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Graphic Novels and Their Merits to Memoirs

In Spring 2023, Melina P. Himenez and Cody Paddack taught IDH2930 – Bring Your Own Graphic Novels, an Uncommon Reads course through the UF Honors Program. For their final project, the students created multimodal compositions with the intention of submitting them to ImageTexT for the From the Classroom section.

Assignment Instructions

For your culminating project, you will be working with a partner (or two). The project will be of your choosing (video, audio, or written), but it must achieve the following goals:

  • demonstrate an understanding and deep reading of your chosen graphic novels
  • carefully and logically analyze the image and the text from the chosen novels
  • consider multiple perspectives
    • of the group, of the creators, and of other sources
    • from our Canvas discussions and our in-class discussions
  • work in groups and be part of an effective team
  • co-create a product which communicates the understandings above clearly and effectively to the intended audience
    • this includes a polished finished product and attention to detail

Graphic Novels and Their Merits to Memoirs

By Ana Lucia Rodriguez-Valdes and Mads Kairalla

 

An infographic about graphic novels as memoir. Down the center of the image, comics pages flutter to the ground. These are surrounded by text.

See full transcript here1

For many decades, graphic novels, or comics, were viewed as being a juvenile medium. They told stories of heroes and supernatural worlds that in general held very little substance and only served the purpose of entertaining the youth with unrealistic and unreal versions of the real world. They were considered glorified children’s books that lacked any meaningful stimulation because the pages were full of drawings and elementary vocabulary. Whether this was true or not, the idea completely discredited comics as a valid source of learning, communication, and social and political commentary. In the book, Comics as a Nexus of Cultures: Essays on the Interplay of Media, Disciplines, and International Perspectives, the authors explain that by the late 1980s, there was a shift in the public’s idea of what a graphic novel could be because of the release of many political and educational comics, such as Marx for Beginners by Rius. The shift away from the limited and misunderstood view of comics opened a world for graphic novels tackling heavy and relevant subjects, such as discrimination, history, identity, growing up, etc. One way many authors addressed these topics is through graphic memoirs, which provided an effective and efficient way to tell their story the way they want to, and more importantly, make their story accessible. Graphic memoirs avoided the distrust that was growing towards the media and journalism during this time while simultaneously reaching audiences that normally would not have come across their story, such as the younger population.

One characteristic that is unique to graphic memoirs is the idea that authors can get their vision across through visuals supplemented with text, rather than only using imagery writing. Because of this, an author can draw exactly what they want the readers to see without extensive descriptive explanations. The scene is painted perfectly for the reader and a visual thought is essentially transferred from the mind of the author to the eyes of the reader. The implications of this means the authors of graphic novels and memoirs have an incredible tool at their disposal. They can choose when to be detailed and create an elaborate scene, and can also choose to be vague and mysterious, an important storytelling technique in graphic novels and memoirs. For example, using only cool colors or creating a monochromatic panel can drastically change the mood and atmosphere of a novel in a way that only visual storytelling can do. Furthermore, an almost childish cartoon drawing style will deliver a different message than a story drawn in a hyper realistic style. The vivid images depicted in these comics, and sometimes purposefully dull images, also create a more memorable scene for the reader, who can now see exactly what the author wants them to see.

Of course, there are limitations to this. In the essay by Nina Mickwitz, “‘True story’: The aesthetic balancing acts of documentary comics,” she explains that in many cases, the art styles and visual themes have little to do with the topic of the graphic novel or the message that is trying to be conveyed, but rather is limited by the authors own artistic limitations and background in fine arts. Essentially, the art style or color scheme of a novel may be due to the author’s own preferences, style, or artistic skill set. In the case of graphic memoirs, though, this works with the concept of a memoir being an extension of the author themselves and their story. Their art style and storytelling technique is part of the experience of reading a graphic memoir. In other cases, the author of a graphic memoir may hire an artist to carry out their vision for them.

Overall, the ability to communicate the story and scene exactly and accurately through visuals is essential in a graphic memoir, whose purpose is to tell an author’s story through their perspective. The common theme found in graphic memoirs goes that stories surrounding coming-of-age, discovering identity, and stages of life generally revolving around primary and secondary school follow a light, colorful, and bubbly cartoon style. On the other hand, stories involving historical events, crime, or some other external conflict are often depicted in more realistic and rugged drawings, as well as black and white monochromatic color schemes.

As we mentioned earlier, graphic novels were generally targeted towards younger audiences, therefore the themes reflected the interests of the earlier generations. While comics were also enjoyed by adults, they were not considered a serious medium for factual discourse. In her essay, Nina Michwitz explains the difference between comics and other forms of media as having or lacking “felt meaning,” respectively (felt meaning being that which is emotional and sensory). The visual aesthetics of comics uses and works in tandem with felt meaning, and therefore the works in comics cannot always be, “translatable in explicit and rational terms.” In other words, felt meaning and graphic novels are considered “incompatible” with factual discourse and credibility (Mickwitz). Even so, this began to change when fact-based narratives, historical characters, and first-hand accounts became popular and this comical and personal retelling of history and current events through comics appealed to the young readers. Mickwitz says that this, “connected young comics readers’ evident appetite for vicarious thrill-seeking with anti-social tendencies and delinquency.” Graphic memoirs working as first-hand accounts of important historical events presented in comic form, such as in Maus or They Called Us Enemy, appealed to young readers who would otherwise avoid showing interest in such topics as the Holocaust and Japanese Internment. The first-count retelling of experienced events also provided a different, more personal perspective to current and past events that most readers would not find in the news or in textbooks. Author of the graphic memoir The Quitter, Harvey Pekar, explained in an interview that he realized he knew most about his own life and could write about it, “in a way that other people could relate to.” His goal when writing his memoir about his experience as the son of immigrants and facing racial and religious discrimination, he was not necessarily trying to educate but rather tell his own story and hope it reaches the people it needs to. This raw form of communicating real and serious events appealed to viewers as well in a way that had not been done in visual media before. It intermingles the felt meaning of real events while still providing factual information and education indirectly. Maus, by Art Spiegelman, also does an incredible job of retelling the story of a Holocaust survivor and educating readers on what happened to those in the war while still adding his own personal touch and explaining how the events of the war affected his life. We see the felt meaning work together with the factual evidence to create a holistic view of major historical events and provide young readers with a thrilling and enlightening read.

