Drawing from Life
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Drawing from Life
Memory and Subjectivity in Comic Art
Edited by Jane Tolmie
University Press of Mississippi / Jackson
The University Press of Mississippi is a member
of the Association of American University Presses.
Copyright © 2013 by University Press of Mississippi
All rights reserved
Manufactured in the United States of America
First printing 2013
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Drawing from life : memory and subjectivity in comic art / edited by Jane Tolmie.
Includes bibliographical references and index.
isbn 978-1-61703-905-8 (cloth : alk. paper) — isbn 978-1-61703-906-5 (ebook)
1. Comic books, strips, etc.—Authorship. 2. Comic books, strips, etc.—Technique.
3. Autobiography—Authorship. 4. Biography as a literary form. 5. Cartooning—Technique. 6. Memory in literature. I. Tolmie, Jane, editor of compilation.
British Library Cataloging-in-Publication Data available
If a Body Meet a Body
Allusive Confessions 3
The Literary Lives of Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home
—David M. Ball
What Is an Experience? 26
Selves and Texts in the Comic Autobiographies of Alison Bechdel and Lynda Barry
Animal Subjects of the Graphic Novel 44
—Michael A. Chaney
Uncaging and Reframing Martin Vaughn-James’s The Cage 67
Comics as Non-Sequential Art 86
Chris Ware’s Joseph Cornell
Yukiko’s Spinach and the Nouvelle Manga Aesthetic 112
Memory, Signal, and Noise in the Collaborations of
Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean 144
The Graphic Memoir in a State of Exception 163
Transformations of the Personal in Art Spiegelman’s In the Shadow of No Towers
History, Memory, and Trauma 185
Confronting Dominant Interpretations of 9/11 in Alissa Torres’s American Widow
and Art Spiegelman’s In the Shadow of No Towers
You Must Look at the Personal Clutter 207
Diaristic Indulgence, Female Adolescence, and Feminist Autobiography
A Female Prophet? 241
Authority and Inheritance in Marjane Satrapi
Showing the Voice of the Body 264
Brian Fies’s Mom’s Cancer, the Graphic Illness Memoir, and the Narrative of Hope
If a Body Meet a Body
What is at stake in comic memoir and semi-autobiography is embodiment. Remembering a scene with the intent of rendering it in sequential
art requires nonlinear thinking and engagement with physicality. Who
was in the room and where? What was worn? Who spoke ﬁrst? What
images dominated the encounter? Did anybody smile? Unhinged from
the summary paragraph, the artist must confront the fact of—to quote
Bruce Willis in The Fifth Element—the meat popsicle. Accordingly, work
on autobiography is increasingly turning to the question, in Judith Butler’s
words, of the “bodily condition of one’s narrative account of oneself ” (Butler 2005: 39). Graphic memoirs, or what Gillian Whitlock has categorized
as “autographics,” oﬀer valuable insights into the various layered processes
of memory and self-representation through “the speciﬁc conjunctions of
visual and verbal text in . . . autobiography” (Whitlock 2006: 966).
Virginia Woolf was premature in speculating that the “impulse towards
autobiography may be spent” (Woolf 1975: 79). Autobiography has seen
enormous expansions and challenges over the past twenty to thirty years
(Rak 2005: 2). One of these expansions has been in the area of comics, and
it certainly is an expansion that calls into question any postmodern notion
of the death of the author. Accordingly, this collection focuses on relationships between artist/writer and artistic product, or rather, on artistic
self-representation in comics. Negotiations between artist/writer/body
and drawn/written/text raise the question of whether and how “stories
. . . capture the body to which they refer” (Butler 2005: 38). Hillary Chute
and Marianne DeKoven argue that graphic narrative’s “fundamental
syntactical operation is the representation of time as space on the page,”
but it is also key to analyze the body on the page (Chute and DeKoven
In the course of a discussion of the need for “more advanced visual
and cultural literacies to interpret the intersections of various modes and
media and the complex embodiments of avatar, autobiographer,” Whitlock and Anna Poletti describe the “confronting bodies that recur under
the sign of autographics”; this collection attempts to oﬀer valuable contributions in the area of visual and cultural literacies (Whitlock and Poletti
2008: vi). Drawing from Life: Memory and Subjectivity in Comic Art examines autobiography, semi-autobiography, ﬁctionalized autobiography,
memory, and self-narration in sequential art. Contributors come from
a range of academic backgrounds including English, American Studies,
Comparative Literature, Gender Studies, Art History, and Cultural Studies. The book engages with well-known ﬁgures such as Art Spiegelman,
Marjane Satrapi, Alison Bechdel, Neil Gaiman, Brian Fies, Lynda Barry,
Chris Ware, Phoebe Gloeckner, Julie Doucet, Gene Luen Yang and Kim
Deitch; with cult-status ﬁgures such as Martin Vaughn-James; and with
lesser-known works by people such as Frédéric Boilet.
Academic publishing on comics is a rapidly growing ﬁeld, and this
collection aims to make a contribution in the broad area of autobiography studies in sequential art. The international focus of the collection is
one of its strengths, thus making it a complement to such publications as
Michael Chaney’s edited collection Graphic Subjects (Wisconsin, 2010),
Hillary Chute’s Graphic Women (Columbia UP, 2010), Bart Beaty’s Unpopular Culture: Transforming the European Comic Book in the 1990s (U of
Toronto P, 2007), Charles Hatﬁeld’s Alternative Comics (UP of Mississippi,
2005), as well as inﬂuential volumes such as Joseph Witek’s Comic Books
as History (UP of Mississippi, 1989). A particular strength of this volume is
its thematic focus on memory and subjectivity without a strict deﬁnition
of autobiographical form, so that the collection includes many allusive—
and elusive—types of relationships between artists/writers/subjects. A
unifying focus on memory/the construction of the subject encourages
readers to work through some of the complicated eﬀects of mixing text
and embodiment while remaining sensitive to the need to avoid simple
models for truthfulness.
My own recent work on sexual trauma in comics centers on issues
of memory and self-representation, so the work of other authors in this
collection has been invaluable. Both Debbie Drechsler’s intensely creepy
Daddy’s Girl and Lynda Barry’s One! Hundred! Demons! are routinely
described as semi-autobiographical and have attracted excellent critical
attention. Barry’s own by-now-famous term for the status of her truthtelling is “autobioﬁctionalography”—and she drives her point home by
asking, right at the start of her text, “Is it autobiography if parts of it are not
true? Is it ﬁction if parts of it are?” (2002: 7). Similarly, Drechsler has said,
“I realized that if I wrote straight autobiography the stories would suﬀer,
so I began to take things that had happened and expand upon them, and
mold them into stories that worked better than the ‘honest truth’ could”
(Verstappen: online). While in the original 1992 publication of “Visitors in
the Night” in Drawn and Quarterly, the abused girl’s name is Debbie, in
the 1996 Fantagraphics publication it has become Lily, which Drechsler
relates in her interview in the Comics Journal (82).
The truth is not what I am interested in, and of course scholars invested
in critical autobiography studies routinely point to the impossibility
of direct transmission of lived experience. What I am interested in via
Drechsler and Barry are the ways in which their texts and images negotiate private trauma in public, popular-culture formats, using an aesthetic
process of reworking childhood events and emphasizing, in each case, a
shared community formed from private pain and taboo knowledge. At the
heart of each book is an episode or series of episodes of child sexual abuse.
Neither artist intended an attractive coming-of-age story, but each makes
radically diﬀerent decisions about degrees of exposure and explicitness,
developing two distinct approaches to the artistic representation of sexual trauma and memory. Both approaches, however, ultimately embody
productive, empathic, and inclusive solutions to problems of isolation,
invisibility, and shame. An image of abuse reaches out and makes—often
coerces—emotional connections, forcing a public acknowledgement of
private trauma, remaking a closed world of shame into an open book.
There is an aesthetics of aﬀect, not an inevitable or natural emotional side
eﬀect but a deliberate result of artistic decisions: the image of a forced
encounter or an encounter grounded in power inequities is in turn thrust
onto the audience.
My own approach to comics study is an intersectional, feminist one,
invested in the many and various ways in which a large body of women’s
comics art makes a point of expressing interconnections between gender,
race, class, nation, and sexuality. Both Drechsler and Barry have spoken
about the ways in which their respective texts are sourced in painful lived
experience, and have expressed the desire to use art both to raise social
I.1. Note the hunched shoulders and resentful upwards glare,
the body language of the daughter cringing away from the
father’s seemingly benevolent gaze. Debbie Drechsler, Daddy’s
Girl, Cover Art.
awareness and to forge connections with other survivors. Both Drechsler
and Barry also make a point of connecting sexual abuse with other forms
of abuse such as physical, verbal, and emotional abuse; abuse of animals;
racism; poverty; and gender stereotyping. They thereby oﬀer insights
that connect dots between diﬀerent kinds of lived experience rather than
insisting on one isolated and isolating theme of female sexual victimization; Chute has similarly observed that the works of Aline KominskyCrumb and Phoebe Gloeckner resist simple models for female sexuality,
insisting that it is “composed of both pleasure and degradation” (61).
The representation of sexual violence, especially violence directed at
children or young girls, routinely raises questions of censorship in at least
two ways. In the ﬁrst sense, public anxiety about the display and dissemination of scenes of child rape or sex abuse often expresses itself in the terms
of anxiety about pornography and voyeurism. See Chute on KominskyCrumb and Gloeckner, both of whom are frequently accused of producing pornography (56, 68–90). Public reaction against Gloeckner’s work,
in part about lived experiences of child abuse (as well as substance abuse,
adolescent desire, and much more), has led to cancellation of speaking
events to which she was initially invited. Her work has also been seized by
British customs oﬃcials and banned from France.
In the second sense of censorship, there are those techniques of silencing and shaming that so key to rape culture and incest culture, the techniques of teaching the victim and people in the know to hide the knowledge
and make it unacknowledgeable. This sense often aligns nicely with the
discomfort experienced by a cultural elite that has the power to censor
diﬃcult materials and determine what is in good taste. This alignment, of
course, leads disastrously to a an environment in which what Gloeckner
labels the “laws of pornography” refuse visual space to victims of abuse
with the same logics used to deny narratives of pleasure (quoted in Chute,
68). Such dovetailing of interests are painfully familiar to feminists, highlighting ways in which even opposed groups can cooperate in patriarchal projects of erasure. Comics do a particularly good job of addressing
invisibility and silence, however, along with other cultural taboos. Even
in non-explicit panels, the artistic decisions made in these comics—the
representations of hunched bodies, sideways glances, turned backs,
and averted eyes—force the viewer to “see” an often-invisible culture of
shaming and silencing. Again, deliberate visual decisions force audience
engagement with the dominating and destructive forces of the unspoken
and unspeakable. Traumatic memory of something as intangible as being
unable to speak can be made visible in the comics medium. The resulting
conﬂation of terms and categories of speech/visibility/aﬀect/bodily experience conveys a strong sense of the complexities of traumatic experience.
For the academic, one problem: how much revelation is too much revelation? The ethics of—possibly even forcing—someone to see something
profoundly disturbing must be considered, as well as the political implications of making a “wrong” decision, a decision that leads someone or
some formal body to identify a voyeuristic mentality or any mentality that
is about consumption or even enjoyment of sexual abuse. How is the issue
of consent negotiated between academic and audience? How is the issue
of consent negotiated between comic artist and audience? They are not
the same question because it is not my lived experience at stake—but are
related questions. This set of issues is constantly in the minds of the creators of this sort of disturbing work. Barry says in interviews with Chute
that she warns parents in particular when purchasing One! Hundred!
