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American dreams

Place, identity and belonging examined in Hara’s latest graphic novel

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After her stunning debut story collection Nori, Japanese-American cartoonist Rumi Hara returns with The Peanutbutter Sisters and Other American Stories, a genre-bending, eye-catching collection that showcases Hara’s imaginative eye for detail and deft ability to blend surreal elements with everyday life.

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After her stunning debut story collection Nori, Japanese-American cartoonist Rumi Hara returns with The Peanutbutter Sisters and Other American Stories, a genre-bending, eye-catching collection that showcases Hara’s imaginative eye for detail and deft ability to blend surreal elements with everyday life.

Like Nori, this work also began as a series of minicomics before its collection here, and the transitional pages between stories maintain a ‘zine-like quality by way of two-dimensional, repeated images of “Builders,” inked in black and white with pops of colour. These static images also evoke traditional Japanese ukiyo-e, or “floating world” woodblock prints, complete with flora, fauna and increasingly risqué content.

The titular Peanutbutter sisters are also a repeated visual motif, the three of them often drawn as a singular entity that contrasts with surrounding objects. One panel shows bottles of Coke, sketched in triplicate, their status as cultural Americana echoing how the girls’ father wanted his daughters to “have a true American name. A name that evokes heritage and love in this country. So he ditched his foreign name and made [them] the Peanutbutters.”

As Hara remarks, both places and names are crucially important to stories, but the girls’ iconic names (Mississippi, Georgia and Alabama) are also fitting for three sisters with superpowers. They can read winds and ride hurricanes to alternate locations, and Hara depicts their journey with unabashed joy and an impressive sense of motion.

Though they may be superheroes, the Peanutbutters are also young women, and resorting to hitchhiking is not without danger; in one instance, the sisters steal a predator’s car and list it for sale on the same online storefront he recognized them from. The item description reads that the car was “retrieved from a villain,” a caption that restores reality to an otherwise whimsical story.

As a collection, The Peanutbutter Sisters is grounded in a very real sense of place, from vivid New York landscapes of billboard-laden Times Square to the less glamorous Newton Creek area. Often, objects in these panoramic illustrations also double as panel borders, as a streetlight, a parking sign or a treeline cleverly segments the storytelling, while retaining the same fluidity and momentum as Hara’s characters.

The Peanutbutter Sisters

Other stories in the collection maintain a solid atmosphere while rooted in the absurd. Bubblegum Fighters depicts nothing but two girls cartoonishly dueling to blow bubbles big enough to engulf them both. The comic is wordless, and Hara’s sense of mischief is conveyed solely through the girls’ determined facial expressions and a couple of embellished onomatopoeias. Bombadonnas weaponizes bomb-headed women bent on destruction as a means to rebuilding, drawn with a watercolour palette reminiscent of contemporary artist Yoshitomo Nara. Verti-Go-Go engages the erotic tendencies of Japanese ukiyo-e, with a fun, psychedelic take on navel-gazing that literally transports its lonely pandemic protagonist to a magic world of close-contact bacchanalia.

Hara’s deliberate but playful balance between the fantastic and the mundane comes most clearly into focus during Walking With Tammy Tabata, during which two college students try to write a contemporary Noh play full of ghosts and mutants while wandering around the polluted Newton Creek (a body of water between Queens and Brooklyn). As Tammy explains to Steven regarding this ancient form of Japanese theatre, “the ‘shite’ is the protagonist and the ‘waki’ is the observer,” not realizing that she herself is a shite as a Japanese-born American, while Steven is the observer, with his knowledge of Japanese culture presented through a lens of Yu-Gi-Oh cards and Studio Ghibli films. Tammy goes on to mention that the year she lived in Japan was fraught due to her not fitting in, but later reaches the conclusion that “there can be many different ways to be Japanese.”

The implication for Hara, perhaps, is that the same logic applies to a sense of American-ness, as The Peanutbutter Sisters and Other American Stories weaves spirited narratives around questions of identity, place and belonging, both in this world and other realms.

Nyala Ali writes about race and gender in contemporary narratives.

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