This seems like a good week to discuss Yen Press’ manga title, With the Light: Raising an Autistic Child by Keiko Tobe, as Comedy Central just held a benefit for Autism Education this past Sunday. While the Comedy Central benefit really emphasized the stars’ performance, they did show short educational clips between skits, musical numbers, and stand-up sets, but after watching that benefit one would only know that having an autistic child costs a lot of money and there isn’t a great deal of support for parents trying to raise their children as best they can.
It leaves a funny taste in my mouth to simply call With the Light — a comic, after all — educational. The book is a great deal more than simply educational, it is also very good entertainment, even if feels strange to declare a comic capturing the everyday life of a family struggling to raise an autistic child entertainment.
The first volume is stronger than the second, although both are really quite good. Volume 1 starts with Hikaru Azuma’s birth and his mother’s struggle to figure out why her son doesn’t behave like other women’s babies. Her child doesn’t smile at her, doesn’t care to be held, cries strangely….but perhaps just as terrifying as her child’s strange behavior is that her society is seems so quick to judge her for his unusual behaviors, alienating her from the help she so desperately needs. With the Light is really Hikaru’s mother story more than it is his, as she must struggle not only to understand her son and his very different experience of the world, but also to find support from her society — and even from her own family — which blames her for his “misbehaving” (such as throwing a tantrum at his grandfather’s memorial service.)
Volume 1 deals with events that often verge on melodramatic, such as the disintegration and later reconciliation of the Azumas’ marriage, to the surprisingly pragmatic, with the birth of the Azumas’ second, healthy child. Melodrama, however, isn’t really the point of the story and these elements fade as the family comes together to provide a stable environment for Hikaru and enable the family as a whole to seek the help from doctors, developmental psychologists, and educators that Hikaru will need if he is to function in the world on any level. The second volume deals with Hikaru (and his mother’s) everyday life during his early grade-school years as they prepare him to communicate and even connect with other people — other children, other adults, other families — in the world.
The beauty of the book, for me, is to see the many small triumphs the family experiences as they raise their son but also how the various mini-disasters they experience — such as Hikaru accidently being locked in a tool-shed at school — are in a strange way part of the growing experience. Hikaru’s experiences are often more terrifying for his mother (and for him as well at times) because he is not capable of communicating the way most children his age can, but they are also little bit part of what we all go through as children — we test the boundaries of our world and sometimes the world tests us right back. Having spent almost 1,000 pages with the Azuma family now, I can honestly say I feel emotionally invested in Hikaru’s story and I’m cheering him on as he and his family work to find a place for him in this world as a hard-working, happy adult.
I am also quite fond of Tobe’s art, which is very suited to emotional expression — not just pain or suffering but a great deal of joy is shown in these pages. Of all of Yen Press’s releases I was drawn to With the Light immediately because I recognized the art style as a mature-form of shojo (known as josei) that would appeal to adults who might not be familiar with certain idiosyncratic manga-stylings — what I think of as “Otaku-oriented” to be honest — of other Yen Press releases (more on this another day, I suspect). In addition, each book is around 500 pages, and are published on crisp, white pages with excellent print quality and run about 15 dollars. I can’t stress how much value there is here — there are great cultural notes, but also extra pages with essays from people who have been touched by autism in some way.
I recommend With the Light not only because it is an excellent comic, but also because offers the English-language audience a very rare reading experience — it has gotten so easy to just read more of the same, particularly if you are a manga fan (more shojo, more shonen, more fan service, and so on) but this title can remind us how great the medium itself is, and how many different stories and experiences it can hold.
Review copies of With the Light were provided by Yen Press.
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