Review / Impressions of Brenton McKenna’s ‘Ubby‘s Underdogs – The Legend of The Phoenix Dragon’

Ubby’s Underdogs – The Legend of The Phoenix Dragon is Brenton McKenna’s debut graphic novel. It was published in 2011 by Magabala Books, an Aboriginal owned and led publishing house based in Broome, Western Australia. They say about themselves that their “commitment to developing new and emerging Indigenous writers, illustrators and one-time storytellers, sets [them] apart from other publishers” [1]. Brenton McKenna is a Yawuru artist from Broome. “The Yawuru people are the traditional owners of the lands and waters in and around Rubibi (the town of Broome) from Bangarangara to the yalimban (south) to Wirrjinmirr (Willie Creek) to the guniyan (north), and banu (east) covering Roebuck Plains and Thangoo pastoral leases, in the Kimberley region of northern Western Australia” [2]. So Ubby’s Underdogs – The Legend of The Phoenix Dragon is a graphic novel written and drawn from an Aboriginal Australian perspective. Ubby’s Underdogs turned into a trilogy, with Volume 2 (Ubby’s Underdogs – Heroes Beginnings) being released in 2013 and Volume 3 (Ubby’s Underdogs – The Return of the Dragons) following in 2019.

Brief summary: Ubby’s Underdogs – The Legend of The Phoenix Dragon

Ubby’s Underdogs – The Legend of The Phoenix Dragon is a visual-verbal medium, containing both text and illustrations. It consists of a “Cast of Characters” part, the prologue, a “Setting the Scene” sequence and the main plot. At the end, there are two parts explaining specific events in the story, followed by information about the author and acknowledgements. It has a total of 160 pages (but the pages are not numbered).
On the surface, Ubby’s Underdogs – The Legend of The Phoenix Dragon may seem like your average young-adult-coming-of-age-good-vs.-evil-hero story. The graphic novel is set in the 1940s in a fictionalised version of Broome, McKenna’s home town, and its contents were inspired by both McKenna’s own and his grandmother’s life experiences [3].

The Ubby’s Underdogs‘ Broome is a small pearling town and its riches attract a wide range of people from all over the world, which makes its community very multicultural.
The story circles around Ubby, a streetwise Aboriginal girl, and her friends Fin (of Irish descent), Sel (of Malay descent) and Gabe (of Maori descent). Together, they are The Underdogs [3]. In the first volume, they meet Sai Fong, a Chinese girl, who has just arrived in Broome alongside her uncle Yupman Poe. They travelled from Shanghai to Broome because Sai Fong has a mysterious illness and her uncle hopes to find a cure there. Shortly after their arrival, Sai Fong makes the Underdogs’ acquaintance. Together, they embark on a series of adventures that include street gang fights, a quest to find and free a baboon as well as a fight against an ancient creature.

Take a quick look at the world of Ubby and her friends here.

Analysis of some aspects in Ubby’s Underdogs

While the graphic novel indeed “embraces a number of genres, including the hero’s journey, coming-of-age narrative (bildungsroman), historical adventure, and magical realism” [4], it is by no means average. As Sly points out, “McKenna’s colorful publications are entertaining and accessible to a wide readership, [but/and] serious discourses on race, ethnicity, cultural diversity, and gender are not far below the glossy surface” [4]. In this part, I will briefly be looking at McKenna’s art style as well as the representation of race / multiethnicity, racism and migration in Ubby’s Underdogs.

McKenna’s art style is known to be very unique. John Thomas argues that “Brenton McKenna uses a presentational style very similar to that of Japanese Manga comics” [5]. The characters are drawn in a simple, iconic, cartoon-y way while the characters’ faces are usually very expressive and, through this, emotions are transported very well and are easily discernible. A few examples taken from the graphic novel:

Furthermore, the Ubby’s Underdogs series is very colourful and, according to Sly, McKenna uses “color schemes that are atmospheric, symbolic, and highly affective” [4].
An example for a symbolic use of colour that particularly stands out would be the prologue. In contrast to the other panels, these panels are sepia coloured and have frayed frames. This can be explained by the prologue being the recounting of a (legendary) past event.

Figure 9: The Legend of the Sandpaper Dragon

The following panel is quite unique and stands out because here the shift from past to present is represented through a shift from sepia to colour within one panel.

Figure 10: Colour shift

It can also be seen as a bit of a foreshadowing because, as the reader will later learn, Sai Fong is connected to the past and to the Sandpaper Dragon in a way (but no spoilers here!).

As previously mentioned, Broome is a multicultural and multiethnic town. In Ubby’s Underdogs, this is represented trough the various characters belonging to different ethnic groups. I have already mentioned the cultural / ethnic backgrounds of the Underdogs (as you might have noticed, they are a very diverse group). And there are other gangs in Broome, too, for instance the Pearl Juniors, whose members are “the sons of wealthy pearl masters” [3] (all white), as well as the other gangs named and shown in the image below:

Figure 11: The Gangs of Broome

As pointed out by Sly, “tensions arising between gangs are usually settled by farcical competitive sporting events” [4], namely Gruff and the Dolby Dance. These two sporting events are the aforementioned specific events explained in detail at the end of the graphic novel.

McKenna also does not shy away from addressing topics like racism and colonialism, as can be seen / read in the following images:

As Xu Dhaozhi points out, this scene (Figure 13) in particular “accentuates the absurdity and injustice of the bureaucratic control over Aboriginal people at that time. Though born in Broome, Ubby is not allowed to roam freely in what should be her home country. Dubbed as an underdog, Ubby represents an Aboriginal diasporic figure in the peripheral, marginalised space of society” [6].

The topic of migration is also featured in Ubby’s Underdogs – The Legend of The Phoenix Dragon and was already mentioned in the previous parts. It is mainly represented through Broome’s multiethnic society and through Sai Fong and her uncle, who emigrated from Shanghai, China. Therefore, the graphic novel was very well suited to be read / discussed in our “Migration in Visual Narratives” seminar.


