Year: 2012

Finding a sense of place among the Becrafts of Sedro-Woolley, Washington

As a child of ex-pat parents who moved all over Japan before we moved “home” to the States when I was a teenager, there are few places on Earth I feel I’ve put down roots in the way those who were born and grew up in the same city, state, or even country feel they do. Oddly perhaps, this has given me the freedom to lay claim to whatever place I feel a deep connection to, from the darkened roads of Tillamook to Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey; from the inner chamber of Newgrange to the aircraft carrier USS Midway.

My feelings about family and cultural heritage are as convoluted as my sense of home. It might come as no surprise that my primary comfort food is cold soba noodles with fishy dipping sauce green with wasabi, but I also feel a warm glow of connectedness when I pick up a morsel of mesir wat with my shred of injera. After all, aren’t we all Ethiopian?

Nevertheless, I’ve felt an increasing compulsion to connect with my more recent family heritage over the last couple of years (resulting in exploration of my Loyalist Canadian lineage, for example). Living in Seattle today, I’m most interested in the stories of the first Becraft families who arrived here in the late 19th century.

Family photos show great-great-grandfather James Samuel Becraft with his logging crew in Skagit and Island Counties north of Seattle, but oral family history only seems to begin when James Samuel joined the Seventh-day Adventist church, and everything about the rest of his family and their ancestors remains a mystery.

James Becraft and McCoy Logging Crew

This next photo shows James S. Becraft with his father, James Thomas Becraft, about whom I knew very little until doing a bit of research.

James Thomas and son James Samuel Becraft

As it turns out, James Thomas Becraft (born in 1827 in Booneville, Kentucky) traveled overland to Plumas County, California in 1853 with his wife Rebecca. He worked alternately as a gold miner and logger until 1873, when he became a farmer. Rebecca died in 1878, and by 1900, James T. had moved north to Oregon, then on to Sedro-Woolley, Washington by 1910 to live with his son Charles Edward, until James T. died the next year.

My wife and I visit friends in Sedro-Woolley fairly regularly, so I did a bit more research before a trip up there last week and confirmed that James T. Becraft was indeed buried in Sedro-Woolley. My friend Josh is a bit of a historian himself, so he and I drove to the Union Cemetery in Sedro-Woolley this past Saturday and scoured alternate rows for my relatives. There are seventeen Becrafts buried in Sedro-Woolley, and we had found nearly all of them — but not my direct ancestor James Thomas — when we called it a day and drove off.

As Josh sped up, I noticed what looked like a map on a sign by the side of the road, and I called “Wait!” He turned the car around and we began looking through the section of the cemetery we hadn’t noticed before, where Oddfellows were buried. Within a few minutes, we had found Great-Great-Great-Grandpa Becraft.

James Thomas Becraft gravestone

There’s a sense of place that emerges from the overwhelming cultural significance of the archaic structure one stands within — Newgrange or Westminster Abbey — and the sense of connectedness that place brings you as a member of the broader human species. But to stand before the grave of my forefather is another sense of place entirely and a very different kind of connectedness.

To the list of places where my roots spread beneath the ground, I now add Sedro-Woolley, one of my many homes.

Watchmen & V for Vendetta: Exploring challenging ideas through complex characters

On the recommendation of a friend, I began my comic book education with Watchmen, and immediately followed it with V for Vendetta.

Starting with the first words and images, writer Alan Moore and artist Dave Gibbons subvert the very genre in which they work. The style of Gibbons’ art is consistent with what I remember from “regular” comic books (something I found mildly distracting at first), but both the subject matter and the composition — within and between panels — reward careful scrutiny, revealing patterns, echoes, and reverberations throughout the book. I expect a second and third reading to reward me with even more.

Watchmen in particular reveals a structural complexity I would never have expected from a comic book, interleaving a disturbing pirate tale throughout the modern-day story — a counterpoint to the rhythm of the primary plot. The narration within the pirate story provides ironic commentary, while its own plot and imagery build into a symbolic backdrop against which the present-day “real-life” story unfolds. Rorschach’s journal provides the bulk of the narration, and over the course of the book one begins to question whether he’s really a reliable narrator.

I say “modern-day story,” but Watchmen is set during the Cold War, while V for Vendetta is set in a post-apocalyptic England at the turn of the millennium, 15 or more years in the future from the time of the graphic novel’s writing. Both stories are overtly political, and a product of their times. As a child of the 70’s and 80’s, I remember the apocalyptic dread that permeated adult conversations, and how that dread trickled down (like some sort of horrific Reaganomics) to my friends and me.

We speculated about what would happen if the Soviets attacked. Living in Japan surrounded by American military bases, with recent memories of the Hiroshima Peace Museum to fuel our imaginations, there was no doubt in our young minds that we would be vaporized long before ICBMs ever reached the distant United States. I’m sure I’m missing allusions and references to traditional American comic books, but it’s hard for me to imagine a teenager today understanding the geopolitical context that gave birth to both of these graphic novels.

