The ABCs of Autobio Comix

Comic Journalism

Spain Rodriguez was one of the first cartoonists to venture into participatory journalism when he reported on the anti-war demonstration at the Pentagon in 1968 for the East Village Other. Instead of presenting the event from an objective fly-on-the-wall view, he described what he saw and heard personally, including sharing a swig off a whiskey bottle from protesters in a passing car. He didn’t provide facts and figures like the mass media attempted to do, but instead gave a first hand impression of being there. Rodriguez also began drawing memoirs about riding with the Road Vultures Motorcycle Club at EVO, which years later were collected in a paperback edition, My True Story.

A foreign comic book with limited distribution in the US gave another example of what could be accomplished with this journalistic approach. Written in 1972-73 and first published in Japan, Gen of Hiroshima was another early example of historical non-fiction comics with a personal point of view. An indictment of war, Gen was a first hand account of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, as witnessed by Keiji Nakazawa. In his book, young Gen and his family suffered from the physical deprivations caused by Japan’s military campaign and social ostracism from his father’s criticism of the power structure. After the A-bomb devastated his home city, Gen somehow survived but his parents and siblings all died. Two installments of the story were translated into English and published in comic book form by Educomics in the early 1980s, but the complete 1300-page story is now available in four volumes from Last Gasp.

The high water mark for this sub-genre of autobiography was the publication of Maus: A Survivor’s Tale, first in serial form in Raw magazine, and then collected and published in two volumes in 1986 and 1991. This story of Art Spiegelman’s father Vladek before, during and after World War II describes events of the Holocaust, peopled with cartoon mice and cats. It was the first comic work to be awarded the Pulitzer Prize Special Award in 1992, a designation that revealed the judges’ dilemma in deciding if it was fiction or non-fiction. Thousands if not millions of words of praise have already been written about Maus, deservedly so. It was an inspiration for many of Spiegelman’s colleagues and fans, who were moved to emulate his accomplishment.

In 2000, Dutch cartoonist Peter Pontiac (Pollman) wrote and drew Kraut, a graphic memoir of his own father who had been a German collaborator during World War II, and then disappeared without a trace from Curacao in 1978. Pontiac was inspired by the unflinching honesty that he saw in Maus and Binky Brown Meets the Holy Virgin Mary, he said. After threatening to tell this story for years, he finally sat down to the task at the end of the century.

Spiegelman assigned participatory journalism jobs to cartoonists when he became the cartoon editor at Details magazine in 1997, starting with Peter Kuper’s reporting on the Burning Man art festival in Nevada. Subsequent assignments included Kim Deitch’s coverage of a prisoner’s execution at Greensville Correctional Center in Virginia and an investigation into the source of the Melissa computer virus, as well as Peter Bagge’s sketch of the Comedy Arts Festival in Aspen, Colorado, Kaz’ account of Ozzfest ’98 in Akron, Ohio, Ben Katchor’s coverage of the Chiemsee Gerry Lopez Pipe Masters competition in Hawaii, and Joe Sacco’s profile of blues musician T-Model Ford. It was a great experiment while it lasted, and provided an example of how comics could add another dimension to news coverage.

Joe Sacco showed himself to be a most dedicated comic journalist when he later covered war zones and hot spots in Eastern Europe and the Middle East, with the kind of insight and bravery that only fools and geniuses achieve. Two of his books, Safe Area Goražde and Palestine showed what an artist could bring to reportage that writers and photographers could not.

Photographers have to be at the action with their equipment ready to record a dramatic or illuminating moment, and have to capture it in a fraction of a second exposure. The shooter’s nightmare is discovering later that the photo was out of focus, or incorrectly exposed or somehow damaged. A cartoonist can recreate a moment from memory at a later time and if his drawing gets destroyed, can do it again. Writers can describe the carnage of a battlefield or the emotions of the victims of war, but they cannot present wordless tableaux that let the readers view and interpret events for themselves.

Sacco was an embedded journalist long before mass media bought into the idea. His graphic accounts demonstrated the relationships he developed with local inhabitants during brutal conflicts and in the lulls between action. From the beginning he staked out a personal investment in the outcome of his stories.

Marjane Satrapi’s depiction of her homeland in Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood is another worthy successor to Maus. When she was ten years old in 1979, the Islamic Revolution that overthrew the last Emperor of Iran transformed her life. Her parents later sent her to Europe for safety, but eventually she returned, changed by her experiences in the West, and determined to come to terms with the realities of the new regime. Her simple drawing style belies a complicated story of a population under siege from within and without, and is rooted in her own family’s deprivations. No outsider or news agency could replicate the intimacy of her visual perspective.

