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Raina Telgemeier shares 3 comics that formed her (and one that "ruined" her life)

At her SDCC spotlight panel, Raina Telgemeier talks Bill Watterson, Lynn Johnston, Lynda Barry and Barefoot Gen

Raina Telgemeier
Image credit: Graphix

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There’s something special about hearing artists you admire discuss the work that they loved as children. On one level, maybe it gives us a glimpse into their development. But if I’m being honest, mostly I want to know because I’m always hungry for new worlds to explore myself.

During a delightful spotlight panel at the 2023 Comic-Con International: San Diego, beloved cartoonist Raina Telgemeier shared four comics which influenced her as a child. And they definitely fit the bill of works you also might want to check out for yourself.

When Telgemeier was “about nine,” she started reading comic strips in the newspaper. And an early favorite was Bill Watterson’s Calvin & Hobbes. “One of the best and most fun comic strips to look at,” she told the audience.

Telgemeier particularly celebrated Watterson’s facial expressions. “Calvin’s a very simple cartoon character: He’s got dots for eyes, sort of a button nose and this wild hair. But the way Watterson would draw Calvin when he was emoting something, it was just like, ‘What did you just do?’ I loved that.” 2400

In the newspaper she also found For Better or Worse, Lynn Johnston’s heartfelt strip about a suburban family. “They had struggles and thoughts and feelings and all the characters actually aged in real time,” Telgemeier remembered, noting that “over the course of the 30 years that Johnston was writing, the characters grew up.” (How cool is that?)

“They felt like my next-door neighbors,” Telgemeier shared. “I came to know them very well.”

In middle school Telgemeier discovered Lynda Barry’s work, which she describes as “my YA literature: Her writing and her art together presented this portrayal of teenagers that felt so much like my life, except worse,” she said, chuckling. “It was comforting to read about kids that struggled more than I did.”

Where today adult literature is an entire category of work, in the 1980s Barry was doing something “really unique.”

Finally, Telgemeier discussed Barefoot Gen, Keiji Nakazawa’s black and white manga series about living through World War II and the bombing of Hiroshima. “It’s gripping, it’s sad, it’s depressing,” Telgemeier said, “all of these really powerful things. I had never seen anything like that in a comic before.”

“That changed me,” Telgemeier revealed. “It showed me how powerful comics could be.” Telgemeier read it early, too; in fact she showed the audience a photo of her reading the book at camp at age 10.

That story also came back into her life later. While studying at the School of Visual Arts in New York, where she majored in comics and illustration, she wrote a short comic about the experience of reading Barefoot Gen as a child. “I guess Barefoot Gen did exactly what it was meant to do,” she writes in narration. “It definitely got me thinking about things, not least about the importance or impact of art.”

In the comic she tells her mother, “I think that book ruined my life.”

“Maybe it actually made your life better and you just haven’t realized it yet,” her mother responds.

Looking back, Telgemeier agrees with her 10 and 23 year old’s assessment. “Yes, comics impacted me for the better.”

Based on all the young people present at Telgemeier’s panel, many of whom came up to ask questions, it’s clearly her comics are impacting a lot of other people for the better, too.

Get into the vibrant world of comics with our guide to buying digital comics, how to make the most out of comic shops, our comprehensive guide to the upcoming comics, manga, and graphic novels you should be looking for, and everything you need to know about Free Comic Book Day and Local Comic Shop Day.