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Reading Autobiographical Comics: A Framework for Educational Settings


Markus Oppolzer

This book updates reader-response criticism as the foundation of aesthetic reading in the classroom by bringing it in line with cognitive theories in literary studies and linguistics. With the help of Gilles Fauconnier and Mark Turner‘s conceptual integration theory, which shares a surprising number of correspondences with Wolfgang Iser‘s The Act of Reading, it is possible to flesh out the latter‘s model of narrative meaning-making. In turn, this allows for a consistent reader-response approach to the medium of comics and auto/biography as one of its dominant genres. The fragmentation of comics narratives, but also of human lives and identities, requires such a theory that can explain how different perspectives and experiences can be blended into an experiential whole.

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5 Autobiographical Comics

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5 Autobiographical Comics

5.1 The Conceptual Ambiguity of Autobiography

5.1.1 A Struggle with Definitions

In their widely acknowledged introduction to the study of life writing, Reading Autobiography (2010), Sidonie Smith and Julia Watson associate the term ‘autobiography’ with the “Enlightenment subject” and the “master narrative of ‘the sovereign self’ as an institution of literature and culture” (2010: 3). This usually meant eminent white males looking back at a lifetime of achievement in the public sphere, a concept that was “vigorously challenged in the wake of postmodern and postcolonial critiques” (2010: 3). Accordingly, Smith and Watson treat autobiography as a specific type of “life writing” (2010: 4), which is their preferred term for a more inclusive practice that “takes a life, one’s own or another’s, as its subject” and may as well be “biographical, novelistic, historical, or explicitly self-referential and therefore autobiographical” (2010: 4). Alternatively, they speak of “life narrative” as “a general term for acts of self-presentation of all kinds and in diverse media that take the producer’s life as their subject, whether written, performative, visual, filmic, or digital” (2010: 4; see also 95–6). According to this logic, autobiographical comics are life narratives, as they do not exclusively rely on the written word.

While this classification promotes an openness towards other media, it also introduces categories that combine codes and (sub)genres in extreme ways: ‘life writing’ is limited to a single code – the written word, but can be anything from historical novel to biography. ‘Life narrative’, however, can take any (multimodal) form, but has to be autobiographical. These definitions are quickly abandoned on the following page, when Smith and Watson speak of “life writing and biography” (2010: 5) as two distinct practices. There they argue that in “life writing, subjects write about their own lives predominantly”, whereas in “biography, scholars of other people’s lives document and interpret those lives from a point of view external to the subject” (2010: 5). The term ‘scholars’ implies that biography is a more academic, evidence-based endeavour that is closer to historical research (cf. 2010: 14), whereas autobiographies can be written by anyone relying on memories alone (cf. 2010: 13). It is a central aim of this introductory part to demonstrate that the neat separation between biographical and autobiographical writing remains questionable. Therefore, I prefer Smith and Watson’s more ←337 | 338→inclusive first definition of ‘life writing’, which I discuss in the context of Liz Stanley’s notion of ‘auto/biography’.

Not surprisingly, Smith and Watson find their neat generic distinctions challenged by “texts that combine biographical and autobiographical modes of narration” (2010: 7), as “contemporary practices increasingly blend them into a hybrid, suggesting that life narrative indeed is a moving target and an ever-changing practice without absolute rules” (2010: 8). They make a last attempt at clear demarcations in the context of readers’ responses, where they associate “a different set of expectations” (2010: 14) with autobiography, in contrast to biography and especially the novel. Michael A. Chaney believes that “the question of whether any given narrative belongs to fiction or autobiography is ultimately one that readers must negotiate” (2011: 4), which implies that the trustworthiness of the auto/biographical text is established in the telling and is not determined by paratextual genre labels. In chapter 3 I am going to introduce Elisabeth El Refaie’s ‘strategies of authentication’ (cf. 2012: 135–78), which foreground the idea that truth is a performance that is negotiated with readers during the transaction with the text. Smith and Watson claim that autobiography predominantly foregrounds “rhetorical acts” that engage readers in a more direct intersubjective communication with the writers, who are “justifying their own perceptions, upholding their reputations, disputing the accounts of others, settling scores, conveying cultural information, and inventing desirable futures, among others” (2010: 13). This is an interesting observation, as it brings the written genre of autobiography more in line with the oral tradition of spontaneous storytelling, Fludernik’s ‘natural’ narratology (cf. 2005) and what Michael Bamberg calls ‘small stories’ (cf. Bamberg 2007) in narrative psychology. Moreover, Smith and Watson acknowledge a wide range of potential motivations for life writing, which means that ‘truth-telling’ is not an end in itself, but serves a higher purpose. As El Refaie argues, there is always a “persuasive purpose” for which the auto/biographers have to “draw in” readers (2012: 179). They have to win their trust and entangle them in the negotiations of lives and histories that auto/biographies pursue.

As we have seen with Blankets, it already starts with the genre label – ‘an illustrated novel’ – on the cover and extends to all areas of the front matter. On the credits page Thompson states: “This graphic novel is based on personal experiences, though the names have been changed, and certain characters, places, and incidents have been modified in the service of the story” (2007: n. p.). Here, the line between fact and fiction is hard to draw and ultimately pointless. Following Gérard Genette (1997), Smith and Watson argue that the “peritexts and epitexts” of an auto/biography “comprise a threshold that can dramatically ←338 | 339→affect its interpretation and reception by variously situated reading communities” (2010: 100). The cultural mediators and gatekeepers, such as teachers, provide a lens through which the narrative is to be viewed. Smith and Watson use James Frey’s ‘autobiography’ as an example of ‘reframing’, as his “editor persuaded him to recast A Million Little Pieces as a memoir rather than a novel” (2010: 101). This caused an outrage when it was first endorsed by Oprah Winfrey and her book club as a paragon of a redemption narrative, only to be reviled later on when it was discovered that Frey invented parts of it (cf. Versaci 2007: 34–6; Miller 2007: 538). As artefacts and handcrafted objects, autobiographical comics are less likely to trick readers into confusing cartoon drawings with a mimetic representation of reality.

