I’ve spoken before (and will again) about how flexible comics are as a medium. Easily spanning genres and enabling a creative vehicle for storytelling, they allow an author to put their own stamp on a tale in a unique way. This is doubly true when the tale being told is the author’s own personal life story.
There are a few lists around of the best graphic memoirs and I’m going to give you my own thoughts on a few I’ve read (which all also happen to be on those lists). One of the best things about this genre of story is how vast and varied it is, just as with their prose counterparts. Interestingly enough, the three I’ll mention are all coming-of-age stories. Something about that time period in one’s life seems to lend itself well to memoir, I suppose.
First is the seminal Persepolis and Persepolis 2 (also available as The Complete Persepolis) by Marjane Satrapi, which tells the author’s coming of age story in the time of the Islamic Revolution in Iran. Satrapi is in her formative years when the revolution begins and the massive, overnight cultural shift in her homeland is stifling to a young woman just starting to express herself as a person. When she later travels to Vienna for high school, she is again challenged by culture shock during those already tumultuous years of transition toward adulthood. The book was later made into an animated film (which follows the book very faithfully).
It’s a beautiful read, heartbreaking in some places, wise and witty in others. The simple art style (it’s all in black and white) lends a weight to the book and I don’t think it would be the same if there were bright colors everywhere. As with most comics, the art is used to set the tone and emphasize the mood of the book as much as the text.
Next is a much lighter book, Lucy Knisley’s “Relish”. I’ve followed Knisley’s work online for years now, though her “Stop Paying Attention” strip has gotten much more rarely updated the last few years as her life has changed. Relish is about three things: growing up, food, and the memories where the two intertwine. Raised by foodies (mom is a chef), Knisley’s most vital memories are inextricably connected to the food she was eating or making at the time, either to cope, understand, or celebrate the moment.
I love how this book is at turns funny and poignant and I have a lot of my own memories embedded in the food I eat or what someone made. Not only is this book about food and memory, it also has a lovely selection of recipes drawn in a charming style that’s easy to follow and makes me want to get up and scrounge for ingredients.
The final book I’ll talk about is one I haven’t actually read yet. However, I recently bought a copy and I’m going to be reading it soon. It’s Alison Bechdel’s “Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic”, which tells the story of her childhood and the complex relationship she had with her closeted homosexual father. Yes, Bechdel is the same person who the “Bechdel Test” is named for as well as being the author of the seminal comic strip “Dykes to Watch Out For”.
“Fun Home” falls somewhere between “Relish” and “Persepolis”, darker than the story of sweetly poignant recipes and recollections of a budding artist, yet much less dangerous than that of growing up in the aftermath of a culture-changing revolution. It’s also got a much more formal tone, referencing works of literature and myth. Additionally, it also happens to be critically-acclaimed and award-winning, well beyond the usual confines of the comic book medium, making it kind of a must-read.
I hope I’ve been able to give you a little glimpse into something unexpected here and further build the case that comic books really are for everyone. For every genre in literature and many in non-fiction as well, there is a comic book there waiting for you. It’s worth taking the time to look. You never know when one of your favorite books might just be a comic book.