Autobiographical Comics about Difficult Writing Lives

The life of a graphic novelist or memoirist doesn’t look easy. Involving laborious work but minor financial rewards, it’s unsurprising that creators like Hannah Berry are leaving the industry because they can’t make the numbers work. And Berry is working in the UK. Imagine how much more difficult it would be to remain a comics creator in a country with a less-developed publishing market and less financial support for the arts.

The money can be tight even at the major comics publishers. This isn’t the only obstacle…although, as in life, strained finances make everything else tougher. Here are just a few autobiographical comics about difficult writing lives, drawing on the authors’ own experiences.

Autobiographical comics

The challenge: family life

Cover of Rules for Dating My Daughter, by Mike Dawson

Mike Dawson’s Rules for Dating My Daughter: The Modern Father’s Guide to Good Parenting has an unfortunate main title, which connotes a sexist attachment to an antiquated ideal of female purity and helplessness. But thankfully it’s much more nuanced than that title might suggest. The book (excerpted at The Nib) is a series of meditations on the writing life and anxiety over how to raise children responsibly in an often irresponsible world. It turns out that a cartoonist’s tight deadlines don’t help with navigating that.

The challenge: lifestyle change

Book cover for Yeon-Sik Hong's Uncomfortably Happily

Yeon-sik Hong’s Uncomfortably Happily also shows the pressure of comics deadlines. This is one motivation for the author and his wife to swap out a busy city life for a calming country existence. That’s the plan, anyway. The story reveals the gulf between what the couple hoped for and what they actually get…all while toiling away at a punishing schedule of comics production.

 

The challenge: illness

 Cover of Marbles, by Ellen ForneyIn Marbles: Mania, Depression, Michelangelo and Me, Ellen Forney uses her personal experience of bipolar disorder to investigate whether mental illness is truly an aid to creativity, as so many people seem to believe, or whether it’s an obstacle to creative production. The answer, of course, isn’t black and white. This confessional yet charming book reveals the extent to which illness can challenge even routine daily activities, let alone the kind of sustained focus needed to produce a graphic narrative.

 

The challenge: self-doubt

Cover of Permanent Press, by Luke Healy

Luke Healy’s Permanent Press, like Rules for Dating My Daughter, cobbles together previously published short comics, all within a larger autobiographical story. This story follows Healy himself as he struggles with professional envy, wavering confidence, and the mysterious condition “metaphoritis.” His search for meaning as a comics creator can feel wrenching.

 

 

I want to take each of these authors home and feed them soup while putting on a comfort music playlist. Of course, the challenges mentioned here aren’t the only ones faced by many comics creators. And—let’s keep a sense of perspective here—cartoonists aren’t aid workers or martyrs.

But together these books point to the importance of supporting, mainly financially, the often-underappreciated folks drawing the panels and writing the text. The speed with which a reader can race through the finished product can make it easy to forget the many, many hours that go into producing a graphic narrative.

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