The Power and Range of the Graphic Novel-Memoir

Graphic novelists like Alison Bechdel, Art Spiegelman and Marjane Satrapi push the limits of the form with illustrated memoir.

The graphic novel-memoir is a small but growing field populated by skilled artists who choose to use both words and images to tell their stories. In graphic memoirs such as Art Spiegelman's "Maus," Marjane Satrapi's "Persepolis," and most recently, Alison Bechdel's "Are You My Mother?," the graphic novel form deftly conveys painful instances of sadness, suffering and loss -- and those moments are at once enhanced and muted via the medium. The images in these memoirs can act to both reinforce and contradict the powerful emotional messages held forth in their pages.

Perhaps no graphic novel is more well-known or highly lauded than Art Spiegelman's 1986 Holocaust memoir "Maus," which recounts his father's harrowing experiences in Nazi-occupied Poland. Rather than explicitly illustrate his father's tale, Spiegelman turns the story into an Orwellian nightmare, where Polish Jews are mice, being summarily tortured by Nazi cats. The onlookers are played by pigs. Spiegelman's choice -- to tell the story in both graphic novel form, but then to further distance readers from the characters by symbolically turning them into animals, serves to make the story palatable.

But Spiegelman's visual metaphor also works to gather space between reader and subject. Readers can choose identification with his animal characters -- or choose to disconnect. Similarly, Marjane Satrapi, author of "Persepolis," notes in an interview with Robert Root in the journal Fourth Genre, “there are so many things that you can say through images that you cannot say with the writing. The comics is the only media in the whole world that you can use the image plus the writing and plus the imagination and plus be active while reading it.” Similarly, notes Satrapi, the graphic novel form is limited by the fact that the artist is unable to truly, fully render a living, breathing, moving story. “Because on each page you have to find a way of [telling the story], because you cannot draw it the same way the whole time, because you have to worry about how to keep the reader through 150 pages and give them a surprise of discovering a new way of drawing and the layout, etc., so that they wouldn’t be bored.”

Graphic artist Alison Bechdel, best known for her serial comic, "Dykes To Watch Out For," has produced two highly personal, intensely moving memoirs. Her first, "Fun Home," charts her fraught relationship with her late father, who harbored a deep sexual secret. For Bechdel's latest, "Are You My Mother?," she again returns to her childhood home, weaving together a narrative about her strained relationships with her mother and her therapist and the way those two have so often stood in for one another in her life. But "Mother" is not so much a straight narrative as a meta-commentary on the genre, sparing nothing in exposing the complicated and heartbreaking toll writing about one's life can take on one's personal relationships.

Bechdel punctuates and relates her delicate, rickety maternal relationship with quotations and references to the psychologist Donald Winnicott, who pioneered the field of object-relations theory. Winnicott's object-relations theory, explains Bechdel, centers on the construct of the "good enough mother"  -- the mother whose love offers us enough grounding to construct our own identities and develop our own psyches. And this analysis -- as to whether Bechdel's mother was good enough in her own version, and in Bechdel's -- lies at the core of the memoir. To get closer to her own truth, Bechdel attempts to fully understand who and what her mother is, reading her through Winnicott, psychoanalyst Alice Miller and author Virginia Woolf.

For all the heady subject matter, Bechdel punctuates the story with images that belie a sometimes separate truth. One that helps the reader swallow down a story rife with family trauma, grief, multi-level psychoanalytic dramas and painful breakups -- romantic and otherwise. As Judith Thurman says in the The New Yorker, “The voice that narrates the traumas and the conflicts of her younger self both yearns for and mistrusts closeness, strives for detachment yet suffers from too much of it, and is offhandedly confessional but wary of its own sincerity.”

For graphic novel memoirists like Bechdel, Spiegelman, and Satrapi, the form serves a critical storytelling function -- to highlight and enhance the emotionally fraught images with words, and vice versa.