Comic books have come a long way from a time when they were not only dismissed as a medium for children, but openly ridiculed. Even when they were successfully adapted for the big screen, they still weren’t taken seriously. And, when comic book movies stopped being profitable, they were derided as box office poison.
All that seems like eons ago. Nerd culture is now at an odd middle ground, appealing to both mainstream and counterculture. Comic book movies are raking in money by the billions and the term graphic novel is now commonly used which is an indication that “comic books” are being taken much more seriously. Nobody bats an eye when critics compare comic books to classic novels or refer to them as great works of literature. Even Time Magazine put “Watchmen” on its list of the best novels of all time.
The result is that more and more artists are turning to the graphic novel to tell their stories. And why not? They’re widely read and are considered more accessible to people who would otherwise never read an autobiography. Below is a list of the best comic book memoirs that address topics as diverse as depression, abusive relationships, Middle Eastern politics, and even the Holocaust.
This is the graphic novel that forced people to look at comic books as an art form. It is not an exaggeration to say that “Maus” has possibly had the greatest influence on the evolution of comic books or the graphic novel as we know it today.
Its story is told as a series of interviews with author Art Spiegelman’s father, Vladek, a Polish Jew who survived the Holocaust. The author, Spiegelman had a troubled relationship with his father. In “Maus” Jews are depicted as mice, Poles as pigs, and Nazis as cats, which brilliantly deconstructs our racism, our preconceptions, and how we unthinkingly, voluntarily erect barriers between ourselves and others. This style also had the effect of bring the reader closer to the madness inherent in the Holocaust by depicting it in a way that is so unfamiliar to us. Spiegelman also struggles with the absence of his mother’s side of the story. She also survived Auschwitz only to commit suicide when Spiegelman was twenty. The guilt he feels for not only profiting from his father’s story, but also for how he depicts him, since he portrayed him as difficult, unlikable, racist, and in many ways resembling the stereotype of a old miserly Jewish man. Such commitment to the truth can be hard to take at times, but it also allows “Maus” to describe the Holocaust without sentiment or hysteria, allowing the victims the dignity of being human rather than martyrs or caricatures.
Just what does it take to change injustices that are embedded in the foundation of America and the fabric of daily life? Congressman John Lewis, who was also one of the main figures of the Civil Rights Movement, is happy to tell us in his graphic novel trilogy “March.”
Co-written with Andrew Aydin and anchored within the inauguration of Barack Obama, Lewis tells the story of his childhood in Alabama where he grew up on a sharecropper’s farm in the era of segregation. Thanks to his love of books, Lewis enrolled in college, had a life-changing meeting with Dr. King, and was soon taking part in sit-ins, marches, and quickly rose to become one of the “Big Six,” who were the Movement’s main leaders. Crammed with information about the complexity of the fight for equality, including its various successes, losses, and internal strifes, “March” is never dense or plodding, even as it refuses to sugarcoat or pretend there are no more battles to fight. The lush, black and white art perfectly complements the graphic novel’s sweeping story. It’s impossible not to be inspired with John Lewis journey from being a boy preaching to chickens to a man receiving the Medal of Freedom from America’s first African-American president.
3. Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi
Marjane’s personal story is also a deeply political one. When Marjane is nine years old, she and her family celebrate the ousting of the Shah of Iran, only to realize that the new rulers have a whole new set of repressive rules to impose on them. As Marjane is growing up, she witnesses the tyranny of the country’s new fanatical rulers, the Iran-Iraq War, and the devastating, often fatal toll that these events have on her friends, family, and neighbors.
Fearing for her safety and education, her family sends her abroad to Austria, but Marjane merely trades physical dangers for more emotional ones as she finds herself growing up alone, isolated, and having to deal with prejudice due to her heritage. She returns to Iran as a young adult, only to find that although the country is indeed her true home, its repressive policies mean she is unable to truly live there. Illustrated in stark black and white, “Persepolis” captures the hysteria that overtook Iran and her life as Marjane lives through the usual trials and tribulations of a teen and young adult as she tries to create an identity for herself in a time and place where basic human behavior and desires are outlawed.
