Graphic Memoirs

By Amanda Donaldson

For Fans of Non-Fiction…Try Graphic Memoirs!

When it comes to graphic novels, many people operate under the assumption that comics are simply about superheroes, designed for kids and teenagers who will presumably one day grow out of them. At one point, we decided that pictures were for children, and that when you reached adulthood, you had to give them up. Which is quite a shame, if you ask me.

I love graphic novels. They have been a favourite of mine since I was a kid. As I got older, I figured out why I was so drawn to them. There is an immediacy to graphic novels. The combination of prose and art guide you as a reader through the plot and visually immerse you into the story world. Comics themselves are not a genre, but rather a vehicle by which to tell stories. And you can use the medium to tell any number of stories.

For those interested in diving into the world of graphic novels but are not too sure where to begin, graphic memoirs could be a great place to start. The graphic memoir employs the medium in innovative ways to both elevate and make accessible the author’s personal experiences. The authors are able to use unique visual techniques in order to communicate various features of plot or character development, establish mood, and impact tone in ways that go beyond the printed word.

Here’s a list of five well-reviewed graphic memoirs to get you started:

1. Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic by Alison Bechdel

In this graphic memoir, Alison Bechdel charts her fraught relationship with her late father. Distant and exacting, Bruce Bechdel was an English teacher and director of the town funeral home, which Alison and her family referred to as the Fun Home. It was not until college that Alison, who had recently come out as a lesbian, discovered that her father was also gay. A few weeks after this revelation, he was dead, leaving a legacy of mystery for his daughter to resolve. (GoodReads)

2. Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi

Persepolis is the story of Satrapi’s unforgettable childhood and coming of age within a large and loving family in Tehran during the Islamic Revolution; of the contradictions between private life and public life in a country plagued by political upheaval; of her high school years in Vienna facing the trials of adolescence far from her family; of her homecoming–both sweet and terrible; and, finally, of her self-imposed exile from her beloved homeland. It is the chronicle of a girlhood and adolescence at once outrageous and familiar, a young life entwined with the history of her country yet filled with the universal trials and joys of growing up. (GoodReads)

3. Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? by Roz Chast

Roz Chast brings her signature wit to the topic of aging parents. Spanning the last several years of their lives and told through four-color cartoons, family photos, and documents, and a narrative as rife with laughs as it is with tears, Chast’s memoir is both comfort and comic relief for anyone experiencing the life-altering loss of elderly parents. When it came to her elderly mother and father, Roz held to the practices of denial, avoidance, and distraction. But when Elizabeth Chast climbed a ladder to locate an old souvenir from the “crazy closet”—with predictable results—the tools that had served Roz well through her parents’ seventies, eighties, and into their early nineties could no longer be deployed. (GoodReads)

4. The Best We Could Do by Thi Bui

This beautifully illustrated and emotional story is an evocative memoir about the search for a better future and a longing for the past. Exploring the anguish of immigration and the lasting effects that displacement has on a child and her family, Bui documents the story of her family’s daring escape after the fall of South Vietnam in the 1970s, and the difficulties they faced building new lives for themselves. At the heart of Bui’s story is a universal struggle: While adjusting to life as a first-time mother, she ultimately discovers what it means to be a parent—the endless sacrifices, the unnoticed gestures, and the depths of unspoken love. Despite how impossible it seems to take on the simultaneous roles of both parent and child, Bui pushes through. With haunting, poetic writing and breathtaking art, she examines the strength of family, the importance of identity, and the meaning of home. (GoodReads)

5. Maus by Art Spiegelman

Maus tells the story of Vladek Spiegelman and his wife, living and surviving in Hitler’s Europe. By addressing the horror of the Holocaust through cartoons, the author captures the everyday reality of fear and is able to explore the guilt, relief and extraordinary sensation of survival – and how the children of survivors are in their own way affected by the trials of their parents. A contemporary classic of immeasurable significance. (GoodReads)