The sum of their parts

Graphic memoirs like Speigelman’s & Bechdel’s merit attention.

Guest Post by Janice Gary

At the beginning of my third semester of a graduate writing program, the professor handed out a reading list that included Art Speigelman’s Maus. It seemed an odd choice for a nonfiction program, even if was autobiographical.

I knew about Maus. In fact, I had avoided reading it for years. The book dealt with the Holocaust, which was so personally painful that I avoided any books or movies on the subject. The thought of seeing as well as hearing the horrors that Jews endured under the Nazis seemed almost too much to bear.

Although given the option to read another book, I ordered Maus anyway. After tearing open the packaging, I was greeted by an illustration of a nattily-dressed mouse regaling his cigarette-smoking (mouse) son with his stories. My resistance melted. I cracked open the pages and fell in.

All through my childhood, my reading life mainly consisted of twin literary loves: nonfiction stories—autobiographies, mostly—and comic books. And here were the best elements of both: a powerful personal narrative and the fanciful renderings of graphic art. I read it cover to cover without stopping.

Even though Maus was considered a graphic novel when it was released in 1991, it actually was part of a long tradition of cartoon personal narrative going back to the underground comics of the 1960’s and 70’s. Artists such as Harvey Pekar (American Splendor), Justin Green (Binky Brown Meets the Holy Virgin Mary) and Aline Kominsky (Twisted Sisters) were just a few of the pioneers who drew from real life for inspiration.

Enter Alison Bechdel, creator of Dykes To Watch Out For, a comic strip comic syndicated in many gay, lesbian and alternative magazines. In 2006, her memoir, Fun Home, A Family Tragicomic was released, followed in 2012, by Are You My Mother? It was this book that finally got my attention. A graphic memoir? No kidding! (I was still under the delusion that all illustrated narratives were graphic “novels.”) When my library hold on the books released the two together, I decided to read them both, one after another.

Fun Home centers on Bechdel’s childhood, especially the relationship with her closeted father and the unraveling history of her own sexual orientation. At times, I was stunned by her honesty, which accompanied by images that left no room for misunderstanding.

Bechdel may think of herself as an artist first, but she is a wonderful writer as well as an accomplished illustrator. I found myself drawn into the narrative, fascinated with the way she wrestled to understand herself as well as her father. But as I continued to read, it began to dawn on me that viewing the details of memoir graphically rendered on the page provided a striking lesson for prose writers.

Take for example, a scene of young Alison walking through New York’s East Village as an eight-year-old. The caption reads: “Roy took us for a walk while Dad went up to the apartment. In the hot August afternoon, the city was reduced, like a long-simmering demiglace, to a fragrance of stunning richness and complexity.”

In the illustration accompanying the words, you see a small girl in the midst of a busy city taking in all the sights and sounds. The addition of tiny arrow boxes draws our eyes to the odorific details: a splash of diesel on the ground, shit under a crouching dog, urine and electricity rising from the subway entrance.

In my own work, I labor to write through the senses and lecture my students incessantly about the importance of sensory details. But I had never seen it as plainly and powerfully rendered as in this one drawing. The entire panel served as a map of concrete detail, an illustrated guide for writers wanting to paint pictures with their prose.

Bechdel does this throughout, stretching us into her world with rich detail, making clear that a narrator’s observations reveal not just physical elements but their inner life as well. You begin to know young Alison as a specific type of kid: a codependent, hyper-vigilant girl who obsessively takes note of everything around her.

There are many layers to Bechdel’s memoirs, especially in Mother, where she includes dream passages, sections of text from the child psychology books, transcribed phone conversations with her mother, scraps of newspaper clippings and journal entries. I became dizzy at times absorbing all the information.

It is this shape-shifting in Bechdel’s work, the layering of thoughts, the back and forth of time, the dreams, the gut-level honesty that makes this memoir unforgettable. It is not only funny and insightful, but an inspiring work of nonfiction that connects the dots between the lived life and one that circles constantly in the imagination.

The past few years have seen an explosion in graphic memoirs that no longer bother to hide under the graphic “novel” moniker. Such books range from childhood memoirs (Stitches by David Small) to very adult topics (Paying For It by Chester Brown).

I feel like a kid in a candy store (or at least a kid back in the comic section of a newsstand). Maybe it’s the old comic book fan in me or maybe it’s simply the joy of discovering a new vein in contemporary nonfiction that has me so excited. Graphic memoirs from this new generation of artist-writers have earned their place on serious nonfiction reading lists, not only for the pleasure of seeing how story can be stitched together but for lessons on wildly innovative approaches to illustrating memory.

Janice Gary lives and writes in Annapolis, Maryland, on the shores of the Chesapeake Bay. Her book, Short Leash: A Memoir of Dog Walking and Deliverance, is due out from Michigan State University Press in 2013.


Filed under experimental, memoir, teaching, education

11 responses to “The sum of their parts

  1. Thanks for this personal narrative and overview, Jan. I have not yet read Maus myself, but am looking forward to reading and teaching Bechdel’s Fun Home this winter.

  2. It was my impression that there was more than one “Maus” book. Is this true? Were there sequels? Also, was there any thematic connection between Gunter Grass’s “Cat and Mouse” and the graphic novel/memoir which we now read as “Maus”? I really enjoyed this review of these memoirs. Thanks to both Richard and Jan for the material.

  3. There is a second book called “Metamaus” (2011), which has interviews with Spiegelman, transcripts of his conversations with his father and other material. Her’s a link to a reviews;

  4. Great post, Jan. I read Maus years ago but still remember how powerful it was. The memoir I’m looking forward to is YOURS!

  5. Thanks for this insightful post, Janice. I love, love, love FUN HOME. I have mapped it out, read it forwards and backwards, studied it for clues on how to piece together a narrative. This was a book I turned to again and again while writing my memoir. I’m so glad Richard plans to teach this book; I think I’ve told him of my great admiration of Bechdel’s work. What strikes me about her books is just how incredibly smart they are. Minds like hers are a rare treat.

    • I agree, Rachel. She is brilliant. I had to read some parts of Are You My Mother? over two and three times (esp. the analysis of Donald Winnicott’s work and the other psychologists she refers to ). Very complex material. Glad to see you studying it the way I have. I find her work helps illuminate the connection between words and images and challenges me to write deeper (both emotionally and through details).

  6. Bert Gale

    Great piece! I think that for a cartoonist/illustrator with a rich interior life, like Alsion Bechdel, or a rich exterior life, like Aline Kominski Crumb, graphic memoir is the only way they can get it all out.

    • Good catch on the personalities of those two. Alison is certainly an introvert and Aline is definitely out there!

      • Jan, Just read both of Bechdel’s graphic memoirs. My gosh! You are right, they are truly great, and bear rereading. What a wonderful new frontier for memoir she is exploring.

      • It is exciting, isn’t it? There are several more graphic memoirs on my reading list dealing with relationships, mental illness, and on and on. This is indeed an exciting new frontier for the genre. These writers/artists don’t hold back- on either the writing or the illustration. Love it!