In summary, graphic novels as a medium have been effectively used as an informative and factual method of communication while still providing relatable and personable accounts, especially in graphic memoirs. One way that these comic memoirs achieve this balance is through art style and dialogue. Graphic memoirs such as Maus, They Called Us Enemy, and The Quitter use monochromatic themes and serious dialogue to discuss heavy topics. On the opposite side of the spectrum, novels such as Gender Queer, Smile, and Drama analyze themes of self-identity through lighthearted and simplistic dialogue, as well as colorful and cartoon-style art. These common patterns within the graphic memoir genre serve to further their themes and deliver the message of the memoirs in a manner that is conducive to the topic. The graphic novel audience is large and ranging in ages and graphic memoirs can reach these audiences and expose them to topics they may not have access to or are interested in, in an appropriate and effective way.

Works Cited

Admin, Author. “Genre Guide: Graphic Memoirs.” The Hub, 7 Sept. 2015, https://www.yalsa.ala.org/thehub/2015/02/16/genre-guide-graphic-memoirs/#:~:text=Graphic%20memoirs%20appeal%20to%20traditional,to%20be%20stand%20alone%20works

Alverson, Brigid, et al. “Interview: Raina Telgemeier on ‘Drama’.” Good Comics for Kids, 22 June 2017, https://goodcomicsforkids.slj.com/2017/06/22/interview-raina-telgemeier-on-drama/.

Ervin-Gore, Shawna. “Harvey Pekar :: Archived Interviews :: Dark Horse Comics.” Dark Horse, https://www.darkhorse.com/Interviews/731/Harvey-Pekar

Gavigan, Karen. “Graphic Novels Help Teens Learn about Racism, Climate Change and Social Justice – Here’s a Reading List.” University of South Carolina, https://www.sc.edu/uofsc/posts/2020/06/06_conversation_graphic_novels.php#.ZEX19OzMI6F

Mickwitz, Nina. “‘True Story’: The Aesthetic Balancing Acts of Documentary Comics.” ImageTexT, https://imagetextjournal.com/true-story-the-aesthetic-balancing-acts-of-documentary-comics/

About the Creators

Ana Lucia Rodriguez-Valdes is a second-year undergraduate student at the University of Florida studying Architecture and Spanish for the Professions. She’s focused on the architecture and creation of space for places of healthcare. Some of her passions include novels and all forms of television and she’s particularly interested in documentary writing and storytelling. Her favorite authors are Shel Silverstein and Rick Riordan, and she loves movies by Damien Chazelle.

Madison (Mads) Kairalla is a determined UF sophomore pursuing a double major in Graphic Design and Advertising. With a strong foundation in computer science and a passion for creative design, they have already made significant strides in their career through internships at Prevail Inc and Blue Ibis Media, where they’ve honed their skills in Adobe Creative Suite and collaborated on a range of marketing materials. Mads’ dedication to excellence is evident in their attention to detail and ability to manage multiple projects simultaneously. Mads is excited to push the boundaries of design and advertising in the digital age.

Infographic Transcript

  1. Graphic Novels and Their Merits to Memoirs

    Infographic

    1. The Medium: Memoirs tackle heavy and relevant subjects, such as discrimination, history, identity, and growing up. By using graphic novels, authors are provided an effective and efficient way to tell their story the way they want to and make their story accessible.
    2. Creative Freedom: An author can draw exactly what they want the readers to see without extensive verbal explanations. The scene is painted perfectly for the reader and a visual thought is essentially transferred from the mind of the author to the eyes of the reader.
    3. Amplifying Voices: The combination of words and images can create a more emotionally resonant reading experience, allowing readers to connect with the author’s story on a deeper level.
    4. Sociopolitical Implications: The very genre of memoirs indicates a personal understanding of the experiences the author had developmentally and the social implications of how they were treated based on race/ethnicity (Huda F/ They Called Us Enemy), religion (The Quitter), and disabilities (Smile). This has a political as well due to the historical events and practices of discrimination throughout the times covered in these graphic novels. The memoirs chosen also serve to spread awareness and provide a different perspective of historically excluded groups to the readers.
    5. Accessibility: Graphic novels were generally targeted towards younger audiences, therefore the themes reflected the interests of the earlier generations.
    6. Counterargument: Graphic novels are not a suitable medium for memoirs because they are seen as childish and not serious enough to handle the weight of personal stories. Disproving the counterargument: While graphic novels are often associated with superheroes and children’s books, the medium has evolved to include a wide range of genres, including memoirs.

    IDH2930 – Graphic Novels

    Ana Lucia Rodriguez-Valdes and Madison Kairalla

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