The Art of the Graphic Memoir: Tell Your Story, Change Your Life

The Art of the Graphic Memoir: Tell Your Story, Change Your Life

by Tom Hart
The Art of the Graphic Memoir: Tell Your Story, Change Your Life

The Art of the Graphic Memoir: Tell Your Story, Change Your Life

by Tom Hart


    Qualifies for Free Shipping
    Choose Expedited Shipping at checkout for delivery by Wednesday, October 4
    Check Availability at Nearby Stores

Related collections and offers


#1 New York Times bestselling author and Eisner-nominated cartoonist Tom Hart has written a poignant and instructive guide for all aspiring graphic memoirists detailing the tenets of artistry and story-telling inherent in the medium. Hart examines what makes a graphic memoir great, and shows you how to do it. With two dozen professional examples and a deep-dive into his own story, Hart encourages readers to hone their signature style in the best way to represent their journeys on the page.

With clear examples and visual aids, The Art of the Graphic Memoir is emotive, creative, and accessible. Whether you're a comics fan, comic book creator, memoirist, biographer or autobiographer, there’s something inside for everyone.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781250113344
Publisher: St. Martin's Publishing Group
Publication date: 11/06/2018
Pages: 176
Sales rank: 1,058,916
Product dimensions: 7.40(w) x 9.20(h) x 0.40(d)

About the Author

TOM HART is a #1 New York Times bestselling author and critically acclaimed Eisner-nominated cartoonist. He is the Executive Director of The Sequential Artists Workshop in Gainesville, Florida. He is the creator of Rosalie Lightning, Daddy Lightning, and the Hutch Owen series of graphic novels and books. The Collected Hutch Owenwas nominated for best graphic novel in 2000. He won a Xeric Grant for self-publishing cartoonists.

Read an Excerpt



To begin, why do we want to tell our story in comics? We don't really need an answer to this, but asking it might help us make better visual and sequential choices once we get going.

Comics are inherently visual, like cinema or animation, but they're also intimate, making a one-to-one connection with the reader as do novels or poetry.

Comics have in their history early glyphs and alphabets that communicate through pictures. Comics may be closer to runes than to movies. Some historians believe that even some cave paintings were meant to be read in sequence.

Or maybe comics are more like puppets — in both, we look at fake versions of people, whether made up of foam and cloth or made up of drawings. They don't move like real people; in comics they don't move at all.

Or maybe comics are like theater, the boxes and panels reflecting the proscenium and the stage.

Or maybe comics are a lot like music, the rhythm of the panels and pages reflecting the beats and measures in a song, and the directness of the drawings hitting our emotions like melody.

Or ultimately comics are most like comics, and every artist will bring his or her talents, drives, and eccentricities to it. Which is why we study them: to see what others have done, and to mimic and learn as we develop our own voice to tell our own story.

Since most comics are drawn (though they are occasionally painted, collaged, or even photographed), let's begin by looking at three artists who love to draw and whose narrative voices are inherently connected to their love of and facility with drawing.

SMILE by Raina Telgemeier

Raina Telgemeier clearly loves drawing. You can tell from her clean, exaggerated style. You can see the joy she experiences in stretching these faces and bodies to their limits.


Telgemeier's characters are consistent, expertly drawn, and very funny. Her readers are young adults and this is how they want to read her story. They want clean, easy-to-read cartoons that are elastic and occasionally grotesque. This distortion of the characters' faces and bodies reflect how childen and adolescents feel about their own bodies and appearances and owes a lot to the exaggeration in classic comics and cartoons.


Telgemeier talks a lot about drawing on her blog.

She talks about drawing as a child. "My earliest drawings are just scribbles and shapes, but they're all sort of rounded, featuring a lot of bubble-headed figures."

And then she talks about being inspired as a child by TV characters like the Muppets, Smurfs, Care Bears, and Mickey Mouse and about copying "how other artists fit shapes together."

