded flashbacks and personal, intergenerational, or historical traumas meet via overlaps or parallel stories, resulting in a high sense of displacement and a troubled connection to roots (Knowles, Peacock & Earle, 2016; Serrano, 2018). In Tan’s graphic novel, the suitcase materializes both the protagonist’s state of homelessness and the multiplicity of his homes (Banerjee, 2016, p. 67); it is the mise en abyme of Homi K. Bhabha’s (2004) interstitial or third space.

Figure 7.7.

The suitcase in The Arrival. © Hachette Australia, 2006.

In the border zone, the immigrant is in a continuous state of being between spaces and cultures, which forces them to question their identity. Along with Tan’s protagonist, who in many panels is accompanied by a bird – an affirmed symbol of migrancy (Nabizadeh, 2014, p. 374) – the characters of the other graphic novels are portrayed as hybrid creatures with an ambiguous sense of belonging. This might explain the name of the coyote’s family in Feeding Ground: “búsqueda” means search, quest, desire, or longing for. The sense of belonging is often described in terms of spatial metaphors, such as center, margin, periphery, location, dislocation, displacement, decentering, recentering, borders, and in-betweenness (Shome, 2003, p. 39). These metaphorical invocations are both helpful and problematic; they lead to definitions in oppositional or asymmetrical terms, such as outside vs inside (Marsico, 2016, p. 208), or inferior vs superior. North of the US border, these terms are perceived as absolute (Marsico, 2016). The immigrant’s identity construction thus also raises agency issues:

This enhances the imbalance in the coordinates of a stranger’s ambivalent recognition as ‘friend-enemy’. He cannot be a friend because he is not ‘like us’. However, he cannot be openly declared as an enemy, both for ethical reasons and for reasons of respect of those universal human rights that the Western world uses as a bulwark of identity […]. The stranger is physically close. However, he remains spiritually distant. This sticks on the skin of the stranger the sin of incongruities, of which he is the bearer and incarnation. Incongruities upset the order of the world and the anomaly of someone who is friend neither enemy – between the outside and inside – becomes intolerable. He represents the reliability of the friend, the cleverness of the enemy, the fallibility of the order, the vulnerability of the ‘inside’. (Ferrante, 2015, p. 43)

The graphic representation of the immigrant’s complex identity construction can be comprehensively analyzed if we consider the representation of Busqueda’s daughter in Feeding Ground. On the run from poverty and sexual exploitation, she faces the harshness of the journey during which her grandfather dies. After being bitten by a non-identified animal – at the beginning of the story she puts her hand through the fence of Blackwell Industries, where experiments on mutants are performed – the young girl turns into a werewolf whenever she loses control over her emotions. As a ruthless killer, she fails to distinguish the border patrol from both loved ones and family members, in particular her father, and thus figuratively becomes the image of the perpetrator she is fleeing from. During one of her human moments, she is adopted by the owner of Blackwell Industries, the industrial plant located on the American side she had observed from her Mexican home. Her newfound father is the spitting image of Hernán Cortés, the conquistador whose statue arises in the garden of that same industrial plant, which has Maya-inspired architecture; it is a mirror image of the statue as it is inscribed in America’s collective memory. As explained in the paratextual apparatus, the authors of the novel – joined by the (non)fiction writer Luis Alberto Urrea – discuss the meaning of zombies in relation to processes of othering; they state that the bloodthirsty Busqueda girl might embody the American fear of the Other, but they argue that the real monsters are those who control illegal flows in the borderlands that the authors cherish. Lang, Lapinski, and Mangun purposefully use this horror component in order to counter the old paradigm that de-humanizes and alienates immigrants (Papastergiadis, 2009).

In the wake of Kuper and Tan, the three authors insert a variety of references, ranging from the aforementioned Maya architecture, via film and photography, to popular culture, which they freely adapt to serve their authorial intent. Highly exemplary in this perspective is their customization of the Weeping Woman, the legendary La Llorona featured on the cover; her half-ghost, half-person appearance is more tragic and terrifying than usual, because she weeps blood that falls down on a werewolf. As explained in the book trailer, other elements of Latin American iconography – which has always been “visually driven” (Stavans, 2016, p. 172) – are dispersed among the cover pages in equally bright colors. The peripheral drawings at the book’s beginning and end, which can be defined as pop or pin-up art and were made by other artists, are still very much in line with the narrative’s graphic style, and embed the story of the Busqueda family in a broader storytelling project, which – as announced in the book trailer – should include a film adaptation (Brett, 2012; Sunu, 2012).