Ubby’s Underdogs – The Legend of The Phoenix Dragon is a colourful, multi-layered and multifaceted graphic novel, beautifully written and illustrated by Brenton McKenna. The story, “with a focus on the fellowship, mutual respect, and collaboration of a group of mixed-race youngsters, generates high appeal for indigenous and non-indigenous readers alike” [4], as Sly remarks. Despite the danger of stereotyping characters in comics and graphic novels, as expressed by some theorists, McKenna successfully creates individual, diverse characters who bring a multitude of perspectives to the table. After finishing Volume 1, I couldn’t wait to read the other two volumes. If you are intrigued now, too, all three Ubby’s Underdogs volumes are available at the ULB in Düsseldorf.


[1] About Us (n.d.)

[2] Ngaji Gurrjin Welcome (n.d.)

[3] McKenna, B. E. (2011). Ubby’s Underdogs, The Legend of The Phoenix Dragon. Magabala Books Aboriginal Corporation.

[4] Sly, C. (2022). Between the Saltwater and the Desert: Indigenous Australian Tales from the Margins. Graphic Novels and Comics as World Literature. Ed. James Hodapp. New York,: Bloomsbury Academic, 191, 193, 194. Literatures as World Literature. Bloomsbury Collections.

[5] Thomas, J. (2019). ‘Ubby’s underdogs’ : a new vision for Australia and the future of English teaching. English in Australia, 54(1), 53–58.

[6] Xu, D. (2018). Liminality and Communitas in Literary Representations of Aboriginal and Asian Encounters, Journal of Australian Studies, 42:4, 481, DOI: 10.1080/14443058.2018.1531296

Figure 1:

Figure 2:

Figure 3:

Figures 4-13: McKenna, B. E. (2011). Ubby’s Underdogs, The Legend of The Phoenix Dragon. Magabala Books Aboriginal Corporation.

Migration in “Avatar: The Last Air Bender”

by Theodora Charalambous

Avatar: The Last Airbender (also referred to as ATLA, Avatar and Avatar: The Legend of Aang), is an animated television series produced by the Nickelodeon Animation Studio and first aired in 2005. The series is set in a fantasy world, heavily inspired by Asia cultures, in which “benders” can manipulate the four elements; air, fire, water and earth. The avatar, whose role is to maintain harmony among the four nations, is the only one capable of bending all four elements. The story follows Aang, the current avatar and last surviving air bender, together with his friends Katara, Sokka and Toph, in their quest to defeat Fire Lord Ozai and end the Fire Nation’s war, while avoiding capture from the exiled Fire Nation’s prince Zuko as he seeks to restore his lost honour. 

Despite ATLA being a children’s show, it has cultivated a fanbase of all ages and is described by many to be one of the greatest animated television series of all time. Blurring the lines between adult and youth entertainment by including adult themes, such as genocide, imperialism and war, contributed to the series wild success. 

In my blog post I will discuss how migration is portrayed in ATLA throughout the four Nations.

The Air Nomads 

The Air Nomads had no permanent home but rather they moved between the four air temples, that were located in each corner of the globe. Those who defied the pacifist and peaceful way of life of the Air Nomads were forced in exile and would often permanently settle in another nation. Such are the cases of the monk Kelsang and nun Jesa (The Rise of Kyoshi, 2019). 

After the Air Nomad Genocide caused by the Fire Nation, most air temples remained abandoned, while the Northern Air Temple became occupied by Earth Kingdom refugees. (ATLA S1, E17)

Aang lived most of his adult life traveling in order to fulfil his air Nomad duties. The Air Temple Island, which is located off the coast of Republic City in Yue Bay in Western Earth Kingdom, became the permanent home of his family and the place where his three children were raised. (The Legend of Korra S1, E1)

The Fire Nation

Fire Nation colonies were established in the Earth Kingdom far before the Air Nomad genocide, under the rule of Fire Lord Sozin. His plans were temporarily paused, after he was confronted by Avatar Roku, however the piece didn’t last long as the Fire Nation started expanding its colonies soon after the Air Nomad genocide took place.(ATLA S3, E6)

During the Hundred Year War, Fire Nation citizens were permitted to travel between the homeland and the colonies. Consequentially, many Fire Nationals decided to leave the Fire Nation and settled in the colonised territories in the Earth Kingdom. As seen in Season 3: Episode 2, “The Headband” the returnees were looked down upon by the homeland inhabitants and were considered to lack proper etiquette and education.

The Water Tribes 

The Water Tribe consists of the Northern and Southern Water Tribes, which reside near both poles. As migration between the two regions is very common, many tribe members have friends and family on the other side of the globe and the two tribes reunite during the New Moon Celebration. Additionally, Northern tribe women would often migrate to the Southern regions, in order to escape their tribe’s patriarchal social traditions, which prohibited women from learning water bending (ATLA S1,E18). During the Hundred Year War outbreak many Southern Water Tribe water benders were taken as prisoners  and were forcibly moved to the Fire Nation to be used as slaves.

Alongside the Northern and Southern Water Tribes exists the less known Froggy Swamp Tribe. This tribe consists of descendants of Southern Water Tribe members who migrated to the Froggy Swamp, a wetland in the southwestern Earth Kingdom, prior to the Hundred Year War. Due to the harsh environment of the swamp, the Froggy Water Tribe developed a new water bending style, swamp bending. Moreover, they are culturally distinct from the two other water tribes and their speech is often described as less sophisticated (ATLA S2, E4).

