Pictures of grief and hope

Aneurin Wright explains why the graphic novel can be the perfect means of exploring the deep well of memoir

1992 was a watershed year in the world of comics – ahem – I mean graphic novels.

The year before, Art Spiegelman had published the second half of his graphic memoir, Maus. What made 1992 a watershed was the fact that Maus won the Pulitzer Prize. A comic, ‘a funny book’. It tells Spiegelman's father's story of Holocaust survival, as well as a touching memoir about the two men awkwardly circling about each other, seeking to know the other better and yet bristling at and reeling from that very intimate act.
It was the universality of that story – fathers and sons – and its historical immediacy – a first person account the holocaust – that made it resonate. The revelation of Maus was that one could tell such a story with anthropomorphised cats and mice standing in for Nazis and Jews. A whole generation of literate, thoughtful people who’d “put away childish things” like comics years before, suddenly woke to the possibility that comics could be more than men in tights, Mickey Mouse or Beano.
In 2002, I began living with my 68-year-old father as his full-time carer. We were living in a static caravan park catering exclusively to retirees. He had been recently certified for Hospice, in that he was given six months to live, and access to palliative care to keep him comfortable in the final stages of his battle with emphysema. I was 29 and graduated from an Arts University in Brooklyn in 2001 and had been working for a time as an animator and illustrator. But, with the economy in a prolonged recession, I was unemployed and without prospects.
Initially, caring for my father seemed like a win/win proposition: he needed help, I was available and I could spend a little time getting to know this man who had always been a bit of a mystery. I had no idea just how well I was going to get to know him.
Our time together took on a regularity each day: coffee and pills, breathing treatments, breakfast he couldn’t eat, more pills, nurse visits, lunch he wouldn’t eat, more pills and scattered throughout, daytime television. Within that rhythm there was also a steady mounting tension: I was an over-educated, under-employed young man who had chosen art as a career in the midst of a brutal recession. The ‘train’ of my father’s health was only going in one direction. It was not a good time.
Here I found myself each day engaged in activities that, a year before, I couldn’t have imagined. Counting pills, cleaning out breathing apparatus, driving to In‘n’Out Burger 20 miles away for a ‘munchies’ run when the Marinol finally beat the Morphine and helped him get his appetite back.
He had been an architect and in his house stood a couple of drafting tables that were standing idle because he couldn't stand in front of them anymore. I was going steadily more and more stir crazy. That was in March of 2003.
Initially it was a sort of visual diary. But the idea of drawing him or myself wasn’t appealing, so I turned him into a Rhinoceros and myself into a Minotaur. 310 pages later those choices took on a thematic resonance I hadn’t imagined at the outset.
Memoir is a compelling medium. It allows the author to sift through the detritus of things experienced and remembered, and through retelling, bring some cogency to the experience. Steve Jobs, in his 2005 Stanford Graduation address, said that “You can't connect the dots looking forward, you can only connect them looking backward.” A diary allows one to connect dots personally; a memoir allows one to connect them publicly. Graphic memoir allows one to connect the dots through the very act of reading.
Renowned author and comics scholar Scott McCloud calls comics' most powerful tool “closure” – the closing of gaps of time in the mind of the reader between separate panels; the connecting of dots. Without that closure, the comic remains a series of discrete images. With it, the reader weaves a tapestry of meaning on to the rough frame of the artist’s intentions. It’s a lovely form of cooperation; literary symbiosis.
There is a final thing about comics that I personally adore. Words allow us, with very little effort, to TELL people about what's happened to us. Comics, with a focus on characters within the defined environment of a comic panel, force us to SHOW. You have to stage an event, choose your camera angles, your props, the ‘business’ your characters engage in when they talk. In the best examples, the ‘business’ characters get up while they talk to one another can tell us far more than what they say.
The first chapter of my book is about administering a previously unimaginable medical procedure. It takes eight pages and generally makes people laugh at the end. Consider the alternative:
Dear Diary,
Today I gave my father an enema.
Perhaps the most powerful aspect of the graphic memoir, is that it can be anything. At Myriad Editions/Sussex University’s First Fictions Festival I spoke on a panel with another graphic novelist, Nicola Streeten, author of the devastating and hilarious Billy, Me and You, published by Myriad Editions. Hers is the story of the aftermath of the death of her two-year-old son, Billy, and how it impacted her and her husband John. Her drawings have an immediacy and rawness that bring you into the very heart of her grief and at the same time allow you to stand beside her as she examines that grief with the sangfroid of an anthropologist surveying ancient ruins.
In February, Myriad Editions is publishing my graphic memoir Things to Do in a Retirement Home Trailer Park… When You’re 29 and Unemployed. Billy, Me and You and Things to Do could not look more different from one another, but each is a travelogue of a journey through a distant country – of loss, of grief, of devastation, and – ultimately – of healing. And just as good travel writing can transport its reader from Peterborough to Paris or Reading to Rome, graphic memoir can transport its reader into a world of grief and loss, but the return brings catharsis, perspective and wisdom.
Light stuff, these graphic memoirs, eh?
So, why graphic memoir? Well, memoir in general is one of our most probing and powerful tools to examine what has happened to us, who we are and how the one informs the other. We are animals who strive to decode meaning in the world around us. We are dot connectors. And often it is not easy stuff. The subjects of memoirs are not usually light tales of lives spent skipping through fields of flowers. Rather, the act of writing the memoir is an act of decoding meaning through connecting dots and reporting back on what has been found.
For such a challenging task, graphic memoir brings a few more tools to the table. Between the breadth of stories one can tell and story-telling devices one can use (cats and mice, rhinos and minotaurs), the sheer unbridled openness of the medium (if you can imagine it, you can draw it) and the sophisticated natures of both the reading and writing processes, who WOULDN'T want to at least read a graphic memoir.

If you're interested in dipping your toes in the water, here are a few suggestions:

Billy, Me and You by Nicola Streeten
Streeten tells us with frankness and humour, what it was like in the days, weeks and months after her two year old son Billy died after a sudden emergency surgery.

Blankets by Craig Thompson
The author of the celebrated "Habibi" recounts first love and growing up in an oppressive religious household.

Stitches by David Small
Acclaimed children's author, tells us of his bout with childhood cancer, voicelessness and cold and remote parents.

Fun Home by Alison Bechdel
The author of the cult hit, Dykes to Watch Out For, lays out before us the story of her remote, closeted gay father who ran the local funeral home where the family also lived.

Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi
A girl growing up in Paris and Tehran comes of age as a woman of two worlds while the world is changing during the early days of the fall of the Shah of Iran.

Epileptic by David B
A family goes to unheard of lengths to bring normalcy to household with an epileptic child.

Mother Come Home by Paul Hornschemeier
An imagined memoir, this one is still too good to not read.

Safe Area Gorazde by Joe Sacco
Though often referred to as Graphic Journalism, Sacco's stories are about both the subject on what he is reporting and his journey is doing the reporting.

Things to Do in a Retirement Home Trailer Park... When You're 29 and Unemployed by Aneurin Wright
A minotaur and rhinoceros live together in a static caravan park, but they are father and son, and this is a memoir. Go figure.

Things to do in a Trailer Park Retirement Home... When You are 29 and Unemployed is published by Myriad Editions in February at £19.99