Few genres in comics are given the credit they’re due like autobiographical comics. However, with the genre still pushing the capabilities of comics storytelling decades after it cracked the mainstream, it’s easy to see that that credit is well-earned. That, and telling the story of your life requires a very specific kind of courage that many people don’t have.
Not everyone’s life story is interesting nor lived by a person who’s able to tell it well, but below I have listed my favorite women comics autobiographers. Each cartoonist has her own style, entirely unique from any other.
Over the US Independence Day weekend, I read MariNaomi’s well-received graphic novel, Turning Japanese. It was not the first time I had been exposed to MariNaomi’s work, having read of her queer experiences in the Anything That Loves and Qu33r anthologies. Unlike those short comics, however, Turning Japanese chronicles MariNaomi’s relationship with her half-Japanese heritage and her attempts to connect with it in adulthood, after growing up in America.
MariNaomi’s work is eye-catching because it defies the traditional. She’s a true artist in that she plays between the realms of chronological narrative and experimental art. Her depiction of emotions falls square in the abstract and is best when she’s frank about her discomfort, when her art twists into grotesqueries. Faces floating in empty space, eyes drawn with dizzying effects, and limbs taking on cartoonish motions are just par for the course in MariNaomi’s art. There’s a line of reason to each of her artistic choices that seem obvious after introduction and it provokes the question, why do we often limit the visual conveyance of feelings, the most visceral yet unphysical experiences we have, to a collection of cliches?
MariNaomi’s inspiring qualities do not stop at her artistic innovation, however. While Turning Japanese records her decisions of about a decade ago–decisions that included working at a hostess bar in order to learn Japanese from conversing with customers despite her moral qualms–she still demonstrates her characteristic strength now. If you have ever browsed the Cartoonists of Color or LGBTQComics databases, she is the founder and maintainer of both. I can think of few working cartoonists who are so underrated; she deserves much more admiration from the comics world.
Autobiographical comics by Jewish women are surprisingly inaccessible despite their historical breadth. Aline Kominsky-Crumb’s “Goldie” strips are collected in Fantagraphics’ very thorough–but thus very large, hard to move, and rather expensive–Wimmen’s Comix and Diane Noomin’s “Baby Talk: A Tale of
3 4 Miscarriages” has been reduced to a footnote among too many in feminist comics history. No wonder it took me more than half a decade in comics to discover my first autobiographical graphic novel by a Jewish woman, but Chast’s Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? Was worth the wait.
I won’t go too far into my feelings on Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? here only because I wrote an in-depth review for Loser City. However, Chast’s bravery sources entirely in something all-too-human and very womanly. She handles her situation with her aging parents to the best of her ability and has to chew through her own guilt for not meeting the standards of a “perfect daughter.” Then she summons the ability to shape all of these trials into a book, giving the public access to her many layers of grief.
The Jewish experience, with all its horrible neuroses, is never a peaceful one. But reading Chast’s experience gives me more confidence to perhaps someday tell my own.
Or, My Queen.
Okay, I don’t have to tell you why Alison Bechdel is inspiring. Fun Home is probably a perfect graphic novel, and perfection is a rarity in any medium. Plus its Broadway musical adaptation has some great tunes (I’m chaaaaaaanging my majorrrrr to Jooooaaaaan), although I’d call it less than perfect.
I bet what you didn’t know, however, is that her comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For is a must-read. Seriously. I learned more about queer history in the Dykes strips than I have anywhere else in my life, up to and including that all those terms I thought tumblr invented were being used in the ’90s within queer spaces. And Dykes may not be autobiographical, per se, but it certainly has autobiographical elements. With these strips, I felt that Bechdel brought me closer to understanding and fully embracing my (queer) identity.
Isn’t that what every good book should do?