It’s basically a 2b or not 2b dilemma. Oh come on! When else am I going to get the opportunity to use a graphite-pencil-pun?!
So what is a “Graphic Memoir”? Well first up it’s a very confusing classification; are we talking graphic as in blunt and gory details, or graphic as in, well, literally graphics? Here’s a clue: A professor at my university regularly tells the anecdote of an honours student who refused to read a graphic memoir that was on the course list, because; ‘they didn’t read comics’.
I despair at a secondary education system that has opened the door for that student to a degree, yet entirely closed their mind to being further educated. It means there is one more oxymoronic twat out there in the world of literary snobbery (because the ‘comic’ in question was Pulitzer Prize winning novel, Maus).
However, I’m going to give you, our Tipsy Lit readers, the benefit of the doubt, because if you’ve found our blog then you’re already a bunch of fabulous people that are non-twat-ish about literature and all that sail in her. Right?!
These memoirs are admittedly written and drawn in cartoon strip format but if you haven’t encountered a graphic memoir before I’d urge you now not to just dismiss this genre as merely being a form of ‘low art’. Instead, I want you to suspend all your previous understanding of what comic might mean.
- Cartoon strips can be loaded with meaning, regardless of narrative or labels; “a picture tells a thousand words” isn’t just an overused cliché.
- When applied to a memoir the possibilities of embellishing and reinforcing memory as a personal testimony and truth are endless.
- Comic illustrations are unique, yet have elements that are accessible and relatable to many due to their abstract rendering, filling in the gaps in our visual imaginations when we’re trying to picture someone else’s experience.
These are illustrations that permeate our subconscious with symbolism on each page, enriching the reading experience. The gutters and margins, the white space of the work, the thickness of borders, are all a visual language to be read whether there is text on the page or not. Doesn’t just the thought of that excite and tantalise your brainwaves just a little?
Adult comic cartoon readership in itself is not new of course, but aside from Manga, and Marvel, this other novel length ‘M’, is, I think, deserving of a much wider readership and appreciation. But what on earth would motivate someone to illustrate a memoir in the first place?
Well just imagine for a moment that you’re a cartoonist and a writer. It seems inevitable that the two mediums would converge at some point if you were that talented doesn’t it?! Both are forms of communicating, so if we ignore the fact that many of us might only be capable of trying to communicate with incomprehensible stick figures (though that might not be a deal breaker either, who knows?!) it does make a lot of sense to have complete control over what is actually communicated in a deeply personal work.
How would you depict your own family and your personal story though? Would you paint them pretty or ugly? Could you resist making a few aesthetic improvements, enhancing the work so that you only, literally, picture everyone’s best side? It’s quite a dilemma isn’t it? Not only are you faced with the potential that a loved one or close acquaintance might not like what you’ve written about them, there might also be a career busting lawsuit about the way you’ve drawn your least favourite cousin’s nose. Or maybe you’d just be struck off the Christmas card list, so not a complete deal breaker then.
Metaphorically warts and all let’s dive in and look at how cartoonist and author Alison Bechdel depicted her memoir. Fun Home is a deeply personal account filled with intimate illustrations that are loaded with sincerity. It traces her early childhood growing up in a family funeral home, negotiating her growing awareness of her sexuality and, ultimately, her father’s sexuality and apparent suicide. Not quite so comically funny now eh? It’s an extraordinary life history told in an extraordinary way and ironically might also be classified as Queer Literature, because not only does Bechdel reject fixed notions of identity, she is also rejecting fixed notions of narrative.
Described as “A Family Tragicomic” it’s an unconventional style for memoir which exploits the familiarity, and perhaps ‘safe’ presumptions, we have of the comic format in order to avoid alienating Bechdel’s audience with the often confronting details of her life. Her illustrations of actual photographs also deliberately elicit an aesthetic response in addition to the text, and she openly admits to researching Google images and posing as all the characters to aid her drawing.