Slowly she began to draw everything around her like cartoon characters: "I also drew myself, my friends, my teachers, my family ... anybody I came in contact with was likely a subject of my comics!"

In college, "I really enjoyed my classes ... especially figure drawing classes, learning about human anatomy and trying to capture difficult poses ... but, my faces were always cartoony."

And she talks finally about how in a cartooning style "your hand memorizes certain lines and shapes, and starts to simplify them."

Telgemeier has loved drawing since she was a child and clearly continues to love it years into being one of America's best-selling cartoonists. This delight in lines, shapes, faces, bodies, characters, and stories keeps her work warm, joyous, and infectious.

BAREFOOT JUSTINE by Justine Mara Andersen

My SAW (Sequential Artists Workshop) colleague Justine Mara Andersen is an artist like few others. She is a master of traditional light and shadow, anatomy and old-school comic book lines and shading. She draws the beautiful and the ugly with the same precision.


In her memoir-in-progress, Barefoot Justine, which is about her life transition from one gender to another, she uses all of her skill and visual imagination to make the story alive, visible, and symbolic.

Idealized imagery pervades the book, for instance in the lush, decorative images on the left and right. But then when the need arises, Andersen uses different tools and renders in a more grotesque and humorous style, such as the image below of her asking her friend for some of his mother's painkillers. This image was inked with a toothpick as she renders herself lumpy and dissolving, a hopeless marshmallow.

She uses this idealized version of herself to imagine herself into existence. I'm moved by this panel where she, in the present, is holding tiny little past him up, meeting an artistic mentor for the first time.

In another panel, she draws her idealized self with such grace and beauty, and the internal demons and voices with such grotesque ferocity that you realize that the person telling the story has seen both sides of the imagination: the exalted, and the abased.

In her memoir, she tells about spending ten years drawing a comic about a girl in an adventureland full of space weapons, threats, and captivity. She says that she later realized she didn't merely love this character that she created, she subconsciously was trying to become her. And her memoir tells that story.

Andersen is an example of a person who, having studied hard to perfect her craft, now has the tools to make her dreams — and her own self — manifest.

THETH by Josh Bayer

Josh Bayer's Rom and Theth are memoirs that sometimes masquerade as revisions of other comics.


Bayer has a loose, inconsistent drawing style but his readers connect with its feral qualities. Bayer, too, loves to draw and it shows in him explosively trying new things on every page to get his story out. Characters brood, argue, fight, and strive for better situations while moving through this rich variety of coarse lines and radical marks.

Josh Bayer's lines do a lot of the talking for his characters. Theth doesn't speak much, but the lines he's drawn with are full of tension and intercoiled rage and resentment and fear.


In most cases, the creator of the memoir loves the art of drawing. That act of drawing is a way to relive the story, to put yourself as a creator back in time with new eyes and new tools.

Along this line, Alison Bechdel (Fun Home, 2007, Mariner Books) shoots reference photos of herself in virtually every scene in her stories. Having done the same thing myself at times, I can only imagine that Bechdel experiences the story even more deeply in a physical way because of this restaging, allowing her to inhabit the story in order to make fuller sense of it in context. Body, emotions, and intellect all work together in Bechdel's powerful work, which we'll see more of in future chapters.


So if the question is "Why comics?" I hope I've given you some ways to think about answering it by connecting it to drawing.

The process of drawing is a fabulous one, markedly different from traditional writing, talking, or thinking. Drawing is more animal, maybe more childish. It's challenging, but it's mesmerizing, surprising, and rewarding when it goes well.

But know, too, that it's okay to not know the answer to Why Comics? If the impulse is strong enough, follow it and it will reveal the answers later.

Why Comics? MY STORY


In my own case I have always used comics to explore my emotional landscape.

The montage of drawings to the left shows the manner in which I've drawn myself or variations of myself for twenty years.

The style, even when crude and inexperienced, is always emotive. The characters wildly express themselves with their faces and their gestures, expressing, I suppose, my sort of high-strung nature.

