Vietnamerica is not an easy read, visually nor narratively. I suspect that is why it didn't win the Eisner Award it was nominated for at Comic-Con earlier this week.
Tran's drawing style is broad, really
too universal. In Understanding Comics, Scott McCloud argues that drawn characters fall on a matrix ranging from the universal (think of a smiley face, that could represent anyone) to the specific (imagine a photo-realistic image of someone you know). Tran's characters weren't quite distinct enough to tell apart at times, especially as the story swirls around in time from the French occupation of Vietnam, to the American invasion, to the present day. I loved the way Tran wove together the generational decisions that led him to his American life, but I doubt that most readers have my patience for being confused.
Some of this confusion mirrored a disconnectedness that Tran admits feeling- because his family was not a family of story-tellers, much of the background that colors the decision making is lost to time.
The part of Vietnamerica I enjoyed the most was its open-endedness. I had a choir teacher who used to say "Art is like what life is like." Most acclaimed graphic novel memoirs (I thinking of you, Maus and FunHome and Persepolis) feature some sort of guiding structure, a motif that gives order to reminiscence. Tran's structure is his family, as their words and actions circle back to us: choices were made so the family could survive. We start the book with that reality, and there are no big revelations later on. Vietnamerica reinforces that simple truth over and over again.
Book 27 of my book-a-week challenge.