Graphically Speaking

Until about a week ago I had never read anything that would fall under the umbrella of the graphic novel. I was never someone who gravitated towards comic books or even the Sunday funnies. When I was much younger I had a period of time when I really enjoyed Mickey Mouse comics, but during my teen years a well off friend of my father’s offered to buy them all from me and I consented quickly and never looked back.

I decided to give this medium a try – I have read so much yet so often have been asked if I’ve ever read any graphic works, and when asked how come I hadn’t there was never a good reason for having ignored them. I knew I had to do some research as to what would be right for me and my specific tastes. I usually, but not always, tend not to enjoy works that are labeled as “genre” (sci-fi, fantasy, etc.),  so I decided that to begin I should try something a bit more traditional by my standards. After some searches I discovered that there were several acclaimed and respected works that would fall under the umbrella of memoirs. Several years ago I watched the cinematographic version of Persepolis but had never read it, so immediately I decided to make it one of the titles of this experiment of mine, and while I was at it I also decided to purchase two other works by the same author, Marjane Satrapi: Embroideries and Chicken with Plums. I was also quite familiar with the Bechdel test used to analyze the strength of female presence and relationships in works of fiction (especially movies) so I thought it appropriate to also try my hand at Alison Bechdel’s two works thus far: Fun Home and Are you my Mother? The graphic memoir Maus by Art Spiegelman kept coming up as a “must-read” so that made the list as well. Lastly, Roz Chast’s memoir about the last years she shared with her parents and how she came to terms with their deaths titled Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? rounded out my list after I heard an interview with her on Fresh Air on NPR. Books in hand I was ready to jump into this new world, to me, of storytelling.

Overall, I really enjoyed my time spent with these works. In many ways, due to my choices, the experiences with each were very similar. Oppressive regimes, suicide, the Holocaust, death, closeted homosexuality… All these memoirs had trauma as a commonality. In many ways the medium was perfect in order to express and paint the image of these horrific and deeply personal tragedies. In the specific cases of Bechdel and Spiegelman these pieces assumed a “meta” element due to the decision to depict themselves writing the very books I was reading. This device was especially interesting and effective in Spiegelman’s case. Maus tells the story of Spiegelman’s Polish-Jewish father and his experiences during World War II ultimately culminating in his imprisonment in Auschwitz. In spite of these experiences Vladik, the author’s father, does not always come off as sympathetic or likable, he is depicted as overly miserly, sometimes racist, and quite misogynistic. The author as character, depicting himself as the recorder and annotator of these memories, acts as a foil to his father’s behavior – he judges him so we don’t have to – keeping the focus on the narrative and the greater themes and horrors of the war. Beetle’s case is a bit different, where she succeeds in Fun Home to work through her own emotions and conflicting feelings towards her closeted father’s supposed suicide (mixing mythology and literary devices to aid in her reasonings) is, in my opinion, her downfall in the memoir that focuses on her mother. This work turns out to be less about her relationship with her mother, the supposed work we as readers were promised, and instead becomes this verbose and irritating therapy session that devolves into a masturbatory exercise of pity. This was the least successful of the works I read.

A stronger work of showing the internal struggle of emotions and conflict was Chast’s memoir. A New Yorker cartoonist, her work details all the funny, bitter, and somewhere in between moments of dealing with the final years a child has with senior parents. Nothing is glossed over: assisted living facilities, incontinence, disease, regret, guilt, anger – it’s all here. Chast isn’t worried about being likable or liked by the reader, which is exactly why I ended up identifying with her so much more than I did with Bechdel, whose need for validation was so off-putting. Similarly, Satrapi’s works were outstanding – a phenomenon, which really proved the genre as a fantastic medium to deliver stories. Not only was the story conveyed so well, a story of a young girl coming of age in an unstable country, eventually leaving it only to be met with resistance to her difference. The images are blunt, simple, minimalistic, not as detailed as in the other works, but it’s not necessary. They reflect the extreme “black and white” of the ideologies represented in her texts: her own, her parents’, Iran’s changing yet constantly drastic lifestyles.

This adventure proved very fruitful and overall was enjoyable. I thoroughly enjoyed most of the works I read. The visual choices by the authors (such as Spiegelman’s depiction of different races/nationalities as different animals like mice, cats, and pigs was a highlight of this) were creative and inspired. I have no plans, at this point, to immediately continue with these types of readings, but I am now much more open to them and if something crosses my path or someone offers a recommendation I will be more prone to listening and embarking on another reading in the graphic format.



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