There are some things only comics can do. There are some things only comics memoirs can do. This issue of Ginseng Roots mixes the two into something even more singular and rare; it’s a truly exceptional reading experience, far and away the best issue of the series so far; it’s going to be very hard to beat given the content, which is sort of the point of the content; Craig Thompson is a very impressive cartoonist. Like, I don’t know how he pulled it off. I spent the entire issue waiting for him to leave the subject—the story of a Hmong kid who grew up parallel to Thompson as a Wisconsin ginseng farmer’s kid—and sticks with it.
The first few pages are setting up the Hmong from Thompson and his family’s perspective. It starts with a harvest season MacGuffin but Thompson spends enough time on it while building towards the main subject, it’s not really a MacGuffin. It’s just the quickest, most edifying way get to go. It’s never hurried (and doesn’t skip things—bringing up racism right away); Thompson’s really good at efficiently setting the ground situation, which is going to play in pretty soon in the juxtapose—but when he moves on to the kid’s story, which starts with the Hmong dad’s story being a Hmong teenager in Laos and the Vietnam War. I turned back a page to make sure, but while I don’t know how Thompson could maintain the intensity of the issue, his segue is observable and worth reading thrice. First, second to confirm, third to appreciate. It’s stunning start to finish. The best comics.
So we get Thompson telling this kid’s story as first person, but with him—Thompson in the comic—listening. Now, the story is an adult’s story, but it’s coming from the fifteen year-old comics version. And it’s about the dad. There are all these layers to it and then Thompson’s already an additional couple comics artifice things goin on (which refer back to previously established ground situation to create a particular reference and effect). It’s just incredible work.
The story comes up to the modern day (so past where we were initially hearing the story in the nineties or whatever when they’re fifteen), with Thompson not just taking the time to cover the Hmong in Wisconsin but also their involvement in the Vietnam War (and the CIA’s involvement in the Vietnam War). And he’s still got time for a sincere, aspirational twist. Thompson tells this story with appropriate reverence. Like I said, it might just be impossible to beat because the historical content is the historical content.
It’s even higher level stuff from Thompson than I was expecting and I’ve been expecting greater and greater things from Ginseng Roots.