It was with drawing and writing that I dealt with and maneuvered within the emotional world for most of life.

So then when tragedy hit me, I had nothing to turn to except that same writing and drawing.

Though I've always loved drawing, the act of creating my book reminded me that in my case, the writing comes first.

I did tons and tons of preparatory writing. And then I drew through those written notes, the process of which became a way to revisit the experience while applying my more reflective and alert brain to it.


One of the ways of drawing that I turned to was the use of shading film — little mechanical dots on transparent sheets of sticky film. I turned to this partially because it was how I first learned and longed for the familiarity of it, but also because it caused me to draw with a knife. The tragedy of losing my daughter left me so raw and enraged that carving into film and into the paper was cathartic. Drawing for me needed to be a more solid, three-dimensional process.


I too have a profound love of drawing, but in fact it's often quite difficult for me. Drawing things "right" is usually a battle (though one that I enjoy engaging in, like a sport). Even while drawing silly cartoons, which is most of what I did for twenty years before my memoir, I had to fight to get body language, anatomy, and expressions right.

But in the case of Rosalie's book, I had a much more difficult series of challenges. I had to tell the story, engage with the material, and express something dark and sometimes scary. Not the usual thing I drew.

Early on in the book, I came upon this image by Jack Davis from an old 1950s EC The Vault of Horror comic (right). I was never a fan of genre comics, but this picture captivated me. I could identify with this horrific imagery for the first time in my life.

But I realized that I also liked looking at the craft of it.

So to draw the difficult parts of this book, I started there, with these horror comics. I examined the brushy way Johnny Craig built up the layers of ink to create this muddy pit (right), and carved away at it to create rain, and also the way Davis used ink to create the sticky, murky goo above.

I used these techniques as guides toward the type of representation I was aiming for.


One thing I especially needed to do in order to understand and relate to this ordeal was turn my wife and myself into cartoon characters.

Because I have drawn so many cartoon characters for so long, it seemed I had to develop versions of my family in this same language.

At this cartooned distance, I was able to see us as travelers in a journey. And there was something moving to me about rendering my wife and myself in cartoon form. I especially felt that this panel below both felt like us and felt like genuine characters in a cartoon book. The melding of the two was something I was shooting for.


Why Comics? DO THIS


For this first section, just get inspired. Read some comics! Lots of them.

Read any of the twenty-seven memoirs listed in this book. Those books, along with other great examples, are organized here loosely by subject matter. Start by reading some of them, firing your synapses, and getting primed to tell your own story.

This list below is highly subjective, accidental in many ways, and sadly incomplete. I hope you'll use it merely as a starting point.



Smile by Raina Telgemeier

Theth by Josh Bayer

Kampung Boy by Lat

NonNonBa by Shigeru Mizuki

See also:

Total Trash by Jen Sandwich


Perfect Example, by John Porcellino

We Can Fix It! by Jess Fink

100 Demons by Lynda Barry

Why I Killed Peter by Alfred and Olivier Ka

See also:

Binky Brown Meets the Holy Virgin Mary by Justin Green

Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi

The Playboy by Chester Brown

I Never Liked You by Chester Brown

Today Is the Last Day of the Rest of Your Life by Ulli Lust

Over Easy by Mimi Pond

Couch Tag by Jesse Reklaw

The Arab of the Future by Riad Sattouf

Alec: The King Canute Crowd by Eddie Campbell

Freddie & Me by Mike Dawson

Chicago by Glenn Head

Blankets by Craig Thompson

My Friend Dahmer by Derf Backderf

Escape from "Special" by Miss Lasko-Gross

Drinking at the Movies by Julia Wertz

The Quitter by Harvey Pekar and Dean Haspiel

The Diary of a Teenage Girl by Phoebe Gloeckner


To the Heart of the Storm by Will Eisner

Fun Home by Alison Bechdel

Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant? by Roz Chast

Calling Dr. Laura by Nicole J. Georges

Soldier's Heart by Carol Tyler

Are You My Mother? by Alison Bechdel

See also:

