Australian illustrator Matt Huynh was recently commissioned by the SBS to help adapt Nam Le’s acclaimed short story “The Boat” into a digital comic. Produced by Kylie Boltin and a team of “creative bad-arses” including renowned movie sound designer Sam Petty, we are treated to a work that is equal parts visceral and mythic, tracing the journey of a teenaged Vietnamese refugee as she makes a perilous ocean crossing – a timely commemoration making 40 years since the fall of Saigon during the Vietnam War. To view the full work, please visit www.sbs.com.au/theboat.
Released recently, it is now available free and online from the SBS website. Nam Le, who deliberately maintained a hands-off approach to the SBS’s reimagining of the Boat, has spoken of how the adaptation has “opened new ground” and how thrilled he was with the result that is both “strange and powerful”.
While Huynh usually prefers to use his own writing in his comics, Nam Le’s work felt “so close” to his personal history and interests, that he embarked on a year-long process to bring Nam Le’s story to the graphic form. Like Le, Huynh grew up in Australia before moving to the United States to live, breathe, and hone his craft. Indeed, Huynh is no stranger as an artist to the story of displaced people and diaspora, having previously written a comic based on the experiences of his parents in the Malaysian Pulau Bidong refugee camp as part of the breathtaking and critically acclaimed graphic novel Ma.
The plight of the refugee is a pertinent issue that haunts us today. While many countries in the developing world are suffering humanitarian crises; Australia turns a blind eye. It’s toxic – attitudes towards refugees in modern, mainstream Australians politics have become more regressive than they were decades ago. The debate has become so abstracted, that those who risk life and limb to escape persecution, violence and death are often misrepresented in hollow, xenophobic rhetoric as “boat people”, turned into points for score in a dirty game of political discourse.
Utterly fearless in its conviction, “The Boat” brings the element of humanity back to forefront. It’s a gripping tale of despair, hope, survival, love and sacrifice. It’s a work that is so urgent, so emotive, and so pure in its storytelling, that it is a shock to the system, a challenge to those of us who now live in a land of privilege and plenty. It asks us to dig deep to find our sense of compassion and reminds us of our obligations to those less lucky than ourselves.
Despite the potency of the work, it’s incredibly accessible – there isn’t any pontification or needless exposition in the work – it’s simply and beautifully told through words, illustration, animation, and sound. Be warned though, it is quite a harrowing and intense read, so be prepared to set aside a good chunk of time (the website suggests 20 minutes) put on a pair of headphones and a find a quiet, uninterrupted place, to be completely immersed in it.
In the work Huynh employs a mix of dynamic elements (assisted by interaction designer Matt Smith) and traditional media and compositional styles to create absolutely jaw dropping effects. Panels look like sumi-e paintings but they gently rock on your screen, mimicking the swaying of the sea. Transitions from panels fade from grey to white, and the symbolic splashes of colour are piercing and vivid amongst the chiaroscuro. In a blink of an eye or a flick of your mouse, the sea becomes miasmic and dark. The details, like the folds of cloth covering bodies or the bolts of lightning that shriek across the night skies, are rendered in Huynh’s kinetic style. Vacillating between chaos and stillness, vignettes in peaceful waters morph into feverish dreams as the protagonists fall ill, their bodies and minds crippled by the harshness of the elements and the hopelessness of the situation.
The chapters and frames are well paced, the tempo tightens during the frenzied conflict and storm that rocks the boat before it stretches languorously to capture the despondency of the passengers. Huynh’s illustrations have a real heft and presence, done using a bamboo calligraphy brush, charcoal, sumi ink and paper.
Due to the non-linear possibilities of digital media, tangents appear throughout the work, leading the viewer away from narrative on the boat, giving you a choice to immerse yourself in archival photographs and character backgrounds. The digital medium is notoriously difficult to work in, marred by technical difficulties, but “The Boat” is seamlessly and perfectly executed. The interface is minimal and allows you to skim quite smoothly down the page, without disrupting the flow and feel of the story. Sam Petty’s sound design, is incredibly atmospheric and complements the work very well, making you feel like you are right there, hearing the sounds of the ocean lapping on the hull of the boat and the cawing (or, disconcertingly as the narrative unfolds and the boat sails to open water, the conspicuous absence) of sea birds.
“The Boat” is another strong piece of work in Huynh’s repertoire. Haunting, beautiful, urgent and ultimately a very powerfully human story – it’s exactly the kind of work we need in our current political and social climate to get us talking about a very important issue.
To learn more about Matt Huynh’s work, check out: http://www.matthuynh.com/comics/