Demons! that the book contains disturbing material about incest, suicide,
and drugs (Chute, Graphic Women 54, 240 notes). And in an interview
I.2. In classic Barry style, what is remembered is simultaneously forgotten. Lynda Barry,
One! Hundred! Demons! p. 65.
with comicsbulletin.com, Drechsler expresses retrospective worry about
maybe having “gone too far” with some of the images in Daddy’s Girl and
acknowledges that even she herself ﬁnds them diﬃcult to reread, adding that she found comics to be the ideal way to approach “hard topics”
because they are “so much the bastard children of the arts that no one
cares what lines get crossed” (http://cotlzine.blogspot.ca/2008/07/deb
bie-dreschler-interview.html. That is not quite true, of course, though certainly marginal and alternative publications routinely do diﬃcult cultural
work in terms of raising awareness and pushing against boundaries, e.g.,
as in Jennifer Camper’s two edited volumes of Juicy Mother.
Comics about abuse oﬀer a visual networking strategy for bringing
together survivors in particular and those interested in raising awareness
in general; they also extend the borders of autobiography about trauma to
make us think about the implications of the image in debates about how
prose autobiography forces the reader either to identify or dis-identify.
Chute observes that the “disgust and pleasure that the visual carries is
related to a bodily rhythm of reading, further underscored, and prompted,
by the rhythm of the visual-verbal page, a rupturing alternation between
aﬀects” (Chute, Graphic Women, 71). In other words, the visual image of
abuse is aesthetically and emotionally confrontational, even potentially
coercive. Barry steps back from this coercion by leaving the main burdens of imagination to the reader: Only God gets to see what actually happened. Drechsler’s approach is totally diﬀerent.
I.3. When the father ﬁgure in Daddy’s Girl enters the bedroom, holding his erect penis, he
chirps with a happy smile and some musical notes showing in the air, “Daddy’s got a big
surprise for his little girl” in a grotesque abuse of the language of a caring parent bringing
a present. And then you see his penis in her mouth and you realize that that phrase with
its little musical notes is as obscene as anything else in the frames. Debbie Drechsler,
Daddy’s Girl. p. 2.
I have included this explicit set of Drechsler’s images of an erect male
organ and direct sexual contact with a child for multiple reasons, all to do
with confronting diﬀerent kinds of censorship—and there are, of course,
more than two kinds—despite my concerns about the very real dangers
of traumatization through such visuals, always keeping in mind that the
image can force a reaction in ways that perhaps the word cannot. If we are
concerned about the line between what is scene/seen and what is obscene,
we must also ask: Who gets to say when reality exceeds the representable?
Why is it that so often those primarily concerned with censorship of selfnarration are not the ones who have lived the negative realities at stake or
I.4. Lynda Barry. One! Hundred! Demons! p. 72.
in question? To what extent does censorship of these images participate
in a culture of shaming and blaming? To what extent does said censorship work to obscure connections between individual and community in
terms of both aﬀect and shared experience? Perhaps we must think here
of Freud and his desperate desire to deny the quotidian nature of fatherdaughter sex incest, as Judith Herman Lewis observes, “because of what it
implied about the behaviour of respectable family men” (9, Father-Daughter Incest).
There is usually more buﬀering in the realm of words than in the world
of images. An extensive vocabulary exists to describe incidents of sexual
abuse/incest in distant and distancing terms—and no need even to use
the word “penis,” given the range of available euphemisms: consider Jean
Auel, who managed to write an entire series of soft porn using words like
“organ” and “member.” The phrase “sex abuse” itself is non-speciﬁc and
leaves the mind free to refuse to imagine in ways that the image does not.
In One! Hundred! Demons! Barry takes that indirect approach in any
case, using an aesthetic approach of suggestion and inference—a less is
more approach sharply in contrast to Drechsler’s vivid and explicit renderings. Note the speech bubble positioned directly over the genital
I.5. Debbie Drechsler. Daddy’s Girl. p. 3.
area. Barry leaves the burden of imagination to the reader; Drechsler, like
Kominsky-Crumb and Gloeckner, forces the reader to see what the abuse
victim sees. Once again, what is remembered is also forgotten, in a frequent Barry trope that emphasizes memory as a series of choices as much
as something that takes shape on its own (72). Memory, like subjectivity,
is partial, constructed, and reconstructed. At one point Drechsler’s Lily
comments, “I never did remember the thing I forgot,” even though the
reader/viewer has just seen what it was, in all its atrocity (56). Here we see
only the head of the father, having an orgasm, and then the sister turning away in denial of what she has witnessed. The sister does and says
nothing—here we “see” the refusal of emotional connection, the refusal
of acknowledgement, the refusal to confront the situation—the refusal to
participate in the reconstruction of memory and subjectivity (3).
