Graphic Lives

By marrying the intimacy of autobiography with the aesthetic eclecticism of the graphic novel, graphic memoirs occupy the fertile realm between fiction and nonfiction, as well as between literature and art. I first encountered this narrative chimera in the 1990s, when I read Daniel Clowes’s Ghost World, and the feminist zines I found along the windowsills of Boston’s indie bookstores. This underground aesthetic seemed to depict my own disaffected experience and burgeoning politics; since then, I’ve been glad to see long-form graphic storytelling find a larger audience. The following volumes are a small sampling of a rich genre.

One Hundred Demons by Lynda Barry

Inspired by a sixteenth-century Zen monk’s hand scroll, Barry poses timeless questions in her introduction: “Is it autobiography if parts of it are not true?” and “Is it fiction if parts of it are true?” She goes on to demonstrate the irrelevance of categorizing stories as true or false by telling tales (with titles like “Head Lice and “My Worst Boyfriend”) that tap into universal truths about loneliness, cruelty, and love. Less universal is the refreshingly humble perspective with which she depicts her own travails: “In my life I’ve been both a bully and a victim. I never could bully those who bullied me but I’m sure I bullied others. And when I did, I know I thought I was in the right. The bad guy always does.”

Fun Home by Alison Bechdel

Bechdel’s tragicomic tome defies the pigeonholing of comics as lowbrow, managing to seamlessly incorporate allusions to Camus, Proust, Colette, Joyce, Wilde, and Homer into her childhood memoirs. The connections she makes with literature never seem pretentious; rather, they deepen the pathos of Bechdel’ s story, which concludes with the questions, “What if Icarus hadn’t hurtled into the sea? What if he’d inherited his father’s inventive bent? What might he have wrought?”

Fun Home is a tribute to, and indictment of, the author’s relationship with her father: a funeral-home director, high school English teacher, and closeted homosexual who had affairs with his male students. Inside Bechdel’s panels, the colloquial tone creates a happy contrast with the lofty allusions, reflecting the polarity of her themes. Fun Home resounds in my memory for the author’s honesty and unflinching self-examination.

Likewise by Ariel Schrag

Like Bechdel, Schrag references Joyce to illuminate her explorations of art, social dynamics, and—equally important to the teenaged author—masturbation. The fourth installment in her High School Chronicles, this volume is the strongest (and longest) of the saga. Schrag illustrates the precocious queer adolescent’s landmarks of bad sex, heartbreak, existentialism, and the quest for the elusive “it”: an alluring quality born in the shadowy realm where coolness, beauty, and truth meet. As the teen narrator asks, “OK, so you know how some people just seem to get things in a certain way and they like certain things and you can understand why they like them, because it’s just like this understanding . . . ?” Yes, and Ariel Schrag is one of those people.

Aya by Marguerite Abouet, illustrated by Clement Oubrerie

While the well-known graphic memoirs Persepolis, by Marjane Satrapi, and Palestine, by Joe Sacco, address war-torn territories directly, Aya takes an oblique view. We see the bookish young Aya come of age in the relatively tranquil Ivory Coast of the late 1970s and, with her circle of girlfriends, grapple with the ordinary disasters of teen pregnancy, parental conflicts, and dating during the disco era. Abouet need not allude to the imminent shift in priorities that will befall her characters at the story’s end, when the economy crashes, heralding an era of social and political conflict. Today’s readers are likely to think of Africa in terms of civil unrest and economic devastation, but their conspicuous absence here gives Abouet’s lighthearted story its power.

Maus by Art Spiegelman

This Pulitzer Prize–winning work is the starting point for anyone interested in illustrated lives. Its feline Nazis and rodent protagonists deftly defamiliarize the oft-treaded terrain of the Holocaust memoir. Spiegelman’s mice enact his father’s experiences in Poland during World War II, as well as the author’s relationship with the aged Auschwitz survivor in Rego Park, New York. Devastating, engrossing, and unabashedly intellectual, Speigelman gracefully wrangles with the unwieldy subjects of race, death, and family.

Melissa Febos is a writer based in New York. Her memoir Whip Smart will be published by Thomas Dunne Books in March.