- Commentary on the Graphic Memoir
There’s an old Hollywood adage that perfectly describes the sometimes contentious relationship between a film’s director and its writer: “If you think the screenplay is the movie, try running it through the projector.” Reading that, I envision a thick-browed Scorsese type, straight out of central casting. He chomps his cigar and points angrily at the writer, asserting his cinematic command. I can bring this scene to life by describing it, using just a few scratchy black marks we call letters on a page. But film, as the adage points out, is a visual medium that uses more than just the written word to bring story to life. Image is essential. Graphic memoir is much the same. Writers must employ image along with words to generate a masterful third medium that transcends both.
In recent history, Alison Bechdel put the graphic memoir on the map. Her 2006 bestseller Fun Home introduced millions to the graphic format, earned development into a Tony Award–winning Broadway show, and spawned what will no doubt be generations of future writers determined to create their own graphic work. But not everyone has Bechdel’s bilateral genius. If a writer is a compelling storyteller but lacks the requisite ability to draw, how does she go about creating a graphic memoir?
We can take inspiration from history. Graphic memoir didn’t begin with Bechdel; its antecedents are much earlier. In what was touted as “the world’s first literary comic book,” writer Harvey Pekar wrote American Splendor in the ’70s, telling his true stories graphically. Unlike Bechdel, he wasn’t a visual artist. Pekar relied on the handiwork of established illustrators like R. Crumb to help translate his words into a visual form, the way Scorsese once depended [End Page 175] on cinematographer Gordon Willis to conceive of and deliver all that deep, crushed black that defines the opening scenes of The Godfather.
Directors, like comic-book writers, work with their image-makers in a variety of ways, sometimes insisting on a specific look that transcends any one story. (Think, for instance, of the intense moving eye of Stanley Kubrick’s films, where subjects are often placed in the center of the frame, giving the viewer an eerie feeling of staring.) The auteur theory—wherein the director’s aesthetics are thought to literally “author” the film—derives from this sense of stylistic consistency that can be traced from one film to another, independent of who shoots or edits it.
Comic books, that genre’d cousin of graphic memoir, may present a different type of collaboration. To create them, publishers have paired countless writers and illustrators for generations, helping them tap the best of each other’s talents. Neil Gaiman, author of American Gods, Coraline, and The Ocean at the End of the Lane, among others, breathed new life into The Sandman series and continues to write graphic novels today in partnership with artists. Other high-profile writers like Ta-Nehisi Coates have even been drawn (no pun intended) to the genre. Following his best-selling memoir, Between the World and Me, Coates now contributes to the Black Panther series for Marvel Comics.
Visual forms undeniably intrigue writers. They certainly enthralled me. Following Bechdel’s book, the first graphic memoir I read was a collaboration, The Alcoholic, written by Jonathan Ames with art by Dean Haspiel. The wheels began turning in my mind about how I might write a graphic memoir that blended stories from my young life with five somewhat inappropriate movies my mother took me to as a young girl. But how to begin? I researched many methods. Comic-book publishers, who receive pitches from writers all the time, presented some ideas about how to get the story down. Some writers work by outlining scenes; others, like Gaiman, write the comic book as if it were a richly detailed novel, filled with evocative scene and character in dense prose. Gaiman describes this process at the end of his time-twister tale Marvel 1602, even reprinting notebook ephemera to illustrate his process. R. Crumb described Harvey Pekar’s process as writing in a “crudely laid-out comic...