Draw your life – graphic novel memoirs

At the beginning of the year, I was checking out the graphic novel section at Central Library Peterborough, when a young bloke approached me. “Have you read this one?” he said, and thrust Blankets by Craig Thompson at me.

I’m glad he did. I was totally sucked in to this autobiographical story. It’s a beautifully drawn (in both senses) tale of first love, religious doubts, growing up, and family relationships. It has a raw and tender honesty.

This was the first in a run of brilliant autobiographical comics / graphic novel memoirs. The comic author/artist draws (and draws on) part of their own life as a story.

The next discovery was Are you my mother? A comic drama by Alison Bechdel. It is the follow-up to Fun home, an autobiographical tragi-comic about her relationship with her high-school English teacher and funeral home director (and gay) Dad.

Are you my mother? has Alison exploring her difficult relationship with her mother – she can’t find in her Mom the motherly support she wants. It is a layered, complex and touching story that any son or daughter will recognise. She explores her own motivations and drives, and draws you in.

I love how she also delves into the life and work of psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott and embeds him into her own story. Art and literature is there, in abundance. As Laura Miller’s review in The Guardian points out:

Like all of Bechdel’s work, Are You My Mother? is furiously literary, full of citations and quotations, and crafty symbolic parallels to the books its author is so often depicted reading with furrowed brow. The presiding genii of this particular work include Adrienne Rich, Sigmund Freud, Alice Miller and, above all, Virginia Woolf and the British psychoanalyst DW Winnicott. (“I want him to be my mother,” cartoon Alison says.) The concepts Winnicott contributed to object relations theory (the “good enough” mother, transitional objects, the true and false self, etc) provide themes for each of the book’s seven chapters, but its swirling, circular structure derives from Woolf.

My next autobiographical comic was Paying for it: a comic strip memoir about being a john by Chester Brown. It was a challenge. It’s an unblinkingly honest and compelling account of prostitution, from the rare perspective of the “john”. Chester’s tone is dry as a bone, and his pictures have a similar precision.

His friends mentioned in the book are allowed to have their say via footnotes included in the book. They serve as a kind of chorus or commentary, and let you know a little bit more about Chester than what he has revealed. It really is something to behold.

Jerusalem: Chronicles from the Holy City by Guy Delisle was recommended to me by Auckland librarian Sean M (big tip of the hat!). Guy comes across as a reasonable,  thoughtful bloke. He documents the difficulties and oddities of life in Jerusalem on both sides of the wall. Stephen Carlick’s review in The National Post says:

… it’s his juxtaposition of the various points of view — Israeli, Palestinian, Christian, that of Médecins Sans Frontières, and his own —  that makes it his best. The tension in the Holy City between what is how sacred to whom is central to the success of Jerusalem, largely because of the clear-eyed way Delisle depicts the struggles of daily life in a city where so many strongly opposed factions coexist.

The success of this book is how it simply presents the everyday details of life.

These comic autobiographies explore the micro and the macro. They manage to show both an individual’s life in prosaic detail and the big picture of human experience. A local comic memoirist is doing just that in the excellent blog Let me be frank. New Zealand author/artist New Zealander Sarah Laing presents past and present episodes of her life in comic format. It’s brilliant, and well worth signing up to.