The Earth Kingdom

The most prominent example of immigration in ATLA finds itself in Book Two: Earth, the second season of the show. As previously mentioned, the Earth Kingdom was heavily colonised by the Fire Nation years before the Air Nomad genocide. A new wave of refugees seeking sanctuaries in other regions of the Earth Kingdom, predominantly the city of Ba Sing Se, ensued from the outbreak of the Hundred Year War. In order to provide transportation to safety for the refugees, hidden stations and transportation hubs such as the Full Moon Bay were established throughout the Nation. However, escaping the colonies was not an easy task for everyone, as the immigrant relief system had its own biases as to who is worthy enough to be saved. The national immigration officials would only allow those with official documents to board the ferries. Those of elite status were able to surpass the regulations and were immediately granted access on the ferries. The show illustrates this in episode 12 of season 2, when Toph was provided with not one but four tickets due to her elite status as a member of the Beifong family, one of the wealthiest families in the East Kingdom. Contrary to Toph’s special treatment Aang, who didn’t own a passport, was immediately refused a ticket. The officer proclaimed “If I gave away all the tickets there would be no more order, no more civilisation.”, once again revealing the systematic classism which the refugee transportation hubs and the city of Ba Sing Se operated under. Less fortunate refugees with no official documentation were neglected by the state and forced to travel through a dangerous route known as the Serpent’s Pass. The lucky few who survived this alternate route were granted asylum upon their arrival at Ba Sing Se. Refugees traveling by ferry had to undergo less than ideal circumstances themselves, having to sleep on dirt and provided with meals consisting of expired and rotten ingredients, while the captain was having lavish meals. Amongst those aboard the ferries, Zuko and his uncle Iroh were forced to flee in the Earth Kingdom disguised as refugees, after being labeled as traitors to the Fire Nation.

Despite the impenetrable walls of Ba Sing Se signifying hope for the refugees, the life they were offered was one of poor quality and discrimination. The inhabitants of Ba Sing Se were divided into three walled ring districts, based on their social and economical status. The Lower Ring consisted of the majority of the city’s population, those are mainly the poor classes, newcomers and the refugees. Due to the Lower Ring being the most dense populated the housings were very small and the crime rates significantly higher then the other two Rings. The Middle Ring housed the middle class population as well as contained the city’s shopping district, whereas the Upper Ring is the place of residence of the upper class including government and military officials. If granted permission citizens of the Lower Ring were allowed to travel to the Middle Ring, however lower class citizens had no access to the Upper Ring and therefore the poor were completely separated from the rich. In his attempt to conceal the war from Ba Sing Se, the Earth King employed Dai Li, an elite secret police force, to micro-surveillance all refugees and punish anyone who goes against the code of silence (ATLA S2, E14). 


At a first glance migration may not seem to be a major theme in ATLA, nevertheless the series has done an excellent job at exploring the different reasons as to why people choose or are forced to migrate. ATLA reveals the very true and dark reality that many had and still have to experience due to war.


Avatar: The Last Airbender. Created by Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko. Nickelodeon Animation Studio. (February 21, 2005 – July 19, 2008)

Yee, F. C. (author), DiMartino, Michael Dante (author). (July 16, 2019). The Rise of Kyoshi. Amulet Books.

Hughes, Kiku (writer), Beck, Sam (artist), Ng, Killian (colorist), Betancourt, Jimmy; Starkings, Richard (letterer). “Clearing the Air” (August 14, 2021), Dark Horse Comics.

“Welcome to Republic City”. The Legend of Korra. Book One. Air. DiMartino, Michael Dante, Konietzko, Bryan (writers) & Dos Santos, Joaquim, Ryu, Ki Hyun (directors). Nickelodeon Animation Studio. (April 14, 2012).

Orientation in “The Arrival” – paths of the past and the future

Photo albums combine immediate proximity and boundless distance. They are tangibly close, but suggest an intangible vastness. Photo albums are timeless and yet they capture a concrete time. At the same time, they recall a past, a snapshot that awakens a memory, but are seen through the eyes of the present. A photo album is able to tell a story that depicts the past and foreshadows a future, a future that one seemingly inhabits whilst viewing the album. Photographs are silent, yet they express numerous characteristics. Although they may appear highly specific, the observer perhaps lacks the context that memory has lost, allowing only fragments to be grasped.

Figure 1

Shaun Tan, author of the graphic novel The Arrival, asserts that photo albums “inspire[es] memory and urg[e] us to fill in the silent gaps, animating them with the addition of our own storyline” (Essays – Strange Migrations – Shaun Tan). Originally planning a picture book in which an elderly migrant reflects on his past experiences, Tan discarded this idea in favour of a silent protagonist who migrates to a distant, new and distant place with fantastical attributes (Ling 46-47). Whilst the sepia tones are the main feature to allude to the nature of old photographs, the foreign land involves Tan’s own interest to “depict figures in alienating landscapes” in his illustrations (45), as well as a presumably autobiographical related curiosity. As Tan writes on his website, the alienated place where he spent his childhood gave him “a feeling of being somewhere and nowhere at the same time” (Essays – Strange Migrations – Shaun Tan).

Given the seemingly opposed yet unitary nature of a photo album’s ability to evoke a sense of a liminal place, of the old and the new, of the then and the now, of the silent and the speaking, Tan’s wordless graphic novel The Arrival illustrates a mode of photo album that both builds and defines upon a pair of directions: that of the past and that of the present/future. More precisely, The Arrival formally elucidates the two tendencies by visually placing distinct references to them. In this respect, the title page’s opening gives a visual reference (Figure 1). Standing to one side, the strange and nameless protagonist, his face covered by his hat, directs his gaze to the left and stares back. Similar to the other examples of single panels in the graphic novel, the title page, a replica of a panel reused from another page, demonstrates that the left-facing protagonist turns to face the past.

Figure 2
Figure 3

By the stranger looking behind or casting his gaze to the left, the panel implies that the past that is left behind creates a distance that is at the same time tangible, though no longer accessible. Tan connects a quick sequence here that shifts the direction to the opposite in the subsequent panels, thus making the (then) past yield to what lies ahead, what is directed to the right, what is the future. Just as in the first page, featuring a rightward-facing origami figure in the first panel (Figure 2), upon turning left the stranger encounters a crowd of strange-looking birds that resemble the origami figure (Figure 3). They jointly fly away towards the right, the future, whom the stranger later encounters again in the new land.

