Portraits of the Cartoonists as Young Children

cartoons of three children's faces
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Lives in Pencil, Pen, and Ink with Word Balloons

Told and drawn in the comic book, or, if you prefer, the graphic novel, format these three autobiographical memoirs of childhood have the power of classics like Augustine’s Confessions or Frank McCourt’s Angela's Ashes. They are stories of children coming to terms with their identity in an unstable and therefore frightening environment.

Fun home      Fun Home: a Family Tragicomic / Alison Bechdel
Bechdel’s memoir of growing up in rural Pennsylvania is tinted in shades of blue. Her parents taught English, and father worked in the family funeral home, or “Fun Home” as she and her brothers referred to it. The book is constructed as a series of chapters that are meditative revelations, each one building on and revealing more than the previous one. Each one uses a different work of literature and its author as the reflecting mirror for her family life: the Greek myth of Icarus, A Happy Death by Albert Camus, Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time or as she translates it, “this means not just lost but ruined, undone, wasted, wrecked, and spoiled,” The Wind in the Willows, “The Ideal Husband” and “The Importance of Being Ernest” by Oscar Wilde, James Joyce’s Ulysses, and Homer’s original.

It’s also the story of her father’s death—was it a suicide or an accident?—and of her relationship to him. She learned of her father’s hidden sexuality, only as a result of her coming out to her parents as a lesbian when she was in college only four months before he died. A few weeks after her letter home, her mother, not her father, called to tell her about it. Instead of an opportunity to talk about a common experience, it became another instance of their antipodal relationship. As she puts it earlier in the book, “I was Spartan to my father’s Athenian. Modern to his Victorian. Butch to his Nelly. Utilitarian to his Aesthete.”

Yet the book begins and ends with scenes of her father catching her as she leaps into his arms. She has said that she is not angry with her father, although her affection for him reveals itself more clearly in her interviews with the press, than in the book. Her statement there is, “His bursts of kindness were as incandescent as his tantrums were dark.”

Persepolis     Persepolis: the Story of a Childhood / Marjane Satrapi
Satrapi, the daughter of Iranian intellectuals recounts incidents from her childhood beginning at age ten, when she and all the other girls at her school are told that they are now required to wear a veil. Then she recounts her earlier life, her religious feelings and how she learned about her county’s history and the power struggles to rule it, from antiquity to the twentieth century, which included her maternal grandfather, a prince who became prime mininster, and then a Communist, and then a prisoner of the Shah. She remembers the revolution which exiled the Shah, the freeing of political prisoners and the return of exiles, and the transformation of the county into a theocracy which executed the former prisioners and exiles. Eventually the religiously driven social repression and the horrors of the Iran-Irag war cause her parents to send her, at age fourteeen, out of the county to Austria. The last scence is their tearful parting at the airport as she prepares to depart.

Stitches      Stitches: a Memoir / David Small
Small’s memoir of his youth is sparsely worded and powerfully composed visually. It’s a choice that fits his family where silence became a denial of reality. An operation when he was fourteen for a cyst on his throat reveals a cancer that leads to a second operation and the removal of one of his vocal chords. His parents do not tell him that he has cancer, and when he accidentally discovers it, they forbid him from talking about it. This is symptomatic of the family’s denial of uncomfortable facts. By not giving voice to them they avoid accepting them, but at a high psychological cost. Using pen and brush Small reveals this frightful environment and his liberation from it.

Here are some other autobiographical comics that you may also enjoy: