Life Through Graphic Novels

Some graphic novels are about real life.

Well, hello December! Didn’t realize that another three months have gone by since the last update. Then again, long gaps between reviews (regardless of whether I’ve read full-length books or graphic novels) have always been the norm for this blog, yes? And as expected, I have the same excuse yet again: life happened.

Not that I’ve neglected my to-be-read pile during the lull. In between deadlines, applying for/getting accepted/deferring entry in an MFA program, health concerns, moving apartments, and other matters, I’ve been reading one book and graphic novel after another, cover to cover. Reading’s easy; writing about them’s the hard part. How ironic for a professional writer.

Life also happened to the three protagonists in the graphic novels I finished reading back in October, only their lives are/were obviously far tougher and complicated than mine. So if/when you say my excuse is a lousy one, I’d actually agree with you. Before you start with your personal “2015 in Review” assessments (or those issued by Facebook, Iconosquare, etc.) and welcome 2016, consider the lives detailed per panel in Maus: A Survivor’s Tale, Persepolis, and Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic. Then start assessing yourself, and answering the question of how you’d like to live your own lives.

One thing’s for sure, though: real life will always be a hot mess.

(Do note that I’ve read these three books way back in October, and may miss out on a lot of important facts and subtleties. Will have to read them again.)

Tough times

The definition of “tough times” will change depending on who you talk to. For Vladek Spiegelman, on whom his cartoonist son Art and the two volumes of Maus focus on, it’s surviving World War II, rebuilding his life post-Holocaust, and his life in New York City with his second wife.


As you read through Maus I and II, you’ll find that the most amazing thing about Vladek’s life story is that he had avoided capture by the Germans (to an extent) and cheat death numerous times. In wartime, once is a feat in itself. And just when you think he’s done for, he finds a way to work the situation and his captors. His resourcefulness and quick thinking enabled him to get what he needed despite the mounting circumstances. And his stories — as told to Art — about the conditions in the internment camps, the Germans’ treatment of the Jews, and how his family and associates died — are gut-wrenching and downright terrifying. A specific panel with Vladek’s late son Richieu, two other young relatives, and an aunt were particularly hard for me to read. For those who think of war as the answer to current international problems, you may want to read this graphic novel and reconsider.

Vladek didn’t live to see Maus in its complete form. But Marjane Satrapi had full control of her autobiographical novel, which contains a compelling coming-of-age story in Persepolis I and II. Like Vladek, Satrapi grew up amid conflict: the story starts during Iran’s Islamic Revolution and the Iran-Iraq War, with those events dealing drastic changes in her way of life and the rights available to Iranians at that time. The gradual loss of Iranians’ freedom due to religious influence — and the equally gradual acceptance and ignorance of this loss — made me wonder how much we can do without, and how wrongly humans are treated without them even knowing or acknowledging that they must work for and deserve better.

Satrapi also showed readers her experience living alone in Vienna, her return home to a tightly controlled Iran after four years, and spoiler alert her second departure, this time for France. It’s difficult to live away from loved ones and be fully independent, but more so in a different country, with a different culture, and in an environment you’re completely unfamiliar with. With a few exceptions, everyone looks after themselves first, and you’re just an afterthought. And while living away from home allows for significant self-discovery and change in perspective, it’s not the best place for anyone to fumble with love and personal freedom.

Family ties

While Vladek is Maus‘ main protagonist, it isn’t just all about him. The graphic novel also centers on Art’s fraught relationship with his father in New York City, and Art’s life after his mother’s suicide and his stint in a mental institution. Vladek is difficult, demanding, stingy, temperamental, and (in one telling series of panels) racist, ironic considering his (and other Jews’) treatment and labor at the hands of the WWII Germans. Art was also dismissive of his father, and held plenty of grudges. I can relate to Art’s frustration, particularly upon learning that Vladek burned all of his late beloved wife Anja’s old journals, or when Vladek would make impossible and unnecessary demands on him.

Maus I and II also goes deep into Vladek’s family history, especially with Anja, Richieu, the extended family and friends in wartime Poland; and everyone he met when he was in hiding, incarcerated, or newly escaped. Mala, Vladek’s second wife and fellow WWII survivor who he feared was only after his money, and Françoise (Art’s then-girlfriend, now wife) make numerous appearances as well.