To this end, Tan repeatedly deploys these specific alignments of the characters. When the unknown protagonist bids farewell to his family, he tilts his head downwards, puts on his hat, as he faces the left side in the panel. After five additional panels, he bends down again, only this time to receive the suitcase that the daughter hands him. Unlike before, the protagonist is now oriented to the right. With the view into the future, the suitcase stresses the journey into the distant and foreign as a token of movement (Figure 4).

Figure 4

Furthermore, the visual announcements of the various flashbacks in Arrival, which portray the experiences of migration of various characters as they meet the protagonist in the new land, illustrate a glimpse into the past. An example of this is the character exchanging views with the protagonist and looking to the left. As with the previous examples, the panel concentrates only on the character, then zooms in closer with each subsequent panel. Direction of viewing plays an important role in Tan’s Arrival, placing the past and the future in immediate proximity. Similar to a photo album, the old is seemingly situated not that far back, but the new lays ahead as well – in Tan’s Arrival, the fantastically new. According to Golnar Nabizadeh, these fantastic aspects sustain “hope for the future […] through surreality that resides within the recognisable past […]” (Nabizadeh 204).

Figure 5

Accordingly, the last page of the graphic novel accentuates the direction of hope. In the one-page panel, the unnamed proagonist’s daughter, who has arrived in the new land, meets a rather perplexed looking migrant. With a suitcase on the ground and a map in her hand, the migrant gets assistance from the daughter on finding her way. Like the magical being accompanying them, the two look to the right while the daughter points her finger in that very direction – towards the future for the arrived migrant (Figure 5).

Works Cited

Ling, Chuan-Yao. “A Conversation with Illustrator Shaun Tan.” World Literature Today 82.5 (2008): 44-47
Tan, Shaun. “Strange Migrations.” n.d.,
Tan, Shaun. The Arrival. Melbourne. Lothian, 2006.
Nabizadeh, Golnar. Departure and arrival: loss and mourning in literary migrant narratives. 2011. University of Western Australia, PhD dissertation.

Migration and Identity in Persepolis

The graphic novel “Persepolis” by Marjane Satrapi presents the theme of migration and identity in a funny yet thought-provoking manner. I had read the novel a long time ago, but I decided to give it another read after I left my own country, in pursuit of a better education, and a better life. I wasn’t surprised when I could relate more to Marjane and her experience as a foreigner in Austria, far away from home and everything she had found comfort in. The crisis of searching for one’s own identity and roots in an unknown land is portrayed light-heartedly, but those panels weigh more than what meets the eye.  

The novel follows the life of a young girl named Marjane as she navigates her way through a changing world, and the impact that migration has on her sense of self. The story begins with Marjane growing up in Tehran, Iran, during the 1970s, a time of relative stability and prosperity. However, as the political situation in Iran becomes more and more volatile, Marjane’s parents decide to send her to Austria to attend school. This decision represents a major turning point in Marjane’s life, as she is forced to confront the challenges of living in a foreign country and adapting to a new culture.

Marjane struggles to find a sense of belonging in Austria, as she feels alienated from both her Iranian heritage and her new Austrian surroundings. She faces racism and discrimination from her classmates, who view her as an outsider. We see how she was treated as an outsider and exploited even by people who she thought cared for her. Later, a panel shows her recalling how she was called a “dirty foreigner” by an old man in the metro. Marjane’s parents, on the other hand, try to maintain her connection to her Iranian roots by sending her care packages filled with traditional foods and clothing. This leads to a sense of confusion and dislocation for Marjane, as she struggles to reconcile her Iranian identity with her experiences in Austria.

As the story progresses, Marjane returns to Iran after the fall of the Shah and the establishment of the Islamic Republic. She is initially excited to be back in her home country, as she says “…and so much for my individual and social liberties… I needed so badly to go home”, but soon realises that Iran has changed in ways that she did not expect. The strict dress codes, the suppression of women’s rights, and the violence of the Iranian regime all contribute to Marjane’s growing disillusionment with her homeland. She becomes increasingly critical of the government and its policies, and begins to see herself as a rebel and a non-conformist.

Throughout “Persepolis,” Marjane’s experiences of migration and displacement shape her sense of self and her understanding of the world around her. Her story highlights the complex ways in which identity is constructed and negotiated in the context of migration. As Marjane moves between different cultures and contexts, she is forced to confront the limitations and possibilities of her own identity, and to negotiate the tensions and contradictions that arise from her experiences of migration and displacement.

 Marjane’s story highlights the challenges and opportunities that arise from migration, and the ways in which it can shape an individual’s sense of self and understanding of the world. By exploring these themes through the lens of a young girl’s experiences, Satrapi offers a unique perspective on the complexities of migration and identity, and the ways in which they intersect and shape one another.

The Magic Fish; A Unique Perspective

The Magic Fish by Trung Le Nguyen is not a common immigration story. In most of the immigration novels I have read so far, immigration was looked at through the lens of first generation immigrants and we saw their stories as they happened, or as a retelling of some sort, but The Magic Fish had a unique protagonist; A second generation son of a Vietnamese refugee family who also happened to be queer.

Before I get into the details about the graphic novel, I’d like to take a quick look at the artist. Trung Le Nguyen, also known as Trungles, is a Vietnamese-American cartoonist, artist and writer who is best known for his graphic novel The Magic Fish, which was published by Random House Graphic in 2020. Trung was born in a Vietnamese refugee camp in the Philippines and moved to the United States when he was two years old. Also, It was very interesting to learn that Trung is gay and non-binary, and the story of The Magic Fish was heavily inspired by his own upbringing and real life.

