the fire never goes out: a memoir in pictures

As someone who rarely reads nonfiction books for fun, but plenty of nonfiction articles, personal essays, and magazine features, the graphic novel memoir format has turned out to be something of a revelation. I already love reading graphic novels (see: volunteering to read 100+ nominations as a Cybils panelist this year), and graphic novel memoirs (I want to point out there’s a bit of an oxymoron right there in the genre identifier!) are just about the right length – they don’t feel endless, and I don’t lose interest. So when I heard about Noelle Stevenson’s graphic novel memoir The Fire Never Goes Out: A Memoir in Pictures, I knew I’d give it a read at some point – or at the very least buy it to add to my classroom library (and all of the 9th grade Nimona and Lumberjanes fans at school).

From Noelle Stevenson, the
New York Times bestselling author-illustrator of Nimona, comes a captivating, honest illustrated memoir that finds her turning an important corner in her creative journey—and inviting readers along for the ride. 

In a collection of essays and personal mini-comics that span eight years of her young adult life, author-illustrator Noelle Stevenson charts the highs and lows of being a creative human in the world. Whether it’s hearing the wrong name called at her art school graduation ceremony or becoming a National Book Award finalist for her debut graphic novel, Nimona, Noelle captures the little and big moments that make up a real life, with a wit, wisdom, and vulnerability that are all her own.

Noelle Stevenson, author of the fantastic graphic novel Nimona (originally a webcomic) and showrunner of the recent animated She-Ra series on Netflix, has compiled a series of vignettes, comics, and commentary about her young adult years in what is titled “a memoir in pictures.” In various mini-comics and end-of-year/birthday roundups, Stevenson details professional highs and lows and shares some physical and mental health journeys of the past several years, giving fans a close-up on not only her life, but also her changing self-perception.


Writing a memoir is a deeply vulnerable act – it exposes elements of your personal story to the light that you’ll never get back for yourself alone: those memories become public property.  I’ve read several really excellent graphic memoirs: everything/anything Lucy Knisley writes, including Relish, Tillie Walden’s Spinning, Vera Brogsol’s Be Prepared, etc. Stevenson’s memoir… is not really a memoir as such. It cannot decide what it wants to be: a “greatest hits” list, a “making of the artist” autobiography, or a therapeutic reevaluation of the past for the author’s sake. And while that does not lessen Stevenson’s bravery in baring parts of her soul, it does muddle the poignancy and purpose of her message.


The book is arranged in a loose timeline by year, with annual review/birthday posts that Stevenson blogs each New Year serving as the backbone, combined with previously published fan art, personal art from her sketchbook at the time, and new mini-comics. The static year-by-year progression does the narrative no favors – at times it reads very much as a “This is what I drew when, and here’s how it helped me get famous!” and other times is so sparse (looking at you 2014 and 2015…!) that it is hard to see why Stevenson and the editor did not do more… editing. Instead of a clear, unified story, I found myself asking questions like: “Is this about mental health? Or is this a fanbook for people who already love Noelle Stevenson?”


It’s not that there’s a dearth of material to work with: Stevenson touches on coming out to herself and others, bipolar disorder, losing her religion, self-harm, national tragedies such as the Pulse nightclub shooting, and workplace disasters (frustratingly vague for someone who is quite open about successes). She also tries to interrogate an idea she admits she internalized: that achieving things at a young age makes you better than everyone else. However, she doesn’t quite find the context or connections necessary to make the reader believe she has fully unpacked that. Instead, the book falls into a frustrating place where no metaphor is fully explored or linked to another, even the titular one.


If you’re looking for a bright spot (I certainly was!) the art is great. Stevenson’s style uses minimal lines and sparing color, and will be familiar to anyone who has read her books and comics or watched her shows before. She also includes the occasional personal photo to contrast against her art. I remain a fan of Stevenson’s fiction, but I cannot help feeling let down by the nagging thought that if she’d had a braver editor (or maybe felt less like she needed to prove her chops and credentials, page after page?), her memoir/journal might have had a better, and more courageous, thematic finale.


In all, The Fire Never Goes Out is a disappointing attempt at memoir by a celebrated young queer comics and animation pro.


Recommended for: die-hard Noelle Stevenson fans and readers who are LGBTQ+ graphic memoir completists.


Jenny @ Reading the End said...

Hmm, what a bummer! I guess there's no reason artist-famous people should be any better at memoirs than other genres of famous people, but I did love Nimona and would have been excited for this book to be, like, good. Oh well! I will just have to go reread Nimona then!

(Also: Can I ask how come you don't read nonfiction? Does it feel like work, or? One of my closest friends also doesn't read nonfiction for fun, but she always says "I would, though!" but then she doesn't. So there must be something else going on!)

Cecelia said...

I dropped out of grad school (a PhD program in Latin American History) many years ago in part because I felt like I couldn't force myself to read nonfiction for another goshdarn MINUTE. And I guess that feeling has really stayed with me. As I said, I read a ton of shorter nonfiction pieces, and of course I read lots of books to re-train as a teacher... but the idea of reading book-length nonfiction FOR FUN?? My brain just won't compute. Unless I'm thinking about teaching it to the kiddos, and then it's alright. Weird, I know!

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