I had originally drafted a thoughtful piece of comics criticism—which read more like a term paper on The Iliad. Having completely bored myself to tears, I realized that I’m neither a comics critic nor a master of the craft. I don’t even know that much about comics.
So I decided to start over without trying to tackle theory, technique, history, and the like—instead, following the cliché: “Write what you know”.
I only recently started seriously making autobio comics. I used to make them sporadically for friends and family. I drew my first one after being held at gunpoint during my first job, at Blockbuster Video. It was an experience that I wanted to share, but not being especially good at writing or drawing, I split the difference and made it a comic.
My second autobio comic was about my horrible experiences at this Opus Dei-run, all-girl Catholic school. I posted it on my blog, and as much as I hate the term, it went “viral”. Throngs filled the comments section with their own experiences, many thanking me for exposing the school’s wrongdoings. Then the faithful came to argue. I just wanted to make a few friends chuckle!
It was never my intent to get into autobio; that was an accident. But discovering this sense of connection and resonance inspired me to keep making comics.
There are countless memoirists in comics these days, thanks in part to the resurgence of self-publishing, zine culture and, of course, social media.
While not relying on big publishers makes discovering other cartoonists and growing the community easier than ever, it also created a kind of Wild West where sincerity, authenticity, and intent may go unquestioned. Social media plays its role: instant audiences, validation, and feedback.
Memoir can be a ripe platform for narcissism, self-aggrandizement, exaggeration, or navel-gazing. Factor in agenda, and we get masquerade, vendetta, or untruth: fiction as journalism.
I think this is where autobio becomes self-serving and we lose that vital connection and resonance.
I struggle with intent myself. As my audience grows, so does a hyper-awareness— this feeling that someone’s always watching. Thoughts of Post-Worthy Content™ are starting to dominate everything I create. I’m considering a separate “no posts allowed” sketchbook to free myself from self-consciousness.
This all begs the questions: Why make comics about your life? What makes you so special? Why should anyone care?
I was asked to share examples of cartoonists who I believe are doing autobio right. I chose the ragtag team of Gabrielle Bell, Gabby Schulz, Keiler Roberts, and Natalia Zajaz.
Their comics resonate with me despite having very different lives. I attribute this to sincerity, authenticity, and humor. And yes, I may have shot myself in the foot by tackling the issue of intent because, let’s face it, intent is impossible to prove.
However, I look to these artists because I feel that they create comics for the same reasons I started making autobio comics: To process horrible experiences. To immortalize the happiest ones. To find value in the minutiae and mundane. To try and make sense of why I am the way I am. To point out the absurdities of life, especially things so ridiculously sad that they become laughable. *One caveat: These are my favorite straight-up autobio cartoonists. I didn’t include memoir-based fiction, poetry, or dream comics. Otherwise, Lynda Barry and John Porcellino would have been in here.
What can I say that hasn’t already been said about the illustrious Gabby Bell? I love her ability to play both the heroine and the villain yet remain likeable. She can tackle practically any topic, even oft-tread-upon ones like neuroses, daily minutiae, and mental health, while her unmatched observational skills uncover the humor in situations, never needing to force a punchline. My favorite strips are where she’s being exceptionally mean or sour—the drawings of her expressions are priceless.
Gabrielle showcases a playfulness that often results in her adopting inventive approaches to her work. For example: her use of a third-person narrator (sometimes through the eyes of a fictional character or observer), or by addressing the reader directly and breaking through the reader-character-narrator-writer wall, and even with her use of casual surrealism. Couple this with her prolific output and it demonstrates that nuance and experimentation are just a couple of manifestations of a master in action.
Her comics inspire me to try new things when I start to get too comfortable in my own work.
Anyone remotely familiar with Gabby’s work knows that his comics don’t exactly make for poolside reading. His subject matter is often heavy: addressing the current political climate, global disasters, illness, poverty—the general decline of civilization and impending doom of humankind, really.
There is no piousness or righteousness here, though. We all have our laments and these just happen to be his. He presents these topics with such acute observation and dry wit that they don’t merit further categorization as anything but being good autobio.
My personal favorites are his diary comics. Social media has inundated me with many a diary comic. Believe me, it takes exceptional skill to squeeze out a special moment from the daily humdrum to make for an interesting (let alone a hilarious) read. With the added bonus of the occasional scribbled zinger or doodle on the sidebar, each of his short strips is an unabridged imprint of who he is. There is a fluency and directness in communicating his thoughts and worldviews that you give you a sense that you’ve known him all along.
I do not like mom comics. I can’t relate to them. So, I hate when Keiler’s work gets bunched into this genre because her work is so much more than that. Her comics leave me in stitches, thanks to her deadpan humor, impeccable timing, and keen observational skills. The punchlines hit you when you least expect it. They could come in the form of wordless panels of dolls, animals, her dad, a sock…the possibilities are endless and unforeseen.
Out of all the cartoonists listed here, Keiler’s life of domesticity is the farthest from my own. Yet I find panels that contain thoughts I have thought verbatim, feelings I have also felt, or situations that I can relate to. Keiler takes no prisoners. No one is faultless—not her, her daughter, her husband, her parents, not even the dog. She transcends topics specific to her life by extracting more universal themes. For me, this is where the topic is irrelevant because of the truth in its telling. That is why I find her work so relatable.
I discovered Natalia’s comics on Instagram and can’t for the life of me understand how she’s still managed to fly under the radar. Political, humanistic, and environmental issues dominate her list of worry and woe—and this may lead one to believe that she is Australia’s Blue Mountain version of Gabby Schulz. But strip away these topical touchpoints and the similarities end there.
In my opinion, her personality drives her work, which makes for a rollercoaster read: from drollery to despair, ranging from trivial to catastrophic, it’s always peppered with humor, rawness and a bit of psychedelia. She dives into her work head-first, reader be damned.
In doing so she achieves some remarkable results: she consistently makes succinct points without preaching, then zones out on art, expels her inner demons, documents a day’s beauty or boredom; she amuses herself, amuses the reader, does things for shits and giggles. There’s a sense of freedom in her comics in that she seems to be unencumbered to a dominant, single approach. Her range in voice, style, and narrative, etc. shows not just her versatility as an artist, but a nuanced expression of dealing with being alive today.
I’d be stating the obvious by pointing out that Bell, Schulz, Roberts, and Zajaz are all extremely skilled at their craft—but it bears mentioning that their comics are so approachable and effortless to read that this may go unnoticed (though it shouldn’t). That deceptive ease masks a multi-faceted mastery that keeps me coming back to their work as a reference, gleaning something new each time. They also give me an ongoing benchmark at which to aim: What I can perceive as, dare I say, authenticity is perhaps down to directness and fluency of this transfer of thought and experience. But again, this is just my perception.
As far as their drawing styles go, they may differ, but what appeals to me is that they all have balance: the perfect amount of cartoony and realistic rendering, rough versus polished application, the psychological notions of positivity and negativity in approaching situations—that makes for the perfect autobio comic, in my opinion. When it comes to content, perspective, and personality, these people also have a little bit of grit, which makes for my favorite kind of people.