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Graphic Memoirs Come of Age

William Bradley

Fourth Genre: Explorations in Nonfiction, Volume 15, Number 1, Spring

2013, pp. 161-165 (Article)

Published by Michigan State University Press

DOI: https://doi.org/10.1353/fge.2013.0479

For additional information about this article


Access provided by University of California, San Diego (10 Apr 2017 14:54 GMT)

Graphic Memoirs Come

of Age

lthough more and more nonfiction writers are using sequential art
(that is, comics) to explore their lives and ideas, it seems to me that
we still lack a common vocabulary to talk about this type of litera-
ture. When I first became aware of this formin the 1990s, when I
was in high school and the final volume of Art Spiegelmans Maus was
publishedsuch a book was called a graphic novel. The idea was that a work
like Maus was more significant and had more literary merit than the comics
that featured lasagne-craving cats who hate Mondays or people who wear
their underwear on the outside and punch each other. While this is certainly
true, applying the label graphic novel to a work like Maus ignores the fact
that it is not, strictly-speaking, a novel. Its a memoir. Or a work of literary
journalism. Or an extended essay. Or some combination of the three. And it
probably ought to be distinguished from works like Alan Moore and Dave
Gibbonss Watchmen or Frank Millers The Dark Knight Returns both very
accomplished graphic novels created for an adult audience that nonetheless
lack, I think, the serious ambition of Spiegelmans most famous work.
Spiegelman wasnt the first cartoonist to explore his own life in his
work, of courseJustin Green and Harvey Pekar were both on the scene
before Maus was conceived but in many ways, he may have been the
most significant up until that point. Maus was a bestseller. It won a
Pulitzer Prize. And it inspired an entire generation of cartoonists to
publish works based upon their own lives. Seth, Joe Matt, James Kochalka, and
others established themselves in the field of what was then known as
autobio comics. Some of these autobio comics to come out in the 90s

8 161

were quite good; others, less so. At around this time, Milk and Cheese and
Dork creator Evan Dorkin skewered the form in one of his Fun Strips as
well as in a strip titled Comic Industry Trading Cards!!! which suggested
that autobio cartoonists were often desperate to seem more interesting
than other autobio cartoonists (Look! Look! Im picking my nose! See?
No! Look at me! I masturbate over Smurfs Im much more neurotic and
interesting! . . . Please find me fascinating!). Despite his apparent frus-
tration with the form, Dorkin would later write his own autobio comic in
which he chronicled his struggles with severe depression and anxiety
issue #7 of Dork, titled Auto-Biohazard. And it was really, really good
perhaps some of the best work of his career.
Something about the term autobio comic always seemed a bit dispar-
aging to memaybe its just that I internalized Dorkins suggestion that the
form seemed to encourage the narcissistic and dull. I was glad to see, in the
past decade or so, more people adopting the term graphic memoir to
describe works like Marjane Satrapis Persepolis and Alison Bechdels first
book, Fun Home. This term seems more appropriate for this type of writing, as
it acknowledges the role that art plays in the work while also emphasizing
that were talking about a form of nonfiction. Still, part of me wondered if this
was the correct label to apply to so many worksparticularly Bechdels book,
which Ive argued reads, at least in some places, more like an essay than a
conventional memoirat the very least, it seemed like a very essayistic
memoir. In Fun Home, Bechdel tells us the story of her life, but she seems at
least as concerned with tracing and revealing her thoughts about her life.
Phillip Lopate tells us that Personal essayists are adept at interrogating their
ignorance, and thats what much of Fun Home felt like to mean internal
interrogation, an attempt to learn what its author knows and what remains
obscured by time and, perhaps, some form of deception. Think of the way the
book ends, with Bechdels attempts to understand her fathers life and sexu-
ality, and what they mean to her. Erotic truth is a rather sweeping concept,
she writes in a panel juxtaposed with an image of her father as a young man
swimming with his child on his back. I shouldnt pretend to know what my
fathers life was. Perhaps my eagerness to claim him as gay, as opposed to
bisexual or some other category, is just a way of keeping him to myselfa
sort of inverted oedipal complex. Fun Home is a memoir that is filled with
ideas as surely as it is filled with plot.
William Bradley 8 163

