Serious Comics, Part 2: Memorable Memoirs

Comic Books

In Part 1 I listed a few of the “usual suspects” when it comes to serious comics. Here, I address another popular topic: memoirs. Memories can be precise or hazy, trustworthy or otherwise, and comics can depict that in a way that’s sometimes much more evocative than prose alone. Using comics, the artist helps us see the world the way they see it, and in the process we get that much closer to the artist.

These memoirs also raise some interesting questions about what to call them. I’ve seen them referred to as “autobiographical graphic novels,” but that can be problematic if they’re not actually fiction. On the other hand, “comic” sometimes still carries the connotation of humor and many memoirs have as much tragedy as humor. Oh, well. I’ll just stick with “comics” and “comic book memoirs” for the sake of simplicity.

The list of comic book memoirs is getting longer, so this list is far from complete, but it contains some of my personal favorites.

American Splendor covers

American Splendor — Harvey Pekar

Harvey Pekar may be one of the earliest comic book memoir-writers, though interestingly he was not a comic book artist. He had the good fortune to know R. Crumb and convinced him to illustrate his slice-of-life stories. American Splendor ran for over thirty years and the list of illustrators involved reads like a “who’s who” of comics. Pekar couldn’t draw, but what he could do was record his observations of his daily life, and he used comics as his outlet for the little things that irritated him — whether it was about other people or his own bad habits. His collaboration with his third wife Joyce Brabner, Our Cancer Year, chronicles his treatment for lymphoma and the stress it puts on their relationship.

It’s interesting to have so many different illustrators over the course of the series, but Pekar’s voice comes across loud and clear. I see Pekar’s influence on cartoonists like Jeffrey Brown (who mixes autobiography with fiction) and Joe Sacco (who puts the medium to use in journalism), but perhaps almost anyone who has written a comic book memoir owes a little to Pekar. There are various collections of American Splendor; if you want a longer, cohesive story, Our Cancer Year may be a good place to start.

French Milk and Relish by Lucy Knisley

French Milk and Relish — Lucy Knisley

My first encounter with Lucy Knisley’s work was in her sketchbook memoir French Milk. In it, she documents a trip to Paris with her mother with little vignettes and drawings: what they ate, where they went, snippets of conversation, things they bought. It does feel a bit mopey and immature in places, but it’s a short read and a fun travelogue. After reading it I started following some of her other work, like her Kickstarter-funded Horribly Heartbroken at Hogwarts mini-comic.

But Relish: My Life in the Kitchen is a feast for the senses. Knisley’s parents were a chef and a gourmand, and she grew up surrounded by good food. She uses cooking as a framework to tell her personal history, and it’s delicious. Relish is more structured than French Milk, and Knisley’s illustration style has been refined—plus the stories she tells about herself and her family are quite entertaining. Each chapter ends with an illustrated recipe: don’t be surprised if you find your mouth watering as you read it.

The Initiates cover

The Initiates — Étienne Davodeau

Étienne Davodeau is a French comic artist. His friend Richard Leroy is a wine-maker. Neither of them know anything about the other’s craft—so they decide to spend more than a year studying with each other. Davodeau works in Leroy’s vineyards and goes to wine-tastings to learn the subtleties of flavors. Leroy makes his way through a reading list Davodeau provides, and visits comics conventions and printers to learn about how comics are made.

The Initiates is Davodeau’s record of their adventure (translated into English by Joe Johnson). Although I’m not nearly as familiar with the French comics scene, I did recognize some of the figures mentioned in the book, like Lewis Trondheim (who makes an appearance) and Moebius. And I know even less about wine and wine-making. But even so, I really enjoyed following Davodeau and Leroy as they each explored a world that was totally new to them. One thing that isn’t included, though, is a comic drawn by Leroy—that would have been a nice way to complete the initiation, I think.

Epileptic cover

Epileptic — David B.

