Most of you know I’m a graduate student in library science, geared toward public services (primarily but not exclusively for youth services). My reading load this semester, though heavy in quantity, is qualitatively comparable to going to the water park when I put it next to the lists my peers in other programs are attacking, and even my undergraduate course work. Yes, this semester’s course load includes both “Literature and Resources for Young Adults” and “Comics: Advising Child and Adult Readers,” a pair that required the purchase of almost fifty books that were nearly all read by the end of January. Next week I’ll touch on YA novels (more about that later), but today, we’re going to talk comics.*
Comics, and illustrated work in general, often display at length the intricacies of reflection – the way new knowledge colors our memories of the past, illustrated literally in the frames. In comics-as-memoirs in particular, details that would have been meaningless to the child character become prominent in the illustrations due to the adult memories of the creators.
This week I picked up Alison Bechdel’s** Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic at the library, and had devoured it before it was time to go home. It’s a brilliant and poignant work, tracing the course of Bechdel’s life in an overlapping and tangled kind of chronology. First detailing the bare-bones sketch of her life up to the point of her father’s death (which she and her family believe to have been suicide), then contemplating the things they may have taken as warning, the first third of the book deals with heavy topics of mental health in family members and the impact of those things on those around them. It’s not a light read and you won’t walk away from it feeling better, but it is incredible. After that, Bechdel shifts her attention from the end of her father’s life to the beginning of her own as an adult, chronicling her own coming out and self-identification processes in the months before her father’s death.
It is the final three sections of the book, however, that we encounter most of the revelatory and perhaps revolutionary content of the book. We revisit the years of the first half of the book with new eyes, sometimes viewing the same scenes from different angles or the very same frames, reproduced for us to review with our new knowledge. We learn that Bechdel’s father was a closeted non-heterosexual (Bechdel herself admits that although she likes to think of homosexual identity as something she shared with her father, he never used the label for himself, to her knowledge) and that he had more than one tryst with young men Bechdel considered peripheral to her life. We discover the weight of the marriage on Bechdel’s mother, and the pieces of life that went on underneath the children’s noses.
In the very last section we get the most poignant scenes: Alison realizes that much of her life was colored by the way gay culture was evolving in her youth, and we follow her as she passes through memories and realizes their meaning. Details in the frames illustrate these realizations; in some, details we would have missed the first time around are highlighted in repeated frames; in others, stories are retold with illustrations of different pieces, in one scene highlighting new realizations about her trip to New York immediately following the Stonewall riots. It is this final section that cemented for me the need to write about this book for you, and ultimately the desire to connect it with another.
This second book is Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis. Taking my post title more literally, Satrapi chronicles the developments in the Iranian Revolution, during which the she was a child (the story begins when she is nine years old with the overthrow of the Shah). Satrapi illustrates the war through the eyes of a child who was in a position to observe, and yet we know that her adult knowledge illustrates her childhood memories in every frame. The juxtaposition of childish memory and adult recognition takes this book, which is officially listed as YA, and in my mind drops it solidly into the adult-friendly camp. A young adult or advanced middle-grade reader could certainly read Persepolis and enjoy it, but it is with adult eyes that the true beauty of the novel emerges.
In an upcoming post, I’m going to be talking about dystopic fiction and straying slightly from strict reviewing to talk a little bit about the genre as a whole. If you are a dystopia reader (any age audience is fine), feel free to leave your favorites in the comments and I’ll include some of them in the piece.
*I use the word “comics” to refer to online and print strips, serials, and book forms (manga, graphic novels, anthologies, etc). This isn’t a unanimous terminology in the field, but it serves to put the various forms on an even plane. Other terms, when they aren’t strictly culturally-based, serve primarily to elevate some forms of comics into realms deemed “acceptable” by the people in charge, and on the whole that’s a pretty silly thing to do, if you ask me. Which you didn’t, but I’m writing, and I get to tell you anyway.
**(this is the Bechdel of “Bechdel Test“ fame, by the way)
Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic / Alison Bechdel. Mariner Books, 5 June 2007. U.S. $13.95
Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood / Marjane Satrapi. Pantheon, 1 June 2004. U.S. $13.95
Cover images via Amazon. Post image is “Woodchester Mansion” by Calotype46 on Flickr.