I will be the first to admit that outside of some of my favorite televised football matches, I know next to nothing about Côte d'Ivoire (FIFA currently ranks Les Éléphants as the number one team in African soccer!). I know next to nothing about Marguerite Abouet or Clément Oubrerie save for what little research I've done since coming across their work. I didn't even know that there was a city called Abidjan before reading this book (third largest French-speaking city in the world!). I'll tell you what I do know though: I know good comics.
I found Aya almost by accident. I had been searching for something new to read after having just polished off my millionth re-read of the original Ghost In The Shell (trying to conclude my annual spring reading), and I was doing some research into what to read while I probably should have been working. I was on the website of one of my local comic shops, looking through new releases for the past couple of months and I came accross some pretty promising titles. So, as is my nature, I made a list of them on my phone and headed over there the next opportunity I had. As this is turning into a stupid story, and without naming any particular books, I found them all a pretty big bust, and instead of walking away empty-handed, I tried my luck with the first volume of a book whose newest release sat on the table, staring at me with it's beautiful colors and distinctly French-looking illustration.
I kind of pride myself in the research I put into what I consume. That's not to say I never just take a chance on something new; I do that all the time with new records or books or movies. I love to take chances, but more often then not, I find myself with something kind of stupid, or at most, something I like, but really don't see myself picking up again for quite a while, if ever. I would say that only twice so far this year have I picked up something new at random and had it really have a serious impact on me (the other will get it's own post in the near future).
After only a few pages of Drawn & Quarterly's new collected edition, Aya: Life In Yop City, did I find myself totally immersed in the drama of Yop City, a working class commune that remains Abidjan's highest populated even today (and now home to a branch of the world-famous Pasteur Institute! Research!). A brief opening illustration spread depicts the main characters and their family in an easy-to-understand relationship chart, which helps a lot in the early parts of the book when you want to remember who everyone is; that is soon rendered unnecessary as you grow attached to each character rather quickly, and the excellent designs and illustrations keep them completely recognizable from one another, even through the myriad of clothing and color choices throughout the book (aahh, the colors!). Everyone is such a distinct personality, and those personalities establish themselves so easily that any reaction or emotion, be it anger or joy, feels totally natural for that character, making them feel more like real people than the peripheral personality types often seen in other such books, and it's a real treat to watch the days become nights and to see time move organically. The days have their own rhythm here, and as you read, you begin to feel the approach of evening, or the dread of the next sunrise, as if the backgrounds in the story weren't beholden to the authors' wills, but instead acted independently, as is the case in our own lives.
Although Aya isn't autobiographical, per se, Abouet claims that it exists in the Yopougon she grew up and lived in until she was a young teen before moving to France, where she now resides with her illustrator husband, Clément Oubrerie, in the Parisian suburb of Romainville. Abouet wanted to represent her home country and focus on issues rather than the war or famine that is classicly associated with most depictions of Africa in the media. The truth, we find, is that the Ivory Coast we see during our story, now a bustling, democratic center of commerce, is no stranger to the everyday dramas we find ourselves entangled in. It acurately depects people being people; going to school, falling in love, having children, and planning for thier futures, though as in our own everyday lives, we quickly see that none of those things are mutually exclusive.
Aya is a wonderful story, and one I would recommend wholeheartedly, especially to someone who is as unfamiliar with the setting as I was. It is one of those wonderful instances where we get to see how similar people really are, and it's humbling to find something from a place you barely knew existed and realize that it's denizens' dreams and loves are the same as yours, regardless of cultural or societal differences.