10 Autobiographical Comic Books You Should Read

Sep 19th, 2010

The 1980s saw an explosion in the popularity of graphic novels, especially in the use of the term itself to apply to anything other than your typical superhero comic. And while purists can (and do, vociferously) debate the relevance and meaning of the phrase, there’s no doubt that the spread of graphic novels has allowed for the telling of nuanced and personal tales that used to be almost nonexistent in comics. The lengthy comic books on this list are sharply observed autobiographical works that blend humor and heartbreak with unique artistic skill, turning each book into a special experience. Comic books let the authors slide between literal representations of their lives and surreal, emotion-driven images that evoke everything from love to longing, and these books are true works of art.

  1. American Splendor, Harvey Pekar (Illustrated by Robert Crumb, Gary Dumm, Frank Stack): Now collected in several volumes, American Splendor is the story of Harvey Pekar, an eternally worried and pessimistic guy from Cleveland. The series began in 1976, and it was ahead of its time for being so blunt and enjoyably ordinary. The novel Our Cancer Year dealt with Pekar’s battle with lymphoma. The work is an autiobiography constructed as it was lived. Pekar died in July 2010 from prostate cancer, leaving behind an impressive and influential body of work.
  2. Maus, Art Spiegelman: This dazzling biographical fable won Art Spiegelman a special Pulitzer Prize in 1992. The two-volume narrative tells the story of Art’s father, Vladek, a Polish Jew, before and after World War II. The true-life account depicts Jews as mice and Germans as cats, amplifying the relationship between hunter and prey and lending a fantastical but haunting element to the story. The book also explores the author’s own relationship with his father. One of the best historical comics ever written.
  3. Blankets, Craig Thompson: Craig Thompson uses often painfully honest emotions in his work — the animal-populated Good-bye, Chunky Rice is a great story about life changes — but the autobiographical Blankets is downright searing. Thompson talks about his upbringing in a conservative Christian home, his awkward adolescence, and the first time he fell in love. The powerful work won Harvey and Eisner Awards and established Thompson as a major name.
  4. Persepolis, Marjane Satrapi: Marjane Satrapi was just a child during the Iranian Revolution, and her acclaimed memoir reveals what it was like to be a young girl in a country rife with danger and upheaval. In addition to being a funny, bittersweet memoir (the narrative covers her teen years and early adulthood), it’s also a straightforward primer on the country’s history.
  5. Stitches, David Small: This heartbreaking memoir can be read quickly, which almost helps balance the amount of pain and torment David Small describes going through. David’s father, a radiologist, overexposed the young man to radiation, leading to throat cancer that led to the removal of one David’s vocal chords. His ugly childhood led to his discovery of art and a decision to run away. A strong, harrowing autobiography.
  6. A Contract With God, Will Eisner: One of the early graphic novels, Will Eisner’s A Contract With God is a series of four stories in which Eisner draws on his own childhood in the Bronx of the 1930s. Renowned for creating the crime-fighter The Spirit, Eisner’s mature autobiography investigates man’s relationship with God, and it remains an impressive read for the way Eisner depicts the struggles of humanity.
  7. Fun Home, Alison Bechdel: Alison Bechdel’s book is subtitled “A Family Tragicomic,” which should tell you plenty. The book deals with Bechdel’s rough coming-of-age in which her burgeoning sexuality was overshadowed by her closeted gay father, and how her coming out and his death remain emotionally linked. The award-winning book is so honest in its approach to issues like gender, sexuality, and dysfunctional families that some schools have protested having it on library shelves. It’s a work of immense talent, and Bechdel’s recreation of her childhood is a thing to behold.
  8. Smile, Raina Telgemeier: Although aimed at the preteens whose ages match those of the young central character, Raina Telgemeier’s Smile is a great read for adults who’ve made it through puberty and have the scars to prove it. As a young girl, Telgemeier suffered a bad injury that required large amounts of dental surgery and corrective gear, which earned her the predictable scorn of other kids at school. Her inspiring, humorous look at adversity started out as a webcomic.
  9. Kampung Boy, Lat: Lat’s simple, enjoyable comic book details his life growing up in a small Malaysian village and going through rites of passage like movies, shaving, and more. His Muslim upbringing makes this a good book to pair with Persepolis, but it’s a work that stands well on its own. The 1979 book was followed by two sequels: Town Boy and Kampung Boy: Yesterday and Today.
  10. Epileptic, David B.: The art and comics of David B. have influenced many others in the comic book field, and Epileptic makes it easy to see why. His older brother is diagnosed with grand mal epilepsy, and this touching book follows David’s home life as his family deals with his brother’s illness and David learns to become an artist. The art is a heady blend of impressionism and reality, and the life story is unforgettable. One of the best out there.

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