Despite the ubiquitous mantra in autobiographical research that this genre operates with constructed realities (cf. e.g. El Refaie 2012: 7; Whitlock & Poletti 2008: xv), a lot of academic discourse is still dedicated to the truth value of these texts, presumably because general readers tend to take Philippe Lejeune’s autobiographical pact very seriously. He argues that, “for there to be autobiography (and personal literature in general), the author, the narrator, and the protagonist must be identical”, which, of course, immediately “raises a number of problems” (1989: 5). Lejeune is quick to point out the shortcomings of his own proposal: “is it really the same person, the baby who is born in such and such a clinic, in an era of which I have no memory whatsoever – and me?” (1989: 9). While autobiography’s “aim is not simple verisimilitude, but resemblance to the truth” (1989: 22), authors are said to metaphorically sign a contract with their readers by putting their proper names on the covers, which guarantees an honest attempt to tell the truth to the best of their abilities. Nancy Miller speaks of “the pleasure that comes from genre satisfaction” (2007: 541), which implies that many readers approach a text with clear expectations – in this case disclosures about an actual life – and appreciate it when writers keep their end of the bargain. Yet, appealing to potential readers involves more than telling ‘the truth’ and authors’ agendas are more complex and varied than stating what ‘really’ happened.

Marjane Satrapi’s decision to begin Persepolis with “The Veil” (2007: 3–9) is a personal, political and feminist statement, but it also provides an access point for westerners, who comprise her main readership (cf. Whitlock 2006: 972). The first moral dilemma she offers is a simple decision between black and white, the veil and Marji’s face, fundamentalism and freedom. Satrapi actively promotes empathy for or even identification with her younger self (cf. El Refaie 2012: 188), which is important for the readers’ acceptance of an otherwise highly unusual or even unorthodox life. At the time of publication France was considering to ←339 | 340→ban all religious symbols from public life, especially headscarves (cf. Whitlock 2006: 974), which made the text topical, more easily relatable and more likely to be noticed by the press. The book became a phenomenon and “sold a record three hundred thousand copies in France” (Chute 2010: 136) alone, which indicates that the cartoonist managed to attract a broad mainstream readership. However, it seems that the “apparent visual simplicity” (2010: 137) of her graphic style and the alleged universal appeal of the child protagonist, which Satrapi clearly encourages, led to a somewhat superficial reading of the narrative (cf. Chute 2010: 138). While the first three pages present a simplistic black and white scenario (cf. 2007: 3–5), both literally (cf. 2007: 5) and figuratively, the first panel of page 6 shows Marji caught between the two cultures, as she is said to be “very religious” (2007: 6/1). Her parents put her in an impossible position by being leftist, liberal, westernised and upper-class (cf. Chute 2010: 143), so that the two identities do not blend easily. Thus, her transcultural identity becomes a manifestation of larger conflicts, which makes her personal life political. In an article for The Guardian from December 2003 Satrapi called the French government’s plan to ban the veil “every bit as repressive” as the Iranian regime’s law that all women had to wear one in public (Satrapi 2003: n. p.; see also Chute 2010: 137). In both cases young women are treated as if they could not decide for themselves and needed the authorities to determine for them what to think and what to do. Satrapi won over western audiences as a seemingly staunch defender of ‘our’ liberal ideals and women’s rights, a freedom fighter and member of the resistance, but the matter may be slightly more complicated than that. In the introduction to Persepolis Satrapi announces that her major motivation to create the comic was a more differentiated view of Iran (cf. 2007: n. p.), using her own family history as an illustration of diverging beliefs and ideologies. Writers – like readers – are all entangled in specific private, social and historical contexts that shape the subject. This aspect of Persepolis tends to be overlooked when teenage girls in the west can easily identify with Marji and her problems. That is why Smith and Watson state that every autobiography has an ‘ideological I’ (cf. 2010: 76–8) next to the identities that readers usually distinguish. There is a tendency to discredit political views as ‘ideological’ when they do not correspond to one’s own convictions, but the entanglement of human beings in a cultural web of ideas and practices makes every point of view partial and historically determined. The ideological content of a text may become simplified or downplayed through paratexts (cf. 2010: 100), reviews and educational framings, in case they provide a single prism through which readers are encouraged to perceive a book.

In her article on graphic novels as a teaching tool in high schools and teacher training courses Carola Hecke discusses a project at the Georg-August-Universität ←340 | 341→Göttingen in some detail which involved reading Satrapi’s Persepolis and Jessica Abel’s semi-autobiographical La Perdida with a group of pre-service teachers (2008/09; 2009/10). They developed teaching concepts and materials based on these books and then tested them with a group of students from a local secondary school who came to university especially for these lessons (cf. Hecke 2011: 660). In a footnote Hecke warns that “graphic novels, like all other types of literature and cultural representations, never simply show a real world, but always a more or less fictionalized as well as complexly mediated version of this world” (2011: 663). As the following statement implies, additional texts were used to offer more information and different perspectives on the narrative (cf. Vanderbeke 2006: 374):

… the students’ comments suggested that due to their greater knowledge concerning the graphic novels’ cultural contexts (history, traditions, and social conditions), they may be better equipped to achieve cultural understanding in a real-life situation if they were to meet a member of one of the cultures that appeared in the graphic novels and which they researched in the course. The new insights led to a different attitude toward other cultures in general and to a more differentiated view of Mexican and Iranian people in particular, and they allowed students to identify and overcome some of their prejudices and cultural biases. (2011: 661)

Considering the length and sequential nature of the project, it would have been interesting to know how the reading progressed, which types of activities were used for each stage, which learner texts were created and how the tasks were interlinked. Hecke addresses the importance of enactment, that “students should put themselves, to the greatest extent possible, in a given character’s place” (2011: 665), which involves ‘perspective-taking’, ‘aesthetic projection’ and ‘role-taking’ (cf. 2011: 662; Batson 2009: 6–7). This was intended to “allow a closer look seemingly from within” (2011: 665). In view of the procedural nature of reading, the multiplicity of selves in autobiographical texts and the inevitable process of viewpoint compression, it would have been interesting to know whose point of view students reconstructed, based on which particular scene and with what kind of background knowledge (e.g. reading vs. ‘having read’). In other words: do these performances serve as learner texts (while reading) that feed into other activities or are they intended as post-reading tasks that retrospectively highlight turning points in the narrative?

I have already indicated the centrality of dramatisation to comics narration, so acting/embodiment is a very helpful way to engage with the medium. Jutta Rymarczyk offers an interesting approach to Shaun Tan’s The Arrival via pantomime and tableaux vivants, which are intended to bridge the gulf between reception and text production (cf. 2011: 17–19). Students embody the characters ←341 | 342→to experience what it feels like to be in these situations and then decide which words and phrases they already know or still need to be able to talk about the context. This is vastly different from traditional reading comprehension tasks and more in line with an embodied approach. Although I would read The Arrival in parts, this is a great illustration of using drama techniques during a particular stage of the reading process with a particular purpose and a perspective of how the learner text contributes to an ongoing engagement with the narrative. I am sure that Hecke’s enactments, which she calls “a welcome variation from the oral or written analysis and interpretation routine” (2011: 662), equally served a particular purpose in the sequence, but the article condenses a lot of information into just five pages dedicated to the project (cf. 2011: 660–5). Since the present discussion is about ‘drawing in’ (cf. El Refaie 2012: 179) readers, who are asked to role-play characters from a comics narrative, Iser’s coordination of perspectives becomes relevant again. Whose experiences and point of view do students believe that they understand better, based on what inputs and insights?

