By now we all ought at least to be aware of, if not conversant with, the growing influence of graphic literature in the culture. By "graphic" I mean "illustrated," the medium of cartoons and comics. (As writer-illustrator Marjane Satrapi jokes, "When you say 'graphic novel,' I think you mean Lady Chatterley's Lover or something like that." She prefers the term "comics." "Graphic" and "comic" will refer specifically to panels of pictures from here on.) Comic books and graphic novels have been adapted to film in movies like Batman Begins, X-Men, Sin City, From Hell, and V for Vendetta; bookstores have markedly expanded their sections devoted to graphic novels and manga; scholars study Japanese manga and Spanish photonovelas; children can distinguish readily between American cartoons and Japanese anime; and cable television carries popular channels like Toon Disney and the Cartoon Network, which has a late-night division called "Adult Swim" carrying animated shows not for children. Graphic literature has crossed into the mainstream with highly successful and critically acclaimed works like Art Spiegelman's Pulitzer Prize–winning Maus and In the Shadow of No Towers, Chris Ware's Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth, Daniel Clowes's Ghost World and David Boring, Craig Thompson's Goodbye, Chunky Rice, and Blankets, Keiji Nakazawa's Barefoot Gen series, and Charles Burns's Black Hole. Despite the fact that all of these works are labeled as "graphic novels," Spiegelman and Thompson have actually created masterful graphic memoirs.
Graphic memoir is able to approximate the narrative elements of the traditional textual memoir, as it largely does in Thompson's Blankets, a book about adolescence and the conflicts and complications of growing up in a religiously conservative family. The verbal equivalents of these books might be works like Kim Barnes's In the Wilderness, a memoir of life in a Pentecostal family, or Blue Windows by Barbara Wilson, about growing up in a Christian Science family. Graphic memoir can also approximate the experimental or lyric forms of the memoir. Spiegelman's Maus is a [End Page 147] memoir told in two timelines, one following the narrative of the author's parents' experiences as Jews living in Eastern Europe during the rise of Nazi power and throughout the Holocaust, the other following the author's efforts to drag memories out of his aging and ailing father and record them in comics format. Textual equivalents might include not only Holocaust memoirs like Elie Wiesel's Night or Helen Fremont's After Long Silence, but also the late Deborah Tall's lyric memoir, A Family of Strangers.
Memoirs frequently revolve around an author's efforts to understand a parent, as well as to understand him- or herself. Think of Blake Morrison's And When Did You Last See Your Father?, a memoir alternating between the father's deathbed and the author's memories of the father during his own childhood, or Donald Antrim's efforts to come to terms with his relationship with his mother in The Afterlife. Graphic memoirs can be similarly powerful and insightful. Fun Home: A Graphic Tragicomic is such a memoir by Alison Bechdel, best known for her long-running comic strip "Dykes to Watch Out For" (which has been collected occasionally in book form). Bechdel examines the events surrounding her discovery of her sexual identity, the subsequent revelation of her father's homosexuality, and the circumstances surrounding his death. Her images both counterpoint and elaborate on her verbal narration.
While a good many graphic novels are scripted by a writer and illustrated by an artist, graphic memoirs mentioned here were scripted and drawn by the same person. They are more fully the creative vision of a single person than the productive output of a team, as most comic books are. One graphic author who has attained prominence in the field is Marjane Satrapi.
Satrapi first gained attention in the United States with the publication of Persepolis, a graphic memoir of growing up in Iran during the last years of the Shah's reign and the early years of the Islamic Revolution. Eventually the narrative followed her through a period of...