Reality in comic books – essential reading

This week I finally read Asterios Polyp. I won’t bother talking about it here, since Ron already wrote a very eloquent review of it, suffice to say, it reminded me that I’ve long been a fan of reality-based comic books. I love reading stories based on the author’s real world experiences and their own re-imaginings of daily life. It ties in nicely with my general compulsion to snoop, but instead of reading someone else’s diary or their correspondence (not that I’d do such a thing, that would be a terrible invasion of privacy… though it is awfully tempting), I get to read the story that the author chose to share. And unlike reading biographies, (or case studies, or novels – all of which I also enjoy at times), comic books allow for those all-important visual cues which bring the story into the realm of the personal, as if we’re peeking directly into someone’s brain to paw through their memories. Then there is the deceptively harmless nature of the medium; A comic book can do a lot that other mediums can’t without being oppressively bleak. Comic books are deceptively innocuous, and so they can tell the most honest, raw exposition of culture and human dynamics.

Most of my favorite comic books of this genre are pretty dark, though they do run the gamut, I’m an equal opportunity snooper. I do find it difficult to read stories of any length that are simply a meandering commentary on an uneventful life, since I always feel like I’m already experiencing plenty of the mundane in my own life. The stories that draw me in are the ones that are written when the author has an experience they’ve found so intense that they feel compelled to share it. Something about the intensity of these seminal moments, depicted in the comic book medium makes them very intimate and personal.

While I have huge respect for the entire body of Harvey Pekar’s work (particularly Our Cancer Year, which is raw and harsh, but very honest and clear), it is one simple short story in American Splendor, (drawn by Robert Crumb), that immediately leapt out at me, and has always stuck in my mind: “Standing Behind Old Jewish Ladies in Supermarket Lines”. He describes an experience of getting stuck in line behind an old lady who’s trying to buy some glasses, and she wants to make sure she gets the special offer. It’s relatively unremarkable, except that when I read it, it reminded me of when I was a tiny kid, and my mum would take me to visit her parents in the Bronx. You couldn’t go to a store back then without getting stuck behind an old lady in line, who’d argue endlessly with the clerk about things I didn’t care about or understand.  

I bought Mom’s Cancer a few years ago because once my mum had cancer. My mum did get better, but it was pretty intense, so I wanted to know what it was like for someone else. I didn’t know anything about the book, but I liked the brutality of the title and the binding of the hardcover book. This beautiful little book, with it’s delightfully cartooney drawings is deceptively friendly and non-threatening. Brian Fies does a fantastic job, it’s really nicely drawn, sort of has a classic comic strip feel to it. It almost looks like something you might read in a newspaper that has funny stories about puppies and toddlers. But it’s not, it’s about cancer, and family, and having to deal with all of this disturbingly grown-up stuff that no one ever expects to have to cope with, (but at some point most people do).There are so many moments of poignancy, so many relatable, heartbreaking little moments of sadness and triumph. Even now, I just have to look at the last page and the whole story comes rushing back, every step forward and every set back, it’s amazing.

Poor Jimmy Corrigan, (the tragically misnamed “Smartest Kid on Earth”) is equal parts nastily disturbing, and depressingly ordinary. There are millions of people like him, quietly existing, rather than living, stuck at some basic level of development, without empathy or maturity. Their tedious, uneventful lives are entirely their own creation, but they are trapped this way by their narrow view of life and it’s possibilities. Chris Ware offers us an unflinchingly harsh portrait of Jimmy over the years, without sentiment or love, but in a harsh, revealing light. Jimmy reminds me of all the mysteriously angst-ridden boys that I grew up with; introverted and miserable. As a child I used to wonder why they were like that, as an adult Chris Ware shows me why, even if I might not want to know quite that much.

The Essex County series is a very strange sort of animal. It creeps up on you, not stealthy, but unassuming and rough, like a sweet old dirty stray dog. Somewhere along the way, it just hit me that it was really living, that the characters felt real, totally three-dimensional. I just care about them, started to need to know what happened, how it happened, and to feel for them and empathize with them in their pain. I really don’t know how Jeff Lemire did it, how he took so many disparate lives and wove them together so organically with so few brush strokes and such a limited dialogue, but he did and it’s magic.

I suppose the first realistic comic ever pop into my life is one that I continue to read today, and which I reference fairly often (so I won’t bore you again now); Love & Rockets. I’ll just say that when puberty hit and, instead of getting mutant abilities and being able to fly, I simply got curvy and older, I was so happy when Maggie and Hopey followed suit and grew older. I felt comforted knowing that even if I couldn’t be just like Phoenix, I could be just like Maggie and Hopey.

