Graphic novels often moonlight as memoirs. David Silverberg investigates why this is, and whether it makes for compelling reading or just self-indulgent script.
In Julie Doucet’s visual-journal graphic novel, 365 Days, it’s easy to question why the author records every item of minutiae. At first blush, this Montreal artist’s diary of everyday routine can seem tedious, self-absorbed, overwhelming. There’s no day (or meal) that goes unnoticed.
But halfway through the book, it’s apparent that Doucet is not striving to engage readers with drama and intrigue. This isn’t fiction.
Similar to her book My New York Diary, Doucet just gives us her life, black and white, the good and the bad and the downright boring. 365 Days isn’t an autobiography for ego’s sake; instead, it’s an art project disguised as a graphic novel spotlighting the rather uneventful life of a regular person, which could be you, me or the Montreal artist.
Doucet’s portfolio is a fine example of the best of autobiographical graphic novels–honest, blunt and full of realistic stories readers can relate to. Every panel is a mood swing or a dirty regret, every floating dialogue box an inner monologue transferred directly to page, sans filter. Such a direct approach to graphic novels is where autobiographies should be heading, rather than toward the more ho-hum texts produced ad nauseam.
Memoirs moonlighting as graphic novels is nothing new, especially when you look at a seminal book like Art Spiegelman’s Maus. The highly influential illustrated narrative of Holocaust survival gave young graphic novelists reason to believe a personal story could carry its weight through art and bubbled conversation. Aspiring graphic novelists didn’t need caped heroes or imagined store clerks to convey real emotion and intensity; they just needed a good memory about daily life.
“Young creators often wrote memoirs as their first breakout works because everyone can write what they know,” says Peter Birkemoe, owner of the graphic novel store The Beguiling in Toronto. “You’re seeing people’s raw and often undiluted artistic vision coming forward.”
Some writers believe a lot of inspiration comes from the ego. Joe Matt an American graphic novelist known for infusing his own life into his main characters. “Most authors’ work comes from an autobiographical place, if only because one simply cannot write about what one doesn’t know,” he says. “The degree of fictionalizing is controllable only up to a certain point.”
Take Matt’s graphic novel Spent: it focuses on a graphic novelist, aptly named “Joe Matt,” masturbating chronically, pissing into a jar, griping about the comic book industry and generally being a self-loathing undesirable guy. Is this who the real Joe Matt is? Does he amp up the assholery of his novelized Joe Matt in order to create a more loathsome character?
“No, that’s his life, he’s generally miserable,” attests Guy Delisle, a graphic novelist who met Matt in San Diego. “In some ways, artists like Joe are trapped into constantly creating the character that they’ve become in real life.”
Delisle faced his own challenges in writing Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea, which chronicled Delisle’s work stint in the Asian metropolis. He describes the book as “one big postcard” where he tries to accurately convey all the nuances of North Korea without making up anything. He wanted to make sure he described situations without outright saying what they were–show, don’t tell. He wanted to recreate the tense experiences in a Communist country where he was regarded as an outsider, often painfully. What he wanted to avoid, though, was crafting a deeply personal book without censure. “I don’t like reading stuff like that, all about boyfriends and neighbours,” Delisle admits. “It can be very easy to read since many people have voyeuristic tendencies.”
There’s another wrinkle in creating the autobiographical graphic novel. Ontario-based Seth highlights the complication of the reader-writer relationship: “You begin to worry how the audience is perceiving how you portray yourself. Are you making yourself appear too good? Are you making yourself appear too unpleasant?”
He adds that young writers turn to memoir-type texts because life experience makes for great story material. “The only way to write is to simply trust your reader will be interested in anything you yourself are interested in.”
Seth dove into this sub-genre with his debut work It’s a Good Life If You Don’t Weaken, which depicted Seth as a comics aficionado hunting for the work of a forgotten New Yorker cartoonist from the 1940s, who inevitably turned out to be fictional. The half-real book made Seth realize “the fiction of the work would be given depth by the ‘truth’ of using myself as a main character.” So it’s evident that a sprinkle of fiction in an otherwise truthful graphic novel can add more nuances to a simple chapter of diary entries.