Para- but also peritextual elements, which are often available online,6 clearly give good insights into the narratives’ hypotexts. In the acknowledgements section of Tan’s graphic novel, the reference to Tales from a Suitcase by Will Davies and Andrea Dal Bosco (2001) – a collection of stories on postwar migration – further frames the suitcase imagery. In interviews, the Australian author has also elaborated on the photographic art form as a narrative technique, for example with different zooms (from very close-up to wide-angle span) giving the panels an epic or anecdotal dimension (Nabizadeh, 2014), but which also recall the narrative techniques of cinematic language. The Arrival is not only a memoir but also a testimony of transnational migration. All authors discussed here draw on different sets of iconographies, ranging from road signs (e.g., the now less common ‘caution crossing immigrants’ sign in Feeding Ground, Figure 7.5) to ‘postcard’ tourism images (in The Arrival and in Ruins), but more importantly, they also refer to symbols and cultural artifacts. Readers and critics regularly elaborate on how Tom Roberts’ Coming South (1886), the famous painting that portrays migrants aboard a European steamship on their way to Australia, inspired Tan’s panel called Flock.7 In Ruins, the reader finds numerous visual references to Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo’s works; the story of the creation at and removal from Rockefeller Center of Rivera’s three-paneled mural, Man at the Crossroads (1934), even becomes a key moment in George’s catharsis. Through his encounters with a fictitious photojournalist, who will get shot during one of the teachers’ protests, George learns to understand the impact and importance of civic engagement, as Kuper (2009) had previously written in his autobiographical Diario de Oaxaca: A Sketchbook Journal of Two Years in Mexico.

Graphic borderities

My analysis of the visual representation of the so-called borderities, whether grim, poetic, or melancholic, and their possible correspondence with the verbal level, has revealed the rich narrative textures of multimodal graphic novels. The physical and often linguistic in-betweenness, whether verbal or not, brings out issues of othering and identity construction: Kuper, Tan, Lang, Lapinski, and Mangun creatively tackle stereotypes, which in graphic narratives are often used to heighten narrative effectiveness. The authors’ fictional worlds are both imagined and real pleas in favor of a “cohesive multiculturalism” (Dalmaso & Madella, 2016, p. 75), and therefore both critical and artistic sites of the disputed, transnational border zone.

However, this close reading requires further investigation, not only within the field of reception studies (Martín-Lucas & Ruthven, 2017), but also in relation to the graphic representation of the migration of other ethnic groups, or of drug trafficking. For example, in El Illuminado, Ilan Stavans and Steve Sheinkin (2013) recount the history of crypto-Jews in (New) Mexico, turning their protagonist into a clumsy Indiana Jones, while Dreamland. The Way Out of Juarez (Bowden, 2011) is an exceptional example of graphic non-fiction where the reader is forced to interweave Charles Bowden’s journalistic text with song texts, and Alice Leora Briggs’ elaborate sgraffito drawings. In doing so, scholars can get a better understanding of how graphic narratives engage in a critical exchange on the topic of migration and multilingualism, and, consequently, how they raise awareness among readers. Transnational graphic narratives make the challenges of life’s globalized condition evident. Graphic enactments that revolve around the permeable border can create immediacy; by particularizing migration experiences that transcend individual memories (Royal, 2007), the embodied stories contribute to dismantling, or at least disrupting, and countering dominant cultural discourses (Rhoades et al., 2015). Contrary to the message transmitted by popular media, the graphic representation of the border zone shows us that its borderities do not necessarily bring out the worst in countries and cultures (Staudt, 2014).


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1Except for The Arrival, little research has been conducted on this topic, and mainly within a teaching context regarding language acquisition or literacy programs.
2For further details on the works and their authors, see the websites included in the cited works.
3Kuper’s Ruins is a fictionalization of his 2009 Diario de Oaxaca: A Sketchbook Journal of Two Years in Mexico, a bilingual diary (in Spanish and English) in which the author not only describes his sabbatical as an entomologist in Mexico, but also the teachers’ strike which was violently repressed by the government. For further information, see: https://www.peterkuper.com/ruins and https://www.peterkuper.com/diariodeoaxaca, accessed October 20, 2019.
4This part of the narration refers to Luis Alberto Urrea’s (2004) The Devil’s Highway, which reconstructs the Yuma 14 story – the mediatized and highly sensational crossing of the Sonoran Desert that killed many undocumented Mexicans after their “coyote” got lost, the search by the border patrol agents at Welltown Station, and the unique survival story of the remaining Mexicans.
5It is important to mention that the title of The Arrival’s Spanish edition deviates from that of other editions: Emigrantes. This title refers to one of the inspirational texts Tan refers to in his acknowledgements, namely The Immigrants by Wendy Lowenstein and Morah Log (1977).
6For further details, see the websites included in the cited works.
7See The Arrival in the Picture Books section of Tan’s website: http://www.shauntan.net/.

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