- Fluency in Form:A Survey of the Graphic Memoir
As writers and readers, our autobiographical impulses have given us a remarkable number of ways to share our most meaningful stories. There are memoirs, autobiographies, letters, diaries and personal essays. Now, joining that rich company, is another: the graphic memoir.
In the past decade, some exceptional and diverse autobiographical stories have been told in comic-book form. They are an exciting discovery. The memoirs here are among the finest in the genre; they are set in France, Iran and the United States and address the gamut of social issues around religion, race, disease and sexuality. Fluent in two languages—one textual and the other graphic—each artist plays with the tension created by two simultaneous narratives, developing new ways to tell an autobiographical story.
The grandfather of the genre is Art Spiegelman's The Complete Maus, a Pulitzer Prize winner first published in 1986.
In the late 1970s, Spiegelman began regularly visiting his father, Vladek, at his home in Queens, New York, to record his story of surviving the Holocaust. Maus recounts Vladek Spiegelman's experience as a Jew in prewar Poland and the concentration camps. It also tells the story of Art's strained relationship with his father and his struggle to make sense of how Vladek's history affected his own.
At first glance, the most striking characteristic of Maus is that it is populated with animals, not people. Jews are depicted as mice, Germans as cats and Americans as dogs. Spiegelman uses these distinctions not to create a tidy allegory but to highlight the racial and cultural divisions in the story. The device also gives Spiegelman the necessary distance he needs to tell such [End Page 159] an emotionally fraught story. To add to that distance, Spiegelman uses a simple, matter-of-fact style of illustration: the drawings convey emotion primarily through the characters' postures and set the scene with basic props. The narration and dialogue supply the detail.
As Spiegelman—or Artie, as he is called in the story—and his father spend more time together, the tension mounts between them. Vladek is an impossible man to live with—demanding, neurotic and irrepressibly cheap. His offenses can be petty and even funny, but they take their toll on Artie's patience.
At the end of one visit, Artie can't find his coat. Vladek admits to throwing it out. "Give it back!" Artie demands.
"It's too late," Vladek says, holding out his hands in apparent helplessness. "When you were sitting first down to dinner, I threw it outside. By now the garbage men took it away." He turns to the closet. "Such an old shabby coat. It's a shame my son would wear such a coat!"
"But I like it!" Artie protests.
Vladek reaches into the closet. "I have for you a warmer one. I got at Alexander's a new jacket and I can give to you my old one; it's still like new!"
In the last panel, Artie, newly outfitted in an oversized Naugahyde windbreaker, looks down at his old coat stuffed into a trash can.
The Vladek of Spiegelman's Holocaust narrative is different from this one but not unrecognizable. However, in the wartime narrative, Vladek is admirably resourceful rather than stingy; he is determined rather than demanding. In Auschwitz he uses his language skills to win favor with camp officials and quickly picks up skilled trades to keep from being sent to the ovens. He always saves his rations, which come in handy later to trade, gift or bribe. "Always, I saved," he says, "just in case." That [End Page 160]
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