Eddie Campbell told his own coming of age story in Alec: The King Kanute Crowd with alter ego Alec MacGarry standing in for the artist, and chronicled the development of alternative comics in Great Britain in How to be an Artist. He continues to depict his family life in Australia and his adventures on the comic convention circuit around the globe.

Carol Tyler collected stories drawn over time from her own life in Late Bloomer, published in 2003. “Chalk it up to fear of annihilation,” she says. “Life is short. I don’t want my voice to be gone after I’m gone. I get frustrated when I look at old family photos of the long ago ancestors. I want to know more about them! So my satisfaction comes through the knowledge that maybe my great-great-great grandchildren will have the opportunity to know me, my family, and our times through this work.”

She is currently two books into her three-volume account of her father, Charles W. Tyler, who was a GI in Europe during the last world war. You’ll Never Know Book I and Book II jump back and forth through time, from her father’s youth to the present day, where her family is faced with elder issues. Book III, Soldier’s Heart, will be released in 2012.

“I’m just telling stories from the place I know best,” says Tyler. “It was my intention with You’ll Never Know to widen that point into a larger circle by understanding the lives of others, my family in particular. I wanted to explore how they negotiated life beyond what I knew from my fixed position. The surprise of this expansion was that it brought me a greater awareness of the overall human condition. How excellent, don’t you think?”

Tyler teaches students about comics, graphic novels and sequential art at the University of Cincinnati. “I encourage them to write and draw from the place that they know best in order to be authentic. Whether it’s fiction or not is not the point. It’s the source that matters. I emphasize originality and the importance of finding one’s voice. I tell them that most likely most of them will not go on to do comics after this course of study with me. But that what they learn about the work ethic, showing up to one’s life, taking the risk of stepping beyond their illusions, making a commitment to the task are values that are guaranteed to be there for them no matter where their choices in life take them.”

Comics are most often made by cartoonists, but the form has become so pervasive that outsiders are also drawn to it, sometimes from a metaphoric left field. Two recent examples of graphic memoirs produced by outsiders are David Small’s Stitches and Laurie Sandell’s The Imposter’s Daughter.

David Small is an award winning writer and illustrator of children’s books who turned to the comic medium to tell the story of his own childhood, when he developed cancer in his throat, brought on by his radiologist father’s excessive x-ray treatments for sinus conditions. He became nearly mute when he was fourteen years old after an operation that removed part of his vocal chords. He only regained his voice after many years of therapy, and later in life was compelled to tell his version of the traumatic events.

“It seemed like a natural shortcut around prose,” says Small. “If I had had to write that story I would never have finished it. My natural and best means of expression is drawing. The elastic element of time, and the ability to lead the eye around a space using multiple viewpoints, these are such liberating gifts. I’m also a big fan of black and white, which is out of favor in the other kinds of illustration I generally do. Color complicates the issue tremendously.”

Small wrote and illustrated his story to come to terms with what happened to him. His parents chose not to speak about the whole incident. “My aim in doing this work was, first of all, a very selfish one. I wanted –I should say I needed very badly-- to remember some things in order to mature. This impulse found its best expression in bringing people and events back to life by means of drawing. Finally it was having Bob Weil –one of the truly great editors —plus a contract, an advance and a deadline, that pushed me to finally make something lucid out of the turmoil of my memories.”

Laurie Sandell was a writer for Glamour magazine whose usual beat was celebrity profiles and diet tips when she decided to expose the lies her father had told her about his life. He boasted of friendships with rich and powerful people, a military career in Vietnam, advanced college degrees and other fabrications that she believed fervently as a young girl, but which were fueling her insecurities as an adult. She hoped that by shedding the light of truth on his falsehoods, she could overcome her own problems with intimate relationships and Ambien and alcohol abuse.

“I grew up drawing cartoons about my dad, but never intended to publish them,” says Sandell. “Cartooning was something I did for myself and for friends, on birthdays and other occasions. Then I got a job at Glamour magazine and drew a card for the editor-in-chief, who liked it and asked if I wanted to pitch her some cartoon ideas. That led to assignments in New York magazine and The Wall Street Journal. Once I started writing the book—which I originally planned to write as a straightforward memoir—I realized it was a story I needed to tell in the graphic novel format, since I’d been cartooning about my father my entire life. The format freed me to tell the truth about my dad, and also lent some levity to what was ultimately a pretty dark story.”

Reading other autobiographical comics by Crumb, Spiegelman, Craig Thompson and Alison Bechdel helped her make that decision. “Maus, in particular, helped me figure out how to tell a difficult story with perspective and distance and empathy. Even though Spiegelman’s father died four years before his book was published and mine was (and is) still alive, I needed help seeing my father as a ‘character’ and dealing with the fear, guilt and apprehension that came along with exposing him.”

