Through the good, bad, and the funny, this missionary kept her mission journal as a 628-page comic strip.
Six words kept Brittany Long Olsen pushing forward when she felt inadequate and discouraged during her LDS mission in Tokyo: “I have to tell my story.”
Like most missionaries, Olsen had to adjust to a new culture, language, companions, and food. Unlike most missionaries, Olsen—a recent Southern Utah University grad—was documenting her story one panel at a time, comic-book style. Her journal? A graphic novel in the making.
“There were a few times on my mission where it was super hard. I wanted to go home,” Olsen remembers. “But then I’d think, ‘If I leave I can’t finish my book.’ It sounds silly, but there were days when that was all that kept me going.”
After her mission Olsen painstakingly re-inked and digitally shaded each of the journal’s 628 pages to make sure her drawings and captions were just right. When she couldn’t find a publisher for her project, Olsen self-published the book, Dendo: One Year and One Half in Tokyo, on Amazon in November 2015. Dendo means “missionary work” in Japanese, and Dendo’s black-and-white panels are characterized by Olsen’s realistic depictions of tender—and often humorous—missionary moments. Readers see Long Shimai (Japanese for Sister Long) grimace as she downs her first octopus tentacle, wobble as she adjusts to bike-riding, and find joy in helping investigators pray. Though Olsen didn’t think many people would read her memoir, emails and phone calls started rolling in.
Local news outlets wanted to interview her, returned missionaries and missionaries-in-training reached out to thank her, and curators Dainan M. Skeem (BA ’05) and Trevor P. Alvord (’16) from BYU’s L. Tom Perry Special Collections wanted to buy her original manuscripts.
“Having Brittany’s work was a significant opportunity for us,” says Alvord, a curator of 21st-century Mormonism and Western Americana. “As far as I know, [it is] the first graphic novel about a missionary and missionary life.”
Dendo won the 2015 Association for Mormon Letters Award for best comic, and Olsen’s original manuscripts have been key parts of two different Special Collections exhibits.
When fans ask Olsen if she’s planning on making a sequel, she usually quips that serving as a senior missionary is still too far in the future to commit to anything yet. However, Olsen does have a few young-adult graphic novels in the works, and readers can follow a daily comic journal at comicdiaries.com. “I hope [Dendo] can be the jumping-off point to more people doing this,” Olsen says. “If anything, I hope that it inspires more people to create comics and get their voice out there.”
See more comics from Dendo:
And a recent comic in which Olsen noted her interview with BYU Magazine: