Skip to main content

Staff Picks: Graphic Non-Fiction

When I was an undergraduate, my grandfather gave me a copy of Pogo: We Have Met the Enemy and He is Us. Walt Kelly’s comic collection from 1972 introduced me to graphic stories with a moral aim. The comics mock corporate greed, bureaucratic disconnect and the collective guilt of our society implicated in contributing to pollution. Despite loving these stories, I had not ventured to read any other comics since then.

However, this year I was assigned Lynda Barry’s What It Is, a book on the creative process and an accompanying writing workbook. Since I had to read it for class, I started to acclimate to the style of following images and dialogue around the page along various trajectories. Soon thereafter, I picked up Rebecca Hall’s Wake, which had been sitting on my bookshelf for a few months. I had bought the book because I was intrigued about the revisionist history aspect as well as the opportunity to hear history told as HERstory (has anyone else seen SIX? ( I’m obsessed…). The book is challenging as an emotional experience, depicting the horrors of slavery as well as its aftermath. I couldn’t put the book down except to dry the tears collecting under my mask. Hall also tells her story of doing research on women-led slave revolts. Beyond the normal and expected difficulties of doing scholarly research, Hall details the hardships of separating from her family to comb through archives and examples of enduring racism and sexism as Hall operates as a lawyer. Hall also calls attention to the limited access to material about extant companies involved in the slave trade. As she assembles the information about slavery and revolts, the visuals tell the story with visceral realism and, paradoxically, give the women who organized against their captors superheroine personas.

Maus, by Art Spiegelman is another historical graphic that has been in the news lately. Spiegelman tells the story of how his father, Vladek, survived the holocaust. Although the characters are depicted as animals (the Jews as mice and the Nazis as Cats), their humanity is clarified through the mundane. The only thing harder to read about than the death camps is Vladek’s residual obsession with saving food and money as part of a difficult and alienating personality. The persistent pain gives perspective to circumstances in which anyone is less-than-agreeable. It may not be linear like connecting Vladek’s disposition with his experience at Auschwitz, but the story brings forth a moral of compassion and curiosity for what others have gone through.

My favorite part of both books is how the authors position themselves within the stories. Since both are dealing with extremely difficult subject matter, the human side of the creation of these books is important to see. Both books live in the historical past but excel by showing how their stories continue to reverberate in the present.

Some other graphic non-fictions (and a few interesting fictions as well):