Day: July 6, 2024

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Text, Images, and Memories: Exploring Graphic Memoirs

Text, Images, and Memories: Exploring Graphic Memoirs
by Crystal Hicks, Collection Services Manager

I got into comics as a kid, then Japanese manga as a teen, but it wasn’t until a college course on “The Graphic Novel” that I read my first graphic memoir. Art Spiegelman’s “Maus,” Marjane Satrapi’s “Persepolis,” and Alison Bechdel’s “Fun Home” all amazed me with their ability to combine deeply personal intergenerational memoirs with breathtaking art. Each artist has a different style, honed to match their subject matter and provide added depth to their stories. Since then, I’ve returned to the genre periodically, drawn by the allure of seeing an author-illustrator meld their words and art to create inimitable magic.

For readers of Kate Beaton’s early comedy comic, “Hark! A Vagrant,” her memoir may seem like an unexpected detour, but it’s one well worth taking. “Ducks: Two Years in the Oil Sands” follows freshly-graduated-and-deeply-in-debt Katie as she leaves home to work in the oil sands, where she plans to work tirelessly until her debt’s paid off. Monotony and casual sexism are rife, and Katie’s years are punctuated with sexual assault and witnessing the violence of the oil industry on its employees, the environment, and the First Nations peoples whose lands are being exploited. The true wonder of Beaton’s work is creating a book as beautiful as it is bleak.

Tessa Hulls’s memoir, “Feeding Ghosts,” examines the intergenerational trauma affecting three generations of her Chinese-immigrant family. After escaping Communist China with her daughter Rose in 1957, Sun Yi wrote a bestselling memoir called “Eight Years in Red China,” then lost her mind, the result of years of systematic brainwashing where she was forced to write confessions repeatedly and interrogated relentlessly about any discrepancies. Rose devoted herself wholly to Sun Yi after this, including bringing her to the United States in the ‘70s and enabling her to continuously rewrite and “republish” her memoir for the rest of her life. As a mother to Tessa, Rose attempted to devote herself equally to fighting Tessa’s mental illness, with one catch—Tessa doesn’t consider herself to have been mentally ill. Hulls walks a difficult path, carefully demarcating her and her mother’s own versions of her life, intertwining them with the stories of Sun Yi and Rose, and linking the whole to the tumultuous history of China in the twentieth century. The resulting work has no easy answers but, as Hulls points out, “all history is contested” (20).

Thi Bui begins “The Best We Could Do” with her childbirth experience, the heavy weight of new parental responsibility, and a growing empathy for her mother, who birthed six children amidst the turmoil of the Việt Nam War. This is a fitting beginning to a memoir that’s ultimately about the twin legacies of parenthood and childhood, how we’ll always be shaped by our parents but never entirely understand the decisions they made and the difficulties they faced. Bui traces her parents’ lives before and during the Việt Nam War, including their immigration to America with four young children, and reflects on the shock of immigration and her gradual adaptation to American mores. Despite her difficult childhood, Bui extends a compassionate grace to her parents, understanding and accepting that they did everything they could for her and her siblings, and in turn feels optimistic about her own legacy as a parent.

Maurice Vellekoop’s “I’m So Glad We Had This Time Together” spans most of his life, exploring the difficulties he faced growing up gay in a conservative Christian family. From a young age, Vellekoop and his mother were two peas in a pod, him delighting at helping her in her hair salon or going on outings with her. As he grew up, his queerness was undeniable, and tensions strained, particularly when he came out to his parents and faced his mother’s direct censure. Over time, Vellekoop learned to move past his internalized homophobia and to openly embrace his identity, and eventually his parents did, too. The colors of Vellekoop’s memoir are especially delightful—most graphic memoirs stick to a single, spare color scheme, but Vellekoop’s book is a veritable kaleidoscope of colors as he unwinds decades of memories, complete with shifting color palettes and fashions.

Not all graphic memoirs are so wide-ranging as those listed above. “Kimiko Does Cancer,” written by Kimiko Tobimatsu and illustrated by Keet Geniza, hones in on a couple years of the author’s life, from her initial discovery of a lump on her breast through treatment and adjustment to her life afterwards. At 25, cancer was the farthest thing from Tobimatsu’s thoughts, and she was unprepared for the whirlwind of diagnosis, treatment, and preventative therapies she was in for. As a young, queer, mixed-race woman, Tobimatsu felt isolated from the mainstream cancer narrative, and struggled with how to connect to her family, partner, and friends about her new reality, which includes medical-induced early menopause and recurrent hot flashes. Though a quick read, “Kimiko Does Cancer” is a strong addition to the canon of cancer memoirs, especially for its questions about the intersection of cancer prevention and disability.

There are, of course, scads more graphic memoirs out there, and I encourage you to peruse our collection and give one a try. I find the combination of words and personal stories to be uniquely engrossing, and graphic memoirs embolden me to learn about topics I couldn’t tackle in a prose book. I am, as always, looking forward to the next great graphic memoir that crosses my path, and hope you join me in enjoying this unique art form.

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Crystal Hicks, Collection Services Manager