Three Masterful New Graphic Memoirs

The form reveals uncomfortable truths of which even the authors seem unaware

Three new phenomenally inventive graphic memoirs show us the hidden superpowers innate to the form. Some use text more than others, and others rely more heavily on graphics. But all three of these original and talented authors show us the out-of-bounds elasticity of the graphic form which allows the author to transcend the boundaries of a traditional narrative. Graphic drawings seem to emerge from a different part of the brain; they often reveal uncomfortable truths of which even the authors seem unaware.

And Now I Spill the Family Secrets

(Harper One, April 20)

Graphic Memoirs

In Margaret Kimball’s And Now I Spill the Family Secrets, she tries to come to terms with her traumatic childhood which began with her mother’s first suicide attempt when she was only four. Kimball writes: “I’d circled the subject of my family life like a tiger chained to a pole, scratching my head at our history, wondering what happened to mom, and as a result to us.”  Kimball was always closest to her brother Ted and is terrified when he speaks to her about feelings he has that he is being followed.  But feeling that Ted may slip away from her, as their mother did, she listens quietly to his stories and offers no commentary or criticism.  

Kimball pictures herself as a rescuer of sorts. She wants to do the right thing; to bring her family closer. She is currently living with her boyfriend and his daughter, but treats them as afterthoughts; her first family dominates her emotional landscape.  Kimball depicts her parent’s bitter divorce and custody battle, her father’s remarriage, and the brief hope she had that there would finally be a home for her where she didn’t feel threatened. 

Margaret Kimball
From ‘And Now I Spill the Family Secrets’ by Margaret Kimball.

She writes: “This new family unit felt like redemption, like our path to a similar existence, and I felt the profound lure of this single unit, contained and complete, whose pull-like any mirage is irresistible.”  Janice turned out to be hiding a sadistic personality beneath her brittle smile. She resented her new husband’s children and only paid attention to the new baby they had together.  She would make up lies about what the kids had done and concoct severe punishments for them.  Her father left Janice soon after finding out about her malicious machinations. 

Graphically, Kimball employs a stunningly deceptive strategy that unsettles the reader.  She writes neatly and plainly into large word blocks the she places above benign images of the town in which she grew up. We see her high school, the pool where she lifeguarded, and the town’s church, along with drawings of her family members that seemed staged and inauthentic. Kimball seems to be showing us that the idyllic streets of suburban towns are often really violent and unstable places.  On certain pages she draws empty rooms which are furnished, but without people. As you gaze at them for a bit longer, a certain bloated distortion within them strikes you; these are dizzying places haunted by all sorts of secret agonies. 

She occasionally draws random scenes that at first seem familiar; a dinner table all set with no one sitting there eating dinner, or a recreation of her parent’s divorce papers lying haphazardly on an old desk. But again, upon further review, there’s a menacing quality about these images. What she leaves out bothers you. She forces us to envision, on our own, the ugliness that transpired, and the less she shows, the more we’re able to imagine. There is a disturbing incongruity between her bursts of text and her graphic representations.

The Secret to Superhuman Strength

(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, May 4)

Bechdel

In Alison Bechdel’s The Secret to Superhuman Strength, we see Bechdel as we usually do, looking somewhat like a bewildered boy-child who seems unable to age. She is dressed in some sort of chic gym clothes that she wears for her many physical  pursuits.  Bechdel has used the pursuit of physical strength as an antidote to the depression that chases her.  Like Kimball, she lives with a partner, but gives the relationship short shrift. Her first family consumes her. 

Bechdel wonders if she was born too early to enjoy the freedom girls have today to excel in sports unselfconsciously. She also regrets being born too late to be able to fully participate in the counterculture movement that intrigues her. She was only nine when she heard on television about all the hoopla this new book, “The Feminine Mystique,” or about the freedom riders who were brazenly traveling to the segregated south.  She was even younger when her heroes Kerouac and Ginsberg were flying high: “those drug-addled non-conformist seekers of intensity and mystical visions.” Her home life was bleak.  Her parents were fighting and drinking, and her father was having an affair with the male gardener before he committing suicide. 

Graphic Memoirs
‘From The Secret to Superhuman Strength,’ by Alison Bechdel.

