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Genre Kryptonite: Graphic Memoirs

This post originally appeared on Book Riot

I love to read memoirs, but the one subgenre, if you will, that I tend to avoid is the dysfunctional family memoir. However, if you package a dysfunctional family story in a comic book? I can’t stay away.

(Aside: I HATE the phrase “graphic memoir” because it makes me think I’m talking about extremely violent or memoirs with a lot of explicit sex, which I am not. But you can’t call them “comic books” or “graphic novels” and the phase “memoirs in comic book form” is so clumsy… I just don’t know. Does someone have a better description?)

blanketsThe first graphic memoir I remember reading is Blankets by Craig Thompson, a coming-of-age story about Thompson’s childhood, first love, and struggle with his faith. Thompson does an exquisite job capturing the feeling of disconnect loners can feel even while in a crowd, the feeling of both loving and hating your family, the feeling of being in love for the first time, and the feeling of losing love for the first time. And the illustrations are just stunning, with the sweeping curves and full pages spreads full of details you want to just slide into.

Another more humorous graphic memoir that I enjoyed is The Impostor’s Daughter by Laurie Sandell, the story of Sandell’s relationship with her enigmatic and temperamental father. Sandell grew up hearing stories about her father’s fantastical childhood, war heroism, academic accolades and famous friends. But early in her adulthood, Sandell discovers that much of what her father told her is untrue, leaving her struggling with her relationships, drugs, and herself. The version of the book I read was full color, which made the drawings just pop. It’s a fun read.

calling dr lauraMy most recent dive into a graphic memoir was Nicole Georges’ Calling Dr. Laura, another story about a girl with a mysterious father. In this memoir, Georges’ discovers — via a visit to a palm reader — that the father she has been lead to believe is dead is actually alive. Georges’ also has a complicated relationship with her mother, particularly when it comes to sharing details about her sexuality or, eventually, coming out. While I think the title is a little misleading (the detail about Georges’ enjoyment listening to Dr. Laura Schlessinger is pretty minor), I liked this one a lot. Georges’ has a lot of fun with the illustrations, picking very different styles for stories from her childhood versus adult memories.

Despite this being a kryptonite for me, I still haven’t read many of the most famous graphic memoirs. I haven’t picked up Fun Home by Alison Bechdel or her most recent book Are You My Mother? I also haven’t read Stiches by David Small or Maus by Art Spiegelman. And I’ve read the first volume of Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi, but not the second. And I’m sure there are more. So I ask you, dear readers, what are some of your favorite graphic memoirs?

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  • Amy January 29, 2013, 7:13 am

    You should definitely read Fun Home and Stitches. Are You My Mother? is…hmmm…not as good as Fun Home. 🙂 Asterios Polyp is also really good.

    • Kim January 29, 2013, 5:57 pm

      Thanks for the recommendations. I’ve never heard of Asterios Polyp, but I’m going to look it up now.

  • Radhika January 29, 2013, 8:49 am

    I was very impressed by Tangles (http://rrameshv.wordpress.com/2012/09/07/her-mother-got-alzheimers-and-died/). The writer talks about her mother’s Alzheimer and it is incredibly, heartbreakingly beautiful.

    • Kim January 29, 2013, 6:01 pm

      Another friend also recommended that one; I will look for it!

  • Becker January 29, 2013, 8:57 am

    I just finished Marbles: Mania, Depression, Michelangelo & Me by Ellen Forney and really liked it–exploration of the link between mental illness and creativity.

    • Kim January 29, 2013, 6:02 pm

      Ooo, that one sounds awesome!

  • Deb January 29, 2013, 2:02 pm

    I really liked French Milk by Lucy Knisley and her forthcoming book Relish — I like memoirs with an angle (and food and France are big draws for me). Also interesting is Darkroom by Lila Quintero Weaver. It’s a memoir of the Civil Rights movement, but Weaver’s family were outsiders, immigrants from Argentina, which provides an interesting lens on a time period that has been well explored.

    • Kim January 29, 2013, 6:29 pm

      I forgot about French Milk! I thought that one was charming.

  • Ali January 29, 2013, 5:22 pm

    I’m right there with you on the term Graphic Memoir. In fact, the whole double meaning of the word Graphic irritates me, whether it’s a memoir or a novel. I’ve yet to find a way around it.

    • Kim January 29, 2013, 6:29 pm

      Yeah, me either. I’ve been thinking about it since this post went up on Book Riot, and I’ve got nothing.

  • Jenny January 29, 2013, 7:18 pm

    I wasn’t in love with Stitches myself, as I recall, but I can’t remember what I disliked about it, so I may not be a reliable witness. I hope you find some good comic memoirs (that is not better than “graphic memoirs”) and review them here — I love them too, and like you I haven’t found enough of them. I liked Lucy Knisley’s French Milk, but that’s a rather slight memoir.

    • Kim February 3, 2013, 8:19 am

      I agree about French Milk. It was charming, but also a little slight. I’m excited to hear she has a new one coming out soon.

  • Charlie January 30, 2013, 7:01 am

    I’ve always found “graphic novels” similarly awkward – I know that if I used the phrase to anyone not familiar with it they’d likely think sexual/violent. I haven’t read any yet so I haven’t a favourite, but I do plan to make Blankets one of the first graphic books I read. The reviews are just too good!

    • Kim February 3, 2013, 8:20 am

      It’s an awful phrase… but there isn’t a better one, so here we are. Blankets is awesome, just beautiful in about a million ways.

  • Jennifer January 30, 2013, 7:53 am

    Blankets is the only graphic-anything I’ve read. It was such a lovely book, I really should find more of his work. I’m going to keep the books you’ve listed in mind for the next readathon. They are so great to refresh the reading palate!

    • Kim February 3, 2013, 8:21 am

      I think his only other book is Habbibi, but I could be wrong on that (and also wrong on the spelling). I agree with you that comics are a great way to refresh your palate… I wish I had more on my shelves to choose from!

  • Jeane January 30, 2013, 11:32 am

    I don’t have any to add to your list, but you’ve certainly added to mine!

    • Kim February 3, 2013, 8:21 am


  • Athira February 4, 2013, 5:32 pm

    Blankets is one of my all-time favorites! Along with Persepolis. I know I have read a few more (Vietnamerica, etc) and enjoyed them all. I haven’t read a graphic book in a while though.

    • Kim February 5, 2013, 4:21 pm

      Aside from Calling Dr. Laura, I haven’t read many lately either. I’m hoping to get back into them soon.