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A Picture Is Worth a Thousand Lives - The Book of the Celestial Cow

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August 29th, 2008


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12:44 am - A Picture Is Worth a Thousand Lives
My latest reading adventure? Comic memoirs. It's become increasingly popular for people to draw their history in addition to writing it. I went on a comic memoir bender, and I ended up choosing three very different books, which just goes to show the possibilities of the medium.

The king of all comic memoirs, of course, is Maus (1973 - 1991). In Maus, Art Spiegelman relates the story of his father during the Holocaust. What I did not know about the book is that the book is actually about writing the book, which I thought was awesome. See, there's a dual narrative going on with Art asking his father to tell him his story so that he can turn it into this comic, so we hear the story directly from his father as Art heard it, essentially. And we spend enough time with Art and his father to get a sense of their life and their relationship; much of the book is about Art trying to understand his father. Surprisingly, Art doesn't come off very well in his own book; he's kind of a prick to his dad, who, in Art's defense, can be a little irritating at times. But there's a startling sort of honesty pervading the book, showing that there are no easy answers and people are complex creatures.

As everyone knows, the conceit of Maus is that the Jews are represented as mice. Everyone gets an animal: the Germans are cats (duh), the Poles are pigs, the Americans are dogs, etc. It's a good, simple way to identify people...until you start to think about the idea of representing an entire country's people with the same animal, as if one's nationality determines his species. Metaphorically. Don't think about that until later, though. Reading a story about mice gives the reader a healthy distance from the events, as does Art's father's broken English. He uses very simple language and tells his story in a matter-of-fact manner that ends up making the horrors of the Holocaust that much more horrifying. Because he doesn't need to dramatize it, he doesn't need to tell you it was bad. He makes killing your children so they don't get sent to the gas chambers seem so commonplace that you wouldn't believe it if you didn't know it was real. And this is why the comic form works so well: it allows you such an economy of language that you can get points across very quickly and simply—often wordlessly. And by providing images, it sort of fools your brain into accepting the reality of the image: this is what it looked like, he saw it.

Vladek's story is extremely compelling. We know he lives—and we know his wife lives because Art was conceived after the war—but the story of how is fascinating. I was reminded of both The Book Thief and The Pianist. Every person has a different story to tell, a different experience. I was always rooting for him, no matter what fucked-up situations he ended up in. His ingenuity was admirable, as was his basic human decency. It was interesting to compare the Vladek of yore with the aging Vladek of the present, mourning his wife and pinching pennies.

Maus II, written after the publication and popularity of Maus, gets even more meta, as Art begins to question how in the fuck he can even do this, even pretend to comprehend what his father went through and tell his story. It becomes a memoir about memoirs, like a baby version of A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. Overall, the book is fantastic, and I highly recommend it. It's easy to see why it's so acclaimed.

Maus is mentioned in the blurb for Persepolis (2003 - 2005). But here, Marjane Satrapi writes her own story, growing up in Iran and then going to school in Europe and then returning to Iran. People aren't mice, but she takes a cue from Spiegelman and uses very simple, almost cartoonish black-and-white art. Again, this has the effect of giving the reader some distance and serves the same purpose as it does in Maus, except I was pretty much completely unfamiliar with the history of Iran, so I didn't even know what I was in for. I didn't know about the crazy laws and the riots and the midnight executions and the children going to war and how did people live through that?? That's the book's biggest strength, probably; its ability to get this perspective of the country out in an easily digestible form. Again: every person has a different story to tell. Marjane Satrapi isn't as endearing as Vladek Spiegelman, though. I found her to be sort of bratty and irritating as a child at times and not the best person as a teenager either. But it's interesting to watch her grow into who she is, as she tries to reconcile her cultural identity with her sense of self.

Where Maus uses two linear narratives, Persepolis is more straightforward, generally progressing linearly with a little bit of non-linear storytelling slipped in. We watch Marji grow up, basically, as her country tears itself apart around her. Since it was on my mind, I was once again reminded of The Book Thief, this time because they both use the same sort of slice-of-life vignettes to move the story forward. Each chapter is self-contained in a way, focusing on a particular theme or incident. My neighbor Ari complained that it had a very "diary" feel as opposed to the more story-oriented movie version, and I could see what he meant. Unlike Vladek Spiegelman, Marji wasn't really a part of the major events; she was simply living with them.

