Graphic memoir as social history

Drawing by Myfanwy Tristram. Two punks carrying a rolled up poster along the street

Last week I had just finished page 70.

This week I’ve made a good start on page 73, so I’m making progress but am shortly going to put Satin and Tat aside for a short while as I’ve had a commission elsewhere. (Yay!)

I’ve been listening to a really excellent podcast recently, as recommended by a colleague: The Log Books looks back at log notes made by volunteers at Switchboard during the 70s, 80s and 90s.

Switchboard is a helpline which, when it started, was largely for gay men, expanded to include that to gay women, and these days is ‘for anyone who wants to talk about gender identity and sexuality’ (their episode on just how the language has changed around how we describe sexuality, and how narrow the original remit of Switchboard was, is really worth a listen – I think it’s Season 1, episode 7).

After each call, the volunteer would note down the general content and any messages that needed to be shared with the team and these books have survived, giving an incredibly rich insight into the lives of the callers, and indeed the staff.

I was a primary school child in the 70s. In the 80s I was a teenager. In 1986 I was 18, and Section 28 was passed into law. I was outraged but not really politically active or knowledgeable about how to enact political change – I guess I might have gone on some marches.

I had gay friends; some of them were out, others were not. The landscape was entirely different to how it is today: it’s certainly not all roses in the current climate, but as a middle aged person, you certainly begin to see the arc of time and the fact that laws which seem so permanent at the time of passing aren’t necessarily forever: it’s 35 years later and gay people can now get married in the UK; language is changing so that kids (indeed, everyone) can express their gender and sexuality in a whole range of ways, and the idea that homosexuality is some sort of perverse evil does, at least, seem to have if not disappeared then at least have become a very minority view.

For the time being, at least. I add that because, as I say, it’s clear that everything changes. Politics swing to the left, and back to the right. Society, which I might have previously perceived as taking a slow path towards improvement, actually takes a few steps forward and several steps back, changed by technical innovation, natural events and political discourse.

I had very little interest in history at school: we were presented with the kings and queens of England who all seemed very far back in time and very far removed from the things that excited me in the 80s. I gave the subject up before O’Level, so I didn’t even get as far as learning anything about the Second World War. Now I’m an adult, of course, everything seems more interesting and I wonder if it was the teacher, the curriculum, or my youthful inattention that’s to blame.

And, to come back to the Log Books, I now see the value of social history. All the more so when it’s a period you’ve lived through.

This is a very roundabout way of saying that I believe graphic memoirs can be a form of social history, and a unique one: visual and interpretative at the same time.

Satin and Tat is set in two time periods: 1984/5, and what was ‘now’ when I began drawing it, but which is fast becoming recent history itself! I’m fond of speaking explicitly about how much fun it is to explore the clothes, hair, makeup and music of the times, but there are other ways in which it records history less explicitly, too.

Here’s a scene in a poster shop: you can only see glimpses of the posters available, but I know they are of Ghostbusters, The Breakfast Club, Footloose, The Cure, etc.

“The things that excited me in the 80s” were which hairspray gave you the most solid barnet; the new issue of Smash Hits coming onto the newsstand; albums by bands that I loved. Little did I know that these would all become part of history themselves.

Even small details count; walking home, Ella and Penny pass a house adorned with Sky satellite dishes.

It’s fun making sure these details are historically accurate. And then there’s the ‘modern day’ storyline, in which Ella’s daughter speaks in a very current vernacular.

That’s my half hour of thinking about comics for this week.

Published by Myfanwy Tristram

I am an illustrator, situated in Brighton on the south coast of England, and with a special interest in comics and graphic memoir. I also work for a non-profit which encourages people to be active in democracy and to exercise rights such as the right to information through FOIA.

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