There’s this Kevin Smith quote that I think about a lot. He was talking about Cop Out, the first film that he directed but didn’t write, and how it differed from his other work. He said, “The other movies – they weren’t films, they weren’t movies, they were just me ripping open my chest, pulling out fatty chunks of my heart, slapping it between two platters, projecting it, and being like, ‘What do you think?’” That’s probably something a huge number of comic book creators can relate to because, even more than independent film, the comics industry is a place where it’s hard to make money off of what makes you tick. Everyone has a passion project, because very few people to comics under the delusion that they’ll make Kirkman money, and the ones that do learn pretty quickly that they’re barking up the wrong tree is the wrong forest on the wrong planet. The planet they should be searching for? Probably doesn’t even have trees.
With so many comic book creators using the graphic medium as the means by which to set their passion project out into the world, it makes sense that we’d get a lot of personal stories. Alan Moore sought to make sweeping and nuanced commentary on humanity with his superhero books, Scott Snyder explores his childhood and adult fears and where they meet in his creator owned Wytches, and Geoff Johns coped with the loss of his sister by creating DC’s Star Girl. There are endless examples. In my own work, I put so much of myself that I sometimes feel uncomfortable knowing that others are going to read it. But I, for now, hide behind the thin veil of fictional characters – and actually, no, I take that back, it’s not really hiding, not in the negative sense. It’s a way of turning feelings (love, loss, passion, what have you) into something other. Something not you.
And then, there’s the folks who create graphic memoirs.
The following list is a selection of graphic memoirs I wanted to revisit for Blastoff’s celebration of comic booky love. These are the creators that put their own life down on paper and put it out into the world, for better or worse. The following four works that I chose to spotlight walk the line of fiction and non-fiction, taking the big moments from a person’s life – people’s lives, really – and distilling them into a story. Each one is different, and each one is lovely.
Blankets by Craig Thompson is one of the first graphic novels I ever read. I’d just finished Y: The Last Man and was in the middle of Sandman when I picked this up. I remember reading it in the bed I grew up in, reading a section before bed every night for a week. I was rocked to my core, unaware that this kind of story could be told in comics. It captured the little, forgotten moments of life, turning things that would normally happen off panel into a splash page, making poetry out of every day conversation.
It’s about Raina, Craig’s first love. While their relationship, the beginning, the sweet middle, and the heart wrenching end is the core of the book, it’s also about religion, childhood, innocence, abuse, and salvation. I was growing apart from my religious roots at the time I read this, much like Craig was in the book. Reading Blankets – and I know this seems like a lot to say, and I embrace that, because it’s true – changed me.
Jeffrey Brown is well-known for his memoirs, the most popular of which make up the “Girlfriend Trilogy.” The series, which isn’t really a series so much as three books with similar premises, is comprised of Clumsy, Unlikely, and AEIOU. There’s even the appropriately titled and painfully self-aware epilogue, Every Girl is the End of the World for Me.
These books, unlike Blankets, don’t really seek to tell a cohesive narrative. Each story is made up of moments, some small and comedic with a webcomic vibe, and others heartbreaking. Brown tells us his broken love stories in a way that’s very much like he’s sitting in front of us. The nonlinear structure makes it seem like Brown is going off on tangents, remembering something funny that was said, or perhaps recalling, in the middle of a happy story, the moment he knew when things weren’t going to work out. It’s honest, almost to the point where the reader feels voyeuristic, and sometimes I know I felt embarrassed to read something so intimate – particularly in Unlikely, which gets into the physicality of sexual chemistry, or lack thereof, a topic I’ve never seen explored like this in any other works that come to mind.
I haven’t read Every Girl yet, but if it’s anything other like Brown’s other works, I know I’ll fall in love.
This is a little like the Girlfriend Trilogy, in that it highlights little moments of a life with no other reason than they’re interesting memories that writer/artist Adrian Tomie is sharing with us. What’s different about this one is the tone. It’s happy, it’s frustrated, and it’s manic, depicting Adrian and his fiancée preparing for their wedding.
This book is a short and sweet invitation to Tomine’s most private moments. However, it’s a departure from his usual cynical (yet still brilliant and movie) work, as it’s, more than any other graphic memoir I’ve read, a celebration of how fun it is to be in love.
Chester Brown’s Paying for It is, as the subtitle says, a comic-strip memoir about being a john. Brown’s memoir delves into his odd love life, and how his thought process and sense of self differs from what you might expect to be the “norm.” It’s at once an exploration of the sex industry, and a decidedly feminist call for discussion about sex workers as people.
It’s the least sentimental graphic novel I’ve ever read, non-fiction or otherwise, and there’s a definite bravery in the way Brown completely exposes himself, metaphorically and literally, within these pages. He paints a flawed, intricate, and flawed picture of himself (and others) that asks for no compassion for the readers, but rather seems to seek truth and conversation. It’s harsh, but it’s also funny and humanizing, in a way that I’m still thinking about today.
PAT SHAND is a comic book writer (Robyn Hood, Charmed: Season Ten, Grimm Fairy Tales) and pop culture journalist (Blastoff Comics, Sad Girls Guide). He has a big, bushy, ginger beard that can be used for hiding pens, paper clips, and small animals. You can find him at patrickshand.tumblr.com.