Graphic Histories and Memoirs

Here’s the thing: I had never read a graphic book before I wrote one. I’m being totally serious: no Watchmen, no Ghost World, not even Maus. When I first admitted this to Jonathan Fetter-Vorm, my co-author on Battle Lines, he was incredulous. But after I sent him the script for the first chapter of our book, he believed me. It was entirely clear, he realized, that I had no clue what I was doing. The only charitable explanation for such incompetence was ignorance. And so Jonathan decided to play Burgess Meredith to my Sylvester Stallone. He put me on a rigorous training program. I was supposed to consume titles that would transform me into a connoisseur, someone capable of discerning wheat from chaff.

So am I the right person to ask for a list of graphic books that people should consider reading? I honestly don’t know. You’ll have to judge for yourself. But please know that I selected the titles below not because they’re my favorites, but because I think, as you’ll see in my annotations, that they offer a useful window into a particular episode from the past, or perhaps a glimpse at how this sort of work can accomplish things that text-based histories can’t—especially how graphic books can rely on visual metaphors to drive unusually spare narrative strategies.

Places to Start

Marjane Satrapi, Persepolis (2003)

Among the most lauded graphic books ever, Persepolis is a great place to start, because Satrapi masterfully straddles the line between history and memory. Her story of growing up during the Islamic Revolution in Iran manages to be at once panoramic and also deeply personal. The extraordinarily simple art, all done in black and white, somehow underscores the emotional impact of the narrative.

Gene Yang, American Born Chinese (2006)

As with Persepolis, this is a personal story with broader implications for readers interested in immigrant communities and the construction of so-called model minorities in the United States. The art, as in the case of Satrapi’s, is deceptively simple. Yang always lets his images carry the story; the dialogue is spare.

Alison Bechdel, Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic (2006)

Before the MacArthur Genius grant and the hit musical came this memoir, which Bechdel calls “a family tragicomic,” a history of the dynamics between a daughter and her father, a closeted gay man who taught literature and ran a funeral parlor. The book has been hyped, but it deserves all of the praise. Of special interest to historians is that much of what Bechdel writes here is based on her journals.

Digging In

Joe Sacco, Safe Area Goražde: The War in Eastern Bosnia (2000)

Readers may want to dig into some of Joe Sacco’s work, likely starting with Safe Area Goržade, because he’s a terrific journalist, a reasonably careful historian, and a talented illustrator. That said, be warned: expect to be gutted by this story. It’s a horrifying examination of a Bosnian town surrounded by genocide and filled with brutalized people who somehow dare to hope that better things lie ahead.

Jason Lutes, Berlin: City of Stones (2001)

Lutes’s examination of late-Weimar Germany is shrouded by the horror of what’s to come but still manages not to descend into teleology. The book takes seriously the small contingencies that mark histories of everyday life. As with Sacco’s work, the pages can be overstuffed, but the storytelling is taut, the material powerful.

Lauren Redniss, Radioactive: Marie & Pierre Curie, a Tale of Love & Fallout (2011)

I considered putting Redniss’s book below, among the “New Moves,” but decided to leave it here with the slightly more traditional graphic histories. Regardless, it’s an odd book that leans heavily on the author’s haunting, beautiful, and sometimes abstract images. The art carries along a tragic story of the relationship between the past and the present, which is also built atop Redniss’s outstanding reporting.

Josh Neufeld, A.D.: New Orleans After the Deluge (2009)

Neufeld follows a group of six New Orleanians before, during, and after Hurricane Katrina, rendering an epic catastrophe human in scale. Originally published as a web comic, the book itself is a lovely object: printed on thick paper and in color. Along with Jed Horne’s Breach of Faith, this is my favorite history of Katrina.

Chester Brown, Louis Riel: A Comic-Strip Biography (2003)

Focusing on the years between the Red River Rebellion in 1869 and Louis Riel’s execution for treason in 1885, this book chronicles tensions between Canada’s nascent government and its Métis peoples. Although Louis Riel boasts an impressive scholarly apparatus, the book is not entirely reliable as a work of history; Brown spends a great deal of time considering the possibility that his subject was mentally ill, lending his work a phantasmagorical quality. Still, it’s an impressive recounting of a story that isn’t nearly as well known in the United States as it should be.

New Moves

Derf Backderf, My Friend Dahmer (2012)

It’s hard to know what to say about a memoir that recounts the author’s childhood friendship with one of the most notorious serial killers in history. My Friend Dahmer is every bit as harrowing as you’d expect. But what you might find surprising is that Backderf manages to make Dahmer seem human while still acknowledging that he was a monster. The book is also an unsparing portrait of growing up in the Midwestern suburbs during the 1970s. Once I started reading, I couldn’t put the book down. But I’m not entirely comfortable telling others to pick it up.

Joann Sfarr, The Rabbi’s Cat (2005)

Set in Algeria’s Jewish community during the 1920s, this is the story of a rabbi and his cat, who consumes a parrot and acquires the ability to speak. The cat, after studying Torah with the rabbi, naturally decides that as a Jew, he must be bar mitzvahed. The rabbi remains skeptical but decides to approach his mentor for advice. Hilarity and hijinks—and serious discussions about the importance (or not) and origins of religious strictures, as well as the nature of humanity—ensue.

Ari Kelman is McCabe Greer Professor of History at Penn State University. He is the author of A Misplaced Massacre: Struggling Over the Memory of Sand Creek and, with Jonathan Fetter-Vorm, Battle Lines: A Graphic History of the Civil War.