Persepolis is a little easier to read than Maus since the art is much simpler, with very little background, and the panels are very distinct; unlike in Maus, you never have overlapping panels or anything interesting like that. Straightforward all the way. Yet Persepolis is much headier than Maus; people read Maus in high school, but Persepolis is more of a college book. Not just because it discusses Marji's sexual awakening but because it's very political and not too subtle about it. A lot of the time, the "dialogue" felt very manufactured.

Overall, I never got into Persepolis as much as I did Maus. I didn't connect as much with the characters and the story. Still, it's interesting and good, and I would definitely recommend it, as it certainly makes you think twice about taking your freedom for granted.

Persepolis is mentioned in the blurb for Fun Home (2006). When I told my neighbor Beth—who had lent me Understanding Comics and later Reinventing Comics—I was reading Maus and Persepolis, she recommended this book to me, saying it was one of the best books she'd ever read, period. Since I was on the kick already, I took her recommendation (confirmed by her boyfriend, Ari) without question, not really knowing what the hell the book was about. Alison Bechdel, known for her comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For, has not lived through any wars except the Cold War, so this is not a history lesson like the other two. This is a much more personal tale, marked by "gothic twists, a family funeral home, sexual angst, and great books." The blurb doesn't lie. Fun Home deals with three major issues in Alison Bechdel's life: her realization that she's a lesbian, her discovery that her dad is a closeted homosexual, and her dad's death. All three intertwine throughout the book, which one reviewer aptly describes as "non-linear and recursive." Fun Home is less a story than a character study, with Bechdel putting events together thematically and then returning to key moments over and over in an attempt to understand them. And it works really well.

One of Bechdel's major devices is to use the great works of literature her dad, an English teacher, was obsessed with as fictional maps for her reality. She finds scarily accurate comparisons to her parents and their marriage, maps the landscape of The Wind in the Willows to her own town of Beech Creek, and even describes her dad's life in terms of F. Scott Fitzgerald's. It's a brilliant and effective way to show how fervently she's trying to put the pieces together, make some sense out of her life by turning it into a story, giving it a comfortable element of fiction.

Bechdel's art, like her narrative, is far more detailed and complex. Backgrounds are rendered like photographs and written diary entries are reproduced with painstaking accuracy. She doesn't want to distance you; she wants you to see the world as it is for her, for it to be as real to you as it is to her. Everything is tinged in a dull green hue, giving the art just enough color.

The writing perspective is that of a traditional memoir. No broken English like Maus, no reversion to childlike constructions like Persepolis. We are very obviously hearing the grown-up Alison Bechdel reflecting on her life, so the language is as just as lush as the images. And it pulls you in, allowing you to share her struggle in understanding her father and their relationship, how they might have influenced each other. Once I began to grasp that there wasn't actually a story, I feared I might not really like the book that much, but Bechdel's writing is so strong and the way she presents everything is so fascinating that it didn't matter. I don't know whether she's any closer to the truth at the end of the book than the beginning, but I still feel enlightened. And, unlike Art Spiegelman and Marjane Satrapi, I actually like her. She's the only one I'd want to be friends with; she seems like a really interesting person.

If I think about it, Fun Home is unlike anything I've ever read. Even though I am a big fan of narrative, I found that the word that came to mind when I finished the book was beautiful. And I don't use that word very often.
Current Mood: hothot
Current Music: Fiona Apple - Please Please Please

(27 memoirs | Describe me as "inscrutable")

Comments:


[User Picture]
From:sophia_helix
Date:August 29th, 2008 08:16 am (UTC)
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Fun Home sounds really interesting -- I've read the first two, and enjoyed them for different reasons. Actually, I think I read Maus a really long time ago (high school?) and since I own it, I should probably read it again. Also, the recent Persepolis movie is really excellent. I've been on a comics kick, period recently (having just finished my reread of Bone and digging through the archives of the narrative webcomic Something Positive), so I'd love to have something new to check out.
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From:spectralbovine
Date:August 29th, 2008 08:23 am (UTC)
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I want to see the movie of Persepolis since my neighbors prefer it to the book, but I don't want to watch it right away or I'll just be comparing it to the book the whole time.

