Friday, March 6, 2015

Graphic memoirs: Comics could use more real lives

Bill Griffith - the comics legend responsible for the mighty and peculiar Zippy The Pinhead - is currently working on a graphic memoir. He has mentioned it in a couple of interviews, and appears to be deep into it. This is extraordinarily good news for three strong reasons:

Firstly, because Griffith has led an interesting life and has an interesting perspective on the things he has seen, and that is certainly worth documenting. He was right there at the centre of the birth of underground comics and built a massively successful career – both artistically and commercially – without ever compromising on his singular vision.

Secondly, Griffith always turns up for the party, technically speaking, and his squiggly art and dizzying storytelling is always fantastic to read, so the promise of a longer work is warmly welcome, purely on a craft level. It should be a good read, regardless of any subject matter.

And because we could always use more graphic memoirs, because they're almost always fucking great.

Memoirs can make for terrific reading, in any form. They can be exercises in setting the record straight and pleading for personal justification, but can also be snapshots of a specific time and place, and what the subject of the memoir actually thought about it at the time.

Stripped of any artifice that comes with fiction, memoirs offer up huge servings of pure truth, telling us all how it really went down, and you even get a glimpse of why the author actually did what they did in the first place. You see their actual life, right there on the page, opened up for consumption and judgement.

You can pack an entire life into the tight pages of a prose memoir, but comics are even better, because you can show exactly what it was like, with a few bold lines. You can pack more data into a page of comics than a page of text, setting the scene like nothing else, while showing emotions without having to actually articulate them. Graphic memoirs can pack a hell of a punch.

And there have been quite a few memoirs in comics that pack that kind of punch. Books like Persepolis, Fun Home and Blankets are painfully raw accounts of growing up in strange and mundane places, while Al Davison's The Spiral Cage and the lightly-fictionalised Stuck Rubber Baby from Howard Cruse are powerful stories of struggle against personal disability and social injustice.

Comics are also ideally suited for the ongoing memoir, because they can come out in bits and pieces over time, and can be used to tell a life over decades,  building up a substantial body of work over the years. Creators like Joe Matt and Eddie Campbell have been telling it like it is for for almost their entire adult lives, even when that telling gets a little too personal.

The king of all the real-time biographers was, of course, Harvey Pekar, who put the tiniest details of his life onto the comic page, no matter how mundane. And he left behind an enormous amount of work that is only getting better with age, as his world - of urban life in middle America in the last days of the 20th century - fades away with the years. Harvey's comics will remain vital history lessons for centuries to come.

(A special note must also be made here for the great forgotten graphic memoir -  Del Close's story of his wayward life, as published in the Wasteland comic DC did in the eighties. Close's stories were often hugely exaggerated, but he always liked to point out that each story had more truth than you would really, and the bizarreness of his adventures spiced up an already interesting life. Close died back in 1999, but his strange little stories are still out there, lurking in back issue bins, and begging for some kind of collected edition.)

Of course, a lot of the medium's greatest artists have no real need for a proper memoir, because there work is so obviously personal. Art Spiegelman and Robert Crumb have both cloaked their autobiographies in artistic conceits, with those conceits usually heightening the impact of their work.

Other artists, including Los Bros Hernandez, Dan Clowes, Peter Bagge and Will Eisner, put so much of their own naked selves into their comics, there is no need for memoirs. Characters have grown with them, and changed with them over the years. Everything that really matters to Bagge filters through his Buddy Bradley stories, and all you need to know about Jaime Hernandez is right there in his Locas.

I'm certainly not saying I wouldn't whole-heartedly welcome a full-on memoir from any of these artists – they have all dabbled in autobiography here and there, and the results are always painfully charming – but they've all managed to show us how they see the world, without resorting to clumsy old reality.

The best memoirs are always written by somebody in the twilight of their years, putting their life in its proper context. As good as Alison Bechdel and Craig Thompson are, they just don't have the years yet, and their stories are forced inside the framework of youth and adolescence, which aren't always the most fascinating time in someone's life.

But I could listen to old people tell stories of the way things used to be all day long, and if they're sharp enough to get that story down in a comic, it will always be welcome.

After all, more and more comic artists and writers are merging with the infinite every day. We've lost most of the creators from the Golden Age, and their stories of all-night art sessions in mid-town bathtubs, and their perspective on the medium than the one they helped shape is a singular one, soon to pass into history. Even later creators aren't getting any younger, and there is surely great memoirs just waiting to be written about life as a comic book creator in the sixties, seventies and eighties.

We're losing the people – the artists and writers and editors – who helped create this vast and fascinating medium, but we don't have to lose the stories of their lives.

So I look forward to Griffith's upcoming memoir, for all these reasons and more. These tastes of Truth in an ocean of fiction and unreality are a vital part of comics, and they taste delicious.


James Langdell said...

My understanding, from Griffith's talk at the APE show about two years ago, is that his upcoming graphic novel is centered on his mother's affair with an artist (not identified by Bill at the talk). So I'd be surprised if this initial book covered Bill's own career in detail. But I'd be very happy to see more about his life. There's actually a lot of explicit autobiography in sequences of the Zippy strip.

Bob Temuka said...

That blows my theory about the glory of documenting an artist's life right out of the water, but that still sounds like something fabulous to read...