Hecke’s students related their increased intercultural communicative competence as much to their own research of the cultural background as to the engagement with the graphic novels. The author states that the overall aim was to obtain a more differentiated view of present-day Mexicans and Iranians (cf. 2011: 661, 663), not of Abel’s or Satrapi’s unusual life stories. This raises the question what exactly the role of literature – and comics in particular – is in this context. Hecke names “visual literacy” (2011: 653, 657) or “comics literacy” (2011: 659) as a second major concern, without explicitly stating how this influenced lesson planning or whether students had any prior knowledge of or experience with such texts. The project highlights the difficulties of teaching intercultural communicative competence through literature while addressing the specific medium in more detail and the literary genre of autobiography, although it does not become clear whether that was an issue at all. Another challenge for teachers is to strike the right balance between aesthetic reading/projection and “analytical tasks” (2011: 663), which require the exact opposite – a critical distance to characters and a certain suspicion towards their beliefs and attitudes.

In Teaching Comics and Graphic Narratives (2012), an edited volume on the use of comics in university classrooms, one finds two articles that warn against the single-text approach (cf. Delanoy 2015: 24), for example by using Persepolis to inform undergraduate students about Iran. Adrielle Mitchell is especially critical of such a procedure:

It probably helps that Satrapi’s censorious take on the post-1979 regime change accords with many of our own biases, and further, that she takes pains to Westernize ←342 | 343→her self-depiction such that European and American young people can exclaim over and over again that ‘Marji’ seems like everyone they grew up with, and like themselves. The highly problematic nature of this facile identification aside, this empathic response (carefully fostered, I believe, by Satrapi) has ensured that thousands of students […] have ‘learned about Iran’ through this accessible, just-serious-enough-without-being-depressing, memoir. The real question raised by examples like Persepolis, then, is not why they are so popular, but how to responsibly consume their didactic material. (2012: 205)

Opposing the educational value of ‘transportation’ (cf. Green 2004; 2008), Mitchell suggests that Persepolis would be an ideal text to develop critical thinking: “Graphic memoirs like Persepolis work well in pedagogical situations designed to push students to move beyond superficial understandings (of life-story, of comics, and of places like Iran) into more considered, textually responsive interpretations” (2012: 208). This is seconded by Jonathan D’Amore in “Serial Self-Portraits: Framing Student Conversations About Graphic Memoir”, who stresses the importance of genre competence in engaging with autobiographical texts: “Graphic memoirs provide a unique pedagogical tool for illustrating to students the rather complicated interplay of identity, authorship, and creativity in autobiography” (2012: 210). Hecke privileges intercultural communicative competence and visual literacy (cf. Hecke 2011: 653, 660), which are both relevant, but Mitchell and D’Amore also raise an important point in tying autobiographical work in the classroom to critical media literacy and genre awareness. This is perfectly illustrated in Autobiographies: Presenting the Self (cf. Hallet 2015a), which offers very useful ideas for autobiographical storytelling in educational settings (e.g. using material anchors, childhood photos, smartphone videos or comic strips), even though genre competence and critical media literacy are not directly addressed in this context (cf. Hallet 2015a: 7). This part sets out to foreground the major links between key concerns in autobiographical studies and critical media literacy and to demonstrate what role autobiographical comics can play in such a context due to their specific mediality. I intend to return to the articles in Autobiographies: Presenting the Self whenever possible to highlight how these tasks can serve as practical examples of the points I am going to raise on a more theoretical level. As a starting point, we look at two popular terms that provide a general orientation of how critics conceive of autobiography in the medium of comics.

In her article “Autographics: The Seeing ‘I’ of the Comics” (2006:) Gillian Whitlock shortens Leigh Gilmore’s term ‘autobiographics’ to ‘autographics’ (cf. Whitlock 2006: 966), which has become a widely used term for the genre (e.g. Smith & Watson 2010: 168). Two years later Whitlock – together with Anna ←343 | 344→Poletti – offers a somewhat tongue-in-cheek ‘dictionary entry’ for her own neologism:

Autographics, n. Áwtográffiks. 2007: Life narrative fabricated in and through drawing and design using various technologies, modes, and materials. A practice of reading the signs, symbols and techniques of visual arts in life narrative. See also autobiography, biography, testimony, autobiographics, comics, self-portrait, avatar…. (Whitlock & Poletti 2008: v)

Whitlock claims that comics are especially well suited to address difficult, traumatic memories, as they allow the unspeakable to be represented solely through visuals or even left out altogether, only to be recovered by readers in the form of closure/conceptual integration. Comics also make certain real-life contexts more approachable and relatable, precisely because artists often eschew photorealism and build bridges through the mediating power of cartooning. By abstracting characters, actions and locations from their highly specific contexts, comics allow for greater empathy and readers’ engagement, of which Persepolis is a good example. Due to the artistic stylisation of otherwise horrendous acts of cruelty (cf. e.g. Satrapi 2007: 52/1; 102/1), Satrapi’s family history can be made accessible to (younger) readers, who would be greatly disturbed by the same scenes rendered in photorealistic images. The same logic applies to the aforementioned identification with the protagonist. The price of cartooning, however, is a substantial artistic intervention that is more visible and transparent in this medium than in prose.

The term ‘autographics’ also stresses an artist’s idiosyncratic way of ‘perfinking’ (cf. Bruner 1986: 69): perceiving, feeling and thinking. I have already discussed ‘graphiation’ in the context of style and overall design as a unique vision that transcends technical reproduction for the mass market. Whitlock and Poletti argue that “graphic life narrative resists reduction to summary or translation into a single medium [prose], and requires that we pause and explore the sight, the sounds, the sensational feel of autobiographical representations” (2008: v). From this perspective, autographics is more experiential and completely dependent on visual representation, which poses problems to literary critics who “are now called upon to develop more advanced visual and cultural literacies to interpret the intersections of various modes and media and the complex embodiments of avatar, autobiographer, and reader/viewer gathered under the sign of autographics” (2008: vi; see also Whitlock 2006: 968). The various manifestations of the autobiographical selves in the text are a major concern of this part, as they are more varied and more visible in this medium than in prose (cf. Versaci 2007: 36, 38).

