US - Story & Art by Michelle Nguyen

Below are the first character sketches for the short comic Us, as pitched for the anthology Alloy and its first installment, Electrum.
 

Char Sketches for US - Alloy Anthology.jpg

 

Comic Description

The Short Version: Having felt ethnically misplaced for most of her life and stuck in the middle of a mother’s and father’s strikingly different cultures, the youngest of three children finally finds peace with her identity after she and her siblings have become adults. She comes to understand that even if she cannot identify by a single culture, she will always have her siblings -- and there will always be “us.”

The Long Version: This short story follows three siblings that have, for the first time, find time to meet and spend time together as adults. Right before the brother and his wife give birth to their first born, the three siblings go hiking through a national park to catch some peace before their lives become too hectic yet again. Their topic of conversation flows into their constant topic of choice -- their hodge-podge culture -- and then to the frequently asked question: “What are you?” Through their conversations, they explore their various run-ins with the question and how they have come to question their identity. The youngest sibling comes to understand with her siblings, they have formed their own little culture, something that cannot be recreated or shared. It is a story of finding one’s special identity formed by family instead of by a single ethnicity, identity, race, or culture. This story is meant as a special tribute, a love letter, a thank you note to my brother and sister -- the people who understand me to my core. Through our shared experiences -- good, bad, and awkward -- we have come to be “us.”


Comic Script

Page 1 (Three Panels)

Panel 1: The wide opening panel shows the sun slowly rising in a Colorado national park called the Garden of the Gods. Three adults are hiking up an inclined hill, one obviously in the lead and two straggling behind. They are silhouetted against the light forming at the horizon. They are going back and forth in dialogue, taking turns:

“Italian”

“Mexican”

“Native”

“Russian”

“Hawaiian”

“Alaskan”

“Haha, wait, really?”

“Yep. Except they pronounced it uh-lass-kee-an.

Caption:

It was always your favorite question growing up

 

Panel 2: One of the adults (SISTER 2) is holding onto a rock face, struggling to find footing up the (let’s be honest) not-too-steep hill. SISTER 1 is not far behind. The area is dry and bright, flat rock everywhere.

    SISTER 2:

“That’s.. not even a word.”

    Caption:

No matter which parent you were with:

 

Panel 3: BROTHER turns over his shoulder to look down at his sisters, grinning.

    BROTHER:

“You know that never stops ‘em from guessing.”

    Caption:

‘What are you?’


Page 2 (Four Panels)

Panel 1: The siblings have reached a plateau on their hike. BROTHER is surveying the trail ahead with a hand to his forehead, the bright sun already too formidable for his sunglasses. The two sisters are slow to catch up -- SISTER 1 is untwisting the top to her canteen while SISTER 2 is leaning against a rock wall, out of breath.

Caption:

As a kid, it’s funny, right?

BROTHER:

“Remember to keep drinking. You’re not used to the elevation yet.”

Caption:

What a stupid question to ask -- why would it matter?

 

Panel 2: Bird's eye view of the siblings hugging a twisting route, on right-side a mountain face and the left-side a drop-off to a dried up river. The panel is open, the dark edges of the rock wall fading into the next two panels.

SISTER 1:

“And how long’d that take?”

BROTHER:

“Coupla weeks.”

SISTER 1:

“Yeah, that’s not happening.”

Caption:

And then...

 

Panel 3: Fading to a memory, a vision of the three siblings in shadows around adults sitting in pews, who are murmuring hymns in a language the children do not understand. The children are off to the side, an uncomfortable afterthought.

Caption:

… you get a little older and realize that you don’t fit into the rigid nuances of your father’s culture...

 

Panel 4: Another memory, a slightly older vision of the siblings as they navigate an awkward 4th of July picnic. They are again isolated to the side, in uncomfortable clothes; the BROTHER suspiciously eyeing what looks like jell-o meat on her plate.

Caption:

...and sometimes you’re the only vaguely ethnic person at a gathering with your mother’s family.


Page 3 (Four Panels)

Panel 1: Back in the present, a low-perspective view of the siblings walking up a twisting trail. The light is peeping through plants lining the top of the hill. They are passing a woman walking a smiling pitbull. SISTER 2 gently reaches out for the dog to sniff her hand.

Caption:

You get older. The question becomes loaded.

BROTHER:

“New job had me fill out an EEO form. An old favorite.”

SISTER 1:

“Uhg. Did they include an ‘it’s complicated’ option?”

Caption:

You have unhelpful, snarky replies at the ready. ‘What do you mean? I’m a person.’

 

Panel 2: The two SISTERS are taking photos of their surroundings with their phones, on opposite sides of the panel. The BROTHER, a local, pats at the end of his shorts to release dust from the trail.

Caption:

But the snark doesn’t cover up the fact that you are questioning your identity every time you’re asked...

BROTHER:

“I mean, it’s always weird to just select ‘Asian.’ ”

SISTER 2:

“So is just selecting ‘White.’ “

Caption:

...what you are.

