Graphic Panel from 'Dying for Attention' by Susan McLeod
As the Graphic Novel Medium Matures, Older Readers Are Seeing their Lives Reflected in Panels and Prose
Authors and illustrators, now being recognized by literary prize juries, are embracing stories about dementia, nursing homes and growing old disgracefully / BY Nathalie Atkinson / May 20th, 2022
While comics and graphic novels are an increasingly important part of the cultural conversation and publishing landscape, they were thrust into the zeitgeist recently after a Tennessee school board banned a key text. In January, the McMinn County Board of Education voted to remove Maus, American author Art Spiegelman’s acclaimed 1980 graphic novel about the Holocaust, from its curriculum, “because of its unnecessary use of profanity and nudity and its depiction of violence and suicide.”
The book, about his father’s concentration camp experience and the author’s relationship with the aging survivor, broke ground on many fronts, including widespread recognition for the medium. It’s a formally innovative graphic novel – in some ways, one of the first attempts to use the comics form for a novel-length story. Spiegelman, now 74, was awarded a special Pulitzer citation in 1992 for the book and, with the recent headlines, Maus raced up the bestseller list once again.
Biff! Bang! Pow!
This isn’t a “Hey! Comics Aren’t Just for Kids Anymore!” article. That headline was ubiquitous 20 years ago, and I would know, because I’ve been covering comics, reviewing them and profiling authors since the beginning of my journalism career. Once upon a time, I was also the founding writer of Graphica, the first dedicated graphic-novel review column in an English-language newspaper, for the Globe and Mail. Now there are many more, including at the Guardian and the New York Times, as well as in trade publications like Publishers Weekly. The comics beat is also how I met my partner, Peter (almost 20 years ago to the day), who runs The Beguiling, a renowned Canadian bookseller of comics, graphic novels and manga.
The category has matured in the past couple of decades. Now acclaimed stand-alone specialty houses like Fantagraphics in Seattle and Montreal’s own Drawn & Quarterly have risen in prominence, and most major publishing houses have graphic novel imprints, such as First Second at Macmillan, for example.
Because of my bona fides, I’m often asked for advice on graphic novels. Now seems a good time for a primer, not only because of Maus – or because Canada has more than its share of internationally acclaimed luminaries in literary graphic fiction – but because comics are flourishing, and they are, more than ever, exploring relevant themes and issues facing our aging population.
What’s in a Name?
Perhaps you noticed that I said comics — by all means, yes, it’s fine to call them that. Most authors and cartoonists do, and almost none call themselves graphic novelists. The publishing industry likes to use that term to differentiate a book with a spine and an ISBN (International Standard Nook Number) from the traditional, serialized pamphlet-like comics on spinner racks (which still exist at comic book shops). Rest assured, it’s the same sequential art form as superhero comics and newspaper funnies. The graphic novel classification has just become a way to convey gravitas and suggest that, regardless of subject matter, what’s between the covers should be taken seriously as literature.
But let’s get one thing out of the way right now: call them comics, call them graphic novels, but do not call it a genre — it’s a medium – because it covers everything from historical fiction and memoir to social issues and true crime.
For a deep dive, there’s Scott McCloud’s foundational work, Understanding Comics, a guide that explores the formal aspects and visual language, and takes the form of a comic book itself. But if you’ve ever read a comic strip in a newspaper, you’ll instinctively get the hang of it — really, you can just start reading. Most European and North American comics can be read like any other book: you start in the top left-hand corner and read from left to right, making your way down the page.
With that orientation out of the way, here are a few new outstanding titles to start your TBR (to be read) pile.
Canada has an established canon from its own talent, which began in the 1990s with homegrown cartoonists who rose to fame as the medium matured. Chester Brown reimagined the possibilities of historical biography in 2003 with Louis Riel: A Comic-Strip Biography, for example, as did cartoonist Ho Che Anderson’s landmark 1993 graphic novel biography King, in which the life of the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. was drawn in expressionistic style.
Fast forward a couple decades to 2020, when Clyde Fans by one-name-only author Seth (a magnum opus about a failing Canadian family business, drawn and written over 20 years) was the first graphic novel long-listed for the Scotiabank Giller Prize. (The Guelph. Ont.-based author hosted a Giller panel on the medium last spring.) In the fall of 2021, Joe Ollmann’s Fictional Father made the shortlist for the Governor General’s Literary Award for fiction. There have been recent international laurels, too: In March, Quebec cartoonist Julie Doucet was honoured with the Grand Prix d’Angoulême, the annual French festival’s top career honour. (She’s only the third woman to receive it).
Medical non-fiction has become a significant sub-genre of memoir and non-fiction, and graphic novels are no exception. It is interesting that they are often created by nonprofessional artists and, in some cases lapsed artists, or hobbyists rediscovering their love of the comics medium. It’s a case where being slightly rough around the edges isn’t a drawback, since it emphasizes the intimate and personal nature of the projects.
