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'Replay' spotlights resilience, loss, and intergenerational connectedness

A panel from <em>Replay.</em>
Jordan Mechner
First Second
A panel from Replay.

It's 1988 and Jordan Mechner is 24-years-old — visiting New York from San Francisco to attend his grandfather's funeral — when his father, Franz, recalls a distressing but formative moment from his war-torn childhood: "I decided when I was nine years old to consider myself as already dead."

Jordan, his younger brother, and his father are sitting in a cozy domestic space, reminiscing over Papi's life, which, like Franz's early years, was beset with close calls. Father and son, both Jewish and therefore targets of the Nazi occupation, fled Austria together in 1938, leaving half of their family behind. The elder Mechner, Adolf, emigrated to Cuba while Franz, a young boy at the time, fled to stay with his aunt in various parts of France. There, he lived in precarious circumstances for three years, until his family of four eventually reunited in Cuba. Most of their relatives, including over a hundred cousins, did not survive.

"If Papi had been less lucky, you wouldn't have been born," Franz tells his two sons.

Such snippets — short but powerful scenes of resilience, loss, and intergenerational connectedness — are at the heart of Jordan Mechner's new nonfiction graphic book Replay: Memoir of an Uprooted Family. The author-artist is best known as the creator of the Prince of Persia video game franchise, as well as the earlier Karateka (published while he was still an undergraduate at Yale) and the later adventure game, The Last Express. As he notes in an opening chapter of the book — which could be considered part memoir, part dual biography — until age 13 he had planned to become a cartoonist. Then, when Apple II came along, his future plans almost immediately changed course.

A page from <em>Replay. </em>
Jordan Mechner / First Second
First Second
A page from Replay.

Gaming and comics have, of course, many overlapping qualities: Not only do they usually involve animation, creativity, and storyline, but they are also both modes in which audiences participate, to varying degrees, in the sights unfolding before them. This is more obvious in gaming, where players control their avatars' moves. But in comics, too, readers have to make meaning within and across panels and pages; they construct associations, filling in the gaps between images with their own imaginations.

In contrast with gaming, life, particularly as the elder two Mechners — Adolf and Franz — lived it, is awash in accident and luck. Jordan Mechner spends the memoir flitting between three points of view. The text is divided into eight rich chapters filled with often fast-paced, neatly drawn scenes sometimes tinted in gentle colors. When he was 14 years old, he remembers, his grandfather completed a memoir, which filled up four looseleaf binders. At the time young Jordan hadn't bothered to read it, but as his life unfolded — and included an impressive, often all-consuming career, several romantic relationships and, eventually, two kids of his own — he started to recognize how much this history already meant to him.

A page from <em>Replay.</em>
Jordan Mechner / First Second
First Second
A page from Replay.

Mechner relays stories of his family's past via excerpts from his grandfather's memoirs, adapted into his own illustrated scenes. He also opens each chapter with selections from an archive of family photographs — and fills in parts of the family story through recalled tidbits from conversations with his father. Many of the anecdotes repeat and overlap, as memories told over a long period of time, and from different sources, often do. Indeed, the book moves swiftly between a wide variety of moments in time and panoramas, incorporating, too, sections revealing Mechner's own career struggles and triumphs as well as interactions with family and friends.

At one point, sitting on a beach in France with his best friend and former colleague, Patrick, he is gently chided for wondering what would have happened if he had made a different decision in his past. "Life is not like a video game that you can replay," this friend sagely reminds him. It's an invitation to stick with the facts, with what has already happened, and move along from there.

In the end, in the composition of this vibrant, poignant book, Mechner seems to have taken his friend's advice. Though Replay's many twists and turns underscore the pervasive impact of the past, including painful traumas and unbearable losses, the emphasis is ultimately on the connectedness that remains in the present. The memoir joins several recently published non-fictional graphic books that effectively weave intergenerational stories together into a single narrative, like Amy Kurzweil's Artificial: A Love Storyor Tessa Hulls'Feeding Ghosts. These works are all focused on the same question: How do you move on from the past?

Their answer: You try as honestly and directly as you can, to confront it.

Tahneer Oksman is a writer, teacher, and scholar specializing in memoir as well as graphic novels and comics. She lives in Brooklyn, NY.

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Tahneer Oksman