Confrontational is an apt word here, recalling Whitlock and Poletti
on confronting bodies. It is important to avoid the impression, when
talking about aﬀective outreach, that Drechsler’s and Barry’s visuals oﬀer
merely a sort of visual networking system for female victims. Far more
profoundly, they oﬀer cultural confrontation and the potential for change
or healing through strategies of outreach and uncomfortable transparency. They make clear the value of what might be called feminist art activism, art that deliberately self-deﬁnes as a form of creative emancipation.
Creative emancipatory work, in the context of the representation of child
sex abuse, oﬀers a venue both for the artistic self and for the receiving
viewer/reader to do a range of aﬀective and political things: to heal, to
make transparent, to undo, and to redo. All of those artistic endeavors are
highly politicized. Speaking of Gloeckner, Chute talks of the “urgency of
representing trauma” (2010: 74); these comics are precisely about matters
of essential cultural urgency at the everyday level. Unique events such as
the collapse of the Twin Towers demand and produce acknowledgment
of the eﬀects of the extraordinary. These texts do precisely the opposite.
They emphasize repeated and quotidian traumas, trauma of gender inequity, traumas set in the home and enacted and re-enacted every day. In a
sense, these texts are about what is perfectly ordinary and one thing that is
perfectly ordinary is that it is impossible to separate mind and body, word
and image, emotion and politics.
The stakes here, unlike those in papers in this collection about the
events surrounding 9/11, are precisely about not being in a state of exception; the ordinary world itself is dangerous, sexually violent, emotionally diﬃcult, racist, unequal in terms of wealth and class, as the body of
Drechsler’s and Barry’s work makes clearly and undeniably visible. Comics such as these are trouble at its best, destructive of some social norms
and creative of new ones. I will not write here about the various ways in
which the comics format itself troubles norms of art and of high and low
culture, for reasons of space and also because so many comics critics have
done such a good job of that already, e.g., troubling norms and comfort
levels of art is also something Alisia Chase emphasizes in her essay for
this collection, “You Must Look at the Personal Clutter: Diaristic Indulgence, Female Adolescence, and Feminist Autobiography.” Chase oﬀers a
feminist art historian’s perspective on women comic artists’ deployment
of the mess and pain of everyday lived experience to make profound connections that are at once, to use a phrase we all know well but often use
tokenistically, personal and political. Barry and Drechsler use sequential
art as critique (exposing rape-culture’s strategies of shame, blame, and
silencing); sequential art as vehicle for self-emancipation, at once political
I.6. The mother’s turned back and averted gaze echo those of the
sister in earlier frames. The viewer is invited into the scene, eyes
following the gaze of the child to rest on the mother. Debbie
Drechsler, Daddy’s Girl. p. 25.
and personal, and sequential art as invitation to participate in cultural
production. By deploying these eﬀectively activist techniques, Barry and
Drechsler emphasize ways in which comics art can forge bonds between
individual and community.
Drechsler’s visual rendering of trauma illustrates rape culture’s and
incest culture’s politics of shame in ways that the word alone cannot, as
recognition cannot be refused. The unspoken word does not mean the
viewer/reader has not seen and understood. Forbidden things may continue to be unnamed, unspoken, but they are irrefutably there: image
forces recognition, empathy, acknowledgement of shame and damage.
The shunned or damaged body draws the gaze, and also makes the viewer
uncomfortable and afraid of being voyeuristic and thus participating in a
culture of dominance and harm.
Both authors have expressed the feeling in interviews that artistic production about the traumatic past is necessary for them, a form of essential performance and public acknowledgment of things the world so often
wishes to keep private. Barry’s title for the episode speciﬁcally about child
I.7. Note the emphasis on something that no one can take away. Lynda Barry, One! Hundred!