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‘Graphics’ as an established technical term, e.g. in ‘computer graphics’, is very inclusive and could be associated with various forms of visualisation. Yet, Whitlock and Poletti are quick to point out that the term ‘graphic’ – in the sense of ‘explicit’ – does derive from drawing and visual representation. Due to their heritage, autobiographical comics are prone to show “bodies in pleasure and pain” (2008: vii). This is important because of “the ways that embodiment and subjectivity emerge in strikingly different terms in visual and performance media than in written narratives” (2008: viii). Therefore, comics should be more frequently approached through the dramatic arts, as their close association with prose narratives is usually indebted to critics’ academic background. Using photos as a visual medium for autobiographical work in the classroom (cf. Henseler & Schäfers 2015) automatically foregrounds (social) performance (cf. Goffman 1959) and the necessity of critical media literacy.

Another frequently used term for the genre is (graphic) memoir, e.g. in Smith and Watson’s book (cf. 2010: 168–73), but especially in the second edition of Duncan, Smith and Levitz’s The Power of Comics, which extends the original two pages of the first edition (2009) to 34 pages (cf. 2015: 229–62) – a clear indication of how important this genre has become. The authors dedicate a whole chapter to the ‘memoir’, a term which they explicitly prefer over ‘autobiography’:

In an autobiography there is an emphasis on documenting one’s life, providing facts about events, whereas the writer of a memoir is often more concerned with conveying her or his feelings about events. […] An autobiography usually spans all of the person’s life up to the point of the writing. A memoir usually covers a much shorter span of time, and often focuses on particular life-changing incidents and their consequences. (2015: 230)

This is in line with US-American reservations about the term ‘autobiography’, which seems to be less problematic in a European context. The authors make the important observation that many autobiographical comics take a slice-of-life approach, e.g. in the case of diary comics (cf. Cates 2011) and serialised publications (cf. Pekar 2003), which may put traditional concepts to the test that have been derived from autobiographical studies. In educational settings, there is a tendency to prefer graphic novel memoirs over shorter forms, precisely because they are closer to the literary genre of autobiography and prose fiction in general. I return to this question at the very end of this part, but first I present my preferred term ‘auto/biography’ for the genre in a general sense, which I use alongside the medium-specific terms ‘autographics’ or simply ‘autobiographical comics’.

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Liz Stanley, Professor of Sociology at Edinburgh University, offers a unique view on auto/biography in her 1992 study The Auto/Biographical I. She uses the term “to encompass all these ways of writing a life and also the ontological and epistemological links between them” (1992: 3). As a lesbian feminist with a working-class background, a sociologist and a practising biographer, she brings a unique perspective to the discussion of life writing, especially in the form of an ideological and material reading (cf. 1992: 2–3, 92–3). She rigorously opposes what she calls the “realist fallacy” (1992: 8) of modern biography, which attempts “the reconstruction on paper of the essential fundamental person” (1992: 7). Stanley argues that the auto/biographical subject never existed as a person in exactly the form presented in the text, which means that what we encounter in the narrative is one possible way to construct a believable subject that is worth reading about:

Biographers just like autobiographers are writers, albeit writers bound by a perceived duty to produce some kind of factually-located account. They too select, omit, invent a narrative form, direct the reader’s interpretation of the subject, interpret, conclude. Biography is not the representation but the re-making, not the reconstruction but the construction, in written form of a life. (1992: 135; see also Halpern 1978: 1, 4; Eakin 1999: 107)

Inescapably, she argues, the biographer is “a socially-located person, one who is sexed, raced, classed, aged, to mention no more, and is so every bit as much as an autobiographer is” (1992: 7). The same socio-historical entanglement applies to the reader: “ ‘Reading’ is a contingent activity deeply rooted in our autobiographies and the tools, means and knowledges these provide” (1992: 84). Accordingly, the auto/biographer offers one particular angle among a whole range of possibilities: “The past, like the present, is the result of competing negotiated versions of what happened, why it happened, with what consequence” (1992: 7). Wildly different auto/biographies have been written over the years by or about the same person, which attests to the dependence of life writing on particular approaches and specific viewpoints. In the case of Harvey Pekar and Dean Haspiel’s Quitter or Liz Prince’s Tomboy, the titles encapsulate the stances the adult autobiographers take towards their own lives. This is viewpoint compression in the purest form, reducing the meaning of a text to a single word. In both cases the narrators appear ‘in person’ as characters in the narratives and pursue specific agendas that they ostentatiously announce on the cover and systematically maintain throughout. In these cases the lenses through which they view their own lives determine both the foregrounding of specific incidents and their contextualisation in the form of ‘grand narratives’ that speak of shattered dreams, ←346 | 347→on the one hand, and a life-long fight against gender stereotyping, on the other. Obviously, readers are strongly encouraged to adopt the narrators’ viewpoints and accept the titles as facts. Here it makes sense to encourage students to unpack the simplistic one-word summaries and look at the decompressed life narratives with a critical eye.

One of Stanley’s major arguments concerns the social isolation and foregrounding of individual lives, which Paul John Eakin associates with “the myth of autonomous individualism” (1999: 51). According to this logic, the self-made (business) man overcomes all obstacles, thwarts his opponents and climbs the social ladder – fuelled by his ambition, driven by an iron will and always prepared to make sacrifices for the ultimate triumph. Yet, even more unassuming texts tend to foreground a life severed from all social bonds: “Both biography and autobiography lay claim to facticity, yet both are by nature artful enterprises which select, shape, and produce a very unnatural product, for no life is lived quite so much under a single spotlight as the conventional form of written auto/biographies suggests” (Stanley 1992: 3–4). The hero either becomes a giant among wo/men and/or a socially awkward loner, while the secondary characters are frequently reduced to mere functions in the text. Stanley claims that the very form of the genre invites such a distorted presentation of a life: “Following the biographical subject in a linear and chronological way effectively trains a spotlight on them and them alone. The effect is that everyone else this person knew is thereby made to have only shadowy existence. Thus is the contemporary role of the biographical subject among their peers misrepresented, for we are shown them as a Gulliver among Lilliputians” (1992: 9; see also 131). The ideal of “Enlightenment individualism” (Eakin 1999: 47) can lead to an “ego-focussed” (Stanley 1992: 132) portrayal that downplays family ties, the role of mentors and forerunners in the field, professional support and cooperation, as much as social relationships in general (cf. Smith & Watson 2010: 86–8). Nancy Miller defines the “model of a relational self at the heart of the autobiographical project” (2007: 544) as essential to feminist approaches, but I believe that it is necessary to accept what Eric Neisser calls the “the interpersonal self” (cf. 1988: 36) as a general fact: “in autobiography the relational is not optional. Autobiography’s story is about the web of entanglement in which we find ourselves” (Miller 2007: 544). In the same way that the self is hard to disentangle from its social ties, ‘autobiography’ proves problematic to sever from its transgeneric affiliations.