Start with Dying for Attention, Halifax visual artist Susan MacLeod’s recent graphic memoir about navigating nine years of long-term care for her 90-year-old mother, from Nova Scotia-based comics publisher Conundrum Press. “My thinking was, I’m at this age, I want to use it,” she says of renewing and expanding her relationship with drawing. After publishing this, her first graphic novel, in her 60s, she did wonder whether it would be widely read by middle-aged women. New Yorker staff cartoonist Roz Chast’s bestselling graphic memoir, Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?, about coping with the aging and loss of her parents, “was my inspiration to keep going,” says MacLeod.
Dying for Attention is a candid look at the failings of the elder care system (and its fallout on her personal life), but MacLeod also interviews experts, like family therapists, and it’s surprisingly lighthearted. The memoir comes with actionable prompts for those facing the daunting process of shepherding a parent into a nursing home. Anticipating reader response, MacLeod created how-to podcast episodes with titles such as, What to Think of Before the Move, Navigating an Unnavigable System and How to Downsize. “This is the book I that I would have wanted to have,” MacLeod has said.
Caregiving and Self-Care
Special Exits, by American underground cartoonist Joyce Farmer, deserves a shout-out here because the 2010 book was among the first to tackle caring for elderly parents in failing health. Likewise, Spanish artist Paco Roca’s Wrinkles is set in a home for the elderly, the follow-up to his graphic novel, House, about downsizing the parental home, healing broken relationships and the memories of childhood. In Wrinkles, the story revolves around a retired bank manager who’s thrust into assisted living when his Alzheimer’s disease becomes too much for his son and daughter-in-law to handle. Roca offers insights into dementia and its vagaries by shifting the point of view and narrative subjectivity from father to son to daughter-in-law. In 2014, Wrinkles was also made into an animated drama with Martin Sheen voicing the main character.
Like many comics in this sub-genre, these books deal with aging and resistant parents whose children have conflicted feelings, from guilt to responsibility. In No One Else, R. Kikuo Johnson – a cartoonist and illustrator from the Hawaiian island of Maui – creates a family drama and explores the relationship dynamics of a self-sacrificing daughter, her son and her deadbeat brother. Charlene is a conscientious nurse who’s left to care for her aging father alone. It explores sibling indifference, and the milestones, recriminations and challenges children face as their parents age. Bleak yet empathetic, it’s engrossing and full of both anguish and serenity – or maybe something more like resignation. It came out in December 2021, more than 15 years after Johnson’s acclaimed debut, Night Fisher, because he had since become a noted illustrator (you’ll recognize his style from many New Yorker covers). It was well worth the wait; if it were any more restrained, Chekhov himself would have drawn it.
Big in Japan
If the diversity of material covered by North American and European comics seems vast and overwhelming, it’s even more so with manga in Japan. Manga (the Japanese term for comics) exist on any imaginable subject, and one of the juggernaut genres is called BL, which stands for boys’ love, a.k.a gay romance, which is aimed at a female audience.
It’s sometimes more challenging to find an entry point for older audiences, but now BL Metamorphosis, the award-winning, five-book series by Kaori Tsurutani, has been translated into English. It’s the closely observed story about an unlikely cross-generational friendship that forms between an elderly woman and a teenage girl. The 75-year-old inadvertently buys BL manga one day, and she and the bookstore clerk develop a friendship through their shared fandom that’s quirky and uplifting, and allows them both to grow in unexpected ways.
Growing Old Disgracefully
The Old Geezers by Wilfrid Lupano and Paul Cauuet was such a huge hit in its native France that they made it into the movie, Tricky Old Dogs, in 2018. It’s about three septuagenarians who have been friends since childhood, and toggles between the 1950s and present day to examine political, social and cultural upheaval. It’s broadly comedic (think: a political Dirty Rotten Scoundrels) and, told in vignettes and stories, it’s drawn in the Franco-Belgian comics style familiar to those who grew up reading Asterix – it has both the same line quality and element of humorous caricature.
Moms by Yeong-Shin Ma was inspired by the cartoonist’s mother and her circle of friends, which is a brave thing to admit, because to call the rivalries and romantic entanglements of these Korean women in their 50s and 60s engaging is an understatement. They’re like Real Housewives of Seoul, if the housewives were living paycheque to paycheque as night janitors or in other working-class jobs. And I’ve recommended Hiromi Goto’s Shadow Life before, but the Japanese-Canadian author’s work is worth a reminder. Her story of a strong-willed mother who opts for independent living in Vancouver’s gay village over an assisted living facility is a rousing ode to defiant older women.
Some of these graphic novels may catch your imagination by description alone, but what matters is that the visual style resonates. When it comes to overall effect, there’s as much variety in the medium as there is between the spare style of Rachel Cusk, a Gary Shteyngart satire and the lush high modernism of Zadie Smith; the artist’s hand is no different than the prose writer’s voice.