In the last week of September, Heidi MacDonald at the Beat reported, Raina Telgemeier's comic book memoir for young readers, Guts, was the best-selling book in the country. Not the best-selling comic book in the country — the best-selling book, period. When I picked up a copy of Guts at the beautiful new Paper Boat Booksellers in West Seattle this weekend, the bookseller remarked that it almost certainly was the young shop's bestselling title of all time.
It's curious that the bestselling comics artist in the country is someone who most mainstream comic fans have never read. I've been seeing Telgemeier's name for years now and I'd certainly never read one of her books before. I decided to amend that situation.
Guts is a memoir about Telgemeier's childhood battle with a nervous stomach. Plenty of adult readers will likely relate: it starts as a weak stomach and then, as Telgemeier's social and school life becomes more complex, it becomes a full-on problem. She becomes afraid to eat anything — cheese, cabbage, mayonnaise.
The stakes are low, but to ten-year-old Telgemeier, they couldn't feel any higher. Guts does a good job of keeping the problem in perspective: as the young Telgemeier worries that she's never going to be normal again, the world keeps turning around her. She winds up going to therapy, and it helps a little. The story is gentle and empathetic.
But is Guts good comics? Sometimes it seems that popular comics have to be bad in order to gain ubiquity; some of the most-read comics in the country, after all, are Dilbert and Garfield. But Telgemeier is a gifted cartoonist. Though she could stand to develop the backgrounds in more of her panels, she delivers a variety of perspectives, rhythms, and sizes on every page. These books are likely to inspire thousands of young people to take the comics apart to see how they work, and Telgemeier offers plenty of craft for those readers to emulate and explore.
And in the background of Guts, young Raina Telgemeier is constantly working on her comics. She's drawing memoir strips about her life, or trying to convince a friend to collaborate on a comic. The elder Telgemeier seems happy to share those rudimentary proto-comics with her readers — a few of them are displayed in the book — as an encouragement for readers to follow their art. It's quite possible that one day earnest young readers will be able to combine the hundreds of pages of autobiography Telgemeier has published into a single arching narrative about the growth and development of a cartoonist. In terms of influence and reach, it could very well be the most important comics autobiography of the 21st century.