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Graphic Novels: A Personal Introduction
By Charlotte Simpson

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A few years ago my other half gave me a book for Christmas. It told the story of a girl growing up through the Iranian revolution, a memoir of one of the key events of the twentieth century. But it was written in a way I'd never seen before in a book for adults – with pictures as well as words. The book was Persepolis, written and illustrated by Marjane Satrapi, and since reading it I have discovered the wonderful world of graphic novels and memoirs.

A thriving literary culture that has existed for nearly a century (the first reference to 'graphic novels' appeared in the 1970s but the comic book industry came into being in the 1920s), graphic novels/memoirs weave together images and texts to produce some of the most moving and interesting books I have read. Books that are categorised as graphic novels come in many forms—comic strip collections, fiction, non-fiction, memoirs—and, like 'standard' books they tackle a whole range of issues from teenage angst to the daily stresses of living in a war-torn state to the joy of sex. You might think that graphic novels are the domain of men who refuse to grow up, full of male superheroes and pneumatically-breasted women who are secondary characters at best. While it's true that the genre is dominated by male writers and illustrators (the Wikipedia entry for graphic novels mentions only one woman) women have been active in the medium for many years, producing powerful, important works. This article is a brief introduction to my discoveries so far.

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Persepolis is certainly a great example of these powerful stories. Satrapi illustrates her life story and the changes wrought on her home country by revolution with simplistic, almost childish, black and white pictures that belie the serious events being depicted. In one scene, for example, she depicts the burning of a cinema, showing those locked inside the building as ghostly figures floating away in the flames. The illustration is a harrowing expression of the horror and fear that the hundreds of people must have felt as they realised that they were going to burn to death. It's an image that has stayed with me for a long time.

Of course one of the joys of reading is building up an image of a character, event or place in your head from the author's descriptions. So is that pleasure lost when reading a graphic novel or memoir? I don't think so. The pictures actually give me more space to imagine a character's thoughts or emotions because all I have to go on is a facial expression and a few words. And each illustrator/writer has her own unique style that contributes to the atmosphere of the story.

book cover While it may seem as if Persepolis has been the catalyst for a growing body of graphic novels by female illustrators/writers since its publication in 2000, women have been writing comics and graphic novels for years. Finnish author Tove Jansson, for example, is probably best known for her Moomin books, first published in 1945; Posy Simmonds, a UK illustrator, has been creating cartoons for grownups since the 1970s.

Similarly, American cartoonist Alison Bechdel's comic strip "Dykes to Watch Out For" has been running since 1987. You must forgive me if I go into raptures at this stage. The Essential Dykes To Watch Out For, a collection of strips, is one of my favourite reads of all time. The main characters are liberal, lentil-eating lesbians. They are political, gay, loving, selfish, funny, hurtful, seriously intelligent, sexual, sexy, annoying, bi, good parents, not so good parents, drag kings and above all friends. Bechdel's portrayal of these women is deeply intelligent and funny and often sad as the main characters grow from politically feisty young people into adults, with the opportunities and responsibilities that presents. I can't believe how much I grew to love these women considering they actually say and think in many fewer words than characters in a novel. I felt bereft when I finished the book and would no longer share their lives. A cartoon strip is no less powerful than a prose novel.

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Beyond Europe and North America, Japanese women have been creating shŏjo manga, comics specifically for women and girls, since the 1960s and there are some highly talented all-female collectives active in the genre. CLAMP, for example, is a very successful manga artist group whose work has sold in the millions. An article published in 2007 suggests that nearly half of Japanese women under the age of 40 read manga regularly, a level of comic book readership that I'm sure cannot be surpassed by any other country. I've only read one manga work so far, the first volume of Ranma ½ by Rumiko Takahashi. It's a cute, funny and fantastical story of Ranma, a boy with a secret. After falling into a cursed pool, he turns into a girl when he gets wet. And his dad often changes into a panda. While Ranma might be a bit childish for some people's tastes, there are some really nice touches in both the art work and text that made me chuckle; a martial arts venue is called the 'School of Discriminate Grappling', for example. Takahashi is one of the most respected women writing manga, and I will be seeking out more of her work.

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Despite these earlier examples of graphic novels written by women, however, the publication of Persepolis a decade ago does seem to have opened up the graphic novel/memoir genre more widely to women from across the globe both as creators and readers, or perhaps it is that publishers have caught on to the interest in these books and are more willing to produce and promote them. Aya of Yop City (2008), for example, is about being a teenager in 1970s Cote D'Ivoire by Marguerite Abouet. She writes the text and her husband creates the illustrations. Abouet's Wikipedia page states that she was inspired by Persepolis to create an African graphic novel, a story that wasn't about war or famine. Perhaps she felt that the best way to do this was to use a different medium from to other African writers. Aya is the only example of a graphic novel from this part of the world that I've found so far and while I don't think it's as successful as other books I've mentioned, it is worth a read.

book cover The graphic novel seems to have really caught the imagination in the Middle East (the Harvard Center for Middle Eastern Studies seems to have a whole programme devoted to exactly this subject). Israeli illustrator Rutu Modan's Exit Wounds (2008; reviewed in Issue 9 of Belletrista) is a fiction work about a young man who believes his father has died in a suicide bombing in Tel Aviv. It's another work in which there are standout images of immense power, as is Bye Bye Babylon by Lebanese author Lamia Ziadé, which I've reviewed in this issue of Belletrista. And I should note that Marjane Satrapi has published more recent graphic novels about life in Iran since Persepolis, including Chicken with Plums.

Just as I was finishing this article, the UK's Guardian newspaper published a feature about Bayou Arcana, a horror anthology created by an all-female group of artists and all-male group of writers. The article discusses women in the comic book world and highlights several graphic novel authors that I haven't heard of before, including Polish author Marzena Sowa whose memoir comic Marzi has recently been translated into English. Let's hope that this surge of interest in female-authored graphic novels continues and brings us more wonderful stories from across the globe.

In my research I haven't come across any graphic novels by women from South America, Australia or Asia, apart from Japan. I'd love to hear from Belletrista readers who can recommend other books that I should read (graphicnovels [at] Please send in your suggestions of female-authored graphic novels, old and new, and we'll publish them in the next issue.

Information sources:

Drawn and Quarterly—a Canadian publisher producing works by a number of female illustrators/writers

Hey, Women! Comics! – a blog 'for women who'd like to read comics but aren't sure where to start'. It hasn't been updated for a while but is a useful resource.

More information about shŏjo manga.

Guardian article about women in the graphic novel world.

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Charlotte Simpson lives in London. She reads a wide range of classic and contemporary fiction written by women and is currently focusing on Africa. She has a Masters degree in Modern British Women's History.

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