Epileptic is a hard book to categorize; inevitably it will be filed with graphic novels and comics, but it’s a memoir that just happens to be told with pictures. At the same time, the illustrations are not strictly true, at least in a literal sense. David B.’s older brother has epilepsy, and his disease takes over not only his life but that of his family as well, as they try everything from surgery to psychiatry to religion to macrobiotics to esoterism to voodoo in their attempts to cure him.

David imagines the epilepsy as a giant lizard that pierces his brother, or as a mountain to be climbed, or as a contagious darkness that spreads to himself and his family. The drawings are beautiful and disturbing; some of it has an Edward Gorey feel to it, but it’s hard to draw comparisons to anything else I’ve seen. Perhaps the best description of the book is a line he uses himself: “And life goes on, a little on the gray side.”

The chronology is a bit hard to follow at times, since he jumps forward and backward without warning, but he manages to create an overall tone of his life. If there remains any doubt that comics can be both serious literature and serious art, this book will change your mind.

If you like the style of his artwork, David B. also illustrated The Littlest Pirate King, based on an old French story by Pierre Mac Orlan. As more of his books are translated into English, I’m enjoying them as well, but Epileptic still stands out in my mind as a stunning (and stunningly drawn) book.


Persepolis by Marjane SatrapiPersepolis by Majane Satrapi

Persepolis is a collection of autobiographical stories, with the first book following Satrapi’s childhood in Iran during the Islamic Revolution. The second book takes her to Austria, where she was sent to continue her education, and then eventually back to Iran. The illustrations are a stark black and white, done in a clean, simple style that tells the story without a lot of distractions. There are a few dream-like scenes (particularly early on, when she speaks to God and wants to be a prophet when she grows up), but for the most part it sticks to a stylized realism.

In her introduction, Satrapi writes that her intention is to show the real face of Iranians, separate from the “fundamentalism, fanaticism, and terrorism” which is usually associated with Iran. Having lived in Iran and experienced the oppressive regime with its sometimes arbitrary rules, she has also encountered many Iranians who died defending freedom or had to flee their homeland, and it is their story she wants to tell.

The book, like life, has both tragedy and comedy. In the middle of threats from the regime or bombs from Iraq, there is time for parties and laughter at the absurdity of it all. Satrapi is honest about her own faults, often admitting to experiences she is ashamed of, but also taking pride what she has accomplished.

It is a perspective on Iran that I hadn’t seen before I first read the books several years ago, and I found the books educational as well as engaging. For a more contemporary look at Iran, Parsua Bashi’s Nylon Road is a comic book memoir that focuses more on Bashi’s present-day circumstances than her childhood. I didn’t find Nylon Road‘s artwork as compelling as that of Persepolis, but thematically it makes a good companion book. Fans of Satrapi may also enjoy Chicken With Plums, a story about her great-uncle and his despair at the loss of his beloved instrument.

Fun Home cover

Fun Home by Alison BechdelFun Home by Alison Bechdel

Bechdel is perhaps best known for her Dykes to Watch Out For comic strip which has been running since 1983 (which is also the origin of the Bechdel Test). Fun Home is her memoir, titled after the family’s nickname for the Bechdel Funeral Home, and her subtitle — A Family Tragicomic — is appropriate. It wasn’t until I sat down to write about it that I realized how difficult it is to summarize, because of the way Bechdel deftly weaves together so many different things into a seemingly cohesive whole: literature, coming out to her parents, her father’s death, her parents’ relationship with each other and with the children, growing up in the funeral business, her father’s closeted homosexuality. Fun Home is by turns funny and deeply tragic. Bechdel’s search for meaning in her father’s actions (and death) yields some fascinating conclusions.

Bechdel also published Are You My Mother?, which more closely examines her relationship with her mother — a woman who lived with her closeted gay husband’s secret for years. I haven’t read it yet, but based on Fun Home I’m putting it on my list.

