The ABCs of Autobio Comix

Crossing Borders

Peter Kuper also drew stories about his travels to other countries. When he was ten years old, his father took the family on a yearlong sabbatical to Israel, and Kuper recounts his experiences there in several stories for the oversized comic magazine Blab! He also described his travels in Africa and Asia with his wife in ComicsTrips: A Journal of Travels Through Africa and Southeast Asia. More recently, he created Diario De Oaxaca, a combination journal, sketchbook, photo album and comic book based on his family’s relocation to one of the poorest states in Mexico from 2006 to 2008.

Diario de Oaxaca is the result of being in the right place at the wrong time,” wrote Kuper in his introduction. “When I moved to Oaxaca with my wife and daughter, I wasn’t looking for trouble; on the contrary, I was hoping for some escape. Escape from the United States under Bush’s administration, escape from my workaholic schedule, escape from consumer culture and a ceaseless barrage of depressing news stories. A breather.” He found his destination embroiled in an escalating battle between striking schoolteachers and the autocratic governor of the state, who had called in federal troops to break the strike. The text in the book is in English and Spanish and the art features local architecture, indigenous culture and graffiti posted by the striking teachers.

Kuper also drew comic stories about his formative years in Cleveland, Ohio, replete with sexual frustration, bullies, bongs, and big dreams, many of which were collected in Stripped: An Unauthorized Autobiography. He graduated to comics about mid-life issues in Stop Forgetting to Remember. This was familiar territory in autobiographical comics but Kuper infused it with an ironic self-appraisal and a willingness to laugh at his pain. He took his cues from Robert Crumb, who told him at age 13, “I don’t think you should take comic books so seriously. I mean, dig on ‘em, swap ‘em, trade ‘em, collect ‘em, but don’t take them so goddamn seriously! Comic and sci-fi fans of the world get laid!”

“He was absolutely correct,” says Kuper, “about that last part at least, but it was years before I was able to take his advice.”

Photographer Didier Lefèvre and artist Emmanuel Guibert collaborated on a unique hybrid project in The Photographer: Into War-torn Afghanistan with Doctors Without Borders. The book, which recounted an arduous humanitarian mission in northern Afghanistan in 1986, used both drawings and photos to tell the story, an interesting juxtaposition that brought an extra level of reality to the saga. His account did not recommend it as a path that tourists should follow, like other travel books. The narrator barely escaped his journey alive, and saw many others die and suffer during his expedition.

French Canadian cartoonist Guy Delisle brought himself and his point of view to the travelogue format with three books that describe his experiences in North Korea, China, and Burma. Shenzhen: A Travelogue From China was published after he came home from an overseas animation assignment in remote southern China, where he often felt loneliness and culture shock. He didn’t plan on making a travelogue from his experiences, but that’s what happened. “I was taking notes when I came back from China, it started as a short story in the magazine Lapin. I thought it would be funny to put myself in some of these notes that I’ve taken in China, so that’s how I started the whole thing, not thinking that I’m going to do a book. It was just a few short stories.”

Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea came next after Delisle spent two months in that tightly controlled Communist state overseeing the production of children’s animated films. An official guide and a translator always accompanied him to prevent him from interacting with any North Korean people outside of work and official ceremonies. He ditched his guide one day, which caused the poor man an anxiety attack for fear of punishment, and consequently Delisle felt so sorry for him that he never attempted to elude him again.

“I have bits of journalism in it because I have to convey information in the book, like how they distribute the food and this and this, but it’s a really small part of the book,” says Delisle. “There are maybe five or ten pages of explanation about North Korea in the book on North Korea. The rest is more about everyday feelings and the impressions I had about the people. I’m much more of a traveler than a journalist and much more of a daydreamer. The best description I can make of my book is it’s a big postcard I would send to my family. In that postcard I put everything I find funny, strange, interesting and I want to explain a few things, but for me it’s very far from journalism.”

One of his earliest inspirations came from Marcel Gotlib, a French cartoonist who placed himself in his own cartoons in the album Rubrique-á-brac, and later expanded on this idea in l’Echo Des Savanes magazine. “He would portray himself as a very pretentious artist. He was almost like Leonardo de Vinci in giving advice. He would use autobiography but almost in a fictional way. His portrayal was completely different from himself. I guess I must have been influenced by that, because once you read that, you know that you can do that with autobiography and that’s interesting.”