 

Panel 3: The siblings cross a dusty road. Other trail-goers sit at tables under the shade of a few sparse trees, eating lunch. There are people heading off in another direction, climbing gear at their sides. Another trail is ahead of the siblings, leading to a split between two tall mountains.

SISTER 2:

“A new job and a baby. I can’t believe you’re gonna be a dad.”

BROTHER:

“Yeah, it’s weird. This might be the last time we all get to hang out for, like, 18 years.”

SISTER 1:

“I think this is the first time we’ve hung out in, like, 18 years.”

BROTHER:

“Hahaha.”

Caption:

Because you’ve never really felt like you belong, well, anywhere.

 

Panel 4: Another low-perspective shot. Their three sets of feet trudge through the dusty trail. Desert flowers pop up here and there, peppering along rocks and weeds. There is a small lizard peeking behind one of the large rocks, looking up at the passing siblings.

SISTER 1:

“Who d’you think she’ll take after?”

BROTHER:

“Oh god, please let her be like Lucy.”

SISTER 2:

“Hahaha, could you imagine? A little Tony running around?”

BROTHER:

“Please no.”

    Caption:

    Except...


Page 4 (Two Panels)

Panel 1: A straight-ahead shot of the three siblings, side by side. SISTER 1 is on the left; SISTER 2 is in the middle; and BROTHER is on the right. All three are looking worn but determined. They’re smiling. This is an open panel, the greenery and rocks at the bottom of the panel twists and creates a flowing form cascading down through the next (also open) panel.

Caption:

...when you’re with them.

 

Panel 2: A collage of photos, showing the growth of the siblings through the years, connected by the flowing form from the first panel. The first photo shows the three of them sitting on a (very ‘80s) couch. SISTER 1 is on the left, SISTER 2 is in the middle, and BROTHER is on the right, mirroring the first panel of the page. As the photos of reunions, graduations, weddings, birthday parties, and funerals fall down the page, captions follow them:

Caption:

Everything makes sense...

Caption:

...because you’re never alone...

Caption:

...in any experience you have.

Caption:

You realize that the question ‘what are you?’ has an answer...

Caption:

… but it’s so intangible that you could never describe it…

Caption:

… in a way that would give it any justice.


Page 5 (Five Panels)

Panel 1: Back in the present, at the national park, from the point of view of a phone. SISTER 1 and SISTER 2 are taking an awkward selfie with BROTHER in the background, trying to act too cool for a selfie. It’s obvious that the three of them are not good at this -- SISTER 2 is taking the photo, and her finger is slightly blocking the lense. Half of the photo is blurry.

Caption:

You are...

Caption:

… that weird concoction of your parent’s two cultures

 

Panel 2: SISTER 1 slips a little on the way down a small hill. BROTHER and SISTER 2 turn to help, but she has steadied herself against the rock wall.

SISTER 1:

“Sweet christmas!”

Caption:

… those awkward navigations of life

 

Panel 3: SISTER 1 looks suspiciously at her siblings’ vague offering of help, while continuing to walk down the steep trail. BROTHER and SISTER 2 grin and continue on down the trail, still keeping an eye on their oldest sister.

SISTER 1 (small font):

“I’m fine.”

Caption:

… those unbelievable but somehow believable stories you tell

 

Panel 4: The group is taking a pause in their hike. BROTHER is irritatingly checking his phone, which has a small bubble next to it indicating the lack of GPS signal. The two SISTERS sit on semi-flat rocks, drinking from their water canteens and popping snacks.

Caption:

… the incredible nuances of your growth

 

Panel 5: The siblings continue down the path. Silhouettes again, against the sun, with rocks and wildflowers around them. The sun is reaching them through breaks in the tall, skinny mountains.

Caption:

… together, with them.


Page 6 (Four Panels)

Panel 1: BROTHER in the foreground and the two SISTERS slightly behind. All of their faces, though a little tired and maybe a little sweaty, have brightened.

Caption:

This moment --

 

Panel 2: A 180-turn-around from the first panel. The siblings are in the foreground, framing their destination -- the Siamese Twins formation, a striking formating of tall jutting rocks with one single empty hole in the middle, creating the Window in the Garden. The hole in the formation shows miles of the park -- lush trees and a snowy mountain in the background.

BROTHER:

“There it is.”

Caption:

It was the first time you realized just how incredibly lucky you are …

 

Panel 3: SISTER 2 negotiating with a young mother and daughter, asking them to take a photo for them. BROTHER and SISTER 1 begin navigating up the uneven rocky steps to get in front of the Window.

SISTER 2: (small font)

“Can you take a photo for us?”

Caption:

… to be defined by ...

 

Panel 4: A photo, rough around the edges, carried with and loved for some time: the three siblings sitting in front of the Window, surrounded by a hugging view of the luscious greenland behind them, contrasted against the rugged rock formation. They are smiling, leaning into each other. Tired, and maybe a little gross from the hike, but smiling.

Caption:

...Us.


End. Thank you for reading!