Opposing ReViewpoints: Memoir Comics

In our Opposing ReViewpoints series, we at NFNT will be duking it out (verbally, only occasionally physically) over titles, creators, and other comics issues.  Our staff will take sides: hate or love, offense or defense.  Since it’s comics, everyone, no matter how open-minded, has that one thing that just irks them (flames, flames on the side of my face!), we hope this will be an entertaining forum for critiquing the format and acknowledging just how subjective reading and reviewing can be.

In our second installment, we’re airing opinions that erupted when brainstorming potential topics for the feature.  In the world of graphic novels, there is one type that always seems to be highly praised and win many an award: memoirs.  As soon as one contributor expressed their dislike of memoir comics, a number of folks chimed in to agree while a number of others wondered just where all this bile was coming from.

So, we got into it, and now, so can you in the comments.  What do you think of memoir comics?  Yay or nay?

Jennifer W: I pretty much hate every memoir out there, so there’s lot to choose from.

Thomas: If we ever have a sharp divide over a graphic memoir, I would like to be on Jennifer’s team, please.

Caitlin: What’s so hateful about memoir? Do you guys mean anything autobiographical, or a specific type of thing? Just comics, or all memoirs? I’ve heard this kind of blanket hatred of memoir elsewhere, and I realized I really don’t know what exactly people are reacting to. There are a lot of wildly different comics that could be considered memoirs – what elements trigger the hate?

Jennifer W.: My hate has many parts

  1. Personal – It’s not a genre I personally enjoy. My feeling is that if I want to hear about someone’s depressing/weird/crazy/self-destructive life, I am not going to waste my precious reading hours on it.
  2. Collection Development – I get really frustrated with all these memoirs marketed to teens and getting accolades when teens (at least in my library) could care less. I see little to no interest from teens in authors writing about their childhood. It CAN be done in a way that’s both attractive to readers of this age group but also of artistic merit – Raina Telgemeier’s Smile and Mark Siegel’s To Dance – both of these circulate pretty well. It comes across to me as self-indulgent – a good example of this is Marzi (which wasn’t particularly well-reviewed anywhere, but was nominated for a Cybils) and my feelings on memoir can be summed up here.
  3. Even memoirs I personally liked, Little Fish and Little White Duck, have limited appeal to kids or teens, in my opinion. There has to be, for me, a really powerful reason to make your memoir a graphic novel and I just don’t see it in a lot of these books. I’m not a fan of talking heads illustration – why not just write a book? Which would then be marketed to the adults, i.e. shelved upstairs where I won’t have to deal with it.

Robin: For me, it’s a bit what Jennifer said — what I object to is the endless appetite for the depressed, ennui-laden, and what I think of as self-indulgent memoir.  I find them tiresome in the same way that I find literary novels about middle aged divorce and ennui tiresome.  Memoir as a type doesn’t bother me, as long as the person has a strong reason for sharing their story.

StitchesAbby: I’m not sure.  I tend to have that problem, too.  I hated Pedro & Me and was probably the only person who hated Blankets.  Stitches turned me off completely.  Yet, I like reading memoirs (or at least Bossypants).  Maybe there is something about the imagery combined with the story that makes it feel less real and emotionally effective?  There is less text to explain the thoughts and reactions to different things – everything is condensed.  The images help illustrate, of course, but can be harder to connect to in some cases.

Pedro & Me was boring and made Pedro seem like less of a person – more of an ideal.  The book was short and full of vignettes, so I never got to know Pedro as a person.  It seemed like a sentimental remembrance rather than an honest look at the author’s friend.  Stitches felt like the author’s therapy session.  It was cut up, similar to Pedro, and it felt disconnected.  He brought up different things, but never resolved or fully fleshed out different ideas.

And I have no idea why I hate Blankets.  Maybe because I was forced to go to youth group as a teen.

Jennifer W.: I weeded Pedro several years ago. Never checked out. At all.

I hated Stitches. Like I said in my Marzi review, it’s ok to write out your painful childhood issues, but share them with your therapist, not with me.

Abby: Also, at his Alex Award acceptance, David Small said he hated comics, but felt like it was a good medium for his story.  Which was so frustrating that I left.

Jennifer W.: Um…

Robin: I also found Stitches to be fairly tiresome (and Small’s attitude really didn’t endear him to anyone, as far as I can tell.)  I enjoyed Fun Home, but violently hated Are You My Mother? because it was so much entirely about her therapy, which I find not at all interesting.  Fun Home felt a lot less self-indulgent, whereas AYMM was the definition of that problem.  I liked Relish ok, but did have a bit of the reaction other folks have had — Knisley was 24, so how much insight can she really have on her life yet?

