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The Unbound Book Festival comes to downtown Columbia each spring. They aim "to bring nationally and internationally recognized authors of world-class renown to Columbia, Missouri, to talk about their books, their work, and their lives."

Authors explore the links between graphic novels and memoirs

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Vox Magazine
Kristen Radtke, author of Imagine Only Wanting This and Seek You: A Journey Through American Loneliness

Graphic novels harness the power of words and pictures working together. Graphic memoirs increase that impact by telling stories based in real-life experiences.

Vox Magazine is Columbia’s connection to what’s happening in our city, providing perspective on the news and culture people are talking about.

This year, Unbound Book Festival debuts a panel featuring three writers who have authored graphic memoirs. These original works depict the personal journeys and struggles of the authors, who convey stories through illustrations and focus on themes of self-identity, culture and family.

Alex George, the festival’s executive director and owner of Skylark Bookshop, says the festival tends to focus on fiction, poetry and nonfiction. However, event organizers have seen growing enthusiasm surrounding graphic memoirs. The panel originally was planned for 2020 before that year’s festival was canceled.

At the book store, George says he has witnessed an increased interest from all ages for graphic novels and nonfiction. The Library Journal estimates graphic novels and comic sales reached $1.28 billion in 2020, and the pandemic sparked even higher sales.

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Vox Magazine
Maia Kobabe, author of Gender Queer, The Secrect Loves of Greeks and Rolled and Told Vol. 2

Origin story

Graphic narratives have more than 100 years of history, says Andrew Hoberek, an MU professor of English and interim chair of the School of Languages, Literatures and Cultures. He says serial graphic stories date back to newspaper publications in the 1890s and early 1900s.

These stories, which were mostly aimed at younger audiences, eventually evolved into comic books and took off with the creation of Superman through the anthology magazine, Action Comics. Although there were examples before the 1960s, it was into the ’60s through ’80s that comics started diversifying narratives and telling stories for an older readership.

George cites Art Spiegelman’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Maus as an example of a graphic narrative that brought legitimacy to the medium. The serialized story, published from 1980 to 1991, depicts Spiegelman’s father’s complex experience as a Polish Jew and Holocaust survivor.

“It is really in the ’80s where you get writers like Spiegelman pushing those freedom-of-expression elements into telling complicated stories about people’s lives and the rise of graphic memoirs as a form,” Hoberek says. “It is the work that opens the door for other works.”

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Vox Magazine
Malaka Gharib, author of I Was Their American Dream and It Won't Always Be Like This

A panel on panels

Fast forward to now, and graphic memoirs continue to gain traction as a respected literary medium. “It is absolutely reading,” George says. “But it is such a different experience because you, as a reader, are receiving information in a lot of different ways as opposed to just the words.”

The festival is scheduled to host three graphic memoirists, one of whom is Maia Kobabe, who identifies as nonbinary and uses e/em/eir pronouns. Kobabe is author of Gender Queer, which recounts eir youth and path to finding eir self-identity. The story recounts Kobabe’s coming out to eir family and some tales of teenage crushes infused with confusion.

Another visiting author is Malaka Gharib, a writer and NPR journalist. She wrote I Was Their American Dream, a coming-of-age story about being a first-generation Filipino Egyptian American. Other themes in her work include finding one’s identity, culture and chasing the American Dream.

The third graphic memoirist is Kristen Radtke, author of Imagine Wanting Only This. This graphic memoir explores various ruined places — deserted cities in the Midwest and other vacant places as readers come to learn of Radtke’s family and events of America’s past.