“Of course I’ve been influenced by Maus. It was the answer to what a lot of people in my generation were asking themselves. We were sure that comic books could be much more powerful than what we saw at the time. We knew it was a great media and we could go much further that what we were reading. He was the answer to that because the book was so powerful. Everyone of my generation remembers that book as a very important step in their reading of comics.”

Burma Chronicles, published in 2010, contains fewer bouts of alienation since he travels this time with his wife, an administrator for Medecins Sans Frontiere and his infant son Louie. Joe Sacco himself reviewed the book for the literary review The National.

“Guy Delisle has entered the comics scene like a breath of fresh air, and may all young autobiographically-minded cartoonists fill their lungs with his example,” wrote Sacco. “With endless curiosity but without seeming to try too hard, Delisle lives a life worth documenting. Delisle managed to wring the full potential from the comic-book form, which can thrust the reader into a foreign place from the first panel.”

Delisle’s first two travelogues were published by l’Association, a French publisher founded in the early 1990s by several cartoonists who also work in the autobiographical field, including Lewis Trondheim and David B. (Pierre-François "David" Beauchard).

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8 Responses to The ABCs of Autobio Comix

  1. catpooptv says:

    Nice article. Glad to see mention of Dennis Eichhorn who is, for my money, the best of all of these auto bio creators and that is really saying something for me as I enjoy and am familiar with almost everyone mentioned in this article. Even though Eichhorn is an Eisner and Harvey award winner I have always thought that he was one of the most overlooked writers in this genre.

  2. JonathanBaylis says:

    Great article Patrick. Makes me want to search around for more auto-bio, particularly Peter Pontiac's Kraut. Do you know if it was ever translated into English?

    Great job!

    P.S. (and please feel free to delete this part, mods) Slight typo in Gabrielle's name at the top of Page 5. You start out right, but then add an extra letter soon after.

  3. Tim Hodler says:

    Typo fixed. Thanks.

  4. Tim Hodler says:

    According to Patrick Rosenkranz, Peter Pontiac is still waiting for an American publisher to translate Kraut into English. Sparkplug had plans for a Pontiac book at one time.

  5. MADdelaRosa says:

    This was cool and a great start to these extensive features. I've gotten a bit burned out on autobiographical comics over the years but reading through a dissection of their history had made me remember what I liked about them in the first place (and pointed out a few that I must track down now). I like the inclusive definition of autobiography used by Patrick here, even if it's not one I completely share. For example, I would not call Sacco's work straight autobiography as much as it is comics journalism. Campbell's Alec stories are more semi-autobiographical (not so much his work post-How To Be An Artist), too. However, I can see how including even these peripherally-autobiographical works gives a more cohesive sense of history.

    One last thing: I believe she's known (at least for purposes of Persepolis) as Marjane, not Marjorie Satrapi. But maybe I'm wrong and ignorant of how she prefers to call herself…any help from someone who might know?

  6. JonathanBaylis says:

    I wonder if Fanfare/Ponent Mon might be a good choice of publisher. I thought they did a nice job of Years of the Elephant.

  7. DanSteffan says:

    A highly informative and thoughtful piece, Patrick. I enjoyed it, but I think I'd add another item to your list of autobiographical undergrounds. Ted Richards did a very touching story in a book called, TWO FOOLS, about the death of fellow cartoonist, Willy Murphy. It has some real emotional depth and is easily the best thing Richards ever produced.

  8. steven samuels says:

    Harvey Pekar, whose long career as a file clerk for the Veteran’s Administration formed the center of his comic world, supplemented with monotonous domestic chores, meandering internal dialogs, encounters with nerds and schlemiels, and tedious accounts of his appearances on David Letterman’s show

    Well, mileage may vary, but considering he basically transcribed his appearances on the show to the comics page I thought they were as uproarious as they could be. Easily the most amusing stories of Pekar’s output, especially for someone so dependably glum.

    Perhaps I’m hopelessly old school and my criticisms are quaint and obsolete. Maybe the young comic reader today values spontaneity and unpretentious self-expression more than artistry.

    I think Brown’s work does have its share of detractors. Probably more than its share. Though one would think that as time goes on, just like with the “Mumblecore” film movement, the extreme navel gazing will be leavened out with a good measure of improvement in craft.

    Laurie Sandell, I don’t know about her. The book is a breezy read, she’s certainly capable, but it’s the flip side of the insular masochistic comic geek autobio. The chatty, masochistic Oprah-version of the genre is definetly not a step forward.

    One artist not mentioned is Ted Rall, but the less said about his work, the better. {shudder}

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