As a biographer, Stanley is concerned with the ‘genius’ of famous people, which is partly created through biographies that have too much in common with legends and myths. Eakin also notes a cultural difference between the Enlightenment subject as a role model of independence in western cultures and ←347 | 348→other traditions that idealise strong ties to the local communities and even the environment. Instead of the myth of self-realisation, we find anthropological accounts of how the individual fits into the larger picture of tribal life and the narratives told by cultures about themselves (cf. Eakin 1999: 68–85). Stanley’s theatrical metaphors of staging and spotlighting are very appropriate. While superhero comics are often ostentatiously melodramatic, which is highlighted, or maybe even parodied in Alan Moore and David Lloyd’s V for Vendetta, autobiographical comics, I would argue, also have a tendency to borrow theatrical tropes. While Spiegelman’s masked performers and re-enactments of the past helped to raise the bar of autobiographical work in the medium, the autobiographical self as a tragic hero, having to overcome social isolation and insurmountable odds, is a tightrope walk between narrativising a life and borrowing too liberally from (Gothic) melodrama: trapped hero(in)es, absent mothers, despotic fathers, terrible secrets, mental illness, a breakdown of communication etc. This raises the question of accountability and truth-telling or to what extent readers are willing to accept deviations from facts in the service of storytelling and personal myths.

Smith and Watson counter the potential allegation of deception by “asking what we expect life narrators to tell the truth about. Are we expecting fidelity to the facts of their biographies, to lived experience, to self-understanding, to the historical moment, to social community, to prevailing beliefs about diverse identities, to the norms of autobiography as a literary genre itself?” (2010: 15). Since the biographer “constructs the biographical subject” (Stanley 1992: 9), Stanley asks for an ‘accountable biography’, for which “biographers should not only make available to readers as much of the evidence, and of different kinds, that they work from as possible, but also an account of what facts, opinions and interpretations they find preferable and why” (1992: 9–10). This, of course, implies a more active and discerning role for readers, who become the co-creators of the auto/biographical text (cf. 1992: 124). Stanley’s feminist and clearly political approach demands “a rebellion of the active reader, a common reader who disputes academic insistence upon how texts ‘ought’ to be read and interpreted, instead trusting their own interpretative powers in the face of theoretical vanguards” (1992: 91; see also 131). This defiant refusal to succumb to any doctrines has to be seen in the context of postmodernist theories dominating the 1990s, on the one hand, and the danger of grand narratives perpetuated in the texts themselves, on the other.

Stanley’s notion of a critical edition of life-writing poses the question what kind of genre auto/biography can or rather should be. She clearly wants to see an end to myth-making and an honest approach to historiography. One of the central issues of this part is to explore the reliability and authenticity of life-writing, ←348 | 349→which cannot be separated from the media in which these auto/biographical acts are performed. As in documentary film-making, the fragmentation and heteroglossia of comics autobiographies should make them less likely to be mistaken for ‘the truth’. For prose, Stanley sees a particular problem in the stance that biographers take, who “play God, or the great leveller, and reduce such complexity [she means the life of Virginia Woolf] to one omnipotent view” (1992: 11). She is worried that the “conventional power relations existing between authors and readers are among the last to be questioned and convincingly challenged” (1992: 17). Were it for Stanley, the writers of auto/biography should be obliged to “locate themselves as a character within the text”, positioning themselves in relation to the sources and the “processes, rather than the product” of auto/biographical writing (1992: 136). Nancy Pedri argues that autobiographical comics are more likely to succeed in this endeavour: “graphic memoir reminds readers that what they are reading is a very human story, one in which the narrator is not a super, all-knowing being, but rather an ordinary person telling his life in his own terms as best he can” (2015: 136). Yet, this is not good enough. The friendly person next door is not automatically more reliable or trustworthy. One advantage that comics have is that their layout encourages closure and allows artists to enlist readers as fellow detectives instead of presenting streamlined narratives. Past and present, narrating and experiencing I, the autobiographical act and the product, the evidence and the conclusion can all co-exist on the page in a much more fragmentary manner, which is especially true of the most recognised books in the field.

Despite the fact that Art Spiegelman’s MAUS repeatedly “points to the circumstances of its own making” (Hatfield 2005: 140), the cartoonist felt the need to share his sources and the creative process with the reading public in METAMAUS (2011). Spiegelman seems to encourage a comparison between the original recordings/transcripts of his interviews with his father and their transformation into an auto/biography in MAUS. In other words: instead of presenting a ‘mega-blend’ or ‘grand narrative’, the foregrounded fragmentation of the source material allows readers to make sense of this life and become active contributors to the process of negotiating the meaning of lived experiences and life-writing under specific social circumstances. It is important to note that MAUS itself – even without the extra volume of paratexts – effectively uses the visual fragmentation of the medium to foreground tensions and contradictions that cannot easily be resolved.

In this sense, MAUS is a perfect illustration of Stanley’s two key arguments: it is impossible to separate biography from autobiography as human beings are naturally tied to social environments and maintain important relationships with ←349 | 350→their significant others. Secondly, both Spiegelman’s MAUS and METAMAUS represent the kind of critical edition or ‘making-of’ that she finds more honest and helpful. Commenting on the CD-ROM edition of MAUS (1994), a precursor to this volume of paratexts, Eakin finds that this “story of the story”, another frame narrative if we count the one included in the book itself, “is much more complete and complex” (2011: 15). This is a fascinating observation, considering that the archival material Spiegelman presents here is in a far greater state of fragmentation. It is less complete in terms of a narrative, but more encompassing and impressive in sheer scope, a testament to “the depth of Spiegelman’s commitment to documentary truth” (2011: 14), as Eakin puts it. This highlights the fact that, for readers, the accessibility of archival material increases dramatically with its transformation into a narrative, but usually at the cost of leaving sizeable chunks of a life aside that do not easily blend into the one chosen for publication. This illustrates the necessity of looking behind the curtains of auto/biographical performances and of extending the range of texts to compensate for the myopic view that a single narrative may convey. This is especially necessary in the context of critical media literacy (cf. Stanley 1992: 91, 95). Stanley argues that the “narrative form is highly seductive” (1992: 120), which means that educators should invite “reading against the grain” (1992: 95). Autobiographical comics are an ideal genre to explore the construction and seduction of narratives in various rereading activities. Artists are always forced to compromise or may decide to sacrifice what seem to be essential elements of their lives in favour of a more coherent vision for their books. In an interview with Mike Whybark, for example, Craig Thompson acknowledges that he excluded his sister from Blankets, as her presence would have been counterproductive to the type of narrative he wanted to tell (cf. Whybark 2003: transcript 6). This is one of the reasons why the book is called a ‘novel’ and not a straightforward autobiography, but this is precisely the point: the line is hard to draw.

