The first graphic memoir I ever read was Pulitzer Prize winner Maus by Art Spiegelman, about his father's experience as a Holocaust survivor. Since then, the genre has exploded, and numerous female writers and cartoonists have used it to explore everything from family dynamics to food to sexuality to punk rock. Through a deft combination of art and words, each of these artists gives her life a unique spin, serving up far more than either form could alone.
Image: Allie Brosh/Hyperbole And a Half
‘Hyperbole and a Half’ by Allie Brosh
Brosh has an ardently devoted following of her blog Hyperbole and a Half, and the stories here, some of which are reprinted from the blog, follow the same form. She’ll jump from dogs to depression, childhood to present, but the through line is her keen sense of humor and simple yet powerful stick figure artwork. Words could never do justice to her image of being attacked by geese. Where Brosh truly shines is in combining the wackiness of her life along with her insights into her own identity and darker moments.
‘Good Riddance: An Illustrated Memoir of Divorce’ by Cynthia Copeland
Copeland is a typical wife and mother of three, until she finds out her husband is cheating on her. As they head toward divorce, she has to navigate her new life while maintaining ties to the old one. She deftly and humorously shows the ways her family adapts to his string of new girlfriends and how many ways she has to start over. Her kids’ brainstorms about how to handle newly formed holidays, and dating adventures (her bingo card of one especially boring boyfriend is a highlight) offer a realistic look at divorce, without demonizing her ex or tossing aside the positives of their marriage.
‘Relish: My Life in the Kitchen’ by Lucy Knisley
Relish is Knisley’s colorful ode to food, complete with drawn out recipes for marinated lamb, pesto, chocolate chip cookies, huevos rancheros, sushi rolls, sangria, and other edible delights. Knisley’s tender loving care for what she consumes is on full display as she shares her family’s food philosophies, her personal food pyramid (topped by meat loaf and cereal), eating adventures in Mexico and Japan, and a cheese cheat sheet. Relish culminates with a meal and kitchen tour of famed foodie lover’s restaurant Alinea, in Chicago.
‘Calling Dr. Laura’ by Nicole J. Georges
The plot of Calling Dr. Laura sounds like it belongs way more in fiction than memoir: Georges is told as a child that her father is dead, but that was a lie she only uncovers at 23. But her black and white renderings of lesbian life in Portland, Ore. (including a U-Haul), her mother’s homophobia, and especially the reenactment of an actual phone call with Dr. Laura Schlessinger, are real with the perfect touch of absurdity. Georges captures relationship and family drama that will likely be familiar, even if you’ve led a much more mundane life.
‘Marbles: Mania, Depression, Michelangelo, and Me’ by Ellen Forney
Marbles is artist Ellen Forney’s exploration of what it means to be bipolar, where she asks and answers the question, “Who gets to be crazy-brilliant, and who’s just crazy-crazy?” What could be a challenging read is instead a thought-provoking, powerful look at what mental illness means, for her and for the culture at large, especially as it relates to art. By baring her therapy sessions, mood swings, medication and fears, Forney helps take away the stigma of mental illness and offers an insider’s view of the ups and downs of being bipolar.
‘Spit and Passion’ by Cristy C. Road
Road takes us from her family, “a traditional Cuban concoction of love and protection” into zines and punk rock. Made fun of at school, she’s saved by music. “Having grown up around salsa and Latin pop, I wanted something foreign, because fuck, I felt foreign — like an alien from gay space.” Yet while Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong himself called Road “a bad ass,” this graphic memoir is about much more than punk rock, though Road’s Greenzine is central to the story. It’s about Road using the power of her favorite music to come to terms with her sexuality, her family, Cuban culture, pop culture and learning how to use art to connect with the world. Anyone who’s ever felt a band’s music was written just for her will relate, and probably break out their favorite Green Day album while reading.
‘Kiss & Tell: A Romantic Resume ages 0 to 22’ by MariNaomi
This graphic memoir isn’t simply a résumé, though it does meticulously detail every kiss, from her parents’ meeting in Japan to awkward youthful fumblings, the sex talk from her parents, and all the excitement, drama, gossip and swoonworthiness of young lust. Drugs, sneaking out, a boyfriend in jail, running away from home, actual handwritten letters (remember those?) and more are charmingly drawn in these short relationship recaps that will likely have you recalling your own first forays into love and sex.
‘Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic’ by Alison Bechdel
The noted Dykes to Watch Out For cartoonist left fiction behind to delve into her family’s secrets, most notably that her funeral home director father had affairs with men and teenagers throughout his marriage, culminating in his suicide. She looks back on the convergence of her coming out and his tragic life and death, while constantly probing her own memory and wondering what he might have become. Each panel is rich with detail, as Bechdel expertly intertwines their stories. A National Book Critics Circle and Eisner Award nominee, Fun Home was recently turned into a musical.
‘Persepolis’ by Marjane Satrapi
Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood, which was adapted for film, captures Satrapi’s childhood amidst the Iranian Revolution. From a wonderfully drawn child’s point of view, she illustrates the impact of war, from empty grocery shelves to illegal passports to killings, fear and intimidation, on her peers and family. Satrapi portrays herself as often precocious, wanting to join in protests, and later a teenage rebel who gets expelled for wearing jeans. History, politics, pop culture activism and family combine in this expertly drawn volume, which was followed by Persepolis 2, both are collected in The Complete Persepolis.