Lives in Images: Graphic Novel Biographies

 

The graphic novel format is not only about telling fantasies with superheroes, zombies and dark anti-heroes.  It can also be used to effectively portray the lives of real people and make their stories accessible and quite entertaining, which is why I chose this theme as the topic of this post.

Cover image for Marzi : a memoir

I came upon this first example totally by chance but it inspired me to research the whole genre of graphic novel memoirs.  Marzi: A Memoir is the true story of Marzena Sowa’s childhood growing up during Poland’s last decade under Communism.  Born in 1979, we see her, her family, and the rest of the adult world’s daily struggles (shortages of everything, political censorship and repression) under a stifling dictatorship and the rise of the Solidarity movement that would eventually topple it.  But at the same time we also experience the self-discovery of an ordinary girl, going through experiences that almost all of us can relate to at school and at home.  The balance between a human story and the bigger “History” is what makes this entertaining and enriching.  Readers who enjoyed Persepolis will want to check this title out as it shares common themes, and the artwork is excellent.

Cover image for Feynman
Despite being an avid history reader, I suprisingly had never heard of Richard Feynman (the Noble Prize winner and one of the great geniuses of the 20th century) until I discovered the graphic memoir about his life.  This is a great format to learn about his fascinating life, as Feynman was involved in the Manhattan project, wrote books and lectures still being used today, uncovered the cause of the Challenger shuttle explosion and had a knack for cracking safes.  It effectively explains many of the concepts in the fields of mathematics and physics he created. For someone like me who does not have a background in quantum physics, this book was more accessible than a “classical” biography and I learned why he really is kind of a big deal.

Cover image for The imitation game : Alan Turing decoded

After decades in obscurity, the vital work made by mathematician Alan Turing has finally been receiving it’s due in recent years. Benedict Cumberbach gave a good performance in the starring role in the movie Imitation Game, but the movie ended up suffering from many historical and factual inaccuracies. In addition to telling us about his life, the graphic novel The Imitation Game: Alan Turing Decoded corrects many misconceptions from the movie about Turing (one notable example is that his homosexuality was not a secret to his co-workers at Bletchley Park and he was never blackmailed by a Communist spy) .  The novel also describes in detail the monumental task he and others faced in trying to break the German Enigma Code, which lead to the creation of Turing machines, ancestors to our computers.

Cover image for The adventures of Hergé
It seems fitting that writers and illustrators of graphic novels would end up having memoirs made about them in that format as well. Giants of the comic industry like Stan Lee and Will Eisner are obvious examples but I would like to mention two less-well known but worthy candidates. I was pleasantly surprised to find during my research the graphic memoir of Georges Prosper Remi, better known to generations of avid readers as Herge, author of the Adventures of Tintin series. In  The Adventures of Hergé , illustrated to resemble a Tintin comic, we learn of the life and career of one of the great European comic illustrators, from his humble beginnings in Belgium, to worldwide fame. It’s a fun quick read where we learn about the inspirations behind many of his ideas, famous characters as well as his personal life.

Cover image for Showa : a history of Japan, 1926-1939

For fans of comics, Shigeru Mizuki may not be a household name in North America like Jack Kirby, but in Japan he is still one the greats. Shigeru wrote an excellent memoir about his life which roughly spans the Showa period, named after the reign of Japan’s emperor Hirohito from 1924 to 1989. The 4-volume Showa: a History of Japan is a much denser read than the titles above, and it weaves the personal experiences of the author during this tumultuous period in his country’s history. Before he made his fame and fortune writing numerous mangas and  books, Shigeru experienced the rise of militarism in his country and fought in the Second World War (he was wounded and lost an arm while stationed in the Pacific though he never met an enemy soldier face to face). Like his defeated country, he had to redefine himself and lived in poverty for many years before he found his calling as an illustrator in times of peace. Again we see a mix of the personal and national history skillfully weaved and beautifully illustrated. It should be noted that the volumes are read from right to left, just like the original Japanese prints.

This is but a small sample of personalities, both famous and less-famous that have had their life stories told in the graphic novel format, and we have plenty more titles to discover.
Louis-Philippe
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One response to “Lives in Images: Graphic Novel Biographies

  1. Great post, Louis Philippe; I always enjoy your reading suggestions. You’ve added to my increasingly long list. :)

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