4. Stitches by David Small
When he was fourteen, David Small was told he needed to have an operation on his throat. Upon waking up in the hospital, he found himself nearly unable to speak. If it weren’t for a letter he happened to find shortly after, he would have most likely remained in the dark about the real reason he had the operation. He had developed throat cancer.
Just what kind of parents keep this information from their son? In the memoir “Stitches,” David Small struggles to answer that question as he recounts his horrific childhood in 1950s Detroit where he grew up bereft of both love and truth, and where silent rage and the specter of insanity loomed large. The silence of David Small’s childhood is as loud as a scream, shattering every family member and leaving them all mutilated in its wake. They are like reflections in a broken mirror, unable to live up to the rigid, stoic expectations the times impose on them. David’s symptoms from their suffering are the most visible. His art conveys the monstrosities of his everyday life, thankfully eventually providing a mental, then physical escape. As much a horror story as a memoir, “Stitches” nevertheless manages to find catharsis and compassion for people so damaged by years of repression that they would deprive their son of his voice.
5. Fun Home by Alison Bechdel
Complicated does not even begin to describe Alison Bechdel’s family relationships, especially with her father Bruce. Bechdel recounts her story in “Fun Home,” where she tries to reconcile the many aspects of her childhood.
A cold, emotionally distant man, her father poured all of his passion into decorating and restoring their home in rural Pennsylvania to its Victorian glory while earning his living as an English teacher and a funeral director. Like most of us, Alison only comes to discover who her father truly is when she is an adult, but the revelations don’t exactly help her understand him any better. It turns out, that her father was a closeted homosexual who had sex with many teenage boys over the years, including a family babysitter and some of his students. When she is in college, Alison learns that her father has died after being hit by a semi in the street shortly after her mother asked him for a divorce and Alison herself came out as a lesbian. Bruce’s death is ruled as an accident, but Alison and her mother think otherwise: both are convinced he purposefully stepped in front of the truck and committed suicide. As Alison struggles to reconcile all these painful revelations,” she recalls what she and her father had in common: a love of literature and struggles with their sexuality. She contemplates why she was able to accept herself and build a life being openly gay, while her father was not. As controversial as it is critically lauded, “Fun Home” has been adapted into a Tony Award-winning musical. Despite the critical acclaim there have been attempts to have it banned in conservative areas.
6. Hyperbole and a Half: Unfortunate Situations, Flawed Coping Mechanisms, Mayhem, and Other Things That Happened by Allie Brosh
“Hyperbole and a Half” started as a web comic and blog by Allie Brosh. Using Paintbrush to create such unrealistic, downright freaky-looking figures to tell your stories should rightly detract from the realism and hilarity found within. But, such is the strength of this book that it rather adds to it as Brosh effortlessly jumps from topic to topic.
What kinds of topics exactly? They are as wide-ranging as they are side splittingly hilarious. Her accounts of her childhood include the time she and her sister thoroughly exploited a toy parrot able to record and repeat anything, her unfortunate relationship with hot sauce, and her fighting for her right to eat the entire cake her mother baked for her grandfather’s birthday. Her adulthood is just as funny, as she recounts just how much trouble her dogs give her, and the time she had to fight off a psycho goose in her home (no, you didn’t misread that). Most poignant are her struggles with depression. Brosh offers no platitudes or false hope, just the reassurance that you won’t feel such crushing hopelessness forever. So, if you want to, laugh, cry, laugh till you cry, or are you one of those squares who wants to learn something? There is something for everyone in “Hyperbole.”
7. Dragonslippers: This is What an Abusive Relationship Looks Like by Rosalind B. Penfold
Rosalind was a beautiful, strong, assertive, successful, 35-year-old who owned her own business. So why did she stay in an abusive relationship for ten years? In “Dragonslippers,” Rosalind tries to answer that question, both to help herself and others who find themselves in a similar situation.
When Roz’s parents invite her to a party in the country to give her a break from work, she meets Brian, a widowed father of four children. Brian seems like a successful, charming romantic with a reckless disregard for convention; Rosalind soon falls deeply in love. Then the cracks in Brian’s perfect facade begin to show. He starts berating her, making paranoid accusations and screaming profanities at her. The verbal abuse eventually escalates to physical, then sexual abuse. Shame and trauma keep Rosalind in denial, and desperately hoping Brian will keep his promises to change his behavior. When Rosalind finally leaves, she goes to therapy and does her own research to discover not only why she loved him, but why she stayed. It allows her to heal and find herself again after years of feeling worthless and invisible. “Dragonslippers” may be hard to read at times, but the painful story of a woman’s journey through an abusive relationship is just as hard to put down.