If Fun Home is an essayistic graphic memoir, then I submit that Are You
My Mother?her most recent bookis much more a graphic essay, full-stop.
It seems to me that some readers have had a problem with this approachin
a New York Times review, Dwight Garner complained that the more recent
book was not nearly so good as Fun Home. He noted that theres no real
narrative in Are You My Mother? and that Bechdels motherwho plays a
central role similar to her fathers in Fun Homeis a kinder, less complex,
less riveting figure. In the end, it seemed to me that Garnerand some
friends of mine who also felt disappointed by this bookfound that the story
in Are You My Mother? is not nearly as dramatic as the story told in Fun
This is likely trueits hard to find anyone who can compete with the
angry, scary, frightened, darkly funny, closeted Bruce Bechdel as an imme-
diately compelling character in a narrative. But its also somewhat irrelevant,
I think. The book begins with Bechdel admitting her struggles with turning
truth into narrative. I just need to tell a story, she insists, and I think she
realizes that this observation is true for any work of nonfiction she endeavors
to write. You have too many strands, her mother tells hertoo much of
what Joan Didion might call shifting phantasmagoria. This is, ultimately,
every memoirists dilemmalife doesnt really follow a narrative pattern.
You have to decide what to cut, what to emphasize, and what really mat-
terswhat you want your reader to understand about yourself and your
Bechdels mother concludes, towards the end of the book, that she is
writing a meta-memoir, and I suppose thats a good way to describe the book
(and apparently Bechdel thought so tooshe practically ends the book with
this observation), but I prefer to regard it as an essayan essay about writing
nonfiction. This distinction may seem merely semantic, but I dont think it is,
because Bechdel is not simply writing the behind-the-scenes look at how
one writes memoir, but she is, rather, exploring her own thought processes,
creative decisions, and relationships with her material. She delves into psy-
choanalyses both her own therapy sessions and the history of the discipline
itself, paying particular attention to the work of Donald Winnicott. She
considers her relationships with the women in her lifelovers, therapists,
friends, and, of course, her mother. The issue, then, isnt so much are these
characters engaging and attention-grabbing, but rather is do we under-

stand why these characters matter to Bechdel herself, how they influence the
way she views the world? And I think the answer to that is, Absolutely.
As much as I appreciate the reflections on writing and relationships that
inform Bechdels thoughts on these issues, I think one of the books greatest
accomplishments is in the way she employs visuals to explore her own
thoughts. In Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art, Scott McCloud ex-
plained how the comic pages guttersthe space between panelsplays a
pivotal role in the readers ability to make sense of the images and text in front
of her, because the gutters are where closure occurs. To put it briefly (and
a bit simply), closure is the process by which we perceive the parts of the
narrative represented in the panels and draw connections that allow us to
perceive the whole scene (or the action that occurs between scenes). For
example, if in panel one we see Batman reaching for his utility belt, in panel
two see a batarang flying through the air, and in panel three see the Riddler
sunk to his knees and grabbing the back of his head, we fill in the blanks and
interpret those three disparate images to understand that Batman has inca-
pacitated the Riddler by throwing a batarang retrieved from his utility belt
and striking him in the head.
Bechdel uses closure in this way, of course, but she also uses closure to
explore her own mind. On any given page, we might see a representation of
Bechdel sitting at her desk or reclining on her therapists couch, only to find
ourselves transported into the pages of a book, reading words written by
Winnicott or Virginia Woolf. Or we might find ourselves transported to a
scene Bechdel imagines to have occurred 90 years before. The point is, rather
than employ closure to imply action in the physical world, Bechdel uses it to
explore a more internal landscape. The process seems to me similar to the
way Montaigne would interrupt his own words with the words of Horace or
Virgil when it seemed relevant to do so, ormore recentlythe way a writer
like Steven Church might write a chapter in a book like The Day After the Day
After: My Atomic Angst in the voice of a fictional child from a 30-year-old
made-for-TV movie.
When I read Fun Home for the first time, it blew me away. Its a beautiful
book, both in terms of language and visuals, and the ending just broke my
heart. I dont have a similar emotional response to Are You My Mother? but I
find myself more impressed on a technical level with the latter book, and
more engaged intellectually, too. Those who are disappointed by the more
William Bradley 8 165

recent book are, I think, evaluating it unfairly, comparing it to a previous

work with much different ambitions and accomplishments. In her two books
of nonfiction so far, Alison Bechdel has demonstrated a mastery of her craft,
and I couldnt honestly tell you which of the books impressed me more.
Thankfully, I dont feel like I have to choose between them.


Alison Bechdel. Are You My Mother? Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt,

Alison Bechdel. Fun Home. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2006.
Steven Church. The Day After the Day After: My Atomic Angst. Berkeley, CA:
Soft Skull Press, 2010.
Evan Dorkin. Auto-Biohazard, Dork 7. San Jose, CA: Slave Labor Graphics,
Scott McCloud. Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art. Northampton, MA:
Tundra Publishing, 1993.
Frank Miller. Batman: The Dark Knight Returns. New York: DC Comics, 1986.
Alan Moore, Dave Gibbons. Watchmen. New York: DC Comics, 1986.
Marjane Satrapi. Persepolis. New York: Pantheon, 2003.
Art Spiegelman. Maus. New York: Pantheon Books, 1991.