Seth learned what gave an autobiographical graphic novel its own shine. “An anecdote that makes a good yarn at a party often makes the worst kind of autobiographical writing. It seems the most interesting things in your own experiences are more intangible.”
Imagine living a portion of your life that felt like it required documentation. And not the kind of blogging wiki-tastic navel-gazing replete online. A gotta-chronicle brain-thud hit Lorenz Peter 12 years ago on a bus tumbling from New York to Toronto. In the moment, Peter took out a piece of paper and started scribbling down where he wanted to go with his next graphic novel.
“I wanted it to be real, to be drawn from a slice of life,” he says from his Toronto home. The outcome was Chaos Mission, 140 pages of Lorenz’s experiences with drifters, punk rockers, junkies and vagrants. Peter wanted to write about these “old ghosts” not just for cathartic reasons. “I wanted to look back at hard times and laugh at them,” he says.
In Chaos Mission, the reader is taken on a complex ride of burnt-out relationships and beer-soaked road trips. It’s not supposed to be pretty. It’s supposed to be a story, one that is drawn from reality but tinged with exaggeration. Maybe the drug Peter took didn’t make him telepathic, but it carried the drama forward and built momentum during that episode. Peter admits he has played with the accuracy of the story because he never wanted to create something completely literal.
It’s almost that same M.O. that compelled Shannon Gerard to create her Hung comic series. Her autobiographical works look at the creation process through a different prism: Gerard writes a story based on memory, then restages the event with live models, hopefully using the real people from the story. She then tweaks the photos on a PC, prints them and draws by hand overtop the manipulated photos. She edits the story back together with In Design and then publishes offset reproductions of the drawings. Gerard follows this process to explore how meaning shifts from various phases of the story and how emotional content can shift through all these stages that essentially remove the “real” from the original.
Gerrard quotes author Annie Dillard to describe how she writes her books: “cannibalizing your life for parts.” Gerard elaborates: “When I write about my life I am basically replacing everything real with a story version of my events. What I write down and then publish will become how I remember things.”
Another original author trailblazing the graphic novels community is Kevin Huizenga, whose street cred was seconded by Beguiling’s Birkemoe. Huizenga is mirrored in the character Glenn Ganges, a mild-mannered likeable guy beset with a complacent calm. In Curses, Ganges acts as a mouthpiece for Huizenga’s sharp observations of the modern world, whether it’s sourcing the origins of quirky dreams or finding a way to impregnate his girlfriend. There’s a tangible honesty to the book that doesn’t bludgeon you over the head with This is my life, love it or leave it! Ganges’ warmth doesn’t come from fantasy; you can almost feel Huizenga looking over your shoulder as you read the comics, as if his presence means more than just the byline and back-jacket photo.
“His work is fresh,” Birkemoe declares, “and here’s someone mining their thoughts and their life, and explicitly showing them in comics. It’s totally different than what came before in the market.”
And there’s the rub. Original artists need to create original work, and there’s only so much copycatting that can go on before readers get irritated. As comic artists Michael Cho says, “We’re pretty saturated with graphic novels about young, hip, middle-class 20-somethings working dead-end jobs.”
It’s as if artists want to mimic Adrian Tomine’s Shortcomings and create a groundbreaking novel that has been done to death. Drawn & Quarterly will only publish so many confessionals, and they’ll turn to a talent like Doucet before they risk a fall catalogue on another lineup of coming-of-rage tales. Undoubtedly, true-to-life graphic novels can be engaging and absorbing; but they can also be deadening look-at-me books devoid of any rhythm, character or refreshing expression.
The appeal of graphic novels, some say, is rooted in its creation of a unique experience separate from other media: just like a classic literary work, the graphic novel gives us the intimacy of a story well told. But like the film experience, the graphic novel combines visual with verbal rhetoric to give birth to a hybrid form of reading unlike any other. And when an author’s personality peppers the pages, the text is electrified with an energy palpable from the first panel. The best literary memoirs can have us riding shotgun next to the adventurous author, and the best graphic memoirs can accomplish the same with one added twist: we are witness to the images swirling inside the author’s head, recreated from memory for our enjoyment.