Graphic memoirs. A graphic memoir definition is a subgenre of graphic novels, they are the autobiographical or semi-autobiographical counterparts, and (in my opinion) utterly brilliant.
Underrated graphic novel memoirs
The genre has been on the rise in popularity in recent years, but many people still have reservations about reading “comics”, believing the common misconception that they’re for children and about men in tights flying around saving the world.
I’ll be honest, I had a few reservations myself, that is until I actually read one.
I first came into contact with the genre at university: Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic was on one of my many reading lists. Fun Home is an autobiographical graphic novel that interweaves Alison’s childhood memories, college years and present-day life in an exploration of her complicated relationship with her father and coming to terms with his death. I loved it. It was both witty and thought-provoking in equal measure.
After my introduction into the genre, I was hungry for more. Luckily for me, I had the opportunity to take a module specifically on graphic memoirs in my final year and had a whole list of them to read.
Memoir comics often deal with serious and sensitive issues – mental health, illness, disability, trauma, war… Given this often very personal and serious subject area, it might seem a strange way to communicate such narratives. However, by combining visual imagery and words, the authors often express their thoughts, feelings and stories in a more effective way than they could with just words or images alone. To me, this seems completely logical – we often express things figuratively when we speak. For example, “I was drowning in paperwork”, “I was walking on air the whole day”, “I felt so down yesterday” etc. Drawing is another way to communicate something you struggle to express more coherently.
Given that I am yet to find a graphic memoir I didn’t find interesting or enjoyable to read in some way, I really struggled to pick just a couple of recommendations, but here are two to get you started…
Marbles: Mania, Depression, Michelangelo, and Me: A Graphic Memoir by Ellen Forney
I sat down and read this all in one go. Filled with quirky black and white doodle-like illustrations, Ellen Forney’s Marbles tells of her personal struggle with bipolar disorder.
Marbles explores, with dark humour and brutal honesty, the concept of the “crazy artist”, identifying with the likes of Sylvia Plath and Vincent Van Gogh. Ellen Forney shares her own battle in coming to terms with the idea of being a “medicated artist”: trying to find a balance between mental stability and artistic creativity.
Marbles gives an insight into the reality of what it’s like to live with a mood disorder, and also into the American healthcare system – a big reminder of how lucky we are to have the NHS. Despite the rather serious subject area, Ellen Forney’s graphic memoir is extremely optimistic and communicates a hopeful message in a unique and original way.
Maus by Art Spiegelman
Possibly one of the most well-known graphic memoirs, Maus was seen as a game changer in the comic scene. After its publication over 30 years ago, more and more people began to take the genre seriously. It’s still considered by many to be the greatest graphic memoir ever written.
Maus is a story within a story: Art Spiegelman, through a number of interviews with his estranged father, recounts his father’s experiences as a Polish Jew and Holocaust survivor. In the memoir, Jews are portrayed as mice and the Nazis as cats – hence the title. It is both haunting and moving – retelling, through an unlikely form, a powerful and affecting narrative of a part of history that we must never forget.
In addition to graphic memoirs, I’ve recently started exploring the shorter comic form and was really interested to find Spiralbound on Medium (or rather it found me in the form of Medium’s daily email). It has a selection of different styles of comics covering many subject matters and is really worth checking out.
I’ll leave the graphics to do the rest of the talking, and the general hyping of this very underrated genre…
Original author, Marianne Fish