Coming to America

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Keeping readers abreast of current releases is one of the goals of this column, so I beg your forgiveness for bringing up a book that is over 70 years old. To be fair, it hasn't been seen since its original print of only a few hundred copies back in 1931. But Manga Yonin Shosei by Yoshitaka Kiyama, translated as "The Four Immigrants Manga" (Stone Bridge Press; 152 pages; $15), arrives as nothing short of a history-making revelation: America's (and the world's) first graphic novel. In spite of the Japanese title, author and main characters, "Four Immigrants" is completely American. First published in San Francisco (locus of the underground comix explosion 35 years later), Kiyama's book focuses on that fundamentally American experience — the life of the immigrant. Told with naturalism, humor and a sharp social conscience, it reads as a remarkable primary historical document with surprising resonances to modern times.

Yoshitaka Kiyama (1885 - 1951) arrived in San Francisco in 1904 to study art at what was then known as the Mark Hopkins Institute of Art, later to become the San Francisco Art Institute. Over the course of 20 years Kiyama studied traditional western art, becoming a painter of some note. He also took to cartooning, undoubtedly inspired by American newspaper comics, which were reaching the peak of their golden era at the time. In a style seemingly inspired by the likes of George McManus' "Bringing Up Father" and Harold Gray's "Little Orphan Annie," Kiyama created 52 episodes for a projected weekly series to be printed in one of the city's Japanese language newspapers. While that didn't work out, Kiyama instead exhibited the pages in a gallery in 1927 and later collected them for publication in 1931.

"Four Immigrants" follows the lives of four guys, fresh off the boat from Japan, over the course of twenty years. Each takes a Western name, Henry, Fred, Frank and Charlie, and each has different goal. Henry, the author's surrogate, wants to study art, giving the story a personal verisimilitude that makes "Four Immigrants" not only the first graphic novel, but the first autobiographical graphic novel as well. But the two characters who quickly take the book's center are the ne'er-do-well Charlie and Frank, the budding capitalist. Continually rebuffed in their efforts to earn money, Charlie, the tall, lanky one who spouts aphorisms, and Frank, the short, chubby one, look and act like the Mutt and Jeff of Japan. Unlike Mutt and Jeff, however, Charlie and Fred's difficulties are almost exclusively a result of their race. They live as distrusted non-citizens in world that both needs them and reviles them at the same time.

Straight off the boat, the guys arrive in the U.S.A. and end up in quarantine

Though it delves into serious subjects, "Four Immigrants" always remains true to its comic strip nature, telling its stories with charm and good humor. Originally a bilingual text, dialogue spoken between Japanese characters appeared in Japanese, but any interaction with the "whiteys" has been written in the Pidgin English of the non-native speaker. A good deal of credit for the book's readability goes to its translator, Frederik L. Schodt, who has been writing about Japanese comics since the 1980s, and rediscovered "Four Immigrants." Wisely leaving the English as-is, Schodt makes the original Japanese dialogue seem natural without being inappropriately modern. Additionally Schodt helps fill out the book's history with an excellent introduction and insightful endnotes.

Touching on all the major events of San Francisco's, and America's, early Twentieth Century history, "Four Immigrants" has remarkable power as a personal account of events that shaped this country. Surprisingly, it also works as a prescient foreshadowing of issues that continue to be relevant at the start of the 21st century. As you might expect, the very first panel shows the four guys on the deck of a ship looking toward the shore of the new land. "Here we are lads, U.S.A., land of opportunity," says Charlie. Such optimism gets a very quick reality check, and two panels later both Charlie and Frank find themselves quarantined behind a fence.

Some of the episodes have been grouped into story arcs, such as the "Schoolboys" sequences that humorously outline the guys' awkward adjustment to Western culture. Japanese men who studied by day and worked as house "boys" in the morning and evening were called "schoolboys," and this arc provides a fascinating glimpse at turn of the century domestic life. All of the guys try their hand at being a "schoolboy" but in classic comic style they all repeatedly get the "go home" treatment after screwing up through misunderstandings like removing the stove to clean it or accidentally teaching the parrot to swear in Japanese. The pleasures of the "Schoolboys" arc, and the entire book, come as much from its richly detailed minutiae as its historicity. In one sequence Charlie and Fred take a walk past the "Call" building (now Central Tower), through Union Square with its bums lounging around, and into Chinatown, where they enjoy a bowl of noodles and eye the prostitutes behind the bordello windows. So what's changed? Not much. The connection across a 100-year divide is thrilling.

Charlie and Frank wander the streets after the earthquake

Many of the episodes focus on America's largely forgotten treatment of its Japanese immigrants through a series of execrable laws. (Japanese immigrants were not allowed citizenship until 1952.) One episode focuses on the San Francisco initiative to ban all Asians from public school. Years later, in 1994, California's proposition 187 (later found unconstitutional) banned illegal immigrants from receiving publicly funded services such as schooling. In another semi-comic retelling of an actual incident, Charlie and Frank, working on a farm outside the city, get herded out of town by angry, armed white locals. Another fascinating sequence involves Charlie's decision to arrange for a "picture bride," a woman from Japan who arrives to be married based only on an exchange of photos. "Picture bride" immigration was soon outlawed in yet another attempt to limit the Japanese-American population.

Again and again Kiyama brings history alive with his personal accounts of major events rendered in a highly readable cartoon form. The First World War, the Influenza pandemic of 1918, and especially the San Francisco earthquake of 1906, are all covered through the unique lens of the Japanese immigrant. The earthquake arc has a particular richness. It shakes Frank and Charlie out of their beds and leaves them homeless. They wander the devastated streets, hearing screams from those buried alive. Shuffling through ankle-high ash as a result of the firestorms that destroyed more of the city than the earthquake, the guys sleep on the street, dig latrines for food and even open a hot dog stand for construction workers, but are undersold by a stand next door that horded free groceries.

Combining an account of actual lives in the context of world history, yet told with the charm and humor of a Sunday comic strip, Yoshitaka Kiyama's "The Four Immigrants Manga" should not be missed. A book to be enjoyed by readers of history and comix, this once-lost artifact works as both a delightful read and a reminder of where Americans come from and who we are now.