I’ve enjoyed memoirs for quite some time, but the genre of the “graphic memoir” is fairly new to me. The paneled, graphic novel format that’s used for these memoirs is such a fluid and experimental structure that it allows for some truly inventive modes of storytelling. When it’s done well, there’s something extraordinary in this blend of the visual and the verbal. Here are a few of my favorites.
1. Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? – by Roz Chast
Roz Chast (whose cartoons you may recognize from The New Yorker) tells the story of interacting with her aging parents–their decline, dementia, and ultimate death–with both raw humor and a tender vulnerability that took me by surprise. It’s a deeply compelling read.
2. Prison Island – by Colleen Frakes
Colleen Frakes grew up on a small island off the coast of Washington state that housed a state prison. Both of Colleen’s parents were correctional officers at the prison, and their family lived on the island–only able to access the schools, grocery stores, and other amenities on the mainland by ferry. This is her nostalgic memoir about her now non-existent “hometown,” and how her time there shaped her as a person.
3. El Deafo – by Cece Bell
Cece Bell lost her hearing in a childhood bout of meningitis. This is her memoir about navigating childhood–school, friends, and life in general–accompanied by her ever-present hearing aid and her never-flagging imagination. This is the only graphic memoir on my list that is targeted toward children, but I thoroughly enjoyed it as an adult as well.
4. Maus – by Art Spiegelman
This is the story of a son coming to grips with his father’s past as a holocaust survivor. It’s allegorical in its visual presentation–Jews are mice, Nazis are cats–and truly penetrating in its perceptions.
5. March – by John Lewis
Congressman John Lewis tells the story of his own involvement in the pivotal events of the Civil Rights era. It’s a difficult read, but told with dignity and power.
6. Persepolis – by Marjane Satrapi
A raw, yet beautiful coming-of-age memoir about growing up in Tehran during the Islamic Revolution. Marji is independent and headstrong, and the clashes between her personality and the repressive system of rules around her is striking. She ends up in Europe for a while, and the interactions she has with different cultures are intriguing as well.
7. Fatherland – by Nina Bunjevac
In this haunting memoir, Nina Bunjevac pieces together what she knows about the father she barely knew. What results is a heartbreaking exploration of Yugoslav history and of how her father became a terrorist. The narration is starkly beautiful and the visual storytelling is elegant and compelling.