When I saw The Diary of a Teenage Girl recently, my first impression was, damn, I wish this movie had been around when I was 15. The graphic novel that inspired the film first appeared in 2002, but I didn't catch on until this year, when the buzz around the movie reached deafening levels. Besides, who knows if I would've read it? As a teen, I disdained books with pictures (Persepolis sat in the trunk of my car for months, and I didn't understand Fun Home's placement on my sister's high school reading list). Over the past few months, though, I've devoured all of the above and then some, shoving the books I finish into the hands of friends and family. Diary, though, still stands out because without much of a stretch, it's relatable for any young woman who came of age in the past 50 years or so. And as with any story so realistic, it led me to wonder, is Diary of a Teenage Girl based on a true story?
Writer and comic book artist Phoebe Gloeckner, who wrote the graphic novel, has protested labeling her work "autobiographical." Still, the work it reflects many elements of her own life growing up in San Francisco, where she moved with her newly divorced mother in 1972. In addition, the individuals in her story — young mother, distant father, irritating little sister — are all drawn from lived experience, just embellished, illustrated, and colored in. Aline Kominsky, an artist who profoundly impacted Gloeckner's own illustrations, also makes a cameo appearance in both book and film, and an appendix at the end of the novel highlights images and diary entries from Gloeckner's childhood that contributed to the creation of the novel.
Gloeckner is certainly not the first artist to use the graphic novel as a medium for autobiography (or quasi-autobiography). Illustrators like Alison Bechdel and Marjane Satrapi draw from their personal experiences in their work. Just as Diary of a Teenage Girl was rendered first on stage and then in film, Bechdel and Satrapi, too, have seen their work translated into theater and movie, respectively. It's worth returning to the source material, though — here are just a few of the boldest graphic novels out there today, for those (like me) who took a while adjusting to the medium.
1. Persepolis, By Marjane Satrapi
The title refers to the capital of the long-gone Persian empire, but this graphic novel recounts Satrapi's childhood in Iran during the war between Iran and Iraq in the ’80s. The two installments, originally penned in French, have been translated into countless languages and into a film, Persepolis, co-directed by Satrapi herself. It was nominated for an Oscar in 2007.
2. Maus, By Art Spiegelman
Like Persepolis, Maus is divided into two volumes: My Father Bleeds History and And Here My Troubles Began. Spiegelman interviewed his father, a survivor of the Holocaust, to inform this re-examination of what transpired in 1930s and ’40s Germany. The mice stand in for the Jewish people, Germans are cats, and so on — an entire menagerie of Europe — forcing total engagement on the reader's part to confront the genocide and one family's unlikely escape.
3. Fun Home, By Alison Bechdel
Bechdel's name may be most often associated with her eponymous "test" for the presence of active female roles in film, which first appeared in a strip of her column, "Dykes to Watch Out For." But she has also published several autobiographical graphic novels, the first of which is Fun Home. It charts her childhood with a special emphasis on her relationship with her father. It was adapted into a Tony-winning musical that premiered on Broadway earlier this year.
4. Are You My Mother, By Alison Bechdel
Where Bechdel's first graphic novel focuses on her relationship with her father, Are You My Mother — as you might guess — examines her relationship with her mother before and during the taut period during which she was writing Fun Home.
5. Epileptic, By David B.
Epileptic recounts the amazing lengths a family will go for their own. David B., né Pierre-François, illustrates his childhood with his older brother Jean-Christophe, who was diagnosed with epilepsy at age 11. It's part history, part psychology, part spiritual hymn (the brothers' parents seek out all sorts of New Age treatments for Jean-Christophe's gradually declining condition), interwoven with David B.'s tender recollections of his brother and his occasional resentment for the attention he demanded. It was originally published in French as L'Ascension du haut mal, "haut mal" being an archaic term for epilepsy but also roughly translating as "high evil."
6. Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant, By Roz Chast
Chast has been drawing cartoons for the New Yorker since 1978; her signature still adorns its pages each week. Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant is her graphic memoir about caring for her parents well into old age (her mother died at 97 and her father at 95). Like Alison Bechdel's work, it emphasizes the ways that Chast's relationship to her parents helped inform her sense of self and her art, which is nowhere more evident than in these pages.
7. Hyperbole And A Half, By Allie Brosh
Despite my early disdain for graphic novels, I was an early and enormous fan of Allie Brosh's web comics. So when this collection of new and old work appeared in 2013, I was thrilled. It's a great primer for newcomers and a nostalgic trip for those who have followed her work since her blogging days.
Graphic novels seem to lend themselves well to fictionalized memoirs — the author literally appears on the page, albeit usually somewhat self-parodied, in order to tell his or her own story. They're exciting and awesome and it turns out, a lot better suited to a high school reading list than I had ever imagined.