Graphic Memoirs: Not All Cartoons Are Comical

graphic novelsThis could be challenging because I have to try and be serious about something that may be scoffed at, yet try not to be so serious that you refuse to touch it with the proverbial barge pole.

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.

Here’s why;

  • 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.

Image From Fun Home
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.

Sequence from The Complete Maus
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


Suggested further reading:

Persepolis (2003) by Marjane Satrapi

Time’s List of Top Ten Graphic Novels

“Graphic Narrative” Hilary Chute and Marianne DeKoven, Modern Fiction Studies, V:52, 2006.




I Bang My Fists In The Dark

Photo credit:
Design credit: Ericka Clay


I grew up

missing a heart chamber


one was breathing

the second was laughter


then awareness

of something dull and aching


the room

where the last would have been

it was attic space


there is a faint must now

old, unrepaired damage


I grew

into something like a woman

you know, sexiness in moderation

confidence in quiet increments


and now there is a bragging right

being passed around

like a silly childhood photograph


let’s wave her life

like a white flag

we’re proud, we’re proud


so very proud of the

hurt in your words


I bang my fists in the dark

can they even see me?

Like My Mother

mother and daughterYou are all those little things that are shoved by the splinterful into your skin, but then you are also other things…like your mother.

  • I am like my mother.  We have the same physical shape, notably our noses and thighs and brown eyes although hers are lighter and mine are closer to the shade of dung (nobody’s perfect.  Not even me.  I’m just as shocked as you are).
  • We both love music from the 70’s because she was raised in the 70’s and because I was brainwashed by a child of the 70’s.
  • The definition of camping, for us, is an extended stay at a five star Hilton.
  • Drinking is not a game for us.  It’s a hard won skill that takes concentration, agility and an outright distaste for the concept of “last call.”
  • We have small feet (hers are smaller), we are short (she is shorter), and neither of us are defined by our smallness.  
  • We probably love animals more than people.  Fine.  Nix the “probably.”
  • We are sensitive to the unseen.  Interpret that any way you like.  Fine, I’ll help you: ghosts.
  • We both fell in love with men who protect the smallness we’re not defined by and who make us feel larger than the burning yolk of the sun.
  • We both breathe.  Routinely so.

There are a number of points in my life when that breathing came into question.  Not our noses and thighs or the size of our feet or the men in our lives or the ghosts, but the breathing.

My mother is one of those people who has chronic illness, Crohn’s disease, and what is splintered deeper than our love for a good margarita or a love for a living room full of animals is the raw truth of knowing you’ve never known your mother to be healthy.

And how unhealthy has absolutely nothing to do with strength.

I know she’s had the God moments.  Those ones when you look up at the bubble of sky above your head and scream, “ARE YOU FUCKING SERIOUS????” because who could live in that bubble above your head, flanked by an army of angels and saints, and grant HIS (or HER, or ITS or ZEBRA…no wait, scratch that last one) child a lifetime of immeasurable pain.  Pain that is physically planted, but germinates out to all other planes until you can’t say your own name without wanting to die.

But she didn’t die.  She refused that part.  There have been tests, poking and prodding and surgeries and medications and flights from one part of the country to the other and days, entire days spent within the confines of a bathroom and there has been her daughter, clothed and loved and taken to sleepovers and dance classes and volleyball games even though the pain grew and flourished and tentacled through bone and vein and the tissuey parts of the heart.

There were weddings and parites and vacations all chronicled by different shades of bathroom paint, and in all the pictures she’s smiling.  Because she refused to give up.

I’ll tell you a secret: giving up is part of my essential nature.  When something gets hard or uncomfortable, I want to just say “Okay, so long” and shut the door on whatever that might be.  Even people.  It’s an easy thing to do for a person who suffers from depression.  It’s easy to let all the ways you could leave this earth magnetize and ladder up to a place that’s far better than the one you’re currently enduring.  It’s easy to think about a thing like death.

But then there’s my mother, with her nose and thighs and beautiful brown eyes and the love she keeps offering the world even when it seems like the world isn’t taking notice.

And I think about breathing, her breathing. and how I’m a lot like her.

How I never want that to change.


Good Writers Are Great Listeners

good listener
Photo credit: Leanne Boulton on Flickr
Design credit: Ericka Clay


We often talk about how powerful it can be to speak your mind, to say something, to talk it out.

And while there is no denying the importance of being able to adequately verbalize how you’re feeling, to appropriately articulate your side of an argument, or to be the voice for someone who has lost theirs, we often forget about how imperative it is to not to do any of those things, and just listen.

To listen to the opposing viewpoint, listen to life going on around you; listen, because maybe if we’re not talking, someone else will finally get the chance to say something.

Because when we take the time to shut our mouths and open our ears, we are allowing our minds to become sponges.  We are able to absorb sights, sounds, and opinions.  We are letting the person or people with which we are choosing to spend time know that their words are important, their feelings are worthy, and their time is valued.

Rather than wasting breath and polluting the world with meaningless advice and ill-researched content, we should strive to listen to the opinions of others, and give them the respect they deserve by not telling them what they want to hear, but what they need to hear.

And all they need to hear is that you listened.  You heard what they had to say.

As a society, and unfortunately, as humans, we are so quick to judge, to speak upon things that we don’t really know about, instead of just listening.  Because if we listened, we may understand what the person is going through, knowing that all he or she is doing is a work in progress, and prematurely speaking will just discourage the completion of that product.

Not all of what is written down is positive, good, or worthy of reading.  But we have to read the bad, the negative, and the worthless to fully develop our own ideals.  One cannot fully shape his or her own beliefs without considering the works and opinions of others.

