I used to post book reviews on my personal blog about what I was reading and quite enjoyed doing so but have sadly let both my reviews, that blog, and my blogging here lapse. Starting with this post I am going to resurrect “Biittner’s Book Reviews” but rather than just talking about what I liked and why, I’ll frame my discussion explicitly as anthropological. As in the last few years the kinds of things I’ve reading has shifted to include more comics, graphic novels, and non-fiction (including ethnographies), what I select to review will be “books” very broadly defined. The only thread that will link those books I review will be that they triggered something in my anthropologist’s brain. Note that I’m not being compensated for these reviews unless otherwise stated.
The first book I’ve selected to review is Ruins by Peter Kuper. This graphic novel was suggested by A.M. Christensen on Twitter, who recommended it and Richard McGuire’s Here (next review I promise!) in a Public Archaeology Twitter Conference (PATC) presentation on comics and archaeology. Christensen argues that Ruins, and Here, are excellent examples of the “temporality of the landscape”. So let’s explore Ruins, and I’ll attempt to explain what Christensen means because I absolutely agree with their statement.
First the title is perfect. It refers not just to the archaeological sites (the ruins) the main characters visit, but also the state of their marriage (it is clearly in ruins) and to the rapidly crumbling state of local politics and the local economy. The title is also perfect because much like archaeological ruins, this book has many layers of meaning, of story, of time, and of place embedded in it. On its surface, Ruins is a story of a couple who take advantage of the wife’s sabbatical and the husband’s recent loss of his job to attempt to save their marriage via temporarily moving to Oaxaca. Oaxaca, modeled very closely on the actual city and its history, is situated in the book as the former field research site of the wife. The wife plans to use her time to write her book about the research she previously conducted in Oaxaca, while the husband, a now unemployed entomologist, is to use his time to reconnect with his past as an artist. Through writing the book, the wife is forced to reconnect with her past while considering her future. So in Oaxaca, the present of our characters quickly converges, intermixes, and colludes with the past and their pasts. This is what I think Christensen was getting at, that the past, present, and even future events of the book are connected to and interconnected by a place, a landscape. In this book memory and history are often one and the same, experiences of the present are influenced by past events, and the future is slowly being shaped not just be experiences but also by the transformation of the place. Importantly the story of the couple is paralleled by the journey of a monarch butterfly. This is a powerful mechanism for revealing the dialectic of the past and present, and the connection to place all living organisms have.
And yes archaeology is very much present in the book. As I want to avoid spoilers because there is something so lovely and haunting about how Kuper integrates the archaeological past with the personal past in this book I do not want to say too much but solid research went into information presented about the Zapotecs specifically and Mesoamerica more broadly.
Media is another important theme throughout; books, painting, photography, and graffiti all play key roles either in the background of panels or as explicitly undertaken and discussed by characters (most of the main characters are artists or photographers). What media appears and how it is used in the book and by the characters is very deliberate, and parallels another layer of the narrative the representation and communication of struggle. Protest is an important theme and plot point so signs, slogans, and shrines all are illustrated. Connected to media, is the use of colour (or lack thereof) on the pages. I love the shifts from black and white to colour panels to emphasize time and temporality.
Language is also important. The husband does not speak Spanish so struggles to communicate with the housekeeper that “came with” their rental property and most other residents of Oaxaca; this linguistic barrier between outsider and resident parallels the communication barrier between husband and wife. As his ability to communicate with the residents increases, a shift also occurs in his ability to communicate with his wife. This is yet another layer in this book.
Overall Ruins is an excellent read. It can easily be appreciated by a non-anthropologist but the examination of how place and time are interconnected really impressed me and what makes this stand out as an anthropological read.