Readers who knew her work were not comic fans for the most part. “After the book came out, I got lots of letters from people familiar with my work in women’s magazines, who said they’d never heard of graphic novels before, but really enjoyed the format. The magazines I write for are fairly mainstream—Glamour has 12 million readers—and it’s exciting to think that someone might pick up a Fun Home or a Stitches because they’ve read and enjoyed my book. I feel anything that brings new readers to the genre is a worthy addition to it.”

Sometimes a Great Notion

Some graphic novels about historical events are just what their names imply – novels. “Based on actual events” is a blurb that can fill movie theaters and add ten percent more viewers to a TV show. It might have a similar effect on graphic novels. Stuck Rubber Baby by Howard Cruse is an example of semi-autobiography serving the truth through both memory and fiction. Discovering his genuine sexual identity during the Civil Rights era in the South was the basis of the book, but Cruse never claimed it to be completely factual.

“The first sentence in the book’s afterword begins: ‘Stuck Rubber Baby is a work of fiction, not autobiography. Its characters are inventions of mine, and Clayfield is a make-believe city.’ I then go on to acknowledge the very real way that incidents I experienced growing up in Birmingham are reflected in SRB’s storyline, even as I note that I also folded true anecdotes recounted to me by others into the storyline while tossing entirely fictional elements into the mix to give the story shape. Nobody calls To Kill A Mockingbird anything but a novel or mistakes it for a reliable account of her childhood, but neither does anyone doubt that its story is full of elements based on things Harper Lee experienced.”

Several parts of the story were constructed from events that did happen in Cruse’s life. “Like Toland Polk I was the inadvertent father of a girl who was given up for adoption. Toland’s experience going for his Army physical played out much the mine did, although there was a big difference in that Toland “checks the box” impulsively whereas I went to the induction center knowing that I was going to take that step. Toland’s experience attending the funeral for the children killed in the Melody Motel bombing was based on my experience attending the funeral for the children killed when Birmingham’s Sixteenth Street Baptist Church was bombed. But in none of these quasi-autobiographical scenes did I stick literally to the details of the real-life events that inspired them. They were all happening within the context of a fictional story about fictional characters, and I had to maintain the links between such scenes and their fictional contexts, which meant modifying details to suit the overall story arc. Toland is simply a more interesting collection of conflicts and contradictions than I was at his age. My own conflicts and contradictions tended to remain below the surface and express themselves through my art.”

Alison Bechdel’s chronicle of coming of age and coming out, Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic, on the other hand, is a true memoir about her family, in which her father, a closeted homosexual, dominated her own attempts at self-awareness. The fact that she kept a journal during her young years help cement events as they actually occurred, instead of relying on memories from the distant events depicted in this book.

Joyce Farmer blends literary license with the hard truth in her book Special Exits, which gives an account of the final years of her father and stepmother in South Los Angeles. The daughter who cares for them as they become less able to function for themselves is based on Farmer’s familiarity with the realities she faced as their parents’ health and independence declined with age, but it rearranges some details to give continuity and dramatic flow to the story. Nonetheless, the events depicted are as moving as witnessing it for yourself.

Come Fly With Me

Sometimes autobiography isn’t based on facts at all. The sources of Jim Woodring’s stories about himself originate in lucid dreams and hallucinations more than actual events, but that doesn’t make them any less true, he said. The comic strips in The Book of Jim, which he described as an auto journal, are cartoony and inviting but the dialog and story lines often become frightening and confusing. Reading them is like being hypnotized rather than entertained. That reaction is what he hopes for from his readers.

“My approach was to record experiences I'd had, both awake and asleep. My favorite in the format is the great progenitor Justin Green, whose work has never been surpassed, for my money.” His newer work, such as Weathercraft, is nearly wordless, and Jim is no longer a part of his cartoon cast, but his art continues to stretch the boundaries in other comic directions.

Julie Doucet produced an entire book based on dreams, My Most Secret Desire in 2006, reprinted from dream journals that originally appeared in Dirty Plotte. She grows a penis, gives birth to a kitten, and wanders through strange landscapes, but like Little Nemo finally awakes and realizes they were only dreams.

Peter Kuper crossed over to the Land of Nod in some of his autobiographical stories and has no qualms about it. “I think the most interesting things are what actually happen, but dreams and fantasies are also a valuable source of material for auto-bio comics . I can't fly, but I have plenty of times in my dreams and it seemed as real as walking down the street, so why not include it? I couldn't make up much without having first hand experience. For the most part reality is also much crazier than fiction. Still I don't mind moving the set pieces around a little if it makes the story more interesting. I assumed that most of what happens in Annie Hall are experiences that Woody Allen has had, even if he calls himself Alvy Singer in the movie. That never bothered me or made it seem less autobiographical.”