Graphic Memoir Project

This semester in my Literature and Composition Graphic Memoirs class I am having students do a creative final project. For this project, they will either create their own graphic memoir or do a “Call and Response” piece for Looking at Appalachia. Since this is a new assignment, I am making my own graphic memoir alongside my students, trying my hand at creating a text. I am doing this because by walking through this project alongside students, I hope to show them that learning and engagement with the material is not a top down approach. It is a collaborative process where they are just as involved in the pedagogical process as I am. Today, I want to provide you with my prompt (modified from one that Julie Buckner Armstrong uses with here students), and I want to walk you through a few of the pages I have created for my own graphic memoir project.

Project Prompt

Option 1: We began this semester by looking at Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics, and we discussed the ways that artists create graphic memoirs and how we read them. Over the course of the semester, we have also looked at various graphic memoirs from Kristen Radtke to Craig Thompson. In each of these texts, we have seen recurring themes, presented in different visual and textual manners. We have looked at history, the construction of memory, trauma, and more.

For this assignment, you will take what we have learned and create your own graphic memoir. This memoir can be your own story or you can tell someone else’s. Think about the themes we have examined and about the ways to construct and read a graphic memoir.

Along with the graphic memoir, you must provide a 500-word artistic statement that explains the memoir’s purpose, audience, and the rhetorical/artistic strategies. This statement will serve as an introduction to your project and provide readers with insight into why you made certain decisions during the creative process.

Option 2: For this option, you will choose a picture from the Looking at Appalachia website and create a creative piece to accompany it. Looking for Appalachia is a website where people submit photographs that highlight “the diversity of Appalachia and establish a visual counter point” to the image of the region that has persisted since President Lyndon Johnson’s “war on poverty” in 1964 and the images of Johnson in Kentucky.   

The “Call and Response” section of Looking at Appalachia is, as the website puts it, “a photo-literary exploration devoted to the relationship between photographs and words.” For this option, you must create a 750-1000 creative response to a photograph on the website. This response can be an autobiographical essay, a poem, a short story, or any form of creative writing.

Along with the response, you must also provide a 500-word artistic statement that explains your project. Namely, you need to explain why you chose the photograph that you chose, why you chose the creative format that you chose, and the rhetorical/artistic strategies that you employed.

My Project:

From the outset, I knew that I wanted to do a graphic memoir on Lillian Smith. Initially, I thought about focusing on the telegram that Martin Luther King, Jr. sent to Smith’s family upon her death in 1966. He called her “one of the brightest stars in the human firmament.” As well, I knew that I wanted to use photographs instead of drawings, partly because I cannot draw. If I practiced, I could probably make something serviceable, but I knew that photographs would work just as well.

So, I thought about ways to even get started on this graphic memoir. Originally, I looked for comic panel templates online and thought about downloading them as PDFs and inserting the images and text into the files. However, that turned out to be more difficult than I initially thought. Next, I thought about making some panels in Microsoft Word and working that way. Again, it proved to be a hassle. Finally, I started searching for some comic creation apps and came across ComicBook!, an affordable ($2.99) app on the Apple store. I downloaded it, and it has proven to be a great way to work on this project.

Regarding the memoir’s content, because I wanted to focus on Smith’s connection with King, I started taking pictures at the camp, namely thinking about the panels and pages I wanted to construct. I knew I wanted a page with three panels moving into Smith’s desk and her address cards, one of which has King’s home address. Layered on top of this, I planned to have King’s words to Smith’s family upon her death. I still plan to do this, but I have not gotten to that point in the memoir yet.

When I started working on the memoir, I began in a different place. I began with Smith’s words from “Trembling Earth” about being born in “fabulous country” where Florida and Georgia meet. I have some photos from that region and decided to begin this way, a brief introduction to her life. Throughout, I try to keep the narration in Smith’s own words or the words of others such as King, drawing from their writings to tell the story.

Since I started with her statement about growing up in Jasper, FL, the memoir quickly turned to the camp. I did not anticipate covering the camp at first. In fact, I did not anticipate covering a lot of things that I think this project will cover, but that is the nature of creation, it does not always follow the pattern we initially laid out. It is here that I want to focus on three pages from my project and discuss how I constructed them and why I chose, artistically, to do what I did.

This three page sequence is really a snapshot of Laurel Falls Camp, and I wanted images and text that would highlight, in a brief moment, what the camp was, a place for middle class white girls to engage with the myths they had been taught since birth. As such, I thought about the narration first. I knew I wanted something from Smith about the importance of the camp, so I chose a quote from her “Letter to Mr. Hartley” that highlighted how much she learned from the campers and the topics they discussed. I spaced this quote out over two pages.

On the first page, I wanted to showcase the discussions that campers had, most notably around the camp fire at night. So, I chose this image, presented horizontally, ideally as a two page spread, with Smith’s words about learning from the campers. I purposefully ended the quote here before the list of topics because I wanted those to carry over to the next page, a page with two horizontal panels.

The top panel is from the gym where the campers performed, played games, and talked. Here, I finished the above quote listing out what they discussed and created at the camp. The chimney, which still stands today and plays a prominent role in the memoir, was special to Smith. She is buried right next to it, so I chose a still of her walking to the chimney from “Miss Smith of Georgia” as the bottom panel, connecting her and the memories of the camp together.

To transition into the next page, I had to take on Smith’s voice and narrate, “They asked questions, and those questions remained with me.” Here, I move to the next page, a page with four panels: two from the Hiroshima massacre in 1945 and two from the burial of those lynched at Moore’s Ford in 1946. The questions about Hiroshima come from campers in “Children Talking,” a piece Smith wrote for Progressive Education in October 1945. The questions about the two couples murdered at Moore’s Ford are altered, somewhat, from the camp newsletter that Smith sent to the parents of campers in the summer of 1946. In each of these events, I wanted some of the camper’s voices to highlight the impact that these events had on them and that they talked about these events at the camp.

You can read the entire graphic memoir on my blog.

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