RelishJennifer W: I liked Relish – I didn’t think of it as a memoir, more as a “this is what I think about life so far” kind of thing, which is kind of how I felt about Little Fish – I loved that she acknowledged how much she’d changed in such a short time and that she didn’t think this was the way she was going to be forever, she’d have lots more experiences/new ideas in life. Plus, I like pictures of food. But I wouldn’t call either one “real” memoirs, because a memoir kind of implies, to me at least, a look back at either a whole or significant part of your life, and how can you tell what’s significant until you’ve lived most of it?

Jenny: For me, it just comes down to whether or not I enjoy the book as I haven’t the patience or interest in the more self-indulgent, just-putting-it-out-there-to-talk-about-themselves titles.  So, I loved Burma Chronicles and Persepolis, liked The Alcoholic and Fun Home ok, didn’t care much for French Milk (it wasn’t bad, but she just sounds soooo like a teenager and I am soooo not one anymore), and found the personalities behind Stitches and Blankets to be irritating (and, yes, Smalls did himself no favors with his bizzaro comments).

pyongyangSnow: I think of Relish and Pyongyang (which I love with a fiery, fiery passion) as “memoirs with a purpose.” Meaning the authors are DOING something, not just sitting around whining. I’m much more likely to listen to you talk about your life if you’re actually doing something. If Raina can have all that crap happen with her teeth and still make a memoir that isn’t about how crappy life was when her teeth were broken, then others can too. But I also grew up with a mother who was very much of the “put your big girl pants on and deal with it” camp and since she’s survived burns over 80% of her body (never refer to my mother as a “burn victim” or you yourself will be burned by her), open heart surgery, and a rattlesnake bite (not all at the same time), I tend to side with her.

Allen: How can one hate Blankets?

Abby: I know, Allen, believe me, I know.  I’ve tried multiple times.  But I just…hate it.

Robin: I did like Blankets (the connections between art and faith really worked for me personally, and I love his actual art, so that covered a lot of the problems.)

Blankets_coverJenny: My issue with Blankets is the same I had with Habibi.  I really love Craig Thompson’s artwork but find his voice off-putting.  It’s like he’s still a sixteen-year-old boy with all the navel-gazing and hormones that entails and it creeps me out that he hasn’t grown out of it yet.

Snow: Sorry, Allen, I didn’t like Blankets either. I’m with Robin on loving his art and with Abby on being dragged to youth group every Sunday and Wednesday (welcome to the South, y’all).

Robin: I find Chester Brown, as intriguing as he can be, to the just the kind of cartoonist who’s great at what he does, but what he does has zero resonance with me as a reader (I feel the same way about Chris Ware and Daniel Clowes.)

Thomas: *bursts through doorway* Is it too late to hate on graphic memoirs?!

For my part, there seem to be a handful of graphic novels each year by fresh art-school graduates that are all about how their art school experiences were unique and eye-opening. Navel-gazing and pop culture references ensue. This sometimes bleeds over into memoirs where the events in the author’s life are presented as interesting in and of themselves – “Hey everyone, my childhood wasn’t that great! Can you believe the number my parents did on me? This one time, I got high…” And I’m glad if these stories are entertaining or therapeutic to others, but they often seem most therapeutic to the author and not all that skillful in the realm of graphic expression.

Those are my biased two cents, and I’m always glad to read a graphic memoir that busts through my prejudices.

Robin: The other thing that has less to do with memoir itself and more its status — I get really, really tired very quickly of people acting as if memoir is the only worthwhile form of comics to read.  I don’t think it’s stated as bluntly, but whenever you look at which comics/graphic novels win awards, are discussed in book clubs, or are looked at by non-comics people, it’s like memoir is the only type people will give the time of day. That’s not really memoir’s fault, but it means I get exhausted by how much people won’t look at anything else.

Renata: Haha!  I could be the only one who likes memoir.  Although I do think a lot of teens really like “therapeutic” memoirs of people who went through difficult experiences, both in graphic novel form and print. Some teens are going through the kinds of bad experiences that compel adults to write memoirs about, and they appreciate feeling like someone understands them. Others may have a more voyeuristic intent. And a lot of people prefer “true” stories (even given the flexible nature of “truth” in memoir, cough James Frey) to similar fictional stories.