Bechdel travels through the chaotic decades of her life which included bouts of drinking and sleeping pills and many unsatisfactory relationships with the sense that there was no way it could have been different. There is a cut-off quality to Bechdel, a certain deadness that envelops her, that makes everything susceptible to darkness. Yet she shows us her resilience in chasing away the demons that have followed her. 

We see her biking, skiing, using a rowing machine, running, and meditating too. Then, of course, she became an avid fan of suspension yoga.  But she has trouble verbalizing her displeasures. She seems mute in many situations. And as if to fortify herself, she travels back in time to imaginary places where she pictures Thoreau, Woolf, Emerson, or Freud walking through nature pondering the universe and it’s magic.  But we sense Bechdel finds little magic for herself. There are no hearty bouts of laughter or irony or even simple closeness. She seems alone always, regardless of who is with her.    

Graphically, Bechdel is extraordinarily expressive. She fills her self-images  with wide open eyes and raised eyebrows, and sometimes a devious smirk as she enters or leaves a room, seemingly bewildered by the complexity of human relationships and their many demands. Some of her graphics are intricately drawn; mostly those she admires from an illustrious past. She doesn’t hide her self-absorption from us, or herself. The universe spins around Bechdel, whether she is making love, running, mountain biking, or drawing comics. In one memorable scene, she and her partner Holly attempt to climb a mountain. Holly grows ill and needs to turn back, and Bechdel lets us see what she is thinking, which is not about her partner’s suffering, but only about her own frustration that she must turn back too. She always gets star billing.

Fictional Father 

(Drawn and Quarterly, May 4)

Fictional Father

In Fictional Father, Joe Ollman uses the graphic novel form to tell us a story about a gay man who is heartbroken from never really being loved.  This story ias fictional, but Ollman insists there are autobiographical elements in all he writes. He lives with another man whom he thinks perhaps might be the one, but repeats his same patterns of megalomania that will surely push him away. His parents had a horrific marriage. Like the other authors, the past holds him.  He once told his therapist “I realized I was mostly a tool to my parents. We decided to compare me to a wood-splitting wedge…that my mother would use to access the impenetrable oak of my father’s psyche.”  

His father wrote a national beloved comic strip called “Sonny Side Up” about an idyllic father-son relationship that seemed to mock his own memoires of his father as cruel and rejecting. Whenever his father was home, he was unavailable.  He drinks still to block out the pain, and tries to stop drinking, and then starts again. He wants to be an abstract painter but keeps failing at whatever he tries. His mother was available to him but also cruel and self-centered. He describes in one acid-laced word balloon how his mother’s face looked to him like a “bitch face, severe, blunt, dour expression, old face, tired…” Ollman’s world, like Kimball’s and Bechdel’s, suffers from a shortage of gentleness and affection; an absence of something essential for which they all seem to be searching.

Graphically, Ollman is a master of compression; his word balloons seemed tinged with the nervous anxiety of a man who could implode. The print is heavy and almost seems to be bearing down on the allotted blank space with a certain pressure one senses could rip it apart.  His drawings are rough and imperfect and can seem overbearing at times. He draws himself as bloated, ugly, and sweating, almost a caricature of a man instead of a real one. There’s much cruelness in his world, but he’s particularly adept at showing us how easily we become prey to our parents’ war games.

Traditional memoirs generally operate on an arc of transcendence and recovery; a looking back at where one was and where they are now. Most of them have a sense of triumphalism about them. The graphic memoir tends to tilt the other way. All three of these exquisite works show us how we keep knocking our heads up against the same wall. And keep blaming others for our own shortcomings. And then blaming ourselves. It becomes a vicious cycle of self-condemnation which often has no exit ramps. The combination of compressed text and drawings reveal much, but something about the graphic memoir format forces the reader to forge a deeper engagement with the book, filling in blanks they sense the author left out.   

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Elaine Margolin

Elaine is a book critic for The Washington Post, San Francisco Chronicle, Times Literary Supplement, Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Jerusalem Post, Denver Post, and several literary journals. She has been reviewing books for over 20 years with a sense of continual wonder and joy. She tends to focus on non-fiction and biographies.

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