For readers who enjoy immersing themselves in memoirs and true crime, the comic book format offers even more to devour.
In a world saturated with superhero media, it bears repeating that comic books are a medium, not a genre. There’s nothing wrong with capes and tights and giant robots, of course, but to reduce the wide world of comics to such a narrow view does a disservice to the medium’s vast possibilities. Through tales of darkness, recovery and self-discovery, three towering works of graphic nonfiction reveal the full breadth of comic books’ expressive power.
In Happiness Will Follow, longtime superhero comics fixture Mike Hawthorne turns the full force of his talents on his own struggle to understand where he comes from and how he grew into the man and artist he is now. This stunning graphic memoir begins with an old shoe in a doorway, a sign to Hawthorne’s Puerto Rican mother that a curse is upon them, and then catapults through years of poverty, violence and psychological and physical trauma, as Hawthorne comes to grips with a heritage from which he feels removed.
Hawthorne’s narration is candid, raw and precise, but the memoir soars on the strength of his art as he zooms out to offer us a sense of isolation amid the crush of New York City, then zooms back in to depict haunting, bold close-ups of the key figures in his life. Chief among those figures is his mother; their relationship roots the book in a powerful, unflinching exploration of what it feels like to anchor yourself to another person, especially when that person is a harmful presence in your life. As Hawthorne takes us through the past and present, the cultural and personal, the painful and beautiful, he tells his story with empathy and vulnerability, and that makes Happiness Will Follow an essential graphic memoir.
Coming-out narratives are too often depicted in popular culture as a linear decision-making process followed by a single crystallizing moment when all becomes clear and a pure sense of self is achieved. But this is definitely not always the case. Coming-out journeys are just as often bumpy, messy and full of false starts, as British artist Eleanor Crewes reminds us through her beautifully rendered, endlessly witty graphic storytelling in The Times I Knew I Was Gay.
Drawing on memories from childhood, early adulthood and beyond, Crewes tells the story of her own journey to coming out fully and for good. Her memoir defies the conventional forms of graphic storytelling; there are no panel borders here, no defining boundaries to keep Crewes confined to a certain time or place at any given moment. Sometimes her gorgeous pencil drawings pause the narrative altogether so she can break the fourth wall and reflect on the tale as she’s telling it.
The Times I Knew I Was Gay began as a short zine, and that DIY ethos is still present in these pages, reminding us that our most personal stories are often best told in the simplest and most direct way. There’s an elegance to this simplicity that makes it feel like a friend is opening up to you as you read, creating an intimate connection between book and reader.
From Maids by Katie Skelly. Used with permission from Fantagraphics.
Of course, graphic nonfiction isn’t limited to memoirs. Sometimes the comics medium is also the perfect vehicle for a stylized retelling of a true crime story, as Brooklyn-based cartoonist Katie Skelly proves with her dazzling Maids.
Using a simple grid layout that she manipulates to great effect, and with art that blends Eastern and Western styles, Skelly tells the story of the infamous Papin sisters, who worked as maids for a wealthy French family until they murdered their employer’s wife and daughter in 1933. The story of Léa and Christine Papin has been told many times before, but never quite like this. Maids draws striking power from the way Skelly fully embraces the potential of her format.
The narrative unfolds slowly and suspensefully, giving ample space to build a visually and emotionally symbiotic relationship between the two sisters. The way they seem to float through the panels together, moving through the world in a way the other characters do not, contributes to a growing sense of dread. Even if you know this story intimately, you’ll be itching to know what happens next. That Maids pulls off this particular trick is a testament to both Skelly’s talent and to the power of graphic narratives.