Empathy, political engagement or voyeurism? What is it about graphic memoir that we want to keep revisiting?
Graphic narrative is a unique medium. Able to describe without words and annotate the abstract, it has taken hold of the rising popularity of autobiography and memoir to create a separate space for dynamic personal storytelling.
These books are usually the opposite of light entertainment, depicting the lives of people who have struggled and survived. Artists and experts in the industry agree that the appeal of such deep stories told in the amalgam of verbal and graphic artistry is the role that they play in contextualising the social and cultural difficulties that surround us.
“It is a perfect vehicle in which to express both the personal and political,” says Corinne Pearlman, creative director at Myriad Editions. “The graphic narrative works in both time and space and allows complex storytelling from a variety of perspectives.”
Cartoons that satirise politics and current affairs have been a notable contribution to media analysis since Benjamin Franklin’s humour publication Poor Richard’s Almanac was released in 1732. Comics creator and scholar Nicola Streeten, whose 2011 graphic memoir Billy, Me & You follows her life after the death of her infant son, suggests that the relationship or disparity between an individual and their community or nation has led to more extensive dissections of society than newspaper comic strips have room for.
“The works appearing are sophisticated, both aesthetically and regarding subject matter,” she says. “In my view there is a clear legacy from early feminist cartooning in this country to the longer form works appearing currently.”
Pearlman explains that stories like Becoming/Unbecoming, Una’s memoir of gender violence during the hunt for the Yorkshire Ripper, are good examples of this: “Unapologetic, analytical, [it’s] placing the personal story in a political, cultural and historical context in which we are all involved and responsible.”
While agreeing that the potential for “nuance” in the graphic form “can offer valuable insight to any dialogue around the issues at hand,” comics creator Wallis Eates ultimately thinks its draw is more internal: “[It’s] an urge to externalise a memory that’s knocking around in my head,” she says. “The weight of that memory is being transformed into something that can be shared… It’s easy to get stuck in our own heads, and graphic memoir – both reading and creating – helps clear those trapped cobwebs.”