Ginseng Roots

Ginseng Roots (2019) #3

Ginseng Roots  2019  3Okay, this issue is even better than last issue and not just because creator Craig Thompson has Black Jesus, White Yahweh, and a Chinese Holy Spirit, which is an amazing panel. Lots of amazing illustrative panels this issue, in fact, because the main plot isn’t about Thompson working on his comic or anything with his family—it’s about the history of ginseng.

Thompson starts with a creation myth straight out of The Phantom Menace and those other virgin birth stories. Except instead of doing the Jesus thing, this guy spends his life figuring out how best for folks to live off nature and to be healthy. Thompson has this absolutely glorious transition where the guy, Shennong, has to find the missing cute ginseng root, which has gotten successfully hunted because the hunter is worthy. Shennong is 28th Century BCE, so pre-Jesus, post-Anakin. Shennong then has to try to find his ginseng friend, which brings him to the twenty-first century and Thompson at a ginseng rally in Wisconsin. It’s beautifully executed. Just stunningly good work.

But then Shennong discovers the ginseng isn’t his old friend, it’s American Ginseng or whatever and how did it get there and we don’t get to find out because it’s the cliffhanger. The educational element of Ginseng Roots is the cliffhanger. It’s stunningly good. Like, if issue two was better than it seemed issue one could ever get, three’s just as much an improvement over two. It’s an exemplar comic.

There’s some great American political commentary, with Thompson managing never to come off sarcastic when he’s doing something sarcastic. A lot of it comes from Thompson’s understanding of comic book and comic strip mechanics; even the beginning treats the origin of Shennong like a sensational seventies Marvel book. Thompson’s got a lot of chops and is showing them off here.

I’m loving this book.

Ginseng Roots (2019) #2

Ginseng Roots  2019  2Confession time—I never read Blankets, creator Craig Thompson’s first big work. And it now turns out Ginseng Roots is a somewhat direct sequel.

This issue opens with Thompson going back to Wisconsin—he’d been living in Portland, OR (of course), which makes the questionable L.A. cartography last issue more permissible—and meeting up with his younger brother, Phil, to drive to the family farm house. Not farm, but farm house amid other people’s fields.

On the way, Thompson introduces a second sibling, sister Sarah, who was left out from Blankets; there’s a bit about the fallout from Blankets, both in terms of the parents and the sister. The parents didn’t like it because it’s about Thompson’s fall from Evangelical faith and Sarah because she wasn’t in Blankets. She even wonders if it won’t be too confusing to include her in the ginseng comic, which Thompson is talking over with his family.

How’d it turn out? She’s on the cover of this issue.

And the parents have at least accepted Thompson’s previous work to the point there’s a copy of Blankets on the bookshelf, which is bare of books other than Thompson’s creative output. Presumably there’s a Bible around somewhere.

Creating a comic lionizing Red State farmers in 2019 is going to be something, but Thompson seems to be aware he’s going to have to address some things. It’s not like Portland is the bastion of social justice one would’ve assumed in the aughts.

The parents aren’t enthused about the ginseng project simply because they were laborers, so Thompson and his brother (who loves the idea of the comic) go to visit some farmers and former employers.

They’re a cute old couple who bitch about Americans not wanting to work anymore and how the environmentalists are ruining things. Turns out at the end ginseng can only be grown on a plot so I’m not sure an economist would agree with their take. But it’s a very nice, very informative sequence.

There’s a lot about how excluded Sarah felt from growing up with the brothers, which is awesome, unpleasant if genial work.

The first issue was good comics but this issue is outstanding comics. Hopefully Thompson can keep it going.

Ginseng Roots (2019) #1

Ginseng Root  2019  1Creator Craig Thompson has a hell of a hook for the first issue of Ginseng Roots—he gets to be interesting. Thompson grew up in Wisconsin in the seventies and eighties when the state was the number one grower of ginseng in the world. According to Thompson; I’m not going to check it because you’ve got to trust your creators.

So Thompson and his brother helped their mother weed ginseng fields as kids. They got paid a dollar an hour, which eventually bought comic books. And Thompson goes into how they weeded the fields and why they weeded the fields and it’s all very interestingly done. Even though the ginseng market crashed in the nineties and ruined some lives, Wisconsin still makes it; they should’ve hired Thompson to do them a pamphlet talking about it. Just great educational comics right here.

Alongside Thompson’s story of growing up in a working class Wisconsin farming community and the associated troubles. In the present—he’s got a very quick and effective way of jumping the narrative ahead forty years—he still suffers class anxiety as he finds himself with all the artsy types.

A chance walk through Los Angeles’s Koreatown and Chinatown—okay, this one I checked and it’s not geographically accurate (hrm)—but on this chance walk narrator Thompson sees ginseng shops and communes with a particular barrel of roots and it tells him to “go home.”

It’s the adorable ginseng creator Thompson has had as gentle comedy relief throughout the comic, offering asides on multiple pages and so on.

The comic’s gorgeous; Thompson’s on not white paper, which gives the mostly black and white art a lot of personality. There are occasional colors, mostly reds. There’s even a letter page, where creator Thompson talks about the plans for the comic—twelve issues—so either the whole thing’s about his journey back home or some of it will be. His brother, who’s a character in the comic, also draws a couple pager about how he picked too much ginseng when rooting.

It’s a very nice comic; very nice reading experience.

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