“Go make some good memories for yourself,” my father used to say, giving his approval for a teenage outing. “Making memories” is still an expression some people use for being alive. Yet there can be gaps between living through experiences and remembering them accurately—or even fully understanding them years later. This is particularly true when childhood or teenage experiences overlap with newsworthy events. Such intersections of private lives with public moments are the inspiration for four recent, compelling graphic memoirs. Some of their creators acknowledge the difficulties involved in finding and telling “the truth” about their lives. Others seem less aware of this problem. Yet these memoirs—ranging across three continents and unusual as well as everyday events—provide rich reading in both words and images. They also remind us that a focus on childhood or teenage years does not mean that a book is only or mainly for kids or teens.
The Silence of Our Friends (2012), written by Mark Long and Jim Demanokos and illustrated by Nate Powell, is based on Long’s 1960s boyhood in Houston, Texas. Racist white people and institutions there often clashed with black individuals and groups seeking equal civil rights. A 1967 sit-down protest at Texas Southern University, the subsequent police riot, and the arrest of wrongly accused students, followed the next year by Dr. Martin Luther King’s assassination, had a powerful impact on young Mark. As an 8- or 9-year-old white boy, though, his understanding of these headline-making events was limited. This memoir moves among three viewpoints: Mark’s naïve impressions; those of his father, a TV news reporter committed to telling truths, despite opposition; and the experiences of Larry Thomas, a black community activist who with his young family broke conventions by becoming friends with the Longs. In the concluding Author’s Note to this memoir, Mark Long explains that some of its “details … have been changed for storytelling purposes.” The self-aware writer adds, “Creating a book like this one requires finding a balance between factual accuracy and emotional authenticity. What we have striven to create is a story that offers access to a particular moment in time ….” I believe that Long and his co-authors—through their skillful graphic storytelling—reach this goal, placing us on the scene in moving, dramatic ways. Even readers unfamiliar with this era and its conflicts will be drawn quickly into the memoir through its creators’ storytelling choices.
Emphasizing Mark’s naïve view through words and pictures conveys the daily, insidious impact of racism. We first meet and see him low to the ground, as he is playing “soldier” and trying to avoid his sister, who wants to join in. Artist Powell shows us Mark’s close-up view of this pestering sister’s feet. The kids’ bickering—including yells for “MOM” to judge the dispute—seems very real, as does the sweetly smart-aleck way Mark at first says grace at supper: “God’s neat, let’s eat!” Scenes such as these, as well as others bike-riding at twilight and walking to and from school, make it even more shocking the first time we hear Mark and others casually use the “N” word. Black baiting is a childhood game in the Longs’ new Houston neighborhood, with linked speech bubbles conveying its sing-song chant. Mark’s parents quickly let their children know that this language and game are unacceptable, but their views are not typical. Houston remains unofficially segregated. When the Thomas family comes to visit, Mark and his two sisters already know the hit song “Soul Man,” but they and the Thomas kids have never played outside their own race. The speed with which, after brief awkwardness, they all whoop and holler together, enjoying the summer night, highlights the next months’ painful events.
We see young CC Thomas, riding her bike, deliberately injured by a white hit-and-run driver. Later, when Larry Thomas is refused service by a white convenience store owner, we see in a series of wordless panels how Thomas’ pent-up frustrations lead him to slap his young son. A whole family drama is played out as we next see this loving father’s wordless apology—an unexpected soda pop purchased at a black-owned shop—accepted by the son he then hugs. These pictures are truly eloquent. The rare “cuss word” spoken by adults as public confrontations become nightly news is also telling. Mark’s father faces pressure to lie or at least be silent about what he has seen during the riot. The authors’ choice to use only black, white, and greys in this book’s pictures is particularly effective. The grainy grey images shown on the era’s TV sets counterpoint and comment on what the two central families experience. The TV screens themselves become characters in this memoir—characters that sometimes lie through edited or incomplete newscasts.
Author/illustrator Derf Backderf (pseudonym of John Backderf) also chose black and white for his provocative, gripping graphic novel My Friend Dahmer (2012). In the 1970s Backderf attended high school with Jeffrey Dahmer, the disturbed teenager who later became one of the United States’ most notorious serial killers. For this reason, even the title here is eye-catching! Backderf describes this book as a novel because he researched the story, interviewing many former classmates and teachers, reading related FBI and police files, and reviewing print and TV interviews with Dahmer and his family in ways Backderf did not in 2002. That year he published a much shorter version of this story—the incomplete version Backderf now calls “a straight memoir … culled entirely from [his] memory and from stories [his friends and he] … shared over the years.” This author is well-aware of memory’s possible flaws. The stark colors here suggest 1970s TV, newspapers, and school yearbooks, as well as the palette of 1930s through 50s horror movies. As Backderf draws rectangular-jawed Dahmer—and as the few snapshots of Dahmer included here suggest—the large, bulky teen somewhat resembled the Frankenstein monster of those films.
Backderf, in the Preface, urges readers to empathize with Dahmer up until he first committed murder—around their high school graduation. After that, Backderf writes, the isolated and disturbed teen lost any right to pity and empathy. Yet Backderf does a phenomenal job drawing readers into Dahmer’s tormented early years. Right away, after a full-page establishing panel showing Dahmer walking along a deserted suburban road, we are literally walking in Jeffrey Dahmer’s shoes. In these wordless panels, we see only these sneakers from Dahmer’s view, as he trudges along head-down. Only the “CRUNCH” of his footsteps breaks the silence. We are shocked when he encounters a road-killed cat—the first shock of many in this book, which depicts emotional distress rather than scenes of gore. The most physical violence Backderf shows are several wordless panels in which Dahmer, after catching a small fish, stabs his catch repeatedly, chopping it to bits. That is distressing, but so are the ways in which 1970s school officials, family, and neighbors fail to recognize and treat young Dahmer’s constant drinking and other bizarre behaviors. Backderf’s final panels of teenaged Dahmer’s home are shown at night, in the literal as well as emotional darkness that has started to consume him. They contrast with the earlier, full page panel that foregrounded a sign congratulating high school seniors at graduation, with a school bus driving off into the distance. Ironically, that sign and occasion signal the moments when Dahmer doomed himself—and his multiple victims. If readers (including adults concerned about how to discuss this award-winning book and its subject matter) want further insights into Backderf’s graphic storytelling, the publisher provides a useful teachers’ guide.
Marzi: A Memoir (2011) and Little White Duck: A Childhood in China (2012) are both excellent, satisfying reads and are similar in other ways, too. Each tells about the early life of its female writer in a Communist country, while each artist is either the author’s life partner or husband. Marzi’s author Marzena Sowa grew up in 1980s Poland, but now lives in France with her French partner, graphic artist Sylvain Savoia. Little White Duck’s author Na Liu immigrated from China in 1999 to work in the United States, where she met and now lives with her husband, artist Andres Vera Martinez. Each memoir—while including several extraordinary, history-making events—is most focused on what everyday life was like for young kids and their families under Communism. And each of these acclaimed, episodic books is accessible to a much broader range of readers than either its marketed audience or the age of its protagonists might suggest. Marzi was published as a book for adults, but the vivid, wryly insightful experiences of preschool through 10 year-old Marzi are, I believe, accessible and captivating for all ages. Similarly, while Little White Duck was published for kid readers, its content and presentation will also appeal to older ones, readers whose greater knowledge will add further resonance to the history there.
Play, family, school, church, and chores are prominent in Marzi. The apartment building Marzi lives in and her grandparents’ farms are the centers of her life. She does not understand how international politics have led to ongoing food shortages and the scarcity of products such as telephones. Marzena Sowa just experiences and later records in acute detail the endless lines and squabbles that result. Young Marzi knows she longs for American bubble gum, but does not understand why chewing modeling clay instead is such a very bad idea! We see and hear how much she misses and worries about her father during a union strike, but her fears are not those of adults anxious about the Soviet Union’s response to this Solidarity movement. Young Marzi also does not realize what the “smoke” coming from a damaged “factory” in 1986 Chernobyl really is, while Marzena Sowa and Sylvain Savoia effectively convey the radiation concerns of terrified adults then.
Savoia maintains a very conventional use of six equal-sized panels to every page, but the imaginative details and varied perspectives he draws still make this memoir a visual treat. For instance, when Marzi dreams of seeing France, her pupils each contain a tiny Eiffel Tower. When she mentions the nostril hair of adults, we see from preschooler eye-level a panel filled with four sets of hairy nostrils! And as young Marzi describes the vicious words of an adult, we are shown the silhouette of a woman whose tongue is shaped like a machine gun. Savoia also effectively shifts from close-ups to mid and long distance views, supporting and amplifying Marzena Sowa’s words. While I remain a bit skeptical about her introductory claim that her “flawless memory” will not let her “recast everything,” that her “memory recorded everything [her] eyes took in …,” I do think Sowa’s recollections in the 225-page book are both extensive and sharp. It is also perhaps not coincidental that the muted color palette of this graphic memoir—mainly browns and greys, with “pops” of oranges and reds—echoes the few, faded color photos in the double-page photo montage that ends the book. The graphic creators here are committed to presenting an authentic view of imaginative Marzena Sowa’s sometimes painful but also, in retrospect, sometimes funny childhood.
In her Afterward to Little White Duck, Na Liu writes that the “China I grew up in is disappearing. The China my parents knew is almost gone.” She and her husband created this book to preserve these experiences for future generations. Little White Duck focuses most on its author’s early school years of 1976 through 1980. Whenever it describes the experiences of Na Liu’s parents, those more distant years are colored in one soft, single shade. Na Liu’s own childhood is more colorful, with techniques typical of different Chinese styles of painting—some featuring widespread landscapes, others having boldly-outlined figures—used in panels of varying sizes and arrangements. These pages alternate with single and double-spread pages without any panel borders, and at times—whenever Na Liu is reading or thinking about Chinese legends, for instance—mythological figures hover behind panels or even fly high above the landscape. This visual richness enhances the combination of family experience and Chinese history shared here.
Young Na Liu cries when she learns “Grandfather” has died, but it is not a family member her family mourns. Rather, it is the death of Communist Party leader Chairman Mao Tse Tsung (referred to respectfully as ‘Grandfather”) which closes schools and brings tears to crowds of people. She will not understand why until years later. Similarly, Na Liu has to learn first-hand why it is not a good idea to wear her best clothing—that jacket with its pretty, white velvet duck—to the poor village where her father’s family still lives. The lives of children there are more impoverished than hers in many ways. She is stunned by one of their typical, brutal games.
A recent event shows that Na Liu was right in thinking that her memoir records a past that is quickly vanishing. One of its chapters describes how she and her younger sister try (with comically disastrous results) to live up to the ideals of Lei Feng Day. March 5 is the day this Communist hero is honored each year. Artist Martinez reproduces many of the photos and posters used to illustrate the good deeds, models of Communist ideals, this young man supposedly performed. He was a Communist rock star to young Na Liu, her family, and schoolmates! Yet when new movies about Lei Feng opened in China in March, 2013, few people attended. In several cities, not one ticket was sold for the first day of screenings. Nowadays, in China and elsewhere, skeptics point out that many photos of Lei Feng’s Communist selflessness take place where no photographer would have been present. The underlying “truth” of this important part of Na Liu’s past, supposedly proven by photographs, was probably false—propaganda made up by Communist officials. Creating memoirs is indeed a tricky, fascinating business. Reading graphic ones is fun on so many different levels, too. Little White Duck, acclaimed as a Best Book for Children, also holds much of interest for older readers.