I do need to read Bone.

Fun Home is very interesting and different. I just noticed that all three of my selections are about minorities: Jews, Iranians, and lesbians. Comic memoirs are a good way to get a taste of those worlds. Less words! More pictures!
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From:electricmonk
Date:August 29th, 2008 02:42 pm (UTC)
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I've read all of those! And I think they're the only graphic novels I've read, basically. Recommend me something?

Fun Home was amazing. Sometimes overt attempts to thematize annoy me, but the way she pulls those threads (Gatsby, bread truck, and I know there were others, but I can't remember) through the book is really careful and profound. "Recursive" is a great word.

The scene I remember from Persepolis, more than any of the ones about religion or repression, is the one where she angrily attempts to pee standing up. And yeah, the film's really good, surprisingly.

And Maus was the first graphic novel I read, like most everyone else in the world, I imagine. I think I did a project on it in 9th grade, which might have been before we were calling them "graphic novels." He has a book about 9/11 now, which I haven't read, but it looks interesting.

Whoo, picture books!
[User Picture]
From:electricmonk
Date:August 29th, 2008 02:55 pm (UTC)
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Ooh, good song, also.
[User Picture]
From:spectralbovine
Date:August 29th, 2008 05:09 pm (UTC)
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I've read all of those! And I think they're the only graphic novels I've read, basically.
Ooh, very cool! I didn't think anyone else had even heard of Fun Home. Once I looked it up, I think I may have vaguely recalled a mention in Entertainment Weekly, but that's it.

Recommend me something?
What do you think I've been DOING, lady?!

"Recursive" is a great word.
Yeah, I thought that was a nice way of describing it. And I agree with you on the thematizing. It was so effortless, and it never felt forced. This was her life, and she identified the elements that made the best story.
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From:electricmonk
Date:August 29th, 2008 05:19 pm (UTC)
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I didn't think anyone else had even heard of Fun Home.

I read about it on Bookslut. And a friend of mine in college was really into Dykes to Watch Out For, so I'd heard about her, although I don't think I realized she'd written both until I looked at the blurbs on Fun Home.

What do you think I've been DOING, lady?!

I am duly shamed. I'll click back through those. Thanks, yo.
[User Picture]
From:pandora_17
Date:August 29th, 2008 03:12 pm (UTC)
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I haven't even heard of any of these. I am so uncultured.
[User Picture]
From:spectralbovine
Date:August 29th, 2008 05:10 pm (UTC)
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Any? But the movie version of Persepolis was nominated for an Oscar! And Maus is...Maus! Get thee to a library!
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From:pandora_17
Date:August 29th, 2008 05:26 pm (UTC)
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Well, I understood all your references. I just haven't heard of the three you reviewed.

This one? Was it even released nationally? And I already looked up Maus on the library site and it's checked out. Plus, it's in the young adult section and I always feel self conscious going over there.

Hee to your icon.
[User Picture]
From:spectralbovine
Date:August 29th, 2008 05:46 pm (UTC)
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Was it even released nationally?
Yes! Maybe only in little independent theatres, though.

And I already looked up Maus on the library site and it's checked out. Plus, it's in the young adult section and I always feel self conscious going over there.
Don't! I saw some dude reading Holes out in the open the other day, and it was awesome. We even talked about it like it was an actual book worth reading.
[User Picture]
From:pandora_17
Date:August 29th, 2008 05:54 pm (UTC)
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Well how was I supposed to know it was playing at an indie theater? Advertise, people!

Ha! That never happens to me. I always get people making fun of me for reading the teenager books.
[User Picture]
From:spectralbovine
Date:August 29th, 2008 06:03 pm (UTC)
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[User Picture]
From:super_hoodzie_x
Date:August 29th, 2008 06:24 pm (UTC)
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Man, Holes was an awesome book. And is one of the only "young adult" books that I've seen make a pretty smooth transition into the movie world.