These kind of realistic comic books are an essential part of comic book reading (and there’s a ton more than just these. Try Blankets, Fun Home, Persepolis, or Maus. These books are well known for a reason…) In my view realistic comic books are the yin to superhero comic book’s yang. While superhero comics use metaphor and fiction to explore life, realistic comics allow us a glimpse into the mundane, intimate moments of a life. Both are necessary, both are enjoyable, both are valid, and I’m not sure that I could choose between them. Luckily, I don’t have to, it’s a rich world we live in and I’m happy that we have access to a plethora of comic books.

Sonia Harris lives, works, and plays in San Francisco. She’s originally from London, and misses Twiglets and Frazzles. Please email her at


  1. Real life comics have never been my diet of preference, but they are usually the best told stories in comics. They are generally intensely personal, which is something most of us adore, and always feel much more ‘real’.

  2. Maus was beyond awesome, a perfect comic from beginning to end.  Has iFanboy ever discussed this?  Mauschwitz is a scary place.

    American Splendor I read alot of, enjoyed it, but don’t want to read more.  It’s pretty ordinary.  He talks about how he’s obssesed with records, bad dates he’s been on, that time he got sick.  Yup, that’s about it.

    I haven’t read any Robert Crumb.  I wonder if his comics would be more interesting than Harvey Pekar’s AS?

  3. @KickAss Crumb’s comics are fantastic. Not just because he is an incredible artist, but because his writing is totally weird and crazy. I suggest reading Fritz the Cat and some Mr. Natural to get you started. He hits on some weird, crazy, heavy stuff in there, but it was done in the 60’s so it’s bound to be a bit strange.

    He also has a fetish for large, strong, dominating women, so a LOT of his work concentrates around that… not sure if that’s your thing, but he is a brilliant creator and his work touches on the slightly more fantastical/odd than Pekar’s more mundane writing style.

  4. Nice job Sonia. I’m going to check out mom’s cancer, I also went threw that situation with Ma Kelly and it would be interesting to see that kind of rough family time in comic format. I totally agree with KickAss about Maus. That book is perfect visual storytelling. I’d love to read/see an iFanboy article/podcast discussing it.

     This article is an acceptable excuse for you having not gone out with us last night. The big downside to you not coming is that I think Darick fed me roofies AGAIN. Had my wingman (you) been there I’m pretty sure I would have made it home safe.

  5. good article sonia. i really need to read more real-life comics and the recommendations are extremley useful. i can’t wait to pick up the essex county omnibus that’s coming out.

    @Sonia have you read Unknown by Lemire? I bought it for a friend and he thought it was great

  6. Paul Montgomery (@fuzzytypewriter) says:

    I really need to read more Chris Ware. 

    Asterios Polyp is awesome. My favorite GN of the year so far.  

  7. @KickAss – I know of at least two times Maus was discussed: A Maus article by Paul: and a video show feature a group of really young guys who look like Ron, Josh, and Conor:

    I’m fairly certain there are many other times it has come up on the site. 

  8. I loved Asterios Polyp as well, as did my wife. Another fantastic offering in the real world category is PERSEPOLIS. The movie version is great too.


  9. I love comics about "Real" people. But not just biographical ones. Local by Brian Wood and Ryan Kelly has been mentioned on this site quite a few times and it is a little "pop" than the books mentioned here, but it is one of the books that got me into comics. and the art is just fantastic.

    Also, props on giving more word count to the less popular ones.

  10. Bendis’s Fortune and Glory is a favorite of mine.  Also Brubaker’s A Complete Lowlife.  F&G was making me laugh out loud throughout the entire book.

  11. Fortune and Glory was pretty good.

    Thanks to this site, I’ve read Blankets, Essex 1 and 2, Goodbye Chunky Rice and The Nobody.  I’d never checked out reality comics before, but I’ve discovered that they are a perfect switch up when I get sick of super heros and such.  Thanks for the article as it points me in the direction of more stuff to try. 

  12. Yes, Fortune and Glory was hilarious.

     "Can you make him younger?"

    "Like in his 30s"

    "How about 19?"

  13. I keep vacillating between comics based on reality and those based on fantasy. It feels a little schizophrenic but I guess you can see one as representing the waking reality and the other depicting the dream state. Perhaps we need both for a balanced mind?

  14. Kickass: Mauschwitz is a scary place.
    Lol, I’m putting that quote in my signature when I find the time.

    I read the realistic comics whenever I grow weary of tights and guns (no I’m not talking about the Boys… that’s poison for me)

  15. Cool column. Reality based comics are  a great way to get new adult comic book readers.