Putting the fun back in funeral and spicing it with tenderness, grit and regret, Alison Bechdel's memoir Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic grabs you from the first page and never lets go. It's like reading someone's diary, because essentially it is someone's diary, but this has to be the most painstakingly artful diary ever created. It helps, too, that Bechdel's gothic-tragic family is unconventional, to almost Tennessee Williams proportions. Her dad, who works at a funeral home in rural Pennsylvania, is tortured by a secret he can only partly hide. Her mom does theater and tries to fit the happy-spouse mold. Alison, meanwhile, grows up exploring her sexuality and intellect with equally intense self-analysis. The book's meshing of text and art is so smooth and organic you don't even notice it unless you notice how well it's done. Bechdel clearly understands exactly which parts of a story pictures can tell better than words. Which isn't to say she's a slouch as a wordsmith; she reads a lot, and it shows. Layering her family's tale with shades of Proust, Camus and Icarus, Bechdel gives her story depth while avoiding pretentiousness.
LAUGHING AT DEATH
An even more humorous take on a grim topic is Cancer Vixen: A True Story by Marisa Acocella Marchetto. A cartoonist for the New Yorker and other publications, Marchetto was an urban glamour queen who had just started seeing a sexy Italian chef when she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Her self-mocking approach to the distinctly unglamorous cancer-treatment process is nicely paired with her sly, sophisticated illustrations. Fellow cartoonist Miriam Engelberg takes an equally lighthearted approach to bad news in Cancer Made Me a Shallower Person. Her irreverent take on her illness culminates in the existential dilemma, If I could get rid of my cancer by teaching high school again, would I? The deliberately childlike drawings and scribbly lettering match the author's emphasis on goofiness as a coping technique.
Equally charming, but with an underlying sadness that's hard to shake, is Marjane Satrapi's Chicken with Plums, a star-crossed love story about the Persepolis author's great-uncle. Satrapi's trademark artwork like elaborately festooned woodcuts lends itself to this heartbreaking tale of a famous musical genius who dies over something lost and irreplaceable. Though not quite a memoir, it adds to Satrapi's collected body of autobiographical work: The stories of our relatives often define the people we become. That idea weighs heavily upon the new memoir by children's book illustrator Martin Lemelman, Mendel's Daughter. Inspired by a vision he sees of his dead mother speaking to him in the night, Lemelman at age 52 digs up an old videotape of her telling stories about her childhood and her family's horrific experiences during the Holocaust. The narrative is told in his mother's heavily accented voice, and occasionally that of her brother; the artwork is composed of old photographs and documents as well as intricately shaded character portraits. It's beautifully done and has the feel of something that's been labored over like a sacred object.
Not so much a memoir as a valuable historical document, Deogratias: A Tale of Rwanda, written and illustrated by Stassen, provides a beautiful but harrowing reading experience. It follows the grim fate of a boy trapped in the midst of the Rwandan genocide, putting the violence into narrow focus by showing its devastating effects on just one young life. The lush, saturated beauty of Stassen's artwork provides a stark contrast with the brutal world he's recording.
DO IT YOURSELF
Everyone has a compelling life story; there's no such thing as a boring childhood. If you're inspired by these graphic-novel memoirs, why not try creating your own? Making Comics by Scott McCloud author of the groundbreaking Understanding Comics explains in step-by-step chapters how and why comics work to illustrate a story, and how the reader can use them to tell their own. There are tips on just about every aspect of creating a comic book, from how facial muscles work to how to make the most of a text bubble to what certain postures can tell readers about a character's mood. It's a handy guide for both aspiring artists and those who simply enjoy reading graphic novels.