Great comics can take you inside a different world, one that can mimic reality or eschews the very nature of sensible lines. Continuing with my dreams of traveling, I’m diving into first person accounts of somewhere else. The graphic memoir is a big part of the comics and graphic canon, definitely due to the enduring success of Maus by Art Spiegelman and Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi. Whether the memoir takes place in the United States or somewhere across the sea, the joy of a graphic memoir is fully inhabiting a different life.
Cartooning and comics reveal a lot about the author’s intent and their own view of their past that they’re writing about. The choices they make in how to represent through hyper-realist or completely fantastical art tells you as much about the story as the dialogue.
We Served the People: My Mother’s Stories by Emei Burell
This is the story of Emei Burrell’s mother, but Burrell is just as much of a figure in this book. She depicts herself interviewing her mother and her mother’s own words about her experience of the Cultural Revolution in China. Her mother lived in a small town and was one of the few women who could participate in the Up to the Mountains and Down to the Countryside movement. Through beautiful artwork and frank storytelling, Emei and her mother present the strangeness of living through such a major part of China’s history, and how your entire conception of the future can turn on a dime.
Blame This on the Boogie by Rina Ayuyang
In a series of colorful vignettes, Rina takes us through the effect of musicals on her life growing up in Pittsburgh in a Filipino American family. The short bursts of story recall the lively musical numbers that the author holds so dear, and the art style mimics that frenetic energy as well. The therapeutic relationship she has to music continues throughout her childhood and to adulthood that seems increasingly scary and uncertain. This is a great read for anyone who has fallen into musicals and other fantastical media to cope.
Dare to Disappoint: Growing Up in Turkey by Özge Samanci
The endless struggle to manage parental expectations and your own dreams is on full display in this memoir. Özge Samanci takes us back to her childhood in the ’70s and ’80s, and to the uncertainty and pressure of growing up and trying to settle on what you’re going to do in the future. Although Özge wants to please her parents, she can’t stop herself from dreaming of being a deep-sea explorer or an actress or something completely different. She chooses mathematics to stay close enough to the engineering degree they want her to pursue, but something’s still not quite right. It’s a story of ultimately learning how to make your own way while holding space for your family. The panelless art style is a pleasing break from comics tradition.
Prison Island: A Graphic Memoir by Colleen Frakes
Sometimes, a graphic format is the only one that really makes sense for the specific nature of the subject matter. In old news I only learned about recently, there used to be a prison island in the state of Washington that you could only get to by plane or boat. In her last trip back to the island, Colleen Frakes reflects on her childhood on the island, where only about 50 families could live. More than anything, it’s a nostalgic look at the place she grew up, which seemed stranger when she moved away from the island. There isn’t really an “issues” memoir (which feels a bit odd in the context of more recent discussions about mass incarceration), but it’s her story and it’s an interesting read.
The constant expansion of the graphic memoir canon can lead you to totally fascinating stories. It’s a great genre to dive into if you’re looking for some strange, innovative art styles in graphic novels. If you’re looking for graphic history, graphic works about motherhood, or just comics in general, you’ll be able to find something for everyone on your holiday shopping list.