Demons! p. 177.
abuse is “Resilience.” It is acts of artistic reimagining that express this resilience for both Drechsler and Barry. There are scenes in each text in which
a supportive art teacher makes a huge diﬀerence in enabling access to this
form of self-expression. These scenes are tremendously important as they
are themselves instructional—by reproducing them Drechsler and Barry
are emphasizing the lesson itself: self-expression is something you can
give to yourself continually and no one can take it away. Self-expression
gives you power over your own memory—and over your own sense of self/
By passing on the lessons that art is liberating should be encouraged
and supported, both artists are issuing invitations to participate in artistic self-expression, passing on the emancipatory lessons oﬀered to their
child selves, emphasizing a transmission of transformative possibilities.
Both Drechsler and Barry oﬀer an aesthetic escape: the working through
and rendering of trauma through visuals. However, this escape does not
separate mind and body but instead invites the visualization of the body
as a form of freeing mental expression. Drechsler says in her interview
with comicsbulletin, “. . . there are people who know what’s what who are
making change.” Making change, for both Drechsler and Barry, is about
inviting others into self-expression; Drechsler has talked about the importance of reimagining the past as a way of moving forward. In a similar vein,
Barry teaches writing and drawing classes and gives workshops on accessing the inner storyteller, often describing her work as being about writing
I.8. A lesson about empathy and support is passed on, together with an emphasis on
having something valuable of one’s own. Debbie Drechsler, Daddy’s Girl. p. 37.
the unthinkable. Barry has published books intended to draw readers
into active artistic participation, What It Is and Picture This. In “paying
forward” the lessons given to their child selves, both artists open up creative, political, and aﬀective possibilities for re-connecting individual and
community and moving away from isolation and shame. Ann Cvetkovich’s recent brilliant book, Depression: A Public Feeling, articulates ways
in which the “encounter between feeling and politics is thus open for discussion of forms of activism that can address messy feelings rather than
trying to banish them” (110). Such productive and nuanced reimagining of
therapy is oﬀered through the works of Barry and Drechsler alike.
Not all the creative writers/artists discussed in this collection are concerned primarily with rendering and confronting demons, of course, but
Author Jane Tolmie Isbn 978-1617039058 File size 19MB Year 2013 Pages 300 Language Englisch File format PDF Category Art Book Description: FacebookTwitterGoogle+TumblrDiggMySpaceShare Autobiography has seen enormous expansions and challenges over the past decades. One of these expansions has been in comics, and it is an expansion that pushes back against any postmodern notion of the death of the author/subject, while also demanding new approaches from critics. Drawing from Life: Memory and Subjectivity in Comic Art is a collection of essays about autobiography, semiautobiography, fictionalized autobiography, memory, and self-narration in sequential art, or comics. Contributors come from a range of academic backgrounds including English, American studies, comparative literature, gender studies, art history, and cultural studies. The book engages with well-known figures such as Art Spiegelman, Marjane Satrapi, and Alison Bechdel; with cult-status figures such as Martin Vaughn-James; and with lesser-known works by artists such as Frederic Boilet. Negotiations between artist/writer/body and drawn/written/text raise questions of how comics construct identity, and are read and perceived, requiring a critical turn towards theorizing the comics viewer. At stake in comic memoir and semi-autobiography is embodiment. Remembering a scene with the intent of rendering it in sequential art requires nonlinear thinking and engagement with physicality. Who was in the room and where? What was worn? Who spoke first? What images dominated the encounter? Did anybody smile? Man or mouse? Unhinged from the summary paragraph, the comics artist must confront the fact of the flesh, or the corporeal world, and they do so with fascinating results. ” Download (19MB) Borderlines: Autobiography and Fiction in Postmodern Life Writing Supplanting The Postmodern: An Anthology Of Writings On The Arts And Culture Of The Early 21st Century Holocaust Cinema in the Twenty-First Century Routledge International Handbook of the Sociology of Art and Culture META/DATA: A Digital Poetics (Leonardo Book Series) Load more posts