Published on June 12th, 2015 | by Carli Spina
Around The World with Graphic Novel Memoirs
Through their combination of art and text, graphic novels have the ability to transport readers to a specific location, making them a great medium for introducing readers to new countries and cultures. I love losing myself in a book about foreign countries whether I’ve been to them or am simply interested in learning more about a different culture, and I love it all the more when these books include the author’s artistic impressions of that country.
Though I am a long time fan of graphic novels, the first memoir set abroad that I remember reading is Aimee Major-Steinberger’s Japan Ai: A Tall Girl’s Adventures in Japan. It captivated me, simultaneously reminding me of my trips to Japan and making me want to go back to see the sights that Major-Steinberger saw during her trip. Done in a style akin to many manga, the book is perfect for those who are already fans of Japanese anime and manga, but Major-Steinberger’s writing style would work even for those who have never considered a trip to Japan or are otherwise interested in Japanese culture.
Though I didn’t immediately jump into reading graphic novel memoirs after reading Japan Ai, it did pave the way for my later interest in other great books that fulfill my desire to read about other countries. These generally fall into two categories: books by travelers visiting new countries and books about people from other countries. Both types of books are an enjoyable way to get a window into a new culture, but they, of course, offer very different perspectives.
Lucy Knisley writes some of my favorite graphic novel memoirs, so it is no surprise that I love her travelogues. Her first, French Milk, covers a six week trip that she took to France for her twenty-second birthday. Told through a combination of text, sketches, and photos, it will make anyone want to jump onto the next flight to Paris and it was the book that really started me on the path to reading graphic novel travelogues more seriously. In An Age of License, Knisley shares her journal from another trip, this time one across Scandinavia, Germany, and France. Knisley’s style shines through in this emotional book that captures not only the countries she visited but also the emotional growth that she underwent on the trip. While this book will also leave you yearning for a trip, it is also an impressive emotional journey.
Best known for Blankets, Craig Thompson’s Carnet de Voyage is a similar journal of Thompson’s travels through Spain, France, and Morocco. His sketches often focus on the artistry of the world around him and the people he sees on his journey. It feels like a private diary that Thompson then decided to publish and is a very intimate look into his travels.
Part travel memoir and part exploration of a foreign country that few in Europe and North America understand, Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea by Guy Delisle is a fascinating look at the capital of North Korea. Delisle, who worked in Pyongyang for two months overseeing a team of North Korean animators, explores and investigates the country through the eyes of a foreigner who knows little of this secretive place. He doesn’t sugarcoat his time there, but he nevertheless manages to offer a nuanced and extremely informative view of the country. Reading it left me wanting to read the rest of Delisle’s travel memoirs.
One of the most iconic examples of a graphic novel memoir, Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi, is also an excellent example of a book that introduces its readers to a country they may not know, Iran. Since Satrapi’s childhood coincided with Iran’s Islamic Revolution, it offers a portrait of Tehran at a very volatile time and serves as both a memoir and a history of the period. Though most readers will not be familiar with the setting, many of the elements of Satrapi’s life are universal, from the happy times during her childhood to her acts of rebellion as she ages.
Marzi by Marzena Sowa is not a traditional graphic novel, but instead a collection of shorter stories from Sowa’s childhood behind the Iron Curtain in Poland. Her stories are fundamentally those of childhood and will be relatable to virtually anyone, but they also show little moments of what it was like to live in Poland while it had a Communist government. Often graphic novels about life or travels in foreign countries focus on the location, but here the focus is clearly on Marzi and she has a personality that leaps off the page and will keep readers turning pages to find out what happens to her next.
Though all of these books take a very different approach to introducing their audience to their setting, they will all leave you with a whole new appreciation for the country or countries where they take place. Whether you are looking to plan your next vacation or just want to travel vicariously, these books will bring you to a new part of the world and give you a greater understanding of the people and culture of those places.