Stitches cover

Stitches by David Small

I first came across David Small’s illustrations in A Mouse and His Child (written by Russell Hoban). Small’s charcoal illustrations were dark and moody and perfectly suited to Hoban’s story. Several years ago I was given a copy of The Gardener, written by his wife Sarah Stewart, and it’s a beautiful book as well. I’ve since sought out other picture books illustrated by Small (some written by him as well).

Stitches is a comic book memoir which is quite dark in tone and can be painful to read. Small’s father was a radiologist who bombarded his son with X-rays, thinking they would help his sinuses. When he developed a tumor on his neck, his parents were reluctant to even take him to the doctor, complaining that “doctors cost money and money is something that is in short supply in this house!” Of course, it doesn’t stop his parents from shopping for a new car, new appliances, furniture. Eventually, though, he has surgery, losing one of his vocal cords (and, for some time, his voice). It’s shocking to read of such callous parents, and the brief bits about his grandmother aren’t so great, either.

So why would you read something like this?

Well, for one, it’s also a story about Small discovering who he is, setting out to chase his dream of becoming an artist. It’s also incredible artwork. Small’s black-and-white illustrations are powerful and he’s able to convey tremendous emotion through body language and facial expressions. He zooms in on faces and small details; sometimes you only see part of somebody’s face, as if the teenage Small is looking off past the person speaking to him. But equally powerful is the story that isn’t included within the pages of the book: the story that Small did become a successful artist, and that he didn’t follow his mother and grandmother down the path to insanity.

Blankets cover

Blankets by Craig Thompson

Blankets is a semi-autobiographical story about growing up — sharing a bed with his kid brother, his first love, his religious convictions and then the loss of them. Like his earlier comic book Goodbye, Chunky Rice, Blankets is bittersweet, and addresses many of the same themes: friendship and goodbyes. But it’s also much more personal. It’s hard to say how much or what has been fictionalized — perhaps “dramatized” is a better word.

His illustrations depict perfectly his own states of mind, from images of Hell and Heaven during Sunday school to visions of his girlfriend Raina as his muse. He struggles with new passions as they conflict with old values — but in the end, neither seems to win out. It’s hard to say what he’s really left with in the end, which is a shame compared to all the beauty he saw earlier. The picture he paints of his church is perhaps a sad-but-true scenario, in which he’s told that drawing is the worst sort of idleness and escapism. His Sunday school teacher dismisses his passion scornfully: “How can you praise God with DRAWINGS?” You can’t help but wonder what Craig’s story would have been in a different context.

I should note that not everyone likes Thompson’s books: one complaint is that they’re too elaborate, too earnest, that they command attention by sheer page count alone. And certainly Blankets (and his most recent graphic novel Habibi) are both impressively large. There is a real beauty in Thompson’s brush-strokes, though. While I found his perspective in Blankets sometimes immature, it felt fitting because it chronicled his adolescence.

Side note: remember what I said about the difficulty with terminology when it comes to memoirs? This one is called “an illustrated novel” right there on the cover — so it’s fictionalized, perhaps, but based on Thompson’s own life. I’ve included it here because it seems to be generally considered a memoir, more so than, say, Will Eisner’s tenement stories. (More on those next time!)

Same Difference

Same Difference — Derek Kirk Kim

Speaking of semi-autobiographical comics, I’ll end with this one: Same Difference is probably a bit further into fiction than the rest of this list, but it was inspired by actual events and people in Kim’s life. The story is about Simon (a stand-in for Kim) and Nancy, two Korean-Americans in the Bay Area. It’s really just about a short period of time, but Simon and Nancy both struggle with things they’ve done that they’re not proud of.

The book has a lot of funny moments, but there’s also a sincerity to it that makes you feel both Simon and Nancy have learned something—and not in an after-school special sort of way. The comic, which was first serialized on Kim’s website, was then published with the help of a Xeric Grant and won the Ignatz, the Harvey, and the Eisner awards. First Second published a new hardcover edition at the end of 2011.

So there you have it: a short list of artists who have invited you take a peek into their lives through comics. Next up, we’ll take a closer look at Will Eisner, a pioneer in the field of comics!

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