Graphic novels usually get a bad rep; they are considered to be children’s books as they contain illustrations. Anyone long past the teenage phase caught reading them is considered childish. However, that is not the case. Graphic novels are just like regular novels except that the stories are told in illustrations and words instead of just words. In fact, graphic novels come in different genres, just like their non-illustrated counterparts – fantasy, dystopia, memoirs, thrillers, romance, crime, horror, middle-grade, etc.
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Best Graphic Novel Memoirs To Read!
I have been reading graphic novels for the past three years and have become something of a graphic novel connoisseur. My favorite genre when it comes to graphic novels is memoirs. I think memoirs are even more powerful when told in the graphic novel format as they convey the emotions of the author/illustrator more directly than just words. Here are some of my graphic novel memoir recommendations (that is a mouthful!) that you can add to your to-be-read list. Scroll down to start your graphic novel journey!
1. The Complete Maus by Art Spiegelman
Maus is one of the most famous graphic war memoirs of all time. Through this Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novel, Art Spiegelman tells the story of his parents and their horrifying experiences of the Holocaust through his father, Vladek Spiegelman’s memories. The author brings forth a new method of graphic novel illustration and puts animal heads (in place of human heads) on top of human bodies to distinguish between different races and ethnicities.
He draws the Jews with a mouse’s head (hence the title), the Nazis with a cat’s head, the Americans with a dog’s head, the French with a frog’s head, and so on. This does not take away from the horror that the events in this book invoke. Touted to be “the first masterpiece in comic book history” by the New Yorker, Maus has garnered praise and critical acclaim since its publishing. The horrors depicted in this book transcend everything that we have learned about the Holocaust.
Especially when you consider the fact that this is just one man’s version of events amidst the millions of Holocaust victims. For most of the book, the troubled relationship between the author and his father forms a secondary storyline, which shows how generational trauma is another lesser-known side effect of war. This is one of the best graphic novels ever and must be at the top of your graphic memoir list. You can get the book here! 📖
2. Palestine by Joe Sacco
This novel is more graphic journalism than a graphic memoir, written and illustrated by Joe Sacco, an award-winning war journalist. In this novel, he details the ongoing conflict between Israel and Palestine amid the First Intifada. Sacco writes a detailed account of the conflict with caricatures of the events taking place on both sides of the border. He writes reports of the lives and plight of the Palestinian people and the atrocities committed against them by the Israeli army.
Throughout the novel, he tries to maintain a neutral tone, as is his duty as a war journalist. But by the end of the book, the readers can feel that his sympathies lie towards the Palestinian people, as he is affected by the stories he hears and witnesses. This book is essential as the conflict between both sides, which started more than 70 years ago, is still an ongoing issue, with significant casualties taking place on the Palestinian side, even to this day. You can get the book here! 📖
This graphic novel, illustrated in black and white, tells the story of growing up in Iran before and after the Islamic Revolution, as witnessed by the author. The author, a descendant of the Shah of Persia (1848-1896), remembers growing up in a loving, liberal family in a country that was, as of then, not yet seized up in an uber-conservative wave that was the Islamic Revolution. She showcases the dichotomy of leading a double life that contradicts the privacy of one’s home and public settings.
Unable to correlate the liberal way she was brought up to the current state of her country, she leaves to complete her schooling in Vienna. This novel is a Bildungsroman and follows the author’s life from childhood to adolescence to adulthood. She shows her readers what living in a totalitarian state feels like. By the end, the readers will most likely fall in love with the author and her humorous storytelling, even during dark times. You can get the book here! 📖
4. Grass by Keum Suk Gendry-Kim (Translator: Janet Hong)
This graphic novel showcases the stories of “Comfort Women.” The victims of the Second World War that most of us have never heard about. Who are these “Comfort Women”? What are their stories? The author sets about to tell the heartbreaking stories of these war victims and the injustice done to them. The Comfort Women were young ladies, most often minor girls ( mostly from Korea and other East Asian countries colonized by the Japanese) kidnapped or forcibly taken from their homes under false pretexts.
These girls were then sold and treated as sex slaves for the Japanese soldiers during the Second World War. In this graphic novel, the author meets up with a former Comfort Woman and helps her tell her story to the whole world. Told from the perspective of a victim and survivor, Okseon Lee, this book is not an easy read because we also see the cruelties in a visual format instead of just reading about them.
This book will showcase the atrocities committed against women once again in the name of war and how said women have not yet gotten the justice and closure they so deserve. The post-war world has largely ignored them; their stories are forgotten or not getting the attention it deserves. Read this graphic novel to keep their stories alive. You can get the book here! 📖
5. Paracuellos by Carlos Giménez
War has lasting effects long after it gets over. One such after-effect is the increase in children who become orphaned overnight. The Spanish Civil War was another war that led to the rise in orphaned children. The Spanish dictator Franco won the civil war and began a fascist regime in the country spanning forty years. Under his rule, the war orphans whose parents belonged to the losing side were sent to homes where they were mistreated by the authorities who were supposed to protect them.
This book is an autobiographical account as the author was one of the state-run orphanage’s residents (inmates?). He recounts stories of his time in these brutal homes, which strived to make the kids residing in them into upcoming citizens by using the methods of torture and mistreatment. Each chapter shows unrelated events from the memories of the author.
