Act Smart!: Summertime, and the readin’ is easy(ish)

In the same way that the best books about acting are often about kayaking, the books that best illuminate the truth of the human condition are often not sweeping and historical, but personal—i.e., memoirs. (And if you’re not looking to learn about what makes us tick at least as much as how to find an agent or to convert your gifts into gold, I humbly submit from my own experience that you have it ass-backwards. Not only will piecing together your personal owner’s manual make life run more smoothly, it’s invaluable when dissecting what makes your characters tick.)

Lately, I find myself dipping back into a memoir sub-genre I’m drawn to when life becomes overwhelming: the graphic memoir. Well, to be completely honest, I didn’t know it had been coined that until I sat down to write this, but if you like graphic novels combined with personal narrative, you, too, enjoy autobiographical comics, or, as the internet-at-large insists upon calling them, “graphic memoirs“.

I especially love memoirs-that-are-graphic-novels because, in addition to scratching that deep itch to know more about my own crazy thinker, they are soothing to read. I spent much of my formative years in the closet reading comics, which I mean literally, not metaphorically: I was given my own walk-in closet to decorate and hang out in on Divorced Dad weekends, and spent long hours there every Saturday and Sunday, reworking my way through the piles of comic books and MAD and CRACKED magazines I kept stashed in there.

A graphic memoir will meet you wherever you want to greet it: you can devour them, for the pictures-plus-narrative makes the processing go that much faster; or you can slow down and take in every detail, easily stopping or moving backwards to absorb detail.

That said, here’s a short list of graphic memoirs I’ve read recently, including a couple that are so indelible, they continue to haunt me years later.

Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant, by Roz Chast :: The Roz Chast of the quirky, passive-aggressive, wobbly-drawn comics in The New Yorker is magnificent, but it was revelatory to see the Roz Chast of many dimensions. This is a no-holds-barred story of the ugliness of death juxtaposed with the anguish of a difficult childhood that still manages to be laugh-out-loud funny in many (many) places.  More proof that most talents, especially the one for humor, come at a high price.

Lena Finkel’s Magic Barrel, by Anya Ulinich :: Nothing teaches me more about what makes my own country tick by seeing it through the eyes of a non-native. And this is a classic immigrant’s tale: uprooted from oppressive homeland; plunked down in wildly permissive culture; must learn to navigate it with no language or skills. While technically a graphic novel—the names have been changed to protect the innocent—it is clearly drawn (no pun intended) from the author’s experience, which she is shockingly honest about. Lots of “NSFW” and “not for the delicate flower” material here. But such riches, if you’re willing to look. It’s one of the best books on love relationships I’ve read in years.

Hyperbole and a Half: Unfortunate Situations, Flawed Coping Mechanisms, Mayhem, and Other Things That Happened, by Allie Brosh  :: Great stories throughout, and the two stories on depression are five-star outstanding. You can read most of them on her very popular blog, but there’s something nice about curling up with a book, especially when the material is rather dark, and double-especially there are pictures. Which are deceptively simple—even more so than Roz Chast’s. (I’m starting to see how valuable it can be to use a deceptively simple style to camouflage the darkness of material.) If you have to play a depressive character and have no familiarity with that flavor of mental illness, this will give you good insight into it, with less likelihood of triggering it.

Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic, by Alison Bechdel :: Central-East-Coast Gothic, this graphic memoir is both a coming-of-age story and an exposé of the secrets that lie beneath picture-perfect lives. It’s certainly the most erudite graphic novel I’ve come across—I had to read it with a dictionary at my side. But any extra effort on your part will be richly rewarded. In addition to stunning artwork and a barn-burner of a story, it exposes family psychodrama as deftly as Eugene O’Neill, and the character of the father is one any male actor would kill to play. (If you want to see how and when the other shoe dropped with Bechdel’s family, she has a follow-up graphic novel about her mother, too. It’s not quite as breathtaking as Fun Home, but that’s a crazy-high bar to reach.)

The Alcoholic, by Jonathan Ames :: It’s not entirely clear how closely the lead character “Jonathan A” aligns with the author. This story of a descent into alcoholism and addiction reads like memoir, but could be fictionalized. Still, having had a great deal of experience with these horrific diseases, I can tell you that it reads like the unvarnished truth. And while there are plenty of great memoirs about alcoholism, there’s something about the addition of graphics that allows the story to get under your skin. And given how many of us wind up playing an alcoholic or addict in something eventually, it’s nice to have a resource that can help us go there.

If you have any favorite graphic memoirs that are must-reads, please share them in the comments section—as much for me as for your fellow actor-readers!

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Colleen Wainwright spent a decade writing commercials and another decade acting in them for cash money. Now she uses her powers for good instead of evil by helping creatives learn how to strut their stuff in a way that makes the world fall madly in love with them.

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