Would you believe that the first graphic memoir published in America was titled Binky Brown Meets the Holy Virgin Mary? The 1972 tale of how Roman Catholicism shaped the life of author Justin Green, Binky Brown is seen as the start of a rich tradition of using comics to explore personal histories. Three decades and a half later, in 2006, Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home—which explores her family, her coming-of-age, and her father’s closeted homosexuality—instantly became a classic of the graphic memoir genre. In honor of the musical adaptation of Fun Home, which plays the Ahmanson Theatre through April 1, 2017, we’ve put together a list of great graphic memoirs that bring real life to the paneled page.
The much lauded 2003 graphic memoir from artist Craig Thompson tells the story of Thompson’s early childhood, his strict evangelical upbringing, and his first romantic relationship. Weighing in at an impressive 600 pages in length, Blankets is exhaustive without actually being exhausting. In fact, through whimsical flashbacks, driving wit, and truly beautiful artwork, Thompson manages to imbue the banality of growing up in the Midwest with real panache and character.
In 1994, artist Emmanuel Guibert visited an island off the coast of France. While there, he asked a 69-year-old World War II veteran named Alan Cope for directions. This 15-minute exchange would lead to a five-year friendship. Cope was a fantastic storyteller, and a decade after his death in 1999, Guibert turned his friend’s stories about World War II into comics. In 2008, he published Alan’s War: The Memories of G.I. Alan Cope, which is best explained by Cope’s own words: "When I turned eighteen, Uncle Sam said he’d like me to put on a uniform and go fight a guy by the name of Adolf. So I did."
Marjane Satrapi was born in Iran. But the Iran of her childhood was a very different place than the one we are familiar with today. That is because when Satrapi was nine years old, fundamentalist rebels overthrew the Shah, and began the quick and brutal process of transforming Iran into a totalitarian state. As the grip of government control grew tighter, Satrapi began to idolize American pop culture icons, from Iron Maiden to Michael Jackson, which she saw as symbols of a world where ideas were free. A small rebellions, perhaps. But a rebellion that would eventually threaten to break her family apart. Persepolis was published from 2000–2003 in France in four volumes, was translated into English, and was adapted into an Academy Award-nominated animated film in 2007 featuring Catherine Deneuve.
David Small was a sickly child. Plagued with respiratory issues, Small was constantly at the hospital, where his father (a radiologist) gave him weekly X-rays and radiation therapy—which were meant to improve his lungs but instead gave him a malignant tumor. The operation that saved his life also took one of his vocal chords—and with it, Small’s voice. The young Small turned to art and the power of stories to alleviate his sense of imprisonment. The result? Stitches, Small’s 2009 graphic memoir, which was published to considerable acclaim, standing atop The New York Times bestseller list.
Ellen Forney has bipolar disorder. Like many famous artists from history (Vincent Van Gogh, Georgia O’Keeffe, and Sylvia Plath to name a few), Forney lives her life on a roller coaster of manic highs followed by depressive lows. As she confronts the cliché of the "crazy artist," she works to understand her own disorder in history, science, and herself. Interspersed with actual pages from her diary, Marbles: Mania, Depression, Michelangelo, and Me is a complicated portrait of illness, creativity, and the resilience of an artistic spirit.
Perhaps the most famous graphic memoir ever published and the winner of the 1992 Pulitzer Prize, Maus is a Holocaust story unlike any other. As a young man, Art Spiegelman’s father Vladek led an ordinary life in Poland. He married the woman he loved, started a career in manufacturing, and started a family. But in 1939, the Blitz brought fascism and anti-Semitism to his door. Vladek and Spiegelman’s mother, Anja, ended up at Auschwitz, where they managed to survive through the end of World War II. Maus traces their story and that of the writing of Maus, as well as Art and Vladek’s relationship—using mice and cats as stand-ins for Jews and Nazis respectively.
Lucy Knisley has led the foodie life that food bloggers would kill for. Her mother worked at the original Dean & Deluca in New York City, her godfather was a food critic, and—by her account—almost every night was a glorious dinner party that might make even Martha Stewart jealous. Relish traces Knisley’s life through the food she loves—from her mother’s fresh pesto to boxed mac ’n’ cheese snuck at friends’ houses. It tracks her time on a farm in the Catskills with her mother, her life as a cheesemonger, her college years in Chicago, and various other episodes along the way&mdahs;with recipes.
‘Are You My Mother?’—Bonus
Told in seven parts, this companion memoir to Fun Home focuses on Bechdel’s relationship with her mother, and tracks Bechdel’s life from events that occurred before she was even born all the way up to the time was editing Are You My Mother? itself. Peppered throughout are meditations on everything from the work of psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott to her mother’s relationship with Bechdel’s father.