A troubled childhood in Iran. Living with a disability. Grieving for a dead child. Over the last forty years the comic book has become an increasingly popular way of telling personal stories of considerable complexity and depth.
In Autobiographical Comics: Life Writing in Pictures, Elisabeth El Refaie offers a long overdue assessment of the key conventions, formal properties, and narrative patterns of this fascinating genre. The book considers eighty-five works of North American and European provenance, works that cover a broad range of subject matters and employ many different artistic styles.
Drawing on concepts from several disciplinary fields—including semiotics, literary and narrative theory, art history, and psychology—El Refaie shows that the traditions and formal features of comics provide new possibilities for autobiographical storytelling. For example, the requirement to produce multiple drawn versions of one’s self necessarily involves an intense engagement with physical aspects of identity, as well as with the cultural models that underpin body image. The comics medium also offers memoirists unique ways of representing their experience of time, their memories of past events, and their hopes and dreams for the future. Furthermore, autobiographical comics creators are able to draw on the close association in contemporary Western culture between seeing and believing in order to persuade readers of the authentic nature of their stories.
Table of Contents
- This book aims to identify the key conventions, formal and stylistic properties and narrative patterns of the autobiographical comics genre. This genre provides fascinating new opportunities and challenges for both comics artists and autobiographers. On the one hand, creators of autobiographical comics often disregard established norms and conventions and invent new narrative techniques. On the other, autobiography has been greatly enriched by drawing on the sociocultural traditions and formal features of comics, which offer new possibilities for autobiographical storytelling. An autobiography is often defined as the story of a life, whereas a memoir is used to designate a story from life. This book, however, uses the terms autobiography, memoir, and life writing more or less interchangeably.
1. Life Writing from the Colorful Margins (11)
- This chapter shows that there has been a shift in the perceptions of who may legitimately be regarded as an “autobiographer” and of what forms autobiographical writing can and should take. Recent definitions of the genre have expanded to include a broad range of narrative forms that document the lives of men and women from all kinds of colorful and often marginalized backgrounds. Many commentators conclude it is impossible to draw strict boundaries between factual and fictional accounts of someone’s life, since memory is always incomplete and the act of telling one’s life story necessarily involves selection and artful construction. This realization is reflected in the terms now commonly used to refer to the genre, with many scholars preferring to talk about life writing, autofiction, or periautography, which translates as “writing about or around the self.”
2. Picturing Embodied Selves (49)
- This chapter argues that the authorial self in autobiographical comics can thus be characterized as tacitly, or sometimes blatantly, plural. The different aspects of pictorial embodiment are also discussed here, with an exploration of the links between body and mind from a philosophical and psychological perspective. The chapter here addresses several of the key concepts to have emerged from the writings of Drew Leder and apply them to the act of visual self-representation involved in the creation of autobiographical comics. The chapter then draws on psychoanalytical theory in order to understand why mirrors feature so prominently in graphic memoirs, and why aspects of the body are sometimes portrayed as alien and monstrous. The final section of the chapter deals with sociological approaches to corporeality, and their central argument that embodiment is an active, cultural process of rendering the body meaningful.
3. Commemorating the Past, Anticipating the Future (93)
- This chapter describes how, in Western industrialized nations, time is commonly conceptualized as something linear, regular, and measurable. However, our actual experience of temporality is much richer and less reassuring than this. In our memories, time acquires a further dimension, often skipping certain events completely, while preserving an exact record of seemingly unimportant details, or combining two different moments in unexpected ways. This idiosyncratic experience of subjective time, with its irregularities, circularities, overlaps, and gaps, is what graphic memoirists typically want to “commemorate” or share with their readers. Time has always been a central concern of narrative theorists, who like to draw a distinction between the chronology or duration of events in a story (“story-time”) and the way these are rearranged in the process of their telling (“discourse-time”).
4. Performing Authenticity (135)
- This chapter describes how authenticity is typically associated with being realistic, genuine, and true to the essence of something. The concept of authenticity also applies to the visual field, where it can be defined very loosely as any image that lays claim to a privileged, transparent relationship to its object of representation. Visual authenticity can be based on picture-immanent features, but it is more often contextual, drawing its power from the myths surrounding the individual images or types of images or from the “performed” integrity of the image producer. The concept of authenticity is, however, notoriously slippery. Notions of the authentic self, the authentic self-narrative, and the authentic image are always inevitably socially constructed and deeply evaluative.
5. Drawing in the Reader (179)
- This chapter intends to identify ways that graphic memoirs attempt to “draw in” their readers, both in the sense of engaging their interest and emotional involvement, and in the more literal sense of including them in the story by suggesting a particular position or attitude for them to adopt. The network of more or less explicit textual structures, which invite readers to respond in a particular way and which thus anticipate “the presence of a recipient without necessarily defining him,” are sometimes described as the “implied reader” of a text. A story thus creates the illusion of a private communication between the author and the reader.
- This book concludes by identifying the key formal properties and narrative techniques of a relatively new and flourishing art form, the graphic memoir. The autobiographical comics presented in this book have shown that individual works differ substantially in terms of their subject matter, artistic style, and the degree to which they claim to be “true” to the author’s real-life experiences. While some graphic memoirists focus on the actual, specific experiences they have had, others use the genre to reflect upon the complex nature of self-identity and truth, often freely mixing nuggets of fact with blatant fiction. Despite their varying motivations, all graphic memoirists must face the same set of fundamental challenges: they must find a way of representing themselves both verbally and visually, address the unique properties of the human sense of time, try to convey a sense of authenticity, and, perhaps most importantly, attract and captivate their readers.
Autobiographical Comics (237)