The utter helplessness, bleakness, and horror reek in every page of this graphic novel, making the readers’ hearts hurt for them. After the death of Franco, the author decided to reveal the horrible truth behind the orphanages to the world, something that would not have been possible during the dictator’s regime. This masterpiece of literature highlights a dark part of Spanish history that the Spaniards would like to forget. You can get the book here! 📖
6. Year of the Rabbit by Tian Veasna
The year was 1975, and the world witnessed a murderous regime called the Khmer Rouge. We have all learned or heard about the Holocaust, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, and the Cold War, but how many of us know about the Khmer Rouge of Cambodia and the massive devastation it left behind? We know about the atrocities committed by Hitler but not about the cruel dictator Pol Pot or how he was responsible for the deaths of more than one million Cambodians between 1975 and 1979. History has not taught us about the Killing Fields of Cambodia.
The author was a newborn when the Khmer Rouge seized control of Cambodia. In this novel, he relates the story of his family and their desperate struggle for life and freedom from the murderous despot Pol Pot. The events described in this book are an accurate account told from the perspective of the author’s family. Another graphic novel that displays the dark history of the twentieth century and the human will to survive against all odds. You can get the book here! 📖
7. The Arab of the Future: A Childhood in the Middle East by Riad Sattouf
This graphic memoir is a series of 6 volumes that detail periods of the author’s life between the years 1978 to 2011. This book follows the author’s childhood as he travels from one Middle-Eastern country to another, led by his Arabic father. He was shifting between Gaddafi’s Libya and Assad’s Syria, with brief vacations to the French countryside (his mother’s birthplace).
His memories are merged with his brand of dark humor as he relates the memories seen through an innocent child’s eyes. The nomadic nature of his childhood, shifting from one place to another, always appearing different because of his mixed heritage. He struggles to assimilate into a country with a culture different from what he is used to.
This series is a masterpiece, as it shows an insight into a child’s memories, how he views the world, and the changes taking place around him. As the series goes on, the eccentricities of his once-liberal father grow more and more absurd. I have read three of the six volumes and have loved the honest way in which he showcases his memories to the readers. I hope that the magic continues in the rest of the volumes too! You can get the book here! 📖
8. Showa: A History of Japan by Shigeru Mizuki (Translator: Zack Davisson)
Showa is a collection of four manga volumes detailing Japanese history between 1926 to 1989, known as the Showa period(the period ruled by the Japanese Emperor Showa). Mangas are Japanese versions of graphic novels and are super popular. The manga artists are called Mangakas, and the author of the Showa series, Shigeru Mizuki, was one of the most famous Japanese Mangakas. A typical Japanese manga is read from right to left, and the translated versions of this series follow the same format in keeping with the original work.
These four books showcase Japanese history between the years 1926 to 1989. Shifting between his personal story and his country’s history, Mizuki shows the ground-level changes and troubles faced by ordinary Japanese people before, in the midst of, and after the Second World War. Mixed with his brand of self-deprecating humor and matter-of-fact way of relating historical facts, the author does not shy away from describing the dark history of his country and the cruelty it spread.
He does not try to gain sympathy for the acts committed by his compatriots during the war. Popular characters from his other manga appear to narrate the story in between the story. Overall, this series gives the readers a good insight into Japan’s history and little-known facts about the Pacific War. The illustrations are done in black and white throughout the series. You can get the book here! 📖
9. The Best We Could Do by Thi Bui
This novel is another story of a family who becomes war victims and later survivors, this time due to the Vietnam War. The author’s family fled from Vietnam to the United States of America after the fall of South Vietnam during the end of the Vietnam War. Thi Bui recounts the story of her family’s life before the war, their plight during the war, and the after-effects they experienced due to the war.
Through the medium of this graphic novel, she conveys what it is like going to a new place and trying to build a new life over there after getting displaced from one’s home. The refugees’ adversities, loss of identity, and sense of peace that vanishes everything are illustrated in perfect detail. War wrecks all sorts of havoc on human life, and this intimate view into the life of a family that has survived the war is everything we need to know to refortify our image of the evils of war. You can get the book here! 📖
10. Ducks: Two Years in the Oil Sands by Kate Beaton
Ducks was one of the breakthrough graphic novels of 2022, and it deserves all the praise it has received and more. This book tells the author’s experiences, seeking gainful employment to pay off her student loans. She leaves her beloved family and home and goes to work in the camps owned by the largest oil companies in the world. She spends two years in the Canadian oil sands, and the events she encounters form the crux of the story.
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Through this novel, she displays the crushing loneliness experienced by those who worked in the isolated oil sands so far from civilization. Being one of the women among thousands of men also did not help to make for pleasant memories. She tells us the stories of discrimination and harassment faced by the women due to the men who far outnumbered them. The harsh living conditions, weather, and isolation wreak havoc on the physical and mental health of the people who work there, especially the women.
The environmental hazards and the oil companies exploitation of the workers and nature are other elements that she addresses in this novel. Student debt, poverty, and inflation all play an essential role, highlighting the desperation of the modern world, told through the perspective of a young woman, thereby proving the author’s genius in storytelling. You can get the book here! 📖
My thoughts regarding graphic novel memoirs are that they are a class apart from other genres. They give a face, an identity, to the people telling their stories and make their experiences more tangible. I like reading about the capability of human nature to survive against all odds. Seeing, and not just reading, the illustrations give it a more human touch, helping us to relate to the stories more. In this article, I have listed down some of my favorite graphic novel memoirs of the ones I have read. I consider each a must–read for other graphic novel and memoir enthusiasts, not just for the stories they contain but also for the artwork, which are masterpieces in and of themselves.
An architect who loves to write. Her favorite past-time fluctuates between reading books and writing about what she reads. Her favorite habitats are libraries, bookstores, and old buildings, in that order. She dreams of becoming an author one day, provided she gets over a pesky affliction called procrastination.