“In February 2013, 18 weeks pregnant, I was diagnosed with bowel cancer.” That’s the opening statement on the website of graphic novelist Matilda Tristram, who channeled this painful chapter of her life into a bestselling comic entitled Probably Nothing. We interviewed Matilda a while back on the site and were so intrigued by her story, we had to know more. In this revealing, insightful Bookshelf, Matilda shows us the fantastic books that have inspired her to be one of the most important and engaging graphic novelists working today. Here she is…
Marjane Satrapi: Persepolis
One of the first graphic novels I read, Persepolis made me realise I had to read more and start writing comics immediately. It’s a memoir about growing up in Iran during the Islamic revolution and Iran/Iraq war; I find history and politics easier to take in when told via personal accounts like this, full of character and precious details (the smell of the jasmine flowers Marjane’s grandmother keeps down her bra, the little swan her uncle makes out of bread).
Persepolis is that magical combination of hilarious and grave; one moment she is being offered Yazoo and Julio Iglesias cassettes on the black market by a line of furtive blokes in long coats, then a couple of pages later she recognises a turquoise bracelet, still around her friend’s wrist, in a pile of rubble after a bomb explosion. The drawing style is clear and economical; looking at the images, you know exactly what she means in an instant.
Juri Arrak: Panga-Rehe Jutud
I found this book in a second hand shop in Tallinn years ago and liked the pictures but had no clue what it was about. I thought I’d discovered something really obscure (and was very pleased with myself) but I’ve since found out that actually Juri Arrak is one of Estonia’s most famous artists. He was part of an art movement in the 1960s called ANK’64, who made surrealist and abstract work, critical of censorship, hypocrisy and conformism. I love that the strange and sinister scenes in this book are painted in such bright colours. Who are those gently menacing blob-women? I started to translate the story on Google but didn’t get very far. I think it’s a folk-tale called the Swamp Women of Estonia.
Joe Brainard: I Remember
This is a kind of memoir poem. I was interested to see how a visual artist (Brainard was first famous for his collages) found a way to write a book with prose. He puts memories next to each other in the same way that he sticks together cut up pictures; so that the combination surprises you, moves you and makes you laugh. Each memory has its own section, starting with “I remember…” which reminds me of the comic form; a story split into boxes. It gives you a bit of space around each memory or picture to take in the meaning.
Brainard was gay and grew up in the most average of average middle-American 1960s families, and I Remember includes many intimate memories, alongside day-dreamy flashbacks of interiors, snacks, outfits, and other wonderful details. His blunt openness is delightful. I think this book has influenced the way I work; his observations are warm, he seems to love people and their peculiar nature, like I do. His playful, light memories make his more painful ones easier to manage, too. I also get the impression from his work that perhaps he didn’t know what he was making until he’d made it, which feels very free.
I saw an exhibition of his pictures (ink drawings and collages) at the Jewish Museum in Berlin about ten years ago. Elsas was a stockbroker and didn’t start making art until he was 74, illustrating philosophical rhymes and witty aphorisms he made up for his grandchildren. After he died, at the beginning of Nazi rule, his daughter hid all the pictures. She didn’t survive the war, but the pictures did, they were discovered by his grandson 20 years later. I’ve noticed a common theme in work that I am drawn to, through writing these reviews; darkness and light. Here again in these pictures, they are full of whimsical, loveable characters making cutting observations about the darkest human traits. Very powerful. I also like using his technique of painting watercolour and ink on paper then cutting it up, then drawing on top of that.
Eimear McBride: A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing
I read this last year while I was having chemotherapy and had to stop before I got to the end because (sorry for the spoiler) one character dies of a cancerous brain tumour and I couldn’t handle it – but it’s brilliant, a complete reinvention of prose writing; an electric, fragmentary inner monologue that pushes you roughly through a girl’s adolescence. There are no speech marks and very few commas, as if her thoughts have been caught the moment before they form sentences.
This style is exactly right for the scenes she describes, i.e. grim; pervy uncle, nasty mother, ill brother. McBride resisted many attempts by agents and publishers to rewrite the book and make it more commercial, I admire that very much. Like Persepolis, it’s full of details that make it real, the texture of a nightie, the smell of baked beans, showing Grandma some Octons. In a way it’s a survival story, unlike my own in terms of events, but I could so relate to the feeling she creates of a mind racing when life is out of control.