Also, Persepolis was released in regular theatres, though after doing well in indie theatres. It was advertised quite a bit, I saw a few previews for it at other movies. When I first saw it, it was at some megaplex expensive movie theatre, which is how I know it wasn't just indies.
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From:spectralbovine
Date:August 29th, 2008 06:38 pm (UTC)
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And is one of the only "young adult" books that I've seen make a pretty smooth transition into the movie world.
Yeah, I recommended the movie to him. It was a pretty faithful, well done adaptation, I think. I think I saw the movie first, actually.

When I first saw it, it was at some megaplex expensive movie theatre, which is how I know it wasn't just indies.
Ooh, crazy.
[User Picture]
From:punzerel
Date:August 29th, 2008 03:37 pm (UTC)
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"A lot of the time, the "dialogue" felt very manufactured." I have to agree on this one. I really enjoyed the Perspepolis books, but they didn't always feel that they flowed very naturally. The writing was sometimes a little stilted - but maybe this was a function of the translation?

I haven't read Maus I/II in a long time. I remember them being still hard to read, but moderately less so than other Holocaust books. (I deal spectacularly badly with Holocaust memoirs etc. You should have seen me after I read Night, hoo boy.)
They're much more of a story and much more nuanced than Persepolis, I think.
[User Picture]
From:electricmonk
Date:August 29th, 2008 04:34 pm (UTC)
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Oh, man. I had to read Night twice for school. I thought it might be easier the second time, but no.
[User Picture]
From:spectralbovine
Date:August 29th, 2008 05:14 pm (UTC)
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The writing was sometimes a little stilted - but maybe this was a function of the translation?
Yeah, that could definitely be an issue. I was mostly thinking of various things her parents said, which seemed more like blatant political statements than anything a person would say in their own home. But I also agree that as a whole, it didn't flow. It was very disjointed.

You should have seen me after I read Night, hoo boy.
I haven't read that one.
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From:ethanvahlere
Date:August 29th, 2008 04:25 pm (UTC)
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I never read Persepolis, but I did see the movie, and liked it very much. I never got the feeling the dialogue was manufactured, although I might feel that way seeing it on the page. I also remember that time, albeit only from the American perspective - the time period she's talking about is when American hostages were taken - and it was nice to get a different perspective of that time.
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From:zenkitty_714
Date:August 29th, 2008 05:20 pm (UTC)
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Thank you for recommending these.
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From:spectralbovine
Date:August 29th, 2008 05:47 pm (UTC)
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I hope you like them, if you read them!
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From:super_hoodzie_x
Date:August 29th, 2008 06:17 pm (UTC)
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I loved Persepolis. I read it for a class last year, but i really do see what you mean about the point of view and the dialogue. It's not as much about her struggle in the country, it's about her struggle for self-identity within the country. and then outside of it. I really enjoyed it, though, and the movie too. I have yet to read Maus, but every time i go to the comic store i THINK about it. Holocaust stories really get to me, and I feel like it would be difficult to read. Especially since i always read before bed.
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From:spectralbovine
Date:August 29th, 2008 06:26 pm (UTC)
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It's not as much about her struggle in the country, it's about her struggle for self-identity within the country. and then outside of it.
Yeah, and I usually dig that kind of thing, but I felt like it was really disjointed, which made it hard for me to really follow her progression. The book was sort of all over the place, like "Is it about her? Is it about Iran? Is it about freedom? Have a focus, woman!"

Maus is a little difficult to read, yeah. I had to stop every now and then just to be all WTF, humanity.
[User Picture]
From:super_hoodzie_x
Date:August 29th, 2008 07:02 pm (UTC)
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Oh yea, Persepolis was more like a bunch of little vignettes about her life. The movie seemed to have more of a coherence.
[User Picture]
From:kouredios
Date:August 29th, 2008 08:01 pm (UTC)
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I'm actually teaching Persepolis to high schoolers this year. :D
[User Picture]
From:spectralbovine
Date:August 29th, 2008 08:15 pm (UTC)
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Ha! Well, I'm sure you can provide them with the necessary political and philosophical background.
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From:maidofawesome
Date:August 29th, 2008 09:12 pm (UTC)
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I read Maus at school - I was like 13. I didn't really understand it.

I just read The Messenger by Zusak and looooooved it. Have you read it?
[User Picture]
From:spectralbovine
Date:August 29th, 2008 09:15 pm (UTC)
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Yes!

You should read Maus again now that you're older. You will understand it.

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