Now on to the comic itself; The Magic Fish by Trung Le Nguyen is a graphic novel about a young boy named Tiến, the second generation son of Vietnamese refugee parents. Tiến’s dilemma is that he’s a closeted gay young man, who’s in love with his friend, and seems to be having issues coming out to his family because he can’t find the right words for it in Vietnamese to talk about his sexuality with his family. From the very beginning of the novel, we see that there is a language barrier between him and his mother, and in order for his mother to practice her English, she suggests that Tiến reads them a fairytale book that they’ve gotten from the library.

Through the reading of this fairytale, we’re introduced to a lot more than just the plot of the fantasy book. The fairytale story itself is a work of fiction that seems to be a mix of Cinderella and The Little Mermaid. Aside from that, we also get to learn about Helen’s (Tiến’s mom) background and how she married Tiến’s dad and left Vietnam together. The fairytale is very unique because it brings Tiến and Helen together in the way that it seems to work like a bridge between the two, trumping their language barrier and other gaps. Through reading the book, Helen seems to be reliving some of her memories from her life when she was young, and her marriage to her husband and how they left their homeland, and for Tiến, too, he seems to be daydreaming about and imagining his in-real crush to be the prince from the fairytale.

When asked by The Hollywood Reporter about the reason why he took the fairytale approach in his storytelling, Trung explained:

“I think fairy tales are such a great touchstone for how to find common experiences among people who have grown up in totally different places, because they’re very formal and they’re oftentimes very personal and told in very intimate settings. They kind of are these really nice blank slates to bring our differences to the fore, and also navigate how those differences can be tied together.”

The interviewer then asked a follow-up question concerning the three narratives and which one was easier for Trung to connect to and write about, and what Trung said in response was something that I found quite interesting, and a point of view that I’d never considered before.

“I think the last story, the one that’s based on The Little Mermaid, was something that I was really comfortable with. I’ve spent a lot of time reading about Hans Christian Andersen and the notion that Hans Christian Andersen wrote the story from a place of unrequited longing and clear love that never really comes to fruition was such a fascination for me for such a long time. And then, explaining to my family and my parents why that story was such a fascinating thing for me, and having them explain back that this is an immigrant story, she gives up something, she gave up her tongue, her language, to live someplace new so that she could be with someone that she loved. That’s an immigrant story. I loved that so much.”

The fairytale itself aside, one other thing that I found to be quite interesting was the queer elements of The Magic Fish. Firstly, we have a (mostly) closeted young protagonist who’s struggling with the topic of coming out to his parents due to a language barrier and also probably cultural gaps that exist between him as a young boy raised in the United States and his Vietnamese refugee parents; a situation that is definitely very relatable to other queer children of refugee and immigrant families. Other than that, there was a part in the fairytale where the prince refers to Alera using they/them pronouns, and as a non-binary person myself and considering how rare it is for non-binary people to appear in most works of fiction, it was very delightful to have that small bit of representation and it definitely caught my attention.

The Magic Fish is a very special and extremely stunning novel. The way the fairytale somewhat reflects the characters’ real lives is extremely unique and beautifully done, making it easily accessible to all readers due to its retelling of the popular classics that we’re all familiar with. It reveals so much about the characters with so few words and tells us about Tiến’s personal struggles, Helen’s history and her escape from post-war Vietnam, and so much more, and ties it all together using fairytales. All in all, a very good introduction to Trung’s brilliant works, immigration novels, and a worthwhile read.

„Bury me, my Love“ – a Migration Narrative

About the game

A tale about love, hope and exile, inspired by a true story.

“Bury me, my Love” is a video game that deals with migration, the search for refuge, war, and fate. Unlike other visual narratives, “Bury me, my Love” requires the reader to actively engage in the game and to make difficult decisions. The story will change its course depending on which decisions the player has taken.

The tale begins in Syria on March 4th 2015. Nour and her husband, Majd want to leave war-ridden Syria. Nour, a medical professional, manages to get a visa for Turkey and starts her journey to Europe. Majd is a teacher and has to stay back. The player can influence Nour’s movement via text chat; however, Nour also has a mind of her own, which means that she may not do what the player/Majd asks her to do. On her journey, Nour meets with scammers, racists and more, but she also encounters one or two friendly faces. The player can often choose between sending Nour a text message, an emote or a selfie (of Majd).

An example of Nour’s stubbornness can be found in the beginning. Sadly there is a shooting on her way to the airport. Therefore, Nour decides to go the cheaper route through Damascus, even though the texts that I had chosen and therefore Majd’s answers should have discouraged her.

The decisions that Majd has to make often are hard. After Nour has made it to Izmir because a friend of Majd knows a smuggler there and this friend safely made it to the UK, she contacted the original smuggler and a couple more. Now, the first smuggler is a bit cheaper (900€), but he will only leave the next day and there are 50 people on a 9-meter boat, which is quite a lot. The other smuggler that Nour has found on Facebook will leave tonight, takes 1100€ but guarantees that no more than 40 people will be on board. Now, the following screenshot shows the decision the player has to make after receiving that information.

Which decision am I going to make? Will I go with the presumably trusted but also more dangerous smuggler? Or the more expensive and possibly safer alternative? One of these decisions could cost Nour her life and that is quite a scary thought. It has to be taken into consideration that Nour only got 2,500€, and her journey won’t be over after taking a boat to Greece.

After three playthroughs it becomes clear how difficult it is to get to a safe place, however, on the third playthrough I finally managed to get Nour into Germany.

Experience and Review

Playing the game was an incredibly frustrating experience. Not only is it so hard to get Nour to a safe place, but you’ll also have to read a lot of their chat while only being able to make very few decisions. One playthrough can take up to four hours, which is quite headache-inducing due to the repetitiveness of the gameplay: Read Nour’s messages, read Majd’s automated messages, choose a response, and read Nour’s messages. This may, however, show how difficult it is to be in Majd’s position, who can only watch his phone and wait for Nour’s messages.