Fatherland by Nina Bunjevac

Displacement by Lucy Knisley

Special Exits by Joyce Farmer

All the Answers by Michael Kupperman


Grafitti Kitchen by Eddie Campbell

David Chelsea in Love by David Chelsea

Dance by the Light of the Moon by Judith Vanistendael

Silly Daddy by Joe Chiappetta

See also:

My New York Diary by Julie Doucet

Clumsy and Unlikely by Jeffrey Brown

Invisible Ink by Bill Griffith


Monsters and Sick by Ken Dahl (Gabby Shulz)

Epileptic by David B.

See also:

Marbles by Ellen Forney

Our Cancer Year by Harvey Pekar, Joyce Brabner, and Frank Stack

Billy, Me & You by Nicola Streeten

The Story of My Tits by Jennifer Hayden

Cancer Vixen by Marisa Acocella Marchetto

Stitches by David Small

Tangles: A Story About Alzheimer's, My Mother, and Me by Sarah Leavitt

Things to Do in a Retirement Home Trailer Park ... When You're 29 and Unemployed by Aneurin Wright


How to Understand Israel in 60 Days or Less by Sarah Glidden

See also:

Pyongyang by Guy Delisle

Follow Your Art by Roberta Gregory

Red Eye, Black Eye by K. Thor Jensen

But I Like It by Joe Sacco


Make Me a Woman by Vanessa Davis

July Diary and The Voyeurs by Gabrielle Bell

See also:

American Elf by James Kochalka

American Splendor by Harvey Pekar

Whatever by Karl Stevens

Miseryland by Keiler Roberts


The Fate of the Artist by Eddie Campbell

Need More Love by Aline Kominsky-Crumb

Stop Forgetting to Remember by Peter Kuper


Maus and MetaMaus by Art Spiegelman

The Photographer by Emmanuel Guibert, Didier Lefèvre, and Frédéric Lemercier

See also:

We Are on Our Own by Miriam Katin

A Sailor's Story by Sam Glanzman

Darkroom by Lila Quintero Weaver

Full Body Scan by Miki Golod

March by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell

A Game for Swallows by Zeina Abirached

Barefoot Gen by Keiji Nakazawa

Onward Towards Our Noble Deaths by Shigeru Mizuki

Escape from Syria by Samya Kullab, Jackie Roche, and Mike Freiheit

Vietnamerica by GB Tran

American Widow by Alissa Torres and Sungyoon Choi

The Best We Could Do by Thi Bui


Turning Japanese by MariNaomi

Doing Time by Kazuichi Hanawa

... and many more!



Maybe you want to tell the story about your childhood, and it's got lots of great stories and anecdotes but you haven't begun to structure it. Or maybe you want to tell about a particular ordeal, in which case you know the path of events and you need to elaborate it, or even edit it down to what is essential.

Assuming you know some of the story but not all of it, or that you know all of it but want to make sure you're prepared to start, let's look at the process of gathering material.

Let's review three memoirs that started as series of explorations and were later brought together into a whole unified package.

PERFECT EXAMPLE by John Porcellino

John Porcellino's King-Cat is an autobiographical series of stories that has been coming out since the early '90s. Many of the early stories are ones about young adulthood or adolescence — stories about jobs, love, art, friends. Porcellino's stories are simple and often short but honestly observed and detailed. His books have been collected in many large collections. At least two of his larger series of stories have been collected under unified covers: Mosquito Abatement Man, about his time killing mosquitoes for a living, and Perfect Example, about his summer between high school and college.


Excerpted from "The Art of the Graphic Memoir"
by .
Copyright © 2018 Tom Hart.
Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Title Page,
Copyright Notice,
Also by Tom Hart,
About the Author,

From the B&N Reads Blog

Customer Reviews

Explore More Items