Reader’s Advisory: Graphic memoirs

Maybe you’re interested in comics and graphic novels, and you’re ready to move beyond superheroes. Maybe you’re looking for something that’s non-fiction but still told in graphic form. Maybe you’ve already read a great graphic memoir or  two: Art Speigelman’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Maus perhaps, or PersepolisMarjane Satrapi’s story of coming of age during the Iranian Revolution. Or maybe you’re into memoirs, but you never thought of checking out graphic novels before. In any case, welcome to the amazing world of graphic memoirs, where art and text combine to tell true stories. The four books below are just a sample of the great graphic memoirs out there; they touch on childhood and adult experiences, on world events and intensely personal moments, and all of them are fantastic!

 The Photographer: Into War-Torn Afghanistan with Doctors without Borders
Emmanuel Guibert, Didier Lefèvre, Fréderic Lemercier
 First Second
 2009

This beautiful, haunting title combines Lefèvre’s photographs with Guibert’s drawings to tell the story of one  reporter’s journey through Afghanistan in 1986. The country was ravaged by war with the Soviet Union,  and Lefèvre, a photojournalist, was hired by Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) to  document the organization’s mission in Afghanistan. To call the expedition grueling is an understatement, yet Lefèvre managed to capture some extraordinary photographs of the region and the people. Although the photos were taken in the 80s, the book wasn’t published until 2003 (and not in the United States until 2009) , and it remains relevant to today.

 Burma Chronicles
Guy Delisle
Jonathan Cape
2009

 Burma Chronicles is the funny counterpoint to The Photographer’s somber portrayal of life with Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF). Guy Delisle is married to a doctor who works with MSF, so he accompanies her to Burma when she’s posted there. Burma Chronicles documents his life as an ex-pat spouse in the miltary junta-ruled country. Told in a series of tri-color vignettes, the book showcases the surreal and bewildering experiences of living a foreign country, being part of the expatriate and diplomatic communities, and raising a small child in a culture that’s very different from your own. The book is mostly unpolitical, but a few sobering moments remind the reader that MSF is in Burma for a reason.

Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic
Alison Bechdel
Houghton Mifflin
2006

Bechdel is known for her comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For and for Fun Home, a dark, sad, and  strangely funny memoir of growing up in an active funeral home that has been in family for several generations.  The memoir covers her childhood up through college, and much of it focuses on her relationship with her  closeted father. His relationships with teenage boys, including the family babysitter,  and his possibly-accidental, possibly-suicidal death complicate and influence Bechdel’s own coming out. The black-and-white art is beautiful and expressive, and Bechdel’s family dynamics make for a fascinating read.

 Stitches: A Memoir
David Small
McClelland and Stewart
2009

Stitches is the story of Caldecott-winner David Small’s childhood and adolescence, particularly his experience with cancer. He developed throat cancer as a result of being exposed (by his father) to x-rays many times as a small child; the treatment was a surgery that left him voiceless several years. Small’s parents seem particularly thoughtless, even cruel – not only have they caused the cancer, they don’t tell him that he has it and they lead him to believe that the throat surgery is a minor one, not something that that will significantly impact his life. The text is spare, and the illustrations beautiful capture his sense of isolation and abandonment.

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