Stanley highlights the importance of Bildungsroman or fictional autobiography as an early success in the novel form and a key factor in the development of auto/biography (cf. 1992: 11–12; 59–60; Smith & Watson 2010: 10, 91). This generic forerunner provided narrative conventions and promoted the idea of a life script that should be followed, which can seem ideological when taken as prescriptive and worth emulating without critical scrutiny (cf. Stanley 1992: 12). Stanley argues that “written lives have an essentially intertextual character” (1992: 14), which is obvious in their complex referentiality to real people, but which is less obvious in their symbiotic relations to medialised, narrativised and fictional(ised) lives, to social expectations and culturally available life course models, or to generic conventions and the institutionalised dissemination of life ←350 | 351→narratives. These models are going to play a role in the next chapter on blending, where they represent important (generic) input spaces for the construction of life narratives. One important cultural intertext that is frequently overlooked is the genre’s own history.

5.1.2 A Brief History of Autographics

There is widespread consensus that the roots of present-day autobiographical comics reach back to the underground comix movement of the 1960s and 70s (cf. e.g. Witek 2004: paragraph 2; Jacobs 2008: 61–2; Chute 2010: 14; El Refaie 2012: 31), which was closely tied to San Francisco counterculture and the larger social issues of the time. El Refaie is quick to point out the subversive streak of early autobiographical comics: “What these underground-inspired works have in common is the apparent desire of their creators to use brutally honest – even exhibitionist – accounts of personal experiences as a way of challenging puritanical American society and its concept of the ‘normal’ ” (2012: 38; see also Chute 2010: 15). Technological advances in off-set printing made it feasible to self-publish comics and sell them in head shops and ‘boutiques’, which circumvented the Comics Code, an instrument of self-censorship in mainstream comics, and opened the door for adult content (cf. Chute 2010: 15; Gardner 2012: 120). Gradually, the underground built its own ecosystem and a growing number of artists found a new readership that was willing to embrace the outrageous offerings of uncensored comics. Since art was conceived of as political at the time and tied to a social movement, there was a need to document and report on American ways of life that did not fit the national narrative: “The underground press made its own news; those reporting on the news were not objective journalists but participants of the very protests and rallies being covered, and what they reported often bled, either inevitably or deliberately, into autobiography” (Gardner 2012: 118).

Jared Gardner associates “the official beginnings of the underground comix movement” (cf. 2012: 119; see also Chute 2010: 16) with Zap Comix (1968–2014), which increasingly became Robert Crumb’s vehicle or “tool for personal and unfettered expression” (2012: 120). Since then, many feminists have come to object to the chauvinistic, self-indulgent, “unflinching, and often disturbing honesty” (Chute 2010: 16) of these strips. In response to “misogynist and racist fantasies” (Gardner 2012: 125), female artists started their own comic books, such as Wimmen’s Comix (cf. Witek 2004: paragraphs 25–38), to present a very different view on contemporary life. Hillary Chute’s Graphic Women begins with the controversial figure of Aline Kominsky-Crumb, whose marriage to ←351 | 352→Robert Crumb made her a persona non grata among feminists, whom she rejected herself on grounds of their simplistic perpetrator-victim-logic (cf. Chute 2010: 37). For understandable reasons, the canon of autobiographical texts for the classroom is heavily selective, and one of the reasons is a long tradition of self-deprecating and sexually explicit writing for an adult audience (cf. e.g. Jacobs 2008). While Chester Brown’s I Never Liked You (2007) is a coming-of-age story that is highly appropriate for the classroom (cf. Hallet 2012b), Paying For It (2011) is Brown’s paean to prostitution and the great experiences he has had since he gave up on romantic love. Jeffrey Brown’s strips are great, but his early work is too explicit for students, judging from the ‘parental advisory’ warning on the cover of Clumsy (2006). I return to the question of canon in the final chapter, where I argue in favour of extending the range of comics that are read in school beyond MAUS, Persepolis and Fun Home.

Justin Green’s Binky Brown Meets The Holy Virgin Mary (1972) started a trend of very personal and confessional autobiographies in the medium of comics that has never subsided since then (cf. Gardner 2008: 1; El Refaie 2012: 37–8). Gardner argues that 1972 can be seen as the major turning point in the genre’s history: “it was as if someone suddenly turned on the tap, releasing a torrent of autobiographical memoirs within the comics form, to the extent that today one can identify subgenres and historical movements within autobiographical comics” (2012: 141; see also Duncan, Smith & Levitz 2015: 232–3). In his “Introduction” to Binky Brown Meets the Holy Virgin Mary Art Spiegelman acknowledges Green’s vital role in establishing autographics as a serious form of self-reflection: “Justin turned comic book boxes into intimate, secular confession booths and thereby profoundly changed the history of comics. […] I readily confess that without his work there could have been no MAUS” (Spiegelman 2009: n. p.). Since Green had left the Catholic Church many years before, his confession took the form of an autobiographical text. Howard Sklar’s understanding of empathy turns readers into jury members when transacting with texts, which means that they have to decide which pieces of evidence to accept, which perspective to take and when to oppose a dubious statement (cf. 2013: 55–6). Combined with Lejeune’s autobiographical pact, which invokes the idea of swearing on the Bible to say the truth and nothing but the truth (cf. 1989: 22), the confessional self-revelation of autobiographical comics takes on the aura of a ritual. Jacobs comments that “for writers and readers of autobiography, the idea of truth telling as a central feature of the genre remains, and in this way shares a central feature of the genres of both legal and spiritual confession” (2008: 81), from which the literary genre may partly derive. “In such a relationship of confession, the writer becomes both penitent and lawbreaker, while the reader becomes both confessor and judge” ←352 | 353→(2008: 82). In the courtroom, an eye-witness report counts as a form of evidence and the person may even be under oath, but there is no guarantee that what we read in an auto/biography is ‘the truth’. As jury members readers have to stay alert and pay attention. If we accept Sklar’s conceptual metaphor that reading is jury duty, that some of us are willing to believe the witness, while others are not, role-playing a courtroom scenario, for a change, would shift the focus from ‘becoming’ characters to performing identities in public and critically judging public performances and potential motivations.

