I’ve been reading a lot of books published in 2015 as a way to “get under the hood” of the year’s publishing output. I’m specifically trying to push through books that appeared on the 2015 10th Annual Publishers Weekly Graphic Novel Critics Poll, which “infamously” nominated Scott McCloud’s dudder of a comic The Sculptor as Best Comic of 2015. At the end of 2015, I had read 24 of the 76 books nominated, just over 30% of the full field (you can see the list here).
In September of 2015, Fantagraphics published two memoirs by cartoonists from the underground and post-underground scene, Bill Griffith and Glenn Head. Griffith’s Zippy the Pinhead comics have appeared in alt-weeklies since the 1980s and Head’s work on various anthologies has garnered him both Harvey and Eisner nominations.
Griffith’s Invisible Ink: My Mother’s Secret Love Affair With A Famous Cartoonist!! tells the story of Griffith reconnecting with his family by meeting with his aging uncle Alan, and telling the story of the affair his mother had with a journeyman cartoonist Lawrence Lariar.
Head’s Chicago is a tale of him dropping out of college in pursuit of “the real world,” panhandling to make enough money to eat McDonalds, getting started in comics, and reconnecting with his past.
Both memoirs are interesting reading but I think that they fail in various ways, and those failures are centered on the way the books are framed.
What Invisible Ink is, and what it claims to be, are two different things, due in large part to the way Griffith frames his story. Ostensibly, he is telling the story of his mother’s affair with a “famous cartoonist,” but the reality is that this is a book about Griffith. The majority of the book is focused on Barbara Griffith’s relationship with Lawrence Lariar, how their relationship forms and grows over time.
Invisible Ink shows Griffith rediscovering his mother’s personal effects and reading her unpublished novel. But instead of telling her story, Griffith reinterprets it through the lens of his own cartooning and the relationships he has with his surviving family members. One example is Griffith thinking about how Lariar’s influence might have shaped his cartooning, for better or worse. We see long stretches of Griffith musing over letters and opining about 3d printers, among other ephemera.
The introduction of Invisible Ink, with its train ride south, is as much about Griffith looking things up on Google as it is actually about the lives of his parents. The close of the book is much the same. Griffith spends a lot of time trying to get into his father’s head, which seems antithetical to the purpose of the memoir. And it really doesn’t dive as deep as I thought it would given the length of his mother’s affair with Lariar. Because of these things, Invisible Ink reads more as a story of a man trying to come to terms with his own mortality, using his mother’s affair as a set dressing for that internal monologue.
To be fair, I loved Invisible Ink for what it was. Griffith’s illustration is stunning at points, and there are scenes that are quite poignant. Others have a something like mono no aware about them, though I doubt Griffith’s writing is influenced by that particular Japanese tradition. Certainly there is a reason why critics have praised the book. But Griffith’s inward gaze turns this memoir into something other than what feels like was promised.
Where Bill Griffith’s introduction and closure change the tone and focus of the meat of the comic within them, Glenn Head’s introduction and closure nearly wreck the memoir.
In Chicago, Head is telling a story of youthful rebellion and urban survival, and the memoir works best in that context.
Glenn Head spends some time playing hookie at art school after graduating from high school, and eventually takes a one-way trip to Chicago by way of Cleveland. When he steps into the depths of the city, he shakes off the altered mentation of his suburban life. The hunger and cold wake him up, in a sense. The scenes where Head stumbles through urban Chicago trying to figure out how to survive for yet another day are where the book shines brightest.
The beginning of the book shows Head’ hanging out in a cemetery laughing at all the yuppies, hippies, and plebs, and then introduces us to his crush on the “girl next door.” The end of the book shows that crush relationship finding some closure via a sexual encounter, then Head takes his daughter to get ice cream and sit in a cemetery. It’s a neat little mirror, but it does very little service to the story of malaise-blinded, disturbed thinking that led Head to leave the Cleveland Art Institute penniless on a quest to get work at Playboy magazine.
It’s clear that Head didn’t know how to close out this book. After a whole book of “I went crazy, almost killed myself on the streets of Chicago and in my parent’s attic” the ending, which is “I got better, then got rich,” while true, is not very interesting reading. And it seems like that’s all Head has to work with. So Head needs to try to tie the end back to the beginning, which, while well-intended, make the book feel disjointed and aimless. Less sympathetically, the cut from the 1970s to 2010 is just bad writing.
The feeling of aimlessness permeates Chicago. Clearly Head feels aimless during this time in his life, and that’s part of the reason for the story – but the writing is also aimless and that makes the memoir hard to read. I almost gave up on the book at multiple points, only to force myself back to the story because “well, you’re this far gone, might as well keep it up.”
Chicago, like Invisible Ink is an interesting book. The stories these memoirs from Fantagraphics tell are human and fascinating. Invisible Ink does a great job putting Griffith’s life and career into the context of his family. Framed differently, Griffith’s Invisible Ink could be a fascinating tale of family drama and lost love, with a strong woman at its core.
Chicago’s retrospection gives it weight, and a focus on telling that story, instead of trying to play connect the dots, would have made it the unsettling survival saga it aimed to be. But the failures in both books keep the work from being transcendent.