Finding the Lens in a Visual Memoir

Part of the peril that comes with being someone who loves literature and teaches reading for a living is that sometimes analysis and interpretation leads to a locked-down view of what a text means. We know the stories of poets who cannot pass exams about their own work, and we have been cautioned by Billy Collins in his poem, “Introduction to Poetry,” that we run the risk of whipping literary works into submission in attempts to make them one-dimensional. This kind of one-sided and narrow approach certainly melds well with multiple choice questions, but hardly lends us the kind of rich conversation that is part of why we love reading in the first place. What is more, in my teaching and reading life, I frequently enjoy and analyze graphic novels. These books are sometimes seen as “lesser-than” spaces for reading, but I would suggest that they contain the same potential for interpretation that a reader might find in any other book – combined with images, which add another dimension of understanding and intrigue.

In a recent class with graduate students, we encountered a work by Faith Erin Hicks called The Nameless City. When I first read this book years ago, I was captivated by its energy, style, and the way that Hicks shapes her characters. I have since encountered other work by this author/artist and have essentially all but fallen in love with the way she renders characters. This graphic novel was published in 2016, but our class agreed that it was likely completed prior to the U.S. election of that year. After all, designing a graphic novel and authoring the books takes much longer than one might expect. We read the book with a post-2016 Trump era lens, but it is hard to know to what lengths this thinking informed the author’s work, particularly when she was likely composing this book long before the election. We cannot escape who we are as readers – but we also have to allow space for the author to share their experiences, agendas, and ideas.

Sometimes our love of literature means we take a moment to pause and recognize there is space and time between our current lens and the lens of the creator. Yet, there are times that authors disclose themselves in memoirs and interviews – and these are, indeed, powerful spaces for us to see if our interpretation lines up. In this article, I will explore some examples of how this kind of work occurs in the graphic novel form. In fact, Tom Hart has composed an entire text, The Art of the Graphic Memoir: Tell Your Story, Change Your Life (St. Martin’s, 2018), in which he advocates for this kind of process and includes a multitude of examples that go well beyond what I look at here.

An Initial Example

Serving as one example of this kind of work, Noelle Stevenson recently published her pictorial memoir, The Fire Never Goes Out. I must confess my love for this book, as well as my love of Stevenson’s graphic novel, Nimona. I have what amounts to a literacy crush on this book. The ways in which female figures are portrayed in Nimona stand in stark contrast to the design of characters like Catwoman, both in their 1990s incarnations and their current depictions. Oversexualization of characters is apparent, but Stevenson takes a different approach. Part of the work I do with students reading Nimona is sharing what we can notice about this depiction of the female form, as well as larger questions of gender identity – and the book even lends itself to genre play. There is a lot going on in this book, clearly, and that is probably why this was a case of literary love at first sight.

Simply put, if you haven’t read Nimona, I highly recommend it. What I discovered in The Fire Never Goes Out is a self-disclosure from the author, both in terms of her evolution as an artist, including her successes and doubts, as well as her reflections about her work. It is indeed the case that Stevenson spends time discussing notions of the female form and how mainstream culture sends destructive messages about the ideal figure.

This book, however, goes on to offer so much more. In Stevenson’s autobiographical artistry, I discover a fellow fan of popular media. This focus on characters and storylines connects with me at a nostalgic level, as a long-time reader of comic books, but also speaks to me now as someone who continues to enjoy filmic interpretations of characters. She mentions The Lord of the Rings and The Avengers, among other works that connect with my sense of fandom. What Stevenson then does as an artist is recorded in this book and reaches back to her first years of sharing work in public forums online. This author and artist not only appreciates but also takes up and reconfigures these characters in her own style. Frankly, I wish I could do that.