When Spiegelman’s MAUS crossed over from the sub-culture of comics into the literary world, one way for journalists, booksellers, librarians, teachers and publishers to embrace the comic was to emphasise its discontinuity with tradition. In his excellent article “Why Art Spiegelman Doesn’t Draw Comics” Joseph Witek addresses early reviews that attributed the invention of a completely new way of telling serious narratives through pictorial means to Spiegelman’s genius:

The proposition that Maus is an utterly unprecedented work created in a form of Art Spiegelman’s own invention is particularly puzzling because even the slightest acquaintance with Spiegelman’s artistic career reveals his long and central role in the artistic movement from which not only Maus but also a wide array of contemporary comics derive their heritage: the underground comix. (2004: paragraph 2)

Witek suspects a mixture of snobbery and an unwillingness to dive deeper into a suspicious pop-cultural phenomenon that kept critics from recognising Spiegelman’s deep entanglement with the comics scene.

For the guardians of elite taste, to acknowledge the forebears of Art Spiegelman’s Maus is to blur the crucial ideological distinction between high and low art. Far simpler to designate Maus as unique and self-engendered while still maintaining that “comics are for kids” than to find a way to discriminate among the huge and bewildering array of comics that exist in the world. (2004: paragraph 5)

Like Spiegelman, Crumb and his fellow underground artists did not appear out of nowhere. They were graphic artists who designed posters and record covers or even worked for one of the humour magazines like Harvey Kurtzman’s Mad (cf. Witek 2004: paragraphs 16, 23). The magazine’s irreverence and satire of mainstream culture was revolutionary in 1950s America and set a precedence for the countercultural output of later decades. Gardner stresses the central importance of Kurtzman (cf. 2012: 114) and his short-lived Help! satire magazine (1960–5). Since he could not afford to pay for a whole magazine’s worth of content, he introduced “Help’s Public Gallery” to reduce the costs and give underground artists a chance to submit their work. So even Crumb went to New York to meet Kurtzman in person and solicit a job (cf. Gardner 2012: 115–6). It was the unique ←353 | 354→cultural dynamic of the late 1960s and 70s with the attendant promises of sex, drugs (LSD) and revolutionary, avant-garde art that side-tracked commercial illustrators and contributors to humour magazines to try their hand at personal obsessions for a change (cf. Witek 2004: paragraph 24).

Comics artists are usually in touch with previous and future generations of their craft. Spiegelman’s RAW magazine, which he edited together with his wife Françoise Mouly, saw the publication of MAUS in instalments and gave young artists like Charles Burns, Kim Deitch, Ben Katchor or Richard McGuire a forum to experiment with the medium. We can easily detect the origins of Burns’s Black Hole (2005) and McGuire’s Here (2014) in “Teen Plague” (Spiegelman & Mouly 1989: 5–25) and “Here” (Spiegelman & Mouly 1989: 669–74). Comics have a history (cf. Oppolzer 2016), often in serialisation, that is sometimes wilfully ignored to emphasise the artistic integrity and unity of their re-packaged identities as ‘graphic novels’. Therefore, I agree with Witek “that the brilliance of Art Spiegelman’s Maus stems not from the artist’s transcendence of the comics medium but from a deep understanding of comics traditions and conventions and a fearless reimagining of the medium’s possibilities” (2004: paragraph 40).

Spiegelman, in turn, served as a model for many contemporary auto(bio)-graphers in the medium. This is little surprising as he won a Pulitzer Prize Special Award for his work, received global recognition and demonstrated how a ‘lowly’ medium would allow for a complex and serious topic to be portrayed in both an engaging and dignified way. Generally speaking, the 1980s demonstrated a heightened awareness of the medium’s potential that came from within the industry/sub-culture and manifested both in production (e.g. MAUS, Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’s Watchmen) and in terms of theory. Instead of quoting Spiegelman or Eisner, I turn to Allen Moore, who penned a manual in 1985, entitled Writing for Comics, which was republished in 2007. Therein he states the following: “Comics have a capacity for effect that they haven’t begun to take advantage of, and are held back by narrow and increasingly obsolete notions of what constitutes a comic story. In order for comics to move forward as a medium, these notions must change” (2007: 6). Thirty years later we are blessed with a wide range of texts that have turned this promise into a reality, but the history of comics reaches back for over one and a half centuries, which is sometimes forgotten when exclusively looking at graphic novels.

Since I introduced Harvey Pekar’s American Splendor in the previous part, there is no need to revisit it here at length. However, a history of autographics would be incomplete without him. While graphic novelists like Alison Bechdel or Marjane Satrapi are always compared to Spiegelman – in the eyes of many the shining beacon of comics auto/biographers – Pekar focused on slice-of-life ←354 | 355→narratives that paved the way for John Porcellino’s King-Kat Comics (cf. 2005; 2007), James Kochalka’s American Elf (cf. e.g. 2012) and countless other diary and web comic strips afterwards. In his history of autographics, entitled “First-Person Graphic, 1959–2010”, Gardner acknowledges Pekar’s central role, who became active as an auto/biographer when he met Crumb in Cleveland in 1972 and the two decided to collaborate on some stories. While the first issue of American Splendor (1976) still tried to propagate a macho attitude and foregrounded sexual encounters (e.g. “101 Ways To Pick Up Girls …”; “How I Spent My Summer Vacation: 1972”; “Love Story”), this quickly was replaced by “the daily grind of working-class life in middle America” (Gardner 2012: 135). Thus, Pekar established a “tradition of the quotidian” (2012: 137) that turned the ephemera or qualia of daily life into the very substance of autobiographical writing/drawing.

Charles Hatfield’s monograph Alternative Comics (2005) carries a genre label as its title that he retrospectively applies to the ‘art comics’ of the 1980s and 90s. These terminological attempts to emphasise continuity within the medium have all been superseded by the marketing term ‘graphic novel’. Hatfield specifically lists “Spiegelman, Harvey Pekar, Gilbert Hernandez, Jaime Hernandez, Lynda Barry, Chester Brown, Dan Clowes, Joe Sacco, and Chris Ware” (2005: xv) as the main representatives. Quite a few names are missing (e.g. Seth) and there are no British artists included (e.g. Al Davidson, Eddie Campbell). What is interesting about this group is their ambivalent relationship to graphic novels as they all started out with the serialised format, even Joe Sacco (Yahoo 1–6). While their work has been reprinted as graphic novels, most of it first appeared piecemeal in various forms. Lynda Barry’s One! Hundred! Demons! (2002), first serialised on, has become one of the most quoted and discussed autobiographical texts. On the copyright page and under the table of contents she uses the term “autobifictionalography” (Barry 2002: n. p.) to stress the problem with authenticity in autographics, and her introduction famously begins with: “Is it autobiography if parts of it are not true?/Is it fiction if parts of it are?” (Barry 2002: n. p.).

