Unlike the majority of comic books, with their heroes, aliens, mutants, gritty seekers of revenge and assembly lines of writers, editors and artists, graphic novels and memoirs seem more personal, most often the realization of a single person’s vision and hard work.
Among the 30-plus graphic authors and artists presenting at Miami Book Fair are several notable practitioners of the art of the graphic memoir.
Life beyond ‘Zippy’
Forever attached to his best-known creation, Zippy The Pinhead, Bill Griffith not only writes and draws the daily comic strip featuring his philosophical microcephalic (“Are we having fun yet?”) but also is a lead character in the guise of Griffy, the strip’s voice of reason (more or less).
Griffith’s first and only long-form graphic work is the staggering new memoir Invisible Ink: My Mother’s Love Affair with a Famous Cartoonist. After decades of producing a daily strip — which appears in more than 100 U.S. newspapers — how and why did Griffith choose to tell this surprising personal story?
“I’m surprised myself,” he said by phone from his Connecticut home. “Since Maus [by his friend Art Spiegelman] came out [in the early ’90s], I thought, ‘Where’s my graphic novel? When is it going to pop out of me?’ So it’s been on the back burner for decades but never far from my mind. An elderly relative sent me a package of old letters from my mother — who had already told me about her affair before she died — and I was off.”
The story of his mother’s long affair with the urbane Lawrence Lariar, a wildly prolific “artist’s artist” largely unknown to the public, also includes a fascinating family history, with asides on changing American values and culture.
Those accustomed to Zippy’s discursive ramblings and Griffy’s interjections might be surprised by Invisible Ink’s narrative depth and diversity of illustrative styles, though the artist’s own doppelganger is still drawn as a long-nosed urban type.
But why not a graphic autobiography? Surely his own cross-continent journey from budding artist in Levittown to underground cartoonist in San Francisco to Connecticut comic strip artist would be sufficiently packed with pathos and drama. “In a way, Invisible Ink is my own back story,” Griffith said. “If none of that had ever happened, I probably would never have become a cartoonist.”
Though he wrote and drew Invisible Ink over several years on evenings and weekends when he wasn’t working on the daily Zippy strip, Griffith felt like an empty-nester, he said, upon its completion. He’s already 27 pages into his next book, a graphic biography of Schlitze, the “pinhead” featured in Tod Browning’s 1932 cinema classic Freaks, an obvious forebear of Zippy.
The ‘tumble of life’
“I felt like I never read a [graphic memoir that] captured the tumble of life,” said artist and writer Jennifer Hayden by phone from New Jersey. The tumble of Hayden’s life, from pre-teenager to 40-something woman, is evocatively conveyed in her terrific new book The Story of My Tits, which is about way more than her chest.
She said she came to the graphic form as a professional later in the game.
“I wrote and drew as a child and majored in art history in college, then I worked as a freelance public-relations writer and wrote three long, terrible novels. I read a lot of comics when I was young but lost track of them as a teenager. When I was recovering from my mastectomy, I read about graphic novels in The New York Times: the works of Satrapi, Bechdel, Dame Darcy, Julie Doucet, Lynda Barry — I was hooked. The widest range of emotions is possible on the page. It’s a great place for women, too. I could put myself on paper.”
The rest of her family shows up on paper, too: Her parents and their ambiguous marriage, her boyfriends, husband — they’re all integral parts of the story. But did they mind? “My husband is cool with it. My studio is his bedroom (we’re both loud snorers, so we often sleep separately), but he’s a musician, a fellow artist, so he understands and has never complained about how he’s depicted.”
Her memoir is the story of a modern American Everywoman with body-image issues who is diagnosed with breast cancer and survives and thrives with great humor and a lot of perspective and knowledge.
Hayden has several new and ongoing projects in the works and hasn’t decided which will be her next “big” book for publication, but she posts a lot of work online, so use Google if you want to catch up with the next chapters of her absorbing, hilarious and deeply moving story.
Derf Backderf — his birth name is John, which no one calls him — was a nationally syndicated Cleveland-based political cartoonist, whose 2012 memoir of growing up with future serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer became an international bestseller. He had published accounts of his adventures as a garbage man in several configurations before resurrecting the story as a work of fiction, Trashed, which just came out in the U.S. and is already in its second printing in France.
“They love me over there,” he said with a laugh, by phone from Cleveland. The new book was done “in record time — a year.”
Why did he turn his memoir into a work of fiction?
“More freedom. I have a journalism degree, which is utterly useless, but I’m committed to getting all the facts right when I’m telling a story. My Friend Dahmer absolutely had to be a memoir, but with Trashed, I wanted to work in the present in the secret world of garbage. Making it fiction also opened up the possibility of some new characters. I wasn’t worried about being 100 percent accurate with every detail, but everything in it is true and real, if you know what I mean.”
Trashed also explains how garbage collection works, its origin as a municipal responsibility and a bit about recycling, too.
“Yes, it’s educational,” Backderf said. “Couldn’t help it — journalism.”
Meet the authors
Bill Griffith: 12:30 p.m. Saturday, Magic Screening Room, Building 8, Miami Dade College Wolfson Campus, 300 NE Second Ave.
Jennifer Hayden: 1:30 p.m. Saturday, Magic Screening Room
Derf Backderf: 2:30 p.m. Saturday, Magic Screening Room
For more information on other graphic novelists appearing at the fair, visit miamibookfair.com