Also, things often didn’t go the intended way and that was annoying as well. If a decision was made, it was impossible to go back and retake it, and if Nour died due to the decisions taken, the game had to be played again – from the beginning. There are also so many decisions that it feels impossible to remember which ones I’ve taken in an earlier playthrough. Hence, it would be nice if it was possible to go back to certain chapters in Nour’s and Majd’s journey and see how other decisions would affect her. 

Furthermore, the game evokes a sad atmosphere thanks to the music that is played at certain points in the game. The music has a nostalgic undertone, is sad, and often feels a little dramatic. Sometimes the music also sounds almost hopeful. The music underlines the fact that we’re witnessing a family that is being torn apart. A husband who helplessly has to see his wife leave without him. A journey that is dangerous and may separate them infinitely. You can go here to listen to the soundtrack:

The experience is intense. And frustrating, annoying, and immersive. Overall, the game does a good job of displaying the refugee experience. If you want to read more about the process of designing the game and the developers’ motivation and journey, go here:

Review of Pat Grant’s ‘The Grot -The Story of the Swamp City Grifters’

Pat Grant’s graphic novel The Grot was published by Top Shelf Productions in 2020 and is a collaboration with the artist Fionn McCabe. It is the first of three books that together form the collection The Story of the Swamp City Grifters. Grant wanted to tell a story about con-artists but was facing the problem that in our modern time most of the scamming happens online. Since he thought a story that mainly takes place on the internet would not be interesting enough, he wanted to come up with a different, but still modern setting. Therefore, he created a dystopian Australia ‘ravaged by a plague, filled with con-artists swindling others in a world where people are scrambling for resources and constantly taking a crack at hitting big and becoming rich’. (Petras, 2020) A place called Falter City becomes a magnet for people who are looking to make a fortune, but instead, they are confronted with disease, greed, and foul play.

The reason for the downfall of the world as we know it is not mentioned in the visual narrative. Similarly, the reader does not get to know the details about why people can get so rich in Falter City. It becomes clear that there is a special type of algae that is very valuable. Ryan Carey suggests that the world in Pat Grant’s graphic novel has changed so drastically because of climate change, and that the algae might be some kind of energy source. (Carey, 2020) The world Grant creates may also remind the reader of the North American Gold Rush, during which people also left everything behind to travel across the country in the hope of becoming rich. 

In Pat Grant’s graphic novel The Grot, the reader follows the two brothers Lipton and Penn, who make their way to Falter City with their mother and plan on becoming rich by selling medicinal yogurt. On their journey, it becomes clear very quickly that their hopes might be naïve and that life in the swam is very dangerous due to a plague, a lot of fraud, and horrific work conditions. Lipton and his family receive multiple warnings. For example, when they arrive in Falter City a lot of people are waiting at the harbor. A man tells them: ‘Most of them are trying to leave. Not everyone gets rich out here and if you can’t afford the ticket then the only way back is to work your way back… fight for a spot on the pedal deck.’ (Grant, 2020) But the family is blind to all the warning signs and so full of greed that they choose to ignore the misery that is surrounding them everywhere in this hostile environment. 

The relationship between Lipton and Penn is full of tension and mistrust, and in an interview, Grant stated that he is very interested in sibling relationships. The two can be seen as dual protagonists. While Lipton is trying to make his mother proud and succeed, Penn is not really interested in setting up their business. They spent most of their time in Falter City separated from one another but are both outsmarted by con-artists in the end. (Carey, 2020) 

Grant’s first graphic novel Blue, which was published in 2013, already made it clear that the artist is not afraid to present unsympathetic and disagreeable protagonists. While Lipton seems quite naïve but could still be seen as a sympathetic character, his brother Penn, his mother, and basically every other character are far from likable. For example, Lipton’s mother states that she wants her son to profit from the diseases that are killing many people in Falter City. (Grant, 2020)

Pat Grant’s art style is very unique and contributes a lot to the uneasy feeling that the reader is left with after finishing the story. The artist uses mainly brown, green, red, and yellow in his panels. These muddy and earthy tones create a discomforting and dense atmosphere. In addition, Grant is not afraid to show ugliness, which adds to the unpleasant feeling. The artist has been praised by critics for his drawings. For example, Carey wrote: ‘These pages don’t just look good, they look great – and while no art is “perfect” in and of itself, this art is perfectly and uniquely suited to tell this story.’ (Carey, 2020)

Other than the specific art style, another quality of the graphic novel lies in its very authentic dialogues. Grant manages to remind the reader of the Australians ‘characteristically blunt method of communication and inherently wry sense of humor […].’ (Carey, 2020) 

In terms of the topic of migration, one could say that The Grot is very different from the other visual narratives that we discussed in our class – the main difference being the reasons and motivations behind migration. While we got to know a lot of comics and graphic novels where people are forced to relocate, the families in The Grot move because they want to make a fortune. Therefore, we also have a different social composition in Falter city than in the spaces where other visual narratives take place. In most of those, we have a small group of migrants that comes to a foreign place, where there is already an established community living. This often leads to tensions between the two groups. In Falter City on the other hand, it seems that almost everybody is a migrant. Still, with the following quote, it becomes clear that this place also has a history of repression of other cultures: “Here they are…the five islands. Each island used to have an indigenous name but no-one remembers those.” (Grant, 2020) This quote, among other, shows that Grant is also subtly criticizing society.


Grant, Pat. The Grot. Top Shelf, 2020.

Belinda, Yohana. “The Grot“, A Telltale of Con Artists during Pandemic by Pat Grant., 2020. (

Carey, Ryan. Swamp Thing: Ryan Carey Reviews The Grot By Pat Grant., 2020. (

Petras, Matt. Pat Grant, ‘The Grot,’ and the difficult, demanding task of creating a graphic novel., 2020. (

Matt Huynh’s “The Boat”: Evoking Empathy in Digital Narratives

On Storytelling and Digital Narratives

Be it in an oral, written or visual manner, storytelling always has been (and continues to be) an important part of the human experience. Stories allow us to gain new knowledge. Stories can inspire us and comfort us. Stories can warn us. And: stories can teach us empathy. 

