Serious Graphic Novels

I cannot begin to number the genres and sub-genres of graphic novels. Some of my favorites among them are memoirs with serious themes that teach me something about life. Three of the most interesting I recently found are Last Things by Marissa Moss, Can’t We Talk about Something More Pleasant? by Roz Chast and Threads From The Refugee Crisis illustrated by Kate Evans. All three chronicle times in various women’s lives. The first two are personal glimpses of ongoing crises in ordinary lives. The third covers a few months in which an artist attempts to bring the comfort of creating art to refugees living in the Calais Jungle; waiting, waiting for reunification with family members, news of the progress of their applications for asylum, and for something to break the boredom of life in the camps. 

Marissa Moss is the author of popular juvenile fiction, including the Amelia's Notebook series which takes the form of a girl’s diary embellished with doodle-like pictures. Last Things, published in 2017, relates events from fifteen years earlier when Marissa’s family (her husband Harvey Stahl and their three young sons) was lacerated not only by her husband’s death, but by the months leading up to it as they scrambled to deal with his ALS. Marissa shows in stark black and white illustrations how, from the moment of his diagnosis, her once loving, patient, gentle husband becoming an angry and hostile stranger, pushing her and their sons away. The disease progresses so fast that Harvey never has time to accept its realities, instead focusing on completing the academic book he has worked on for fifteen years. Marissa watches her marriage slip away as Harvey rejects her, refusing any practical help until it must be rushed into place, a jury-rigged, half-measure in every case because he will not allow anyone to plan for his future needs. He refuses any moral support or comfort from anyone. Her family starts to fall apart as Harvey pushes their sons away as they demand to know why their parents are fighting, why their father’s speech is becoming more and more slurred, why nothing is normal. Yet Harvey is not a monster; he is a man struggling to control what he cannot control. Marissa urges him to tell their sons that he is dying. “My sons, my disease,” he replies refusing yet again. He dies before there is time for the last things, the last hug, the last kiss, the last dance. And life goes on for Marissa and her family. She finds a way to say goodbye as she completes Harvey’s unfinished book. The boys find their own ways to remember their father. They come back together as a family. A different family, but a family inspired by the man who was their husband and father.

Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? is also firmly rooted in reality and the inability to accept it. It is also about a family. Using black and white drawings, some splashed with colors which become more and more muted as the book progresses, Roz Chast takes readers through the last years of her parents’ lives, when the refusal to talk about unpleasant things forces change after options could be considered and better choices made.  George and Elizabeth were born ten days apart and separated only by WWII, work, and visits to the bathroom. They live in the same apartment where Roz grew up as an only child. After an absence of a decade, Roz makes an unannounced visit. Oh, the dirt, the smell, the piles of newspapers! Her parents refuse to see that anything was wrong or that they were now frail and in declining health. Or that anything was wrong with their judgement - “It has some of those new kinds of three-pronged plugs on it. As soon as I file off one of the prongs, I’ll plug it in.” And then there was a cascade: a fall, an infection, George losing his way in the hallway of the apartment building he had lived in for 70 years. Neither parent is able to care for the other, but they will not accept their only option is a nursing home. (They did not take kindly to euphemisms such as assisted living.) Yet, in the end, they go to The Place. And, at the very end, they die there. Afterwards, Roz goes through their possessions and with an attempt at a jaunty dispassion that breaks into almost hysterical sorrow at times, throws out the lifetime collections of two hoarders. Finally, Roz has her memories, the good and the bad, and two boxes, one for George, one for Elizabeth. Each holds a few of his or her possessions that have meaning for their daughter.

While the first two books have the narrow focus of a family crisis, Kate Evans covers trauma of the human family, the lives of those living in the now-demolished refugee camp known as The Calais Jungle in Threads. Rather than the straight forward narratives of the first two books, Kate’s drawings, color drenched when something causes a little happiness, faded and shadowed to show sorrow, with intermixed photos and cell phone screen shots, seamlessly tells three stories. One is of her own time in The Jungle, where she sorted supplies, inked portraits of the inhabitants for them to keep, and ran an art center, which offered both entertainment and comfort. The second shows life there through cameos of some refugees and conversations with others that span several visits. The third gives the history of the camp and examines the complex questions that arise at a time when there are more displaced people than ever. Kate speaks of “little interactions, points of connection, life’s threads crossing,” as she writes of the community that has grown up, encompassing Kurds, Eritreans, Syrians, Iraqis - people from everywhere; a multitude of languages, cultures, and cuisines, cooked over open fires with improved pots and grills, and freely shared. The book opens and closes with an image of the once-famous lace makers of Calais, grimly working in their traditional clothing, making a wall to contain the refugees. Every panel of the book has a boarder of the famous lace once made in Calais. Calais is a very old city: for it The Jungle is just one more event in the pattern of its life.

- Mary Elizabeth, Hickory Corner Branch


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