As they say… every book has its reader!

Snow: Renata, I love your reminder about every book having its reader. It reminded me of something that came up during my time on Great Graphic Novels for Teens. We had several books which we were considering which I just hated. They were realistic-ish dramas where people did bad things to each other and stuff was depressing. (My opinions, obviously.) Others on the committee thought they were amazing and raved about their potential to speak to teens, but I knew they wouldn’t have worked for me when I was a teen. That’s when I realized (and I know this isn’t a revelation to anyone) that some people can process the bad things or hard things in life through realism and other people process them through fantasy (or horror or science fiction). I can’t handle depressing stories or movies or anything where people are mean to each other, UNLESS they are a fantasy. My husband was floored that I wouldn’t go see Cold Mountain but that I loved Pan’s Labyrinth. It’s all in the presentation. If there are dragons (witches, vampires, fairies, so on) then I’m fine with angst, drama, pain, hardship. But I don’t want them in a realistic setting. So, yep, something different for each reader.

Sarah: I enjoy a good graphic novel memoir also.  Relish, Persepolis, and Smile are all up there on my own personal list of awesome.  I don’t personally love the angsty, whiny memoirs (graphic novel or otherwise), but I don’t hate the entire genre.  I’ve also found a number of teens who are going through something (or feeling voyeuristic) and check out the more intense books.  So, I will totally be on your team, Renata, though there are some that I could live without.

Jessikah: This is true.  We can’t deny the therapeutic power of the memoir.  I don’t have a dislike of the genre really, but I get why some might.  However, I do think there are some seriously overrated graphic memoirs out there.  I mean, not everyone’s story has to be a starred review.

That said, I do love Persepolis.

persepolisSaeyong: Someone is going to slam me for this (whimpers). I hate Persepolis. I won’t back out by blaming my collectivist Asian culture (sigh) for why I hate it: she is totally privileged in a time and place of chaos, and she continues to be privileged, and she seems much too whiny and depressed about it all when she’s supremely lucky. And the art is awful. And everyone else around me loves it.

…There. Said it.

Marcela: I also never understood the huge popularity of Persepolis, Saeyong! Some of the writing was witty, but mostly I felt it was overrated.

Jennifer W: I got bored – too many talking heads. I didn’t care for the art either. I like things like Faith Erin Hicks Friends With Boys, which has some personal details from her life as a teenager, but worked into a larger (more interesting) story. Or for a narrative about a whiny character that doesn’t annoy, I liked Anya’s Ghost by Vera Brosgol – she starts out horribly whiny and self-centered at the beginning and gradually comes to have a wider viewpoint, both of herself and her family, and the world around her.

Snow: I actually like Persepolis, but Satrapi and I are close to the same age and I was a metalhead as a teen, so those aspects of the book worked for me. Book 2, however, I really didn’t like.

Jessikah: This is true.  Persepolis 2 did not work for me AT ALL.  No one should worry too much about having an unpopular opinion on something (in my um… opinion?) as long as your reasoning isn’t bigoted.  I know how it feels.  I had to constantly defend my seething hatred of the movie Grease, throughout my teen-hood, and even to this day.  I feel you!

Marcela: I’ll just put it out there that I really dislike written memoirs (Wild, which the whole world loved? Mehhhhhh), so I’ve really steered clear of graphic novel versions. But, I’m in the unpopular camp of having loved Blankets, so there’s my exception.

For a lot of the teen/childhood reflection memoirs, sure, they can be whiny and man, growing up can suck. But I think that’s why I’ve found that they do really well with teens but not adults. I can’t handle a lot of drama llama teen fiction either, but I’m pretty sure this is because I’m not the target audience.

Saeyong: I think I just dislike angst and whininess in general.  A lot of dystopian novels seem to be putting me off lately, and I don’t do romance either because why would I want to know about the private happenings and intricacies of a relationship I’m not a part of?!

I may just dislike the first person point of view. Graphic novels are actually better for me because you look through the page at the characters, instead of having them in your head as when you read fiction. The distance makes it less irritating.

Jennifer W.: I agree about the first person point of view, Saeyong. I feel icky with that much personal information coming from someone. Like I said, if I want to hear that I’ll just sit at the reference desk and pretty soon someone will come along and tell me all their medical, financial, and romantic details. But why would I care? I do have friends who revel in this kind of thing – they like to read memoirs and psychoanalyze themselves (and the people in books) and find parallels in their lives etc. That’s fine – whatever works for you. But it’s not for me.

