Sarah Glazer discovers new vistas in graphic novels.
Superman and Classic Comics were my favorite illicit reading when I was a kid, usually devoured furtively in a friend’s bedroom. With their newsprint pages and tawdry colors, they often bore the scent of the bubble gum sold next to them, another forbidden delight; in my family they were truly contraband.
When Art Spiegelman’s family memoir Maus burst on the scene in 1986, I was gripped in a very different way--mesmerized by the surreal images of Nazis as voracious cats hunting their Jewish victims in the form of mice. That visual nightmare conveyed in a uniquely new way the horror of World War II Poland morphing into a literal nightmare for Spiegelman’s Jewish father.
But until I attended a Laydeez do Comics event in an East London gallery space last month--a monthly Salon run by British comic memoirists Sarah Lightman and Nicola Streeten--- I didn’t realize that graphic novels had evolved even further into a sophisticated art form, prolifically flowing into almost any genre you can think of: memoir, biography, even history—not just fiction.
At the July Salon, I learned that the graphic memoir has become a full-fledged genre of its own and one in which women writer-illustrators now play a particularly prominent role.
As Sarah Lightman observes in the documentary “Women in Comics,” graphic memoir offers the reader an “intimate” one-on-one relationship with its diminutive panels. They can track the emotional changes in the face of the narrator, much like a movie close-up shot. “That’s why autobiography in comics is such a powerful medium,” she says.
At Laydeez’ July Salon, Sally Jane Thompson, a South African comics writer and illustrator, presented her memoir From, about a trip back to her homeland after many years’ absence. “Revisiting things can feel like risking all your memories,” she writes before presenting starkly different images of a favorite beach: first as she remembered it from her childhood, pristine, and now, developed with boardwalks thronged with people.
The special nature of the graphic memoir makes it perfect for posting online as a work in progress, as Thompson has done over the last couple of years, and to charting the author’s emotions along the way as she writes the book. “What if all my sketches for this book turn out bad?” Thompson asks in an early panel that pictures her face in a grimace of artist anxiety.
Yet cartoons have been “undervalued as an art form,” notes journalist Michael Kaminer, even though “they’re incredibly sophisticated forms of storytelling.” The role of women in this form hasn’t been acknowledged as it should, says Kaminer, whose 2008 article on women Jewish comics writers for the Forward inspired the show “Graphic Details: Confessional Comics by Jewish Women,” co-curated by Kaminer and Lightman, now showing at the JCC in Washington, D.C.
Until the 1970s, comics were drawn for a mostly male readership with females presented as desirable or fawning sex objects. Trina Robbins created the first all-women comic, Girl Fight, in 1970, and women started to express their voice in the underground comic movement of the 1970s. Since then women writer/illustrators have become an impressive presence in ruthlessly honest comics, often presenting their bodies “as nakedly as their emotions,” Kaminer observes.
I was struck by the adult frankness of Fish + Chocolate by Kate Brown—a graphic novel about the experience of motherhood. It includes startlingly bloody frames depicting a young woman’s traumatic experience of miscarriage; it even carried a cover warning of its explicit content in its first edition. With a flowing style reminiscent of Aubrey Beardsley and Manga, Brown presents dream-like mental images of the miscarriage still haunting her female character, contrasted with realistic panels of friends’ trying—and failing-- to comfort her.
Originally self-published, like much graphic fiction, Fish + Chocolate was picked up by SelfMadeHero, Britain’s largest publisher of literary and nonfiction graphic novels. While print fiction has been suffering a steady decline in sales, the market for graphic novels has been growing, helped along by their sales in mainstream bookstores (not just comics retailers) and their inclusion at literary festivals.
SelfMadeHero publishes surprisingly intellectual books in graphic form--most recently an original account of Freud’s famous case of his patient known as The Wolf Man. The case of the Wolf Man, named after his dream of wolves staring at him from a walnut tree, became a building block of psychoanalysis. Illustrator Slawa Harasymowicz presents eery images of Wolf Man’s dream together with perfect period shots of Freud’s study and famous couch in the graphic version.
But I really swooned when I saw the drawings from SelfMadeHero’s graphic classics like The Picture of Dorian Gray and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, with their 19th century costumes and plush drawing rooms.
I may be grownup now but maybe, just maybe, I can recapture the childhood thrill of Classic Comics once again.