8. How to Understand Israel in 60 Days or Less by Sarah Glidden
When Sarah Glidden, a non-religious, progressive Jewish-American, signed up to take an all-expenses-paid trip to Israel (a countrywide tour Israel offers to young Jewish adults) she thought she knew what she was getting into and exactly where she stood on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. However, once she arrived, she discovered things weren’t so simple. Expecting to find the truth, by the end she has made peace with the fact that there may not be any truths to find.
On her trip, she begins to question her identity, prejudices, convictions, and her connection to Israel because of her Jewish heritage: does someone have to be at fault when there is conflict? As she interacts and debates with the various people she meets, such as her tour guide, traveling companions, soldiers, peace activists, and recent immigrants to Israel, Sarah’s questions remain unanswered. Tongue-in-cheek humor resounds throughout, particularly when she puts on a trial in her mind, with herself as judge, prosecutor and defender. She may not offer any solutions, but anyone who wants an intimate, honest look at a complex subject, complete with scenery that captures the essence of being in an unfamiliar environment, will find plenty to enjoy in this graphic novel.
9. Marbles: Mania, Depression, Michelangelo, and Me by Ellen Forney
No one wants to be a cliché, but cartoonist Ellen Forney certainly felt like she’d become just that when she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder shortly before her thirtieth birthday. Now knowing that she was officially a “crazy artist”, Forney went on to struggle for many years to find the right combination of therapy, medicines, and health regimen to help her achieve balance and a healthy mental state.
She also had to confront her fear that the medications would cause a decline in her creativity. What if her mania provided most of her ideas? If that was the case, perhaps the crushing lows that followed were worth it? Forney also conducted her own research into the link between artists and mental illness. Was there something inherent in the mind of an artist that contributed to having these disorders? Or were artists just more likely to be the focus when discussing them? Forney struggles to find the answers in this personal story which is peppered with drawings she created during her manic-depressive episodes. She relates the effect her bipolar disorder has on her work, family, and social life. Her novel is deftly balanced with her historical research, as she seeks to understand herself by studying greats like Sylvia Plath, Vincent van Gogh, and Georgia O’Keefe.
10. Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? By Roz Chast
It’s no secret that we’re a culture obsessed with youth. Thus, any conversation that mentions the fact that sooner or later we’re going to get old is going to be awkward at the very least. And, any discussion about death is practically forbidden. But cartoonist Roz Chast has to face these realities and all they entailed when her parents’ health starts to decline and the three of them finally have to talk about what they’d been putting off for decades.
Roz had long felt overwhelmed and sidelined by the closeness of her mother and father’s relationship and her mother’s strong personality. However, she suddenly found herself responsible for arranging all of their affairs. She had to clean out their apartment, find a good facility where they could be cared for, make informed medical decisions, manage the various, often disgusting physical realities of old age, and navigate the maddening bureaucracy of the health care system. Throughout, Roz is painfully, shockingly honest about what it’s like to see a parent decline and how our reactions can often be less than noble. It is by no means an easy read, but such unflinching candor does make for a refreshing, strangely brave one.
11. Blankets by Craig Thompson
A rural upbringing is generally depicted as either a haven from the larger, wicked world, or a cesspool of hatred and intolerance. For Craig Thompson, it was something more complex, as it leaned far more towards the latter than the former. He grew up in a small, often frozen Wisconsin town. Being a small, skinny youth who loved drawing and the arts made him a target for bullying and harassment. Other traumas such as a predatory babysitter, the small humiliations of school, parents who didn’t tolerate questioning, and a house that wasn’t always heated in the winter make this book a heartbreaking read. In such an environment, the ever-present Christianity around him was less of a refuge as it was a drug or sedative.
Everything changes when he meets Raina at church camp. She is also an outsider. Their tender courtship and eventual relationship becomes a soothing balm for his loneliness. At the same time, Craig also struggles with the fact that the religious teachings he grew up with are no longer something he can accept or believe. His portrait of this time and place is beautifully and poetically rendered as Craig finally reconciles his differences with those he loves and gets to a place of peace and creativity.