According to Arendt, a narrative weaves “the circle of selfhood into an ‘enlarged mentality’ capable of imagining oneself in the place of the other” (qtd. in Kearney 246). It is no surprise then that storytelling has a long history of aiding growth and learning (Kwak 5): by making the audience engage with the topic at hand from a different perspective and thus on a more reflective level, sympathy may be increased (10). 

Many digital narratives do not only work with this effect but seek to strengthen it. They do this by effectively making use of different media by combining auditive, visual, animated and interactive elements, which allows them to give “deep dimension and vivid colour to characters, situations, experiences and insights” (American Digital Storytelling Association qtd. in Boase 1). Many of them are actively being used to build empathy and social awareness (Kwak 10). 

The Boat

The 2015 interactive graphic novel The Boat by artist Matt Huynh is based on the short story of the same name by Nam Le from 2008. The digital narrative was created in recognition of the 40th anniversary of the fall of Saigon and 40 years of Vietnamese resettlement in Australia (Huynh) and can thus be considered to bring new attention to a story that many may no longer actively be thinking of at this point in time: the Vietnamese boat migrations from 1975 to 1995 (Lehman 169). While it is, in parts, less detailed than the original narrative, Huynh’s work manages to make up for the ‘lost’ details by employing various digital techniques. 

Visual Effects

Even before starting the narrative, the reader is already confronted with somewhat chaotic visuals: heavy rain is swept across a black screen, underlining how exposed those within the story are to their surroundings. The moment one presses start, lightning as well as a swaying sky and waves are added as effects. If viewed on full screen, this almost leads to a feeling of swaying with the ship oneself, of being inside the narrative. Active effort is needed in order to take in what is happening visually; the gaze needs to wander across the screen – from top to bottom, from bottom to top, from left to right, from right to left. A loss of orientation, reminiscent of what the characters are experiencing, occurs in the reader as well, making the situation more understandable even if viewed from the safety of one’s own home. 

While it is possible to activate auto scroll, the effect of being part of the narrative becomes further increased if the reader chooses not to do so. In order to progress through the story, they must keep scrolling amid the stream of rapidly swaying imagery, thus creating “a dynamic relationship between narrative production and reception” (Lehman 170).  However, control can never be fully gained: the way the story is set up makes it impossible to predict what will appear where on the screen next. The visual journey the reader is taken on is one defined by uncertainty.

Audio Effects

Notable, too, are the auditive elements present in the narrative. According to Kwak, sound, if used intentionally, can “lead to the most engaging experience” for consumers of a digital narrative (23). In the case of The Boat, it is effectively employed to enhance the atmosphere already existent. As a result, and similarly to the visual effects described beforehand, it makes the reader feel part of the story, especially when following the recommendation of using headphones.

This effect, too, is intensified by its unpredictability. The reader is never quite able to adjust to the noises they hear. One moment the sounds of wind, rain, thunder and waves intensify, only to suddenly become dulled again. Undefinable noises cut in from the ship, noises one will never know the source of. Silence and more quiet sounds, too, become effective in enhancing the mood created by the story itself, never distracting entirely from the plot but instead working to underline it.


While the original short story by Nam Le is already highly emotional, and arguably more effective in helping one get to know the characters, the multimedia narrative for The Boat allows for a more direct confrontation with the topic at hand. By means of auditive and visual effects, the reader becomes engaged in the story in a way that makes it more relatable, that allows them to better understand situations they have never been part of themselves. This, then, is what turns Huynh’s work into what Kwak refers to as an “empathy-evoking digital narrative” (14).


Boase, Catherine. Digital Storytelling for Reflection and Engagement: A Study of the Uses and Potential of Digital Storytelling. Centre for Active Learning & Department of Education, University of Gloucestershire, 2013.

Huynh, Matt. “The Boat.”

Huynh, Matt, et. al. ”The Boat” SBS, 2015, 

Kearney, Richard. Poetics of Imagining: Modern to Postmodern. Edinburgh University Press, 1998. 

Kwak, Seo Yeon. Digital Narratives for Self-Therapy. Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2021.

Le, Nam. The Boat. Alfred A. Knopf, 2008.

Lehman, Mike. “Kinotextuality in Matt Huynh’s The Boat”. Crossings: Journal of Migration & Culture, vol. 11, no. 2, 2020, pp. 169-185.

Pat Grant’s “Blue” – A Reading Diary

by Jo Hoffs
cartoon boy shown doing several steps of surfing

Pat Grant’s Blue is a graphic novel about surfing, about community, about migration and conservatism. First and foremost, it is a story about xenophobia, and about a blue alien race migrating to the fictional town of Bolton. We meet Christian, a Bolton citizen who starts off his story by complaining that the blue aliens “pretty much own the whole town now” (Grant 25). Christian is angry and frustrated – he wants everything to remain the way he knew it from his childhood, a time he spent surfing and having fun with his friends.

Once Christian starts telling the story of how he went looking for a corpse along the train tracks, I was immediately reminded of the novel The Body by Steven King – a similarity which was intended, as Pat Grant explains in an essay at the end. A huge theme in The Body is friendship and finding a sense of belonging somewhere. The four boys in The Body come from difficult family situations where they are either abused or neglected. During their adventure together, they find a sense of community and make some – not always positive – memories. In Blue the feeling of community and friendship also plays a part. Here, it is expressed through one of Pat Grant’s passions: Surfing. Christian, the protagonist of the story, like Geordie from The Body, tells the audience about his youth: A time where he often missed school to go surfing with two of his friends, “the only ones with families lousy enough to let them get away with it” (Grant 38). Christian still longs for this time, because it was a time when there were no blue people in Bolton yet. “You play spot the Aussie around here these days”, he tells the reader. As an introduction to his character, this is perfect because it immediately shows some of his main characteristics: He is a racist middle-aged man missing the days when he was not confronted by the existence of other cultures yet. At the time when Christian and his friends are looking for the body, the blue people have just arrived in Bolton, making it a huge topic of discussion among them. The first time they meet a blue person themselves the friends are already prejudiced wanting the immigrants to go back to “Oogety-Boong Land” (Grant 55).

from: Grant, Pat. Blue. Top Shelf, 2013.

