November 08, 2013

Graphics Memoir

I recently had a chance to visit Emerson high school in Washington DC to talk with students about their graphic novel memoir projects. I brought with me a stack of great books to provide examples of what can be done with the format. Here's a selection of the best of them:

Smile, by Raina Telgemeier.
Memoir. Dental disaster complicates adolescence. Clean lines, cartoony characters, bright colors. The art is generally in a 2x3 column format which fits a digest sized paperback well. The shorter paper size makes the story roll by swiftly. An easy introduction to comics memoir.

Drama (also by Raina Telgemeier)
has a similar feel, look, and format, though it tackles tougher issues: romance, teen crushes, and homosexuality. This is a fictionalized memoir based on real persons, but despite the slightly more tricky subject Ms Telgemeier manages the same breezy optimistic gentle tone, illustrating angst rather than making her readers undergo it.

How I Made it to Eighteen, by Tracy White.
By contrast readers live through the trauma of How I Made it to Eighteen, as the narrator works her way through it. Subtitled "a mostly true story" we read the therapy-journal of 'Stacy Black' as she explains how and why she ended up in Golden Meadows Hospital following a self destructive act after an argument with her boyfriend.

Simple black and white ink-work belies complex themes. Ms White's art manages to show tension and conflict by the images she chooses to use and the composition/placement of her images. Most panels are clinical white, with thin line drawings. Key panels are saturated in black where it serves the mood.

This is a good book to show how un-fussy art can sometimes serve a story better than hyperkinetic panel placement or jagged word balloons.

As for story, it serves well as catharsis or even therapy itself. The fact that she proves an unreliable narrator, discovering her problems as she works them out adds a believability to the experience.

The Cute Girl Network, by Greg Means, MK Reed; art by Joe Flood.
Girl crashes skateboard, meets boy, eats soup. Despite the meet-cute, true love is endangered by Jane's extended network of well-meaning girl friends, who are available as a resource to compare notes on what a disaster the hapless soup vendor is. Despite hints they may be good matches for each other, it's possible Jack's ADD and Jane's determined friends will doom true love.

Joe Flood's art is a friendly mix of realistic settings and loose-lined easy cartoon characters. Awkward and endearing like the romantic leads themselves, it feels like I know these folks, from slackers to hipster you grew up with them, knew someone like them. A bedroom in a closet, chainlink fences in the backgrounds, conversations in stairwell -- anyone who has been young and on their own in a city will recognize urban living, urban dating, hanging out.

Born of a conversation between authors MK Reed and Greg Means, the dialogue is well served by having a male and female author playing off each other. The women of the book discuss and ponder and kibbitz and comment on each other's lives. The dudes, well one buddy lobs bombs at the introspective protagonist and gives him bad advice, but they're not given to having long complex involved conversations about their feelings. They lack the vocabulary to be more than hapless, if not hopeless. Guys are overmatched when facing the deep emotional resources of the Cute Girls Network. Yet somehow Jack muddles through, a sweet good natured mess.

Little Nothings (series), by Lewis Trondheim
Bemused vignettes of every day life as depicted by France's 2nd greatest current comics auteur.

As a kid, doctors offices were a wasteland of boredom. The New Yorker would stall death by ennui by providing tiny windows into adult 'humor' in the form of one-panel cartoons sopping with ironic whimsy. I rarely got the joke, but heck at least it was cartoons. I realize now some part of my lack of understanding was context. What happened before and after that snippet was not explained, and in some part you had to be in on the joke to get the joke (the joke most often being: 'adulthood' --or 'privilege', really, what you might now call 'first world problems').

Well Little Nothings provides that context, showing the lead-up and resolution to those small epiphanies of ordinary life. Each page completes a haiku of a moment, with something like a punchline, though eliciting more of a smirk or chuckle or shaking your head. The string of them allows for something like a narrative though without any greater meaning other than borrowing the experience of living an adult life as an amused observer. Which proves highly satisfying.

Characters are cartoony animals in realistic backgrounds (a la Art Spiegelman, or the Scandinavian cartoonist Jason) allowing for that 'everyman' quality. Line art is squiggly, overwashed with pastel watercolor, easy on the eyes and suited for humor. Students can learn how simple art can be while still examining adult subjects, or at least smirking about them.

Aya (series) by Marguerite Abouet; art by Clement Ouberie. Translated from French.

Think 'Archie Comics times Shakespeare', Not strictly memoir this is realistic fiction, though it is based on Margarite Abouet's experiences growing up in the Ivory Coast in the 1970's-80's. The easy day to day drama of life in a large modern African town or small city, Ms Abouet manages to intertwine many characters' storylines together in a bright charming weave. This comedy of errors unravels over five volumes, culminating in a satisfactory climax.

Panels are saturated with warmth and light, watercolor and ink in vivid hues evoke the feel of a summer that lasts forever. Certainly African, but recent and familiar, these stories could happen in small town anywhere, with 20th century concerns and realistic personalities.

Characters are distinct, funny, spunky, each well imagined and full of their own rich internal lives. A great book for teens in that it deals realistically with issues of love and envy and hope and personal image.

The Photographer, by Didier Lefevre and Emmanuel Guibert.

A photographer travels with Medicins sans Frontieres to war-torn Afghanistan during the Soviet occupation of the country. Gets burned out, tries to make it home.

A mix of photography and comics art, this is a powerful depiction of life in these harsh and often beautiful mountains. Intriguing given current events, from an outside perspective little seems to have changed in the decades intervening. Farmers and shepherds still try to scratch out a meager living on rocky soil and forbidding slopes, while conflict between local armed warriors and an outside occupying force endanger everyone caught in the crossfire. This is an important work of graphics reportage, armchair travel to dangerous places, and definitely worth reading.

Posted by Dave at November 8, 2013 04:49 PM
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