INTERVIEW: Turning history into a graphic novel

book coverJonathan Sandler of London has written a graphic memoir about his Yorkshire grandfather’s WW2 service in the U.S. Army, The English GI. He also blogs at and from across the ocean discovered our work with We Hereby Refuse.

Jonathan sent over some thoughtful questions about the process of turning history from one’s personal heritage into a graphic novel. It took me several months to reply, but here finally are my answers.

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FRANK ABE spotlight interview for
We Hereby Refuse


  1. Please tell us briefly about your career and background.

Over 45 years I’ve done a bit of everything. For a living, I worked as a radio newsman and a local government communications director, but before that, I was an actor in the earliest days of forging an Asian American theater sensibility and helped campaign for the U.S. government to admit the wartime incarceration of Japanese Americans was wrong and make token reparations for the violation of U.S. Constitutional protections. That launched me on a side career of recovering what I would consider an authentic history of incarceration, and in particular, Japanese American resistance to their imprisonment. I made a documentary film on Japanese American draft resisters in WW2 that was broadcast nationwide. More recently, I wrote a biography of writer John Okada, author of the novel No-No Boy, which won an American Book Award, and We Hereby Refusewhich was a finalist in creative nonfiction for the Washington State Book Award. Penguin Classics has just published an anthology I edited with Floyd Cheung called The Literature of Japanese American Incarcerationwhich is fast becoming a classroom staple as well as a good read.

2. Tell me how the idea of a graphic novel came about.

I certainly had no business writing a graphic novel. Creating a manga was not on my radar. But the mission of the Wing Luke Asian Museum in Seattle is to connect everyone to Asian American history through vivid storytelling, and they grasped the power of the graphic novel to do just that. They got a major grant for a series of three graphic novels, the second of which was to be on camp resistance, and put out a call for proposals. Camp resistance is a field I helped carve out here in the U.S., so I applied. I had been thinking about how I might adapt stories of camp resistance for the stage or screen when this opportunity presented itself, so the timing worked out.

3. Tell me about your co-author Tamiko Nimura, and your illustrators, Ross Ishikawa & Matt Sasaki. How did your collaboration process work?

The community committee advising the Wing Luke wanted to spread the work around, I think, by giving a chance to two writers and two artists. This was a mix that could have led to mediocrity, the kind of book written by committee. Fortunately, the four of us were able to work toward a singular vision of the story, with one clear voice that drives the story forward while weaving together the stories of our three characters into one continuous timeline so that the reader can experience the passage of time in camp just as the incarcerees did. That meant not taking the easier path of, say, pairing off and having one artist and one writer portraying different characters and assembling them together at the end. You can see how the color drawings by Ross are expressive, while the black-and-white sketches by Matt Sasaki are more expressionistic. I knew Tamiko a little but met Ross and Matt for the first time through our meetings through the museum. Then the pandemic hit, and we conducted all our work by exchanging scripts and drawings through email.

4. Were there any historical Graphic Novels or memoirs/comics that inspired you?

Of course, Art Spiegelman’s Maus is the gold standard. If I could have found a visual metaphor for our story like that of the Jews as mice and the Nazis as cats, I would have gone there. I was also inspired by the black comedy of a French graphic novel, The Death of Stalin, which was later the basis of an equally funny Armando Iannucci film. This example is not a book, but in the U.K., you will remember a T.V. series from 1967, which is the fantastic vision of Patrick McGoohan’s The Prisoner. “Where am I?” “In The Village.” “Who is Number One?” “You are Number Six.” “I am not a number. I am a free man!” That spirit of rebellion shaped my teenage years and has stayed with me.

5. How challenging did you find constructing the story into a graphic novel?

It was hard! It took me a year to study the genre to understand how to write these stories into a script that was visual. It finally clicked when I found Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics, and  learned the vocabulary of graphic novels and how they are built through juxtaposed pictorial images in a deliberate sequence. And from my New York filmmaking friend Greg Pak, who now writes superhero stories for D.C. and Marvel and reinvented James Bond’s Oddjob for Dynamite Comics, I got the Word template for writing a graphic novel script – it’s in his book, Make Comics Like the Pros.

6. How much research did you need to do?

I began with a strong foundation of knowledge about wartime incarceration built over 40 years and how I viewed the arc of the camp experience. Two of the characters I knew personally were Jim Akutsu and Hiroshi Kashiwagi, so it was easy for me to see them walking and talking on the page. We had to do simple research for details like the shape of the watch towers at specific camps, but nothing extraordinary.

But writing Mitsuye Endo was a different challenge. Not only have I never met her, but there is no known film footage of her or audio recordings of her voice. Endo chose to remain private after the war – as she put it, she didn’t go around broadcasting that she was the plaintiff in a historic Supreme Court case. Fortunately, Tamiko turned up the letters exchanged between Endo and her attorney, which filled in gaps in her story and, more crucially, gave me a feel for how she spoke and thought as I wrote her dialogue. To check my understanding of her personality, I met with her son in Chicago and with her attorney’s daughter in San Francisco. The result is that readers can now know who Endo was as a person and not just a name on a legal brief.

7. Any tips for people seeking to do a graphic novel about a part of their history and heritage?

Tell the story straight. The truth is far more compelling than anything you can invent. Identify the obstacles that are put in the way of your characters and let the facts take them on their journey as they try to overcome those barriers. Let the emotion come out of the given circumstances and avoid the temptation to create artificial pathos. Our story is that of a singular experience shared by 125,000 people. Once we settled on our three main characters and made the decision to weave their stories together into one overarching narrative, I found it useful to create timelines for each of them, with exact dates of the succession of government orders and edicts that each had to confront. Having the government actions as tentpoles and showing how each character responded in their own way created a forward movement to our story that encourages readers to keep turning the page to find out what happens next.

