Former missionary illustrates EVERY mission day in graphic novel ‘Dendo’ – Daily Herald

As far as missionary journals go, this one’s a doozy.

For one, Brittany Long Olsen’s missionary journal is 600 pages long. And every page is illustrated. Graphic novel isn’t your average format for something like this. In fact, it might be the only one of its kind. The Provo resident illustrated a page every day during her mission in Tokyo. She published the volume, titled “Dendo: One Year and One Half in Tokyo,” last November.

How does one do such a thing? Olsen has been into comics since she was a child, and had been illustrating her pre-mission journals for some time before entering the Missionary Training Center in February 2012.

“And when I went on a mission I was like, ‘Why stop doing it?’ ” Olsen said.

Missionary days aren’t exactly filled with free time. And serving in a land as foreign as Tokyo has its share of overwhelming moments. Still, Olsen committed to illustrating a page every single day, even when she didn’t feel like doing it.

“There were a lot of moments that were raw and emotional, but keeping a journal helped me cope with it, I guess,” she said.

* * *

Naturally, word of her journal spread throughout the mission. Missionaries would frequently ask if they had made it into the book. Though she was ultimately doing it for herself, Olsen always knew she wanted to publish it upon returning home. She made it home to Las Vegas in August 2013 and began the long process of publishing. Scanning each page into the computer, Olsen added shading to the illustrations and developed a font from her handwriting, redoing the writing to look more uniform. With 600 pages to touch up, that’s a tall order. She said she worked on it nearly every day between August 2013 and the book’s release in November.

Revisiting her missionary experiences afterward was illuminating. She hadn’t realized there was a continuous plot of sorts, and also saw how her relationships with people in the mission evolved over time.

“In one way, I think it made me more satisfied with what I did as a missionary,” she said. “Because when I got home, sometimes I felt like I barely did anything — how many people did I actually make an impact on? Having this record helped me feel like I did something; those 18 months were really worth my time.”

Olsen enlisted Clyde Northrup, a longtime friend, to help her edit the book. He said there’s a rough-and-tumble quality to the illustrations, and a dry, matter-of-fact wit within its pages, that are central to its appeal.

“It was some combination of simplicity of the dialogue and the comics themselves that really does make you feel like you’re there,” Northrup said. “I could feel in her writing something of that feeling of being out in a strange land and trying to do the best with the job you’ve been given.”

* * *

Flipping through “Dendo,” it’s near impossible to not be intrigued. While its uniqueness makes “Dendo” appealing, it’s also made it harder to distribute. Established LDS publishers felt it was too niche for wide distribution, so Olsen self-published it through CreateSpace, a publishing and distribution platform owned by Amazon. Folks that served LDS missions in Japan through the years have contacted her personally, saying how much “Dendo” captured their own experiences, even if their missions were 30 years apart.

So far Olsen has sold approximately 250 copies. It’s a relatively small number, but still impressive given its independent nature. It’s available on Amazon, and she’s working on getting it into physical bookstores locally.

“On the other hand, the fact that it’s unique is not only, I think, its greatest strength, but also its greatest selling point,” Northrup pointed out. “If you see that amongst all the other historical fiction and nonfiction, it really stands out, and that alone for me is enough reason to pick it up and look at it.”

Mackenzie Dolan served in Tokyo the same time as Olsen. One of Dolan’s mission companions came to Dolan right after Olsen had her. Reading through “Dendo” brought back a lot of memories, for better or worse.

“It was almost word for word what I went through with that companion,” Dolan said. “It made me homesick for Japan, definitely. Reading through it, it felt like I was reading through my own journals. I became very nostalgic while reading it.

“I think it’s a great book, not just for missionaries who are going to Japan, but just anyone, because it’s a fun way to see what a mission is — even the really hard times,” she continued. “That’s why I really loved the honesty in her book. She doesn’t sugarcoat how hard the mission is, and how down you get.”

* * *

The Brigham Young University Library took an interest in Olsen’s work. The library purchased the book’s original illustrations, as well as some of Olsen’s mission correspondence, for its collection of 21st century Mormon art. Students, scholars and patrons will be able to explore the archived items for years to come.

“As we started digging into it more, we started to realize that nobody else has done this,” said Trevor Alford, the library’s curator of 21st century Mormon art. “Talking with some of my colleagues that have expertise in 19th and 20th century Mormon art, they couldn’t think of anybody that has turned their missionary journal into an art form like Brittany had. I felt it was really important that we document this, being it’s the first of its kind, really.”

He said LDS culture is currently experiencing a renaissance in Mormon comics. He hopes Olsen’s book will inspire other artists to create similar works.

“Other missionaries have illustrated bits and pieces, but nothing from start to finish like this,” he said. “And I think the graphic novel format is a great way of telling these narratives.”

* * *

Olsen doesn’t necessarily want to make a career from comics, but plans to continue drawing them as a hobby. She also hopes “Dendo” will gain more traction over time, but has modest expectations.

“I wasn’t going for something that was going to appeal to everyone and be a best seller,” she said. “I just wanted to create something that was authentic for me, that was my experience, and would be fun for people whose experiences might overlap with that.”

How long does it take to read the 600 pages of “Dendo”? Well, that depends. One reader told Olsen he read it cover-to-cover in six hours. “And my husband hasn’t finished reading it, and he’s had almost a year,” Olsen said. It looks like both Olsen and her readers have their work cut out for them.


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