I find that really striking because this is essentially an obvious artifice, something that Bechdel herself attributes to her father yet seems to be an inherited trait she is proud to demonstrate. That’s not to say that the author is mis-representing scenes from her memory, but it’s worth noting that there has to be an element of choice and arrangement in the illustrations used, even if there is a photographic reference to work from. In addition, the text is non-linear and flashes backwards and forwards in a way that mimics our sometimes chaotic recollections; a device that is very effective when accompanied by these visual aids.
There’s an almost cinematic quality in the illustrations, with close ups and wide perspectives, and as there is less reliance on words the visual language throughout is vivid and detailed. Fun Home is a captivating and accessible work if you’re approaching this genre for the first time, but like all great literature, graphic memoir is not restricted by conventions of a predictable template, and no two graphic memoirs are alike.
If you’re still struggling with the whole idea of the comic strip format as serious reading material then I’m going to stretch you even further, so adopt the brace position now and draw yourself something solid to hold onto in the next frame!
First though, I’d ask you to consider this: there’s a point for many people who read the George Orwell classic, Animal Farm when the premise of talking animals fades away and humanity rushes at them, obliterating any lingering sense of implausibility. To get anywhere near that point you have to leave any lingering literary prejudice on the first page and just go with it.
The Complete Maus by cartoonist Art Spiegelman is a memoir that some readers (and one aforementioned twatty student) just can’t even get past the cover page of. Incredulous and horrified as you might be at the idea of depicting the Holocaust with a cast of mice, rats, pigs and dogs, there is something about these illustrations that goes beyond a confronting insinuation that people can behave like animals in their baseness. It’s unsettling, (and arguably that’s the point), but it does gradually and effectively engage you as a reader. There is something almost benign about illustrations of mice-like humans, yet something incredibly powerful about stripping away the imagery of recognisable races and simply telling the horror of this human story.
That’s not to say that the only way to get each successive generation to willingly engage with WWII testimony is to present it in ever more inventive ways, just that trauma narrative in itself is subject matter that we instinctively resist and even recoil from. Maus is visually upfront about its content, yet still manages to blind side the reader with its unique approach.
Interesting Factoid: You don’t need to be a mouse to be utterly moved by this novel, you just need to be human.
Spiegelman illustrates his own memories, photographs, audio recordings and also his imagination for some scenes that he has no first or even second hand knowledge of. Like Fun Home then it is not a book that is the ultimate and accountable testimony from every family member’s point of view, it instead retains the flexibility of all memoir, illustrated or not, in its inherently personal ethos and purpose.
And that is really how it should be, don’t you think? We don’t need to historically authenticate and fact-check memoirs, we just need to read them and make up our own minds about how we respond to each authors work.
These are essentially memoirs of adult children trying to negotiate their adult relationships with their parents and in that respect are not all that unusual. In Maus for instance, Art Spiegelman negotiates the trauma of his mother’s suicide and tries to understand both his parents’ experiences to salvage a relationship with his often difficult father, Vladek.
At times amusing, it’s also frank and honest; shockingly so, for Vladek’s racism in one scene blows out of the water any concept of a romanticised hero with a moralistic and neatly resolved message of survival. These are not just comic and predictable ‘mouseketeers’ then, these are illustrated characters in a complex work that seek to narrate complicated circumstances and individual histories. Maus is a book that requires a level of critical engagement from you as a reader that should silence any literary prejudice to the quality of comic formats made into memoir.
Personally, I just can’t imagine either book being anywhere near as engaging if told in a conventional ‘non-comic’ style: they draw me back continually to analyse their graphics for further meanings and interpretations, and therefore, at a psychological level are very powerful and long lasting works. Isn’t that what we’re all looking for in a good book?
Not all cartoon strips are comical; delve into these graphic memoirs and you might find that your reading, writing, and even your illustrative eyes, have been well and truly opened.
By Dawn Silversides of wordswithnannaprawn.com
Suggested further reading:
Persepolis (2003) by Marjane Satrapi
“Graphic Narrative” Hilary Chute and Marianne DeKoven, Modern Fiction Studies, V:52, 2006.