We Hereby Refuse is a dramatic story based on real events. Every line on every page is drawn from the historical record. That’s by design. Even where we must reconstruct private conversations between two people, every line is true to the moment and to their character. It’s not fiction, but it reads with the depth and texture of a good novel, a novel with graphics.

8. And finally, are any future graphic novel projects planned?

Funny, you should ask. I thought We Hereby Refuse would be a one-off project for me as I moved on to edit The Literature of Japanese American Incarceration for Penguin Classics and develop a stage play from a well-known Japanese American novel. However, a few weeks ago, I was approached by a publisher to consider adapting that same novel to a graphic novel. So, I may be back working in this genre sooner than I expected!

John Okada’s college year in Nebraska recalled at opening of historic Japanese Hall

exhibit display
Courtesy of Vickie Schaepler.

John Okada spent only three weeks with his family at the WRA camp in Minidoka, Idaho, before he was granted indefinite leave through the National Student Relocation Council to attend Scottsbluff Junior College in Nebraska. His year at Scottsbluff is now being recalled as part of a new display at today’s grand opening of the Japanese Hall and History Project at the Legacy of the Plains Museum in Gering, Nebraska.
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Okada graffiti preserved at historic Nippon Kan Theater

The Okada signature survives! When I first came to Seattle in 1977, poet and playwright Garrett Hongo brought me backstage to the empty Nippon Kan Theater to show me a wall of graffiti with the name of a juvenile John Okada, painstaking inked into the stone. It was like touching a piece of history. Continue reading Okada graffiti preserved at historic Nippon Kan Theater

“The Literature of Japanese American Incarceration” published today as a Penguin Classic

cover of Penguin anthologyThe Literature of Japanese American Incarceration hits bookstore shelves today. You will finally be able to walk into a shop and buy a copy to take home. With their iconic black-and-white-and-orange covers, everyone has read or seen a Penguin Classic at some point in their lifetime. Whenever a character carries one in a movie, it’s a visual shorthand to signal the character is a scholar or book nerd. Continue reading “The Literature of Japanese American Incarceration” published today as a Penguin Classic

Video livestream: Three short films on the Heart Mountain resisters

May 11, 2024 will be the 22nd anniversary of National JACL’s apology in 2002 to what Paul Tsuneishi liked to call the “resisters of conscience.” To mark the occasion, Kimiko Marr and Japanese American Memorial Pilgrimages are producing a video livestream this Tuesday, May 14th, at 5:00 pm PDT/ 8:00 pm EDT that I’ve agreed to host.  Continue reading Video livestream: Three short films on the Heart Mountain resisters

Mystery writers honor John Okada at Left Coast Crime convention

posterIn addition to the presentation of awards for best new mysteries, the writers and fans at the annual Left Coast Crime convention. also recognize a “Ghost of Honor,” someone who is no longer with us who inspires them. For their 2024 Seattle Shakedown convention in Bellevue, the writers and fans recognized novelist John Okada in his centennial year as their Ghost of Honor. Continue reading Mystery writers honor John Okada at Left Coast Crime convention

Now online: the Fair Play Committee files from the National Archives

This year we observe the 80th anniversary of the trial of 63 members of the Fair Play Committee at Heart Mountain for draft resistance, and the subsequent trial of the FPC steering committee for conspiracy to counsel draft evasion. Now, thanks to six years of work by staff of the Heart Mountain Wyoming Foundation, we are able to view online the personal WRA files kept on those members of the largest organized resistance to incarceration, the story documented in our PBS film, Conscience and the Constitution. You can see the files by opening the box below:

Heart Mountain Draft Resisters

Continue reading Now online: the Fair Play Committee files from the National Archives

Audiobook and table of contents for Penguin anthology

fire circle with men silhouetted inside a canvas tent
The square artwork for the audiobook version of “The Literature of Japanese American Incarceration.”

I could not believe there would be interest in an audiobook of our anthology of camp literature coming May 14, but as a Facebook friend pointed out, having a set of audio readings is not just entertainment for long road trips or jogging with earbuds, but an essential access for the visually impaired. Continue reading Audiobook and table of contents for Penguin anthology

Five Events for the 2024 Day of Remembrance

Who knew when we started the Day of Remembrance that I’d still be talking about it 45 years later. Nevertheless, here we are, hitting the road for five DOR events in 2024. For further updates as the month progresses, check the Events page.
Continue reading Five Events for the 2024 Day of Remembrance

New animation puts drawings of “We Hereby Refuse” into motion

book coverAfter two years in the making, congratulations to Shannon Gee and her team at the Seattle Channel for producing this animation of the Jim Akutsu story from We Hereby Refuse.

The 14-minute video makes its cable-tv debut tonight at 7:00 pm as part of their award-winning “Community Stories” series. The animation very cleverly adds motion to the drawings of Ross Ishikawa in capturing just the first part of the Akutsu story from the arrest of his father up to the family’s arrival at the Puyallup Assembly Center, with a full rundown of the JACL collaboration that Jim detested.
Continue reading New animation puts drawings of “We Hereby Refuse” into motion

The history and literature of Japanese American resistance to wartime incarceration