WatchmenUnlike the one-dimensional heroes of my cousins’ comics, Moore’s characters demonstrate a complexity more typical of Steinbeck or Hemingway. I don’t use that comparison lightly. There is a darkness in the souls of the Comedian and Rorschach born of cynicism and sadism — these men are psychopaths forged in the fires of a broken society, nothing like the classic heroes Spider-Man or Superman.

As strange as this may sound to those who don’t read comic books and graphic novels, Moore’s characters feel like real people. Nite Owl is an aging, overweight “billionaire playboy” (echoes of Batman) who struggles with the boredom of forced retirement. Silk Spectre’s origin story is horrifying on multiple levels — no radioactive spiders here!

The omnipotent Doctor Manhattan — the only character with traditional superpowers — looms in stark contrast to the other characters, a foil that serves to highlight both the flaws and values of their humanity.

Similarly, the power of “V” lies in his distance from the norms of human behavior. The fascist antagonists aren’t wrong that V is a terrorist — he blows up Parliament and various other London landmarks, and murders numerous political elites over the course of the book. He abandons and then tortures his protege. But in doing so, he forces Evey to shed everything in her spirit but her powerful core, empowering her to carry on the revolution after V’s inevitable death. V frees Evey as an individual and sets in motion the liberation of England. Is V evil? By any definition of “civilized” conduct, yes. Nevertheless, V forces the reader to confront what he or she would be willing to do to stand up for the freedom that we all take for granted today.

What I appreciate so deeply about both Watchmen and V for Vendetta is what I’ve grown to love in the science fiction of Robert Heinlein. Alan Moore presents characters and ideas that I don’t necessarily like, that I can’t necessarily relate to, that I frequently disagree with vehemently, but that force me to think and to reflect. Through Watchmen, I’m forced to take the idea of vigilante justice seriously, and to question the moral sacrifices I would be willing to make for the greater good. Through V for Vendetta, I’m forced to consider my own pacifist political views within the context of the tension between fascism and anarchism.

Unfortunately, this tension is all too real and continues to have a lingering effect on my city of Seattle, as well as the United States and the rest of the world in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on 9/11. What makes both Watchmen and V for Vendetta timeless literary classics is the way Moore explores timeless questions of right and wrong within a believably human context.

You don’t have to agree with the decisions that Nite Owl and Silk Spectre make at the end of Watchmen (or how Rorschach describes the unfolding story), nor with what V and Evey do in V for Vendetta, but you do have to think. And that’s what really matters.

Gaiman, Miller & Moore – a literary education in American comic books

First, I must acknowledge the irony of this post title: I’m well aware that two of the “American” comic book writers whose work I’ll write about here aren’t American at all — Neil Gaiman and Alan Moore are English. Second, I also know that the works themselves are better categorized as graphic novels. Read on…

Friends and visitors to this blog will likely already know that I was born and raised in Japan. I grew up whiling away summer afternoons to the music of warblers and cicadas, reading Akira Toriyama, Machiko Hasegawa, Fujiko Fujio, and of course Hayao Miyazaki. Although I haven’t revisited my childhood reading of Toriyama’s Dr. Slump or Fujiko Fujio’s Doraemon, a complete seven-volume set of Miyazaki’s epic manga version of NausicaƤ of the Valley of the Wind (which takes the story far beyond the 1984 movie) remains one of the great literary sagas to which I return regularly.

During an island getaway this summer (the air filled with the music of frogs and goldfinches), I reread NausicaƤ in Japanese, and in so doing realized how little I actually know about comics in my other mother tongue. My only exposure to American comic books was through cousins I visited in America every few years. Reading G.I. Joe, Archie, and X-Men in the mid-80’s, I was more entertained by the silly (now classically nostalgic) ads for Sea Monkeys. Even as a pre-teen, the newsprint felt cheap, the artwork struck me as jarring, and the plot lines couldn’t compare to the domestic satire of Sazae-san or the wonderfully wacky adventures of Doraemon and his hapless pal Nobita.

(In contrast, I’ve admired and deeply enjoyed the new breed of movies in the last ten years based on superheroes, from the Sam Raimi Spider-Man trilogy and various Marvel Universe films leading up to The Avengers to the heartbreakingly spectacular first two movies in Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy — heartbreaking for both the loss of Heath Ledger and for the underwhelming conclusion to the trilogy. Without the baggage of a childhood full of American comic books, I’m able to watch these movies with no expectations about origin myths, anticipated romance, or primary nemeses.)

Compounded by the intense sense of cultural dislocation I felt during Emerald City Comicon earlier in the year, I determined to correct at least some of my comic book illiteracy by tackling four of the most iconic works in the genre — Watchmen and V for Vendetta by Alan Moore, The Sandman Vol. 1: Preludes & Nocturnes by Neil Gaiman, and Batman: The Dark Knight Returns by Frank Miller.

These four graphic novels have served as the best introduction to American comic books an uninitiated adult reader like me could hope for. In the posts that follow over the coming days and weeks, I won’t debate the place each of these books holds within the literary canon, so strict formalists should gird themselves for a bit of reader-response criticism with a bit of the historical-critical method thrown in.

Stay tuned…