Working in true graphic novel form, the author includes short prose, personal photos, sketches, and segments from her already-published work. It’s a kind of textual assemblage or collage of her personal story – and the result is engaging. Elsewhere in the memoir, Stevenson discloses her struggles with faith and identity, among other aspects of life. So, the book works in a variety of ways to disclose some of the author’s lenses – as fan, as artist, and as human being. These are both aesthetic questions, and tough questions about reality, and this range of thinking echoes with some of my own wanderings and ruminations over the years. I will never teach Nimona again without mentioning the powerful layers that this pictorial memoir adds to our reading, and the book has helped further shape my thinking about my own self-disclosure in writing. Yes, even in graphic novels.

Exploring Further

But the work hardly stops at this example. Authors have used the graphic novel medium to push for telling their stories for some time, and I appreciate them widely. In Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic (Mariner, 2007), author and artist Alison Bechdel explores tension in her family, as well as negotiating her own identity and sexuality. These are relatable issues, and ones that I know come up in classroom conversations at times. Additionally, Bechdel’s work provides a well-designed view into another person’s experiences.

Hart points out that Bechdel often takes photographs of herself as she considers the geographic space of how her panels will work, and this furthers my understanding of just complex and thoughtful comic book and graphic novel work really is. It’s not just quick doodles and fireballs. As Hart suggests, “In most cases, the creator of the memoir loves the art of drawing” (p. 19). Bechdel uses art as a way of reliving experiences and uses these photographs as an additional layer of experience to add her work. I see the connection there to my own use of poetry as a way of expressing ideas and taking up troubling parts of the world around me – but images provide yet another way of thinking about this.

The vulnerability authors and artists create in their visual and textual representations of self can be powerful, and challenges me to be more vulnerable in my daily life and in my writing. Raina Telgemeier’s 2019 book, Guts (Scholastic), makes use of her own doubts, fears, and experiences to weave a narrative in which young people are encouraged to be themselves, and to recognize that everyone has struggles and needs additional help at times. In one particular moment, Telgemeier shares the experience of disclosing part of her story to her friends and is shocked when this disclosure is met with acceptance, rather than the rejection that many young people dread. I think back on the years I was afraid to let people know I had spoken with a counselor about my own life journey – and the time that I could go back and recapture to use for doing something better than worry (like writing a graphic memoir). What these creators do when they offer up their own stories is normalize the kinds of lived experiences that make us feel alone – when we are never truly alone. That, also, is part of the beauty of literature and writing. It is a way of calling out to each other. Yes, that sounds rather emotive, but I also think that’s part of the power of reading.

For other examples of this type of pictorial memoir, see Stargazing by Jen Wang (First Second, 2019), Smile by Raina Telgemeier (Scholastic, 2010), Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood by Marjani Satrapi (Pantheon, 2004), Blankets by Craig Thompson (Drawn & Quarterly, 2015), Be Prepared by Vera Brosgol (First Second, 2018) – and a multitude of others that are listed in Hart’s book. The list goes on.

I work my way to conclusion with at least one confession: as a lover of the graphic novel medium and as someone who shares about literacy work, I have explored my own history in illustrated format at times, but only in short sketches and tracing. While my art is not nearly at the level of many creators, I give myself permission to find my own history in these notes and doodles. What I have discovered is a series of rooting out memories, beginning with my earliest experiences in reading, and leading up to some of my latest interests. I recommend this kind of work in terms of a literacy history, but also in terms of exploring identity in broader terms – and I plan to engage in it more often.

Hart recommends more than thirty exercises for engaging in this process, and they are written in accessible ways, from crafting logs to creating diary comics. Comics creator Svetlana Chmakova has published a graphic novel Diary (JY, 2019), and this artistic space may be the perfect canvas to begin initial brushstrokes in graphic novel memoir form. They are lovely starting points, as well as checking out the variety of mentors texts that exist on the market.

It can be a dangerous thing for teachers to chain books to their own interpretations – but it is beautiful when an author shares their views on the work, and when the reader and author come together to create something new, it is transformative. What is more, the potential to explore our own lives through words and images makes this work even more personal and relevant. I am now looking to widen my own lens and start crafting some more intentional images soon.

Jason D. DeHart is an assistant professor of reading education at Appalachian State University. DeHart is interested in multimodal texts, like graphic novels, as well as adolescent literacy. He also writes poetry.

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