12. Tomboy by Liz Prince
When Liz was a little girl, her peers liked princesses and wearing pretty pink dresses. But whenever her mother tried to get her to wear a dress, she would cry and scream. She liked her hair short, and she especially loved wearing clothes that were traditionally for boys, like baseball caps, sneakers, and blazers. She knew she was different, and even if she forgot she was a girl, the kids at school were quick to remind her. The adults did the same as her little league coach always made her play outfield and never allowed her to pitch like she wanted to.
While she wasn’t a girly girl, she also wasn’t one of the guys, and thus found herself stuck between gender norms, with no real idea of where she belonged. Things got even more complicated in her teen years, as her interest in boys and her identity seemed to clash. Liz’s road to accepting who she is slow, as she tries to maintain her femininity on her own terms. Throughout the book, we root for Liz as she makes mistakes, yet continually refuses to change who she is for the sake of fitting in.
13. Epileptic by David B.
David B., who was raised in the 60’s in a small town outside of Orléans, France, had a pretty normal childhood. He and his siblings would play with the other neighborhood kids and indulge in various antics: some harmless, others not so much. At one point, his 11-year-old brother Jean-Christophe has a strange fit and is diagnosed with epilepsy. From then on, the family is thrown into crisis. The other kids shun and fear David’s brother, as his fits get worse and worse. His family seeks out the help of different doctors and gurus and try treatment after treatment from several hospitals to macrobiotic communes. Each time Jean-Christophe only gains a brief respite from his seizures which always return and grow in severity.
As his brother’s illness begins to twist and take over the family’s life, David honestly and agonizingly portrays how he, his siblings, and his parents try to cope. Jean-Christophe is disturbingly drawn to the power found in tyrannical dictatorships, while David finds comfort in drawing battle scenes and indulging in his fascination with warfare while exploring his family’s history. The result is as much a portrait of a young artist’s coming-of-age as it is a tragic telling of how chronic illness can take a huge toll on a person’s body, mind, and soul.
14. Honor Girl by Maggie Thrash
Fifteen-year-old Maggie thought she knew what to expect when she headed back to Camp Bellflower. It’s not only how she spent most summers of her life, it’s also how her mother and her grandmother spent theirs too. None of campers or counselors were from Atlanta like Maggie, but since the same people came back every year, everyone knew everyone.
For a while, Camp Bellflower was the same old same old, until one innocent, yet fateful moment. As Maggie is getting checked for lice, she falls deeply, dizzyingly in love with one of the older camp counselors. A female one. Soon, Maggie, who happened to be a Backstreet Boys fan with a talent for shooting rifles, not only has to face all the awkwardness and angst of first love, but she has to grapple with the shock that might not be who she thought she was. To add to that turmoil, Camp Bellflower is not exactly a welcome environment for two girls falling in love. Some of her friends are supportive, but others seem very sure that it’s only a phase or just something she has to beat in order to be “normal.” Awkward, humorous, insightful, and full of the sweet sorrow of first love, “Honor Girl” is a deeply relatable read that honestly and painfully conveys the difficulties of forging your own identity.
15. Cancer Vixen by Marisa Acocella Marchetto
Marisa had the kind of life HBO loves to entertain us with. She had a great career as a cartoonist for The New Yorker, an obsession with fashion and food with a fabulous social life to match, and at 43, she was just a few weeks away from trading her serial singlehood for married life with the man of her dreams, a restaurateur who could count Alec Baldwin and Madonna among his customers.
Then life threw her a major curveball in the form of breast cancer. Suddenly, Marisa must accept that rather than planning her honeymoon, she has to sort out her insurance, figure out where to get chemo, and tell her family, friends, and especially her soon-to-be husband about her diagnosis. As she heads to chemo in her blue snakes pumps (for support), Marisa also has to grapple with a more spiritual crisis as she struggles to face the fact that the disease she’s fighting could very well take her life. The situation is grim, but Marisa’s diagnosis never overwhelms her, thanks to her big-city wit, humor, and support network. Old friends and new ones help her as she fights for her life.