Which is why we have to listen.

Regardless how new, how rough, or how polished the content is, take the time to read through it, comment, and give feedback.  As a community of writers, we all understand the struggles of perfecting a piece.  It’s important to generate discussion, propel conversations, and raise questions.

We’re all perfecting a final product.  We may not even know what that product is yet.  But if we all take the time to lend our ears and open our minds to one another, we can do a lot better than the world outside in getting each other to where we want to go.

Because regardless of how polished, how new, or old, or rough our content is, it is valuable.  It means something to us.  And whether we admit it or not, putting it on display for the entire internet to read is scarier than living next door to your mother-in-law.

So take the time and listen, be thoughtful, be aware.  Know that by leaving a comment, you are validating what that person has said, you are making a product, however incomplete it may be, worth it.  You are giving the author supplemental, outside knowledge to improve their piece in a way that they just cannot do on their own.  You are creating the discussion they hoped to provoke.  You are connecting with them on the most difficult, most emotional, or inspirational piece that maybe took years to publish.

And it’s all because you listened.

meg signature

In Poetry I Survive

Photo credit: lorrainemd on Flickr
Design Credit: Ericka Clay

I have survived rape.

And every time I admit that out loud it seems as though the person I am confessing to has also experienced some form of sexual abuse. As much as it helps to know that I am not alone it hurts to know just how many people out there have had to go through the same thing. I don’t wish this pain on anyone. The guilt. The uncertainty. The shame.

My mind blocked the memory. I drowned it in years of rum, in pain killers, in boys with fancy toys. I drowned it in lies.

But truth as we know, is the strongest of all things.

So the memory was uncovered, years later, exposed like a compound fracture—bone and blood and ichor poking through the skin. It was like I was reliving the trauma all over again. PTSD set in. I was on high alert, agitated, quick on the draw. Untrusting. Unworthy. Victimized. I experienced flashbacks. Nightmares. I continued to lie. To tell myself and everyone around me that I was ok.

Writing would draw out the final truth, for even in fiction, for even in the most fantastical of fantasy novels, lies the depths of human emotion. Writing would expose and explore the darkness I kept inside. I wouldn’t explain myself, not in so many words, not for a few years. I wouldn’t be brave enough, until finally, verse caught a hold in my heart once more. Poetry. I would confess it all in poetry.

I would find my voice as not a victim anymore but rather as a survivor.

Jess Sita

Writing, God, and Vodka

God writing vodka
Photo credit: torijennifer on Flickr
Design credit: Ericka Clay

You think of me, and maybe you think of glitter and cats and a husband who thinks talking is his American right.  But there are deeper levels and layers as there are to any human being, and I can’t keep on pretending I’m nothing more than a good time.  Although I am, considering I can literally shoot vodka without blinking, and I’m no longer allowed to be within five hundred feet of McKinney Street in Dallas, but that’s of no concern right now.

Here’s what is:

  1. My soul is fighting something dark.
  2. My definition of “writer” is changing.
  3. I went to Mass today for the first time in a long time.

If your heart is skipping a beat, and you’re concerned that I’m going to start preaching to you, let me calm your fears.  I am not the preaching type.  I’m the “start crying while smoking after shooting too much vodka and not blinking on a random street in Dallas” type.  I’m a good time, remember?  But I need to talk about a few things until they termite up my insides, and I drift away like so much dust.

First: the night terrors.  I’m not sure if you’ve heard of these things, but they go beyond your usual run-of-the-mill, shit-your-pants nightmare.  Your body is literally (the old school version of “literally,” foks) paralyzed, it’s like being both present in your current state while also inhabiting a higher level of consciousness.  In these dreams, I can move things with my mind.  I see ghosts.  I’ve seen demons.

I’ve had sleep issues since I was a child.  I’ve also been highly sensitive to paranormal activity.  Hence, the vodka shooting.  Kidding.  But this is like a culmination of all those things.  It’s your face in a mirror with your eyes sucked out.

Sure, this stuff has been great fodder for the writer in me, but as the living, breathing being who would like to keep her soul in tact, it’s been scary as hell.

So now my brain is changing, at least the way my brain thinks.  As a born and raised Catholic, sometimes you get to that “give me a break” level of reasoning that makes you cut off ties with your religion and faith all in one go.  People would try and convince me that I needed God, but see, I’ve always known I’ve never needed anything or anyone other than my laptop and a cup of coffee.  So when people would talk about faith and religion and all that gooey goodness that made my writer’s heart want to shrivel up and die, I’d shut my ears off and inwardly laugh at how wrong they’d gotten it.

And let’s take a quick second to point something out: some people do have things all wrong.  Some people drink up religion and leave faith scattered in the bottom of their cup like lemon seeds.  Some people have turned love into hate and stick a religious sticker on it.  I am NOT talking about these particular people.

I am talking about people who love through action and have their inward eye on something I’ve sometimes had trouble seeing.  I think about Ferguson and suicide and local little terrors, and I smirk at the thought of God.  I’m a writer.  I don’t need God, and let’s face it, the whole world seems devoid of a higher power.

But then the dreams come, and I’m a vacuous bag of skin, no bones, and something dark fills me up, breathes into my balloon.

I’m a writer.  And I need God.  Hard.

You see, my definition of what it means to be a writer is changing, and granted it’s a personal change.  But it’s a change that’s severing into my dark, it’s releasing a hot and quiet light.  I’m moved by God, by goodness, by a whole and honest heart.  I’m moved by the grit and grime of life and a shot glass full of vodka.  I’m moved by the higher, the lower and everything in between.  But above all, I’m moved by peace, by love, and the knowledge that change doesn’t have to be a dirty word.