The allegory of immigrants as a blue alien species in this graphic novel is interesting but at the same time confused me a bit. In my opinion, the political implications weren’t always clear, which doesn’t have to be a bad thing but in a story so heavily focused around a political issue, it weakens the material. On the one hand, the inhabitants of Bolton are biased against the immigrants for xenophobic reasons, as it becomes apparent on page 28, when racist slogans like “we grew here, you flew here” are shown. On the other hand, the blue aliens according to Christian do not take good care of the city, as there is garbage everywhere and the plants are dead (page 25). Without reading the author’s essay at the end, I would not have been sure if this story is actually pro-immigration.

When it comes to the visuals of the story, I like the drawing style and the use of the light blue color in contrast to the black, grey, and sometimes brown colors used for the Bolton natives. Sometimes there are dozens of panels on one page, which gets overwhelming to me personally if there are many word balloons to read (e.g., Grant 58). Another nice touch to the story was the Australian slang words in the dialogue. However, this also complicates the reading experience for those who are not familiar with Australian slang. Footnotes would have been helpful here.

While I enjoyed the story and its different themes – community, racism, generational conflicts, bullying – it left me a bit confused as to what to take away from the story. It feels to me like the author attempted to take the story into multiple interesting directions but failed to properly work out any of them. There is no character development on Christian’s part, no other characters to give some kind of a satisfying conclusion and especially, there is not much of a take-away from the story. Nevertheless, I would recommend this graphic novel, as I think it’s possible to have many different views on it and speaking from experience, every re-read helps you discover new aspects.

Works Cited

Grant, Pat. Blue. Top Shelf, 2013.

Impressions and Review of Safdar Ahmed’s Graphic Novel Still Alive: Notes from Australia’s Immigration Detention System

by Angela Agelopoulou

I decided to analyze Safdar Ahmed’s Still Alive: Notes from Australia’s Immigration Detention System for the class “Migration in Visual Narratives”, which deals with the migration journey portrayed in various types of visual narratives.


As I had already participated in a seminar that dealt with migration to Australia and the conditions in Australia’s detention centres, I was very interested to read Safdar Ahmed’s graphic novel. While the full graphic novel was published in 2021, a small part had already been published online as the webcomic Villawood: Notes from an immigration detention centre in 2015. I will make a close comparison between these two narratives in the following subpoint, however, I want to first summarize the plot of Still Alive briefly.  The graphic novel shows the stories and lives of refugees being kept in an immigration detention centre in Villawood, Sydney.  These people find themselves seeking asylum in Australia due to war and violence in their home countries. While it is the task of the Australian government to protect the refugees, the graphic novel shows the cruel reality of those needing protection: The refugees are faced with great challenges during their journey by boat but also upon arrival. All stories told in Still Alive are based on true events, as Ahmed ran art classes in Villawood and there met refugees willing to share their stories.


Even though I do have some knowledge about Australia’s detention centres, going through Still Alive was a very heartbreaking experience for me, as I felt deep sorrow while reading and seeing the stories of the refugees. I was overwhelmed by a sad and sickening feeling while going through both, the graphic novel and the webcomic. One thing I found especially shocking was the slogan of Serco, being “people are our business”. The slogan emphasizes that asylum seekers are not seen as human beings but as objects. Furthermore, it was also horrifying to read about the terrible treatment of the refugees (being physically and mentally abused and not being allowed to mourn their loved ones). The webcomic and the graphic novel do have some minor differences, for example, the graphic novel, unlike the webcomic, does not make use of colors, further emphasizing the hopelessness of the refugees. Moreover, the graphic novel has considerably more panels that are clustered together (emphasizing the feeling of being trapped) and uses a horror aesthetic, which should make it easier to talk about difficult topics, such as trauma. While these two narratives differ from one another, the effect they have on their readers stays the same: engaging with the graphic novel and the webcomic takes an emotional toll on the readers and shows the cruel reality of the world we are living in.

Art as a way of coping with trauma

The asylum seekers arriving in the detention centre knew that their migration journey would be long and dangerous. They knew that they decided to go on a journey, where they might be abused, experience loss, or even die. What they didn’t know was that their struggles would continue once arriving in the country that should keep them safe. The conditions in Australia’s detention centres are beyond cruel. The refugees are being controlled 24/7 and moving is heavily restricted. Detention centres resemble high-security prisons, where the guards abuse those detained for no reason. They are also the reason for self-harm, depression, and anxiety. Still Alive shows how the refugees deal with these feelings by drawing out their experiences, their situation, and also their migration journey. One refugee’s drawing for example shows a chessboard surrounded by barbed wire, while another shows a Taliban soldier holding four heads with the title of the drawing being “Death”. Especially in detention centres, where recordings are strictly prohibited, drawing is an effective way of expressing one’s feelings. Moreover, it is a way for the refugees to be in control and also to experience freedom. In the graphic novel, Ahmed describes the importance of art as followes: “Art and storytelling allow trauma to be visualized, externalized, and re-embedded in its context, which provides a greater feeling of safety and distance from it over time.” (22)


Still Alive by Safdar Ahmed gives a voice to the people who don’t often have one. The drawings and photographs portrayed in the graphic novel remind the readers of the lives being abused in Villawood, but also in other detention centres. It is a call to rise up and support the refugees and reject Australia’s detention centres that do not recognize the refugees’ lives.