FortuneandGloryRobin: I find I much prefer memoir with a strong sense of humor, like Guy Delisle’s Pyongyang and his other travel memoirs, or Brian Michael Bendis’s Fortune & Glory (which makes me laugh out loud every time I read it.)

For those of you who have said memoir comics work for your teen readers, can you tell me which specific titles have worked with your teens?  Because, to be honest, they really don’t circulate with my teens.  With adults, sure, who are also the major audience for our memoirs in general, but teens?  Not so much.

My teens like the tragic/abused memoir, like A Boy Called It, but I haven’t found a graphic memoir that has as strong an appeal.

Renata: I’m not going to say that graphic novel memoirs are flying out the door with teens here, or that any memoir is overall as popular as say, Soul Eater, but I definitely have found that some will resonate with some teens:

  • Stuck in the Middle, ed by Ariel Schrag
  • Maus by Art Spiegelman (we keep this in adult GNs but a lot of teens are very interested in the Holocaust and have enjoyed this)
  • Blankets by Craig Thompson (I believe many teens like this for the same reason many adults on this list have rolled their eyes at it)
  • How to Understand Israel in 60 Days or Less by Sarah Glidden
  • March by John Lewis

Memoirs are a very small percentage of our GN collection. I guess I’m a little surprised at how many people seem to be rolling around in piles of despised memoirs. I guess if you just don’t like something, any number might be too many :)

Robin: I was going to mention the Ariel Schrag memoirs as ones I think do work, and March has been very popular (and to me is quite excellent.)

Jennifer W: I wonder if some of the appeal depends on the patron base – naturally, most of these memoirs are about artists, since, ya know, artists are making them…the height of art in my town is the annual elementary school art show. I wonder if they have a wider audience maybe in an urban area with a bigger devotion to the arts?

SmileSarah: I’ve found that the same ones that I like tend to be popular with my teens, but I think that’s me getting so excited about them.  Recently, I was the Homework Help Center Specialist at one of our busiest branches, so I averaged 45 kids a day just doing homework.  I had some good relationships with most of those kids/teens, so they would at least look at many of the books I suggested.  It gave me a serious edge in convincing them of things.

However, my teens/tweens were crazy into Smile, decently into Blankets and Maus, and interested in Persepolis. I think part of the popularity of Persepolis (#1, I will say is much better, #2- not so awesome) has to do with the some of the diversity within my old branch and some on-going conversations about conditions in different areas of the world.

They also got pretty into Relish.  I had to sell that one at first, even to the kids in the culinary career program.  However, as soon as one read Chapter 5 (the one where the kid discovers girlie magazines in Mexico), EVERYONE was reading it.  Like, we just had a crazy reserve list for a while, and they were passing copies back and forth.  I doubt many of them read the whole thing, but that chapter got some serious action.

Thomas: I may have been too harsh on graphic memoirs, as I tend to enjoy nine out of ten (including Blankets, Maus, Relish, March, How To Understand Israel in 60 Days or Less, Persepolis, Smile, Stitches, anything by Harvey Pekar) without reserve. There are just certain autobiographical comics (Calling Dr. Laura, Susceptible, parts of Little Fish, parts of The Impostor’s Daughter, anything by Jeffrey Brown) where the protagonist’s quirkiness, vulnerability, and “adorkability” play off as precious instead of compelling. Those comics still have their audience and all, but I’m ready for the genre to get a shake-up and hope there’s not a coming flood of me-too memoirs on the horizon.

Garrett: For myself, I’ll read a memoir if it can compel me or if I particularly enjoy the characterizations, but if something is irritating me I won’t hesitate to put it down, even if not finished.  Life is too short to put up with a bad book.

Caitlin: Cool, I feel like I get it now. The status thing Robin mentioned makes a lot of sense in terms of the immediate dislike response that people have to memoir. If there’s already a bias that graphic memoirs are somehow better/deeper/more important than other graphic novels, and then in practice many of them aren’t especially good/deep/important, then I can easily see how “memoir” has come to mean “pretentious book”. And how that can even carry over to books that *are* good but still don’t live up to those inflated expectations.

I also like the idea of memoir with a purpose vs. without. My Friend Dahmer is a kind of memoir, but I’ve never heard it described that way. I guess when it comes to memoirs with a purpose, you’re more likely to say “it’s about [the purpose]” and you’re less likely to get into that eye-rolling “ugh, some guy’s memoir, who cares” territory.