Review by Roy Boyd
Mongrel is written and illustrated by Sayra Begum. It’s a deeply personal autobiography that examines her life as someone who struggles to reconcile the two very different cultures that she has to co-exist in. Specifically, she grows up in England as part of a traditional Muslim family from Bangladesh.
Artistically, it’s not Alex Ross or Jack Kirby, though her influences are clearly very different. An example, and one that bears explaining, is that her characters’ eyes are based on an ancient artistic style. The eyes, to a reader used to western drawing styles, actually look a bit wicked or angry, but one soon gets used to it. The artwork might look a bit, well, not childish, but certainly in the style of someone young and unsure of themselves, which is something that actually works in the context of the story. It’s also goes without saying, but is probably worth repeating, that not all comics or graphic novels should look like Batman.
Panel layouts don’t always follow straightforward grids, and it’s not always clear which order they should be read in. Her decision to draw it all in pencil must have greatly increased the time spent on the artwork, and there are an awful lot of grey backgrounds. White is used sparingly, though most of the layouts are interesting and aesthetically pleasing.
The writing avoids many of comics’ tropes, and, to use a movie analogy, it’s more Mike Leigh than Steven Speilberg. Her affecting vignettes successfully portray the sense of suffocation and oppression that she felt while growing up in a society that seems remarkably repressive to your modern western reader.
Begum’s either very brave or contrary (or both) as even doing what she’s doing here – depicting people – is something that’s very much frowned upon, if not outright banned by Islamic religion. The result is an admirably honest autobiography that has a lot to say about growing up torn between two very different cultures. It won’t be to everyone’s taste (what is?), but it does what many powerful stories do, and puts you firmly in the shoes of someone likely to be very different from yourself.