Fun Home

Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home paints a similar fraught relationship between her and her late father, Bruce. But instead of the Spiegelmans opening up to one another, Fun Home centers on the secrets Alison and Bruce kept from each other and from other family members. Alison is a lesbian, discovered her gender identity early on, and learned as much as she could and achieved self-acceptance early as well. The opposite holds true for Bruce; as a closeted homosexual, he spent his entire life hiding his identity and desires. Fun Home explores sexuality, gender identity, and unyielding control within relationships personal and familial; and how father and daughter used literature to communicate what they couldn’t with words. “Fun” home it isn’t, at least in the literal sense.

Another common thread between Maus and Fun Home: a parent committing suicide. While Anja’s cause of death is confirmed as such, Bruce Bechdel’s is speculated by his daughter to be so, despite the officially declared cause. Before his death, his wife had filed for divorce, and Alison had come out to her family. Alison wonders throughout the book if her father died because he got run over by a truck, or because of her and his hidden (and inverse) gender identities.

Fun Home can also be considered the middle ground here. Unlike Maus and Persepolis, there’s no actual war taking place. But like Persepolis, Bechdel tells her childhood-to-adult story as she wants it told, and has control over both words and panels.

For this section at least, Persepolis is the odd one out. Satrapi has a strong and positive relationship with her parents, who had equally strong political views and encouraged their daughter to find her own way, even if she does it away from them. And as explained in one of Persepolis‘ early sections, Satrapi is a descendant of a prince from the Qajar Dynasty; and relatives like her uncle Anoosh were politically active as well. The most political thing I’ve ever done was join EDSA Dos, and we all know that that turned out.

Getting graphic

Maus is different from Persepolis and Fun Home in that Art Spiegelman uses animals to designate races and nationalities: the Jews are depicted as mice, the Germans are cats, the Poles are pigs, and the French are frogs. There’s more on WikiFur if you want the complete list.


Satrapi employs a similar black-and-white panel style as Spiegelman, but doesn’t use the same animal depictions. Instead, she uses simpler illustrations, sharp contrasts, thick lines, and heavier use of black for backgrounds. It’s amazing to see how so much expression and detail can be seen with this particular style.

Bechdel goes for a white, black, and greenish scheme in Fun Home; and needed seven years to get all the illustrations in order. She used personal items like old photographs, journals, and correspondence for reference; or used herself as a physical model for other panels. Story-wise, and like Maus‘ animal symbolisms, Fun Home is also heavy in callouts to literary classics, framing the scene and characters better for readers. I’ve never been into the classics, so all those references went over my head.

Another life

They started out as autobiographical graphic novels, but Maus, Persepolis, and Fun Home have taken on new forms — and their stories will live on for other audiences and in other media. Maus is widely regarded as a classic with the reading public and the academe, and is credited with giving graphic novels a boost in reputation back in the ’80s. Persepolis was turned into a critically-acclaimed animated movie by Sony Pictures Classics in 2007; and gained recognition at Cannes, the César Awards, and the Oscars. As for Fun Home, it went to the Off-Broadway stage as a musical in 2013, and is now on Broadway, collecting its own trove of praise and awards along the way.

Despite the complex and difficult topics tackled by these three autobiographical graphic novels, Maus, Persepolis and Fun Home were easy reads, and thought-provoking as well. It’s also interesting to see how each life unfolds and is told — you really never know someone until you step into their shoes. Or in this case, read the pages and panels detailing their recollections and memories.

The Complete Maus (25th Anniversary Edition), Art Spiegelman
Hardback, Pantheon Books/Random House
Buy: Fully Booked | Amazon | Barnes and Noble | Book Depository | Indiebound

The Complete Persepolis, Marjane Satrapi
Paperback, Pantheon Books/Random House
Buy: Fully Booked | Amazon | Barnes and Noble | Book Depository | Indiebound

Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic, Alison Bechdel
Paperback, Mariner Books/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Buy: Fully Booked | Amazon | Barnes and Noble | Kobo | Book Depository | Indiebound