Courtesy of Topshelf Productions

A panel from Jeffrey Brown's Unlikely.

September 21, 2016

CHAZAN | What Ever Happened to the Graphic Memoir?

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A few weeks back now, I was perusing the pages of the print edition of this very paper, when I happened upon a surprising sight. Among the crossword puzzles and the regular newspaper comic reprints was a cartoon I had not seen in the paper before, or any paper for that matter. The contents of the cartoon were unremarkable — apparently kids say the darndest things — but I was surprised to see that the artist was none other than Jeffrey Brown. Woah, I thought to myself, that’s a blast from the past. See, back in the mid-’00s, Brown used to be a high profile figure in the then-bustling genre of graphic memoir. He was like the Lena Dunham of comics — a mid-profile artist whose work was raised up by both superlative praise and ire, often at the expense of his peers. Just before the turn of the decade the memoir game dried up, as many things do, and since then Brown’s resurfaced in the gift book genre, the “invisible mainstream” of comics, more widely read than any of the supposed blockbusters or critical darlings combined but completely overlooked in any discussion as there’s simply just not that much to say. Thus, Jeffrey Brown’s Darth Vader and Son or Kids are Weird may have been given to you on Christmas by an acquaintance, yet for me it is graphic novels like Clumsy and Unlikely that lurch out of the bowels of memory when I come upon that name.

The days of Unlikely feel like an alternate reality, but it wasn’t really that long ago. People call it the book store boom, but really the majority of comics sold in bookstores were shojo manga, so the phrase is misleading — it would be more accurate to call it the book publisher deal flood. See, what happened is this: Maus had won a Pulitzer, and copies of Fun Home and Persepolis were selling like hot cakes. Graphic novels had become a phrase that people other than Will Eisner said, and all the publishers wanted a piece of the action. “Literary comics” suddenly went from being mindfully crafted works by struggling artists quietly released by prestige publishers such as Drawn and Quarterly to a whole aisle at Borders. Loads of artists were suddenly on board for a new level of attention, some poached from small press standbys (Chris Ware, for instance), while others shuffled in from nowhere, young or at least inexperienced cartoonists or graphic novelists or whatever placed under contract to craft 300 page opuses. Big books. Real literature.

If there’s a connecting thread for the majority of comics produced during this boom, it is mediocrity. These works are mired in maddeningly poor draftsmanship and plodding, flavorless writing. These were memoirs by people without a great deal of life experience or insight, the tell-all ferocity of the prior generation replaced by vaguely Woody Allen-ish adaptions of diary entries. Genuinely good cartoonists are among this group, but their work was and is drowned out by the dross of their competition and the arbitrariness of page counts. Jeffrey Brown is a perfect example of the flaws that plagued this era of autobio. The majority of Brown’s comics from this time were hastily illustrated navel-gazing chronicles of failed relationships, aggressively consumable in their self-deprecating humor yet leaving much to be desired in substance. And yet it was these books, now buried under successful coffee table trinkets, that were lauded by many at the time as some of the best of a generation.

The graphic memoir never really went away, and neither did the bookstore comic, but their presence today seems greatly reduced. Shockingly, it turns out that most readers don’t want warmed over straight male versions of Fun Home, and the literary crowd prefers work with literary merit. Indeed, that wave of graphic novels seems to have done more harm than good for the reputation of comics, creating a perception that the medium is simply inferior writing marred by those pesky pictures. Today, where artists at indie publishers might have hoped to catch the eye of a major publisher, masses of self-published artists now hope for a decent deal with an indie publisher. The current crop of major cartoonists — brilliant folks like Brandon Graham, Katie Skelly and Michael Deforge — have generally rejected the memoir format in favor of decompressed takes on genre standards, finding their artistry and impact without reliance on verity.

I for one don’t miss the days of a Jeffrey Brown-dominant comics scene, but I worry about some of the changes that have come in its wake. With the greater difficulty of an artist reaching big publishers comes greater difficulty in comics reaching a wider audience, not to mention the difficulty inherent in making a living drawing comics.
Moreover, the increasing loss of respectability around the autobiographical genre really is a shame. Some of the greatest comics you’ll ever read are memoirs — My New York Diary, by Julie Doucet, I Never Liked You by Chester Brown (no relation to Jeffrey), David B’s Epileptic, to name just a few. Some recent graphic memoirs have also been outstanding: Today is the Last Day of the Rest of Your Life, Ulli Lust’s extensive portrait of her experiences as a young woman in the seedy underbelly of Europe’s punk scene in the ’80s, is one of the more powerful stories you’ll read in any medium, and Derf Backderf’s My Friend Dahmer, while not exactly a masterpiece, has stuck with me since I read it as an important work of non-fiction. The pictographic format of comics has a way of mimicking the sensation of a visceral memory — we don’t remember entire events in sequence, but rather key moments, images and phrases, much in the way panels in comics depict a scene. This makes comics a really wonderful form for memoir, capturing the strength and subjectivity of recollection in a way that film and literature tend to smooth over. However, since the worst in graphic memoir eschews this potentially powerful effect in favor of lazy writing and shoddy artistry, we tend to forget it. So keep that in mind.

Nathan Chazan is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. The Next Panel will appear online at Wednesdays this semester. He can be reached at [email protected].