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"Refugee Road" Comic Takes A Page From Author's Life Growing Up Poor In Columbus

Stu and Tara Rase
Tara Rase created the comic series "Refugee Road" about her life growing up in, and getting out of, Central Ohio.

After battling poverty as a child with her family, Tara Rase got out of Columbus. Now, in a series called "Refugee Road," she's revisiting that journey panel by panel.

Rase and her husband Stu, who now live in Plymouth, Mi., decided to create a semi-autobiographical comic book that helps paint a picture of what it means to grow up poor in Ohio.

She says while she always felt the story needed to be told, the comic book format was her husband's idea.

"Comics are a great way to reach all variety of people, all variety of reading levels. They have this sort of visceral ability to get to people," Rase says. "So we thought, with a story as important as this, it might really benefit from being told through this format."

Rase says that that type of access is critical for something as misunderstood as poverty.

"If you look at the media and things happening in the world, you often times will see sort of this bootstrap mentality," Rase says. "And this is really addressing that concept. Really, it isn't that simple." 

The first issue of "Refugee Road" has been released through Prince Delight Comics. Rase talked to WOSU's Clare Roth about the story behind the comics and the problems with how people talk about poverty.

Clare Roth: So to start, tell me a little bit about your childhood in Columbus.

Tara Rase: My childhood was unique in that my mom moved in with my aunt after her divorce. You know, we sort of formed this really dysfunctional Brady Bunch of kids living in a house together, mostly unsupervised. And so really the world was our oyster, for better or worse, where we really got into everything, we did what we wanted. We were, you know, dirty, we were shirtless.  We were those kids that you'd probably kick off your front lawn.

Clare Roth: The first issue of "Refugee Road" opens up with a woman, represents you, reflecting on her childhood in the wake of her brother's death. And at one point you write that "Refugee Road" is a story about a poor girl who became a successful businesswoman, but it's also the story of her brother that got left behind.

And I think that narratives about how people "escape poverty" can be really over-simplistic at times. So what were you trying to explore?

Tara Rase: Yeah, I think you really hit the main point, which I think, like, if you look at the media and things happening in the world, you oftentimes will see sort of this bootstrap mentality. And this is really addressing that concept that really, it isn't that simple, and there are a variety of choices that people have to make along the way. And there are a variety of tools that some people are given and aren't given that really help them make that transition.

I mean, there are so many factors at play, and all of them to varying degrees, and so to simplify it and simply say it's all about hard work, I think it really shows a lack of understanding of what it means to be in a poor community.

Credit Tara and Stu Rase
An excerpt from the comic series "Refugee Road," based on the life of co-author Tara Rase.

Clare Roth: What are the biggest misconceptions or misunderstandings that you see surrounding our conception of poverty?

Tara Rase: The whole aspect that, it's hard to leave your community and your community, a lot of times, wants you to stay with it - and not for nefarious or bad reasons. But, you know, it's hard for a mother to see her child leave, for their peers to watch somebody excel and potentially leave them behind. And so there's actually a lot of pressures inside of your own community not to leave.

And then there's your own feeling, like how I reconcile leaving someone behind potentially, or the choices I have to make but maybe I can't bring them along for. Those are very hard, emotional choices. There are choices about your family, there are choices about your friends. And people really don't think about that.

Clare Roth: There are, of course, exceptions - darker, more serious fare - but most of us associate comic books with lighthearted stories - you know, Archie, superheroes. So why did you feel that this medium was the right one to tackle a topic as serious as poverty?

Credit Tara and Stu Rase
The cover of the first installment of the "Refugee Road" comic series, about growing up poor in Columbus.

Tara Rase: Well, you know, it was actually my husband's idea. I mean, he's the one who really has the mind for comics.

But we were talking one day, and I always had the intention to probably address or write some aspect of my life or some fictionalized version. And he felt like this would be a good thing, because there are actually a lot of humorous moments.

So despite their more challenging topics, there are a lot of moments that are actually quite funny and interesting and, you know, unique, and so the comics are a great way to reach all variety of people, all variety of reading levels. They have this sort of visceral ability to get to people, and so we thought that the story is important and that it might actually really benefit from being told in this format.

Clare Roth was former All Things Considered Host for 89.7 NPR News. She joined WOSU in February of 2017. After attending the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University, she returned to her native Iowa as a producer for Iowa Public Radio.