I discussed my problems with the term ‘graphic novel’ in the previous part, so I limit my observations to its impact on comics history. There have been a few attempts to isolate ‘graphic novels’ as a new art form, often by disentangling them from their artistic ties (cf. Baetens & Frey 2015; Hescher 2016), but that would be a misrepresentation of the medium’s history. As Joseph Witek demonstrates in his article on MAUS, similar attempts were made when the second part of the autobiography won the special Pulitzer Prize in 1992 (cf. 2004: paragraph 1). Despite the brevity of this overview, I have tried to establish that comics do not exist in a vacuum. I am aware of the necessity to occasionally isolate books for ←355 | 356→the classroom and use them for whatever purposes, but most of the competences that are supposed to be trained in school (e.g. visual literacy, critical media literacy, genre competence, a coordination of different perspectives) require a wider spectrum of texts and some awareness of their (intertextual) entanglements.

5.1.3 Autographical Challenges to Autobiographical Genre Theory

In their introduction to the special issue of Biography exclusively dedicated to autographics (31:1; Winter 2008), Whitlock and Poletti observe that “comics are at the leading edge in shaping the autographical turn in criticism to date” (2008: viii). Without context, this may sound like an exaggeration or a blatant case of self-promotion, but the previous three years had seen an unprecedented outpour of highly acclaimed autobiographical comics, such as Fun Home in 2006 or Satrapi’s bestselling The Complete Persepolis (2007) in the wake of the film adaptation. The same can be said about dedicated comics scholarship, such as Charles Hatfield’s Alternative Comics (2005), Rocco Versaci’s Comics as Literature (2007), or Hillary Chute and Marianne DeKoven’s guest-edited issue of Modern Fiction Studies on graphic narrative (52:4; Winter 2006), which contained some excellent work on autographics. Whitlock’s essay (cf. 2006: 965–79) introduced the term ‘autographics’, Chute’s interview with Alison Bechdel uncovered a lot of details concerning the production of Fun Home and two essays highlighted the works of Lynda Barry/Marjane Satrapi and Art Spiegelman. What all of these texts have in common is the conviction that autobiographical comics are different. In “Multimodal Constructions of the Self” Dale Jacobs raises six key questions for the study of autographics that all centre on the impact of multimodality on an established prose genre (cf. 2008: 60). He even references the New London Group’s essay on multiliteracies (cf. 2008: 64; Cazden et al. 1996) as a general framework, but this provides only the broadest possible form of orientation: “the other design elements are just as important as the linguistic” (Jacobs 2008: 64). Comics as a medium is a very specific configuration of modes and codes with a long history that requires as much “comics literacy”, as Carola Hecke correctly observes (2011: 659), as the broader frames of visual literacy or multiliteracies. While all narrative media use foregrounding as an essential strategy, cartooning and mise-en-page are unique ways of achieving such effects in comics. Jacobs’s title suggests that even that is not enough, as autobiography as a genre interacts with the medium in unique ways. Therefore, he is interested in “how representations of self and issues of autobiographical meaning-making are constituted in autobiographical comics” (2008: 64). Before we explore Jacob’s characteristics in greater detail, we have to look at the broader claims first to get ←356 | 357→a sense of why artists working in the medium can be said to produce different auto/biographies.

One major argument has already been introduced, which is that the roots of autographics can be traced back to underground comix, which established a new standard of experimentation, irreverence, subversion, tragicomedy, exaggeration and parody (cf. Whitlock & Poletti 2008: ix). By isolating MAUS, Fun Home or Persepolis as graphic-novel masterpieces without a past, critics are prone to underestimate the impact of earlier models. Whitlock and Poletti, for example, point out that readers should not forget about “the epitexts and peritexts that carry the traces of complex textual histories” (2008: x). Like all framing devices, paratexts of this kind point outwards to intertexts, precursors and specific communities, but also inwards, guiding readers through genre labels, endorsements by other artists, cover design, or length – just to name a few factors. Looking at the peritexts of graphic-novel memoirs, it is interesting to see how the artists themselves credit and endorse each other, while the marketing departments of the big publishing houses prefer to see the enthusiastic review of The New York Times on the back cover. In Craig Thompson’s case, several artists are credited in the ‘acknowledgements section’ of Blankets (cf. 2007: 588), some of which return the favour and praise the book on the front flap (Jules Feiffer, Neil Gaiman, Brian Michael Bendis), while the back cover is dominated by review snippets from TIME magazine, The New York Times Book Review, Publishers Weekly and Entertainment Weekly. This is a clear indication that there are two different audiences out there, which necessitates two sets of endorsements.

The second characteristic of autographics is related to Lejeune’s autobiographical pact and to what extent readers can trust the auto/biographer that author, narrator and protagonist are indeed the same person. Gardner argues that the constant repetition of the magical word ‘I’ in prose memoirs helps to maintain the illusion of perfect consistency (cf. 2012: 131), which turns this pronoun both into a narrative anchor and the ultimate blend in autobiographical writing. It is a strong reassurance that the vastly different experiences of all those younger selves can be claimed by a single autobiographical subject. Prose memoirs often start with an excess of ‘I’s and ‘my’s to make readers forget how bold some of these claims are. Frank McCourt, for example, begins Angela’s Ashes in the following way:

My father and mother should have stayed in New York where they met and married and where I was born. Instead, they returned to Ireland when I was four, my brother, Malachy, three, the twins, Oliver and Eugene, barely one, and my sister, Margaret, dead and gone. When I look back on my childhood I wonder how I survived at all. (McCourt 1999: 9; my emphasis)

←357 | 358→

There are at least four ‘I’s in this short passage: the narrator, the baby at birth, the four-year-old boy, and the child Frank. In the last line we have two ‘I’s: the 66-year-old narrator (taking McCourt’s actual age at the time of publication as an indication, which is speculative) and the child Frank, who could be any age from a few days to twelve years. The close proximity between the two ‘I’s naturalises identity construction, as readers are likely to take the repetition of the same pronoun as referring to the same person. Despite the fact that we cannot determine how old the two ‘I’s really are – a newly retired man and a young child – at least we can be sure that it was not McCourt, the narrator, who survived childhood, but Frank. McCourt seems genuinely surprised how ‘he’ – the boy – managed to survive at all, considering that his – the narrator’s – childhood was a constant health hazard.

I started calling the narrator ‘McCourt’ at the end of the previous paragraph, which should alarm readers – considering what I have already said and what is still to come. However, most readers will not even notice this conflation of (implied) author and narrator, as the appeal of the genre is largely built on this confusion in the first place. Readers want to learn more about the real person, whose name and photo are on the cover. If we ignore the ‘implied author’ for a moment, to keep it nice and simple, we still have to decide whom the narrator means when he says “When I look back …”. Does the ‘I’ always see the same things when the auto/biographer probes his memory? Did McCourt understand his childhood in exactly the same way as a teenager, young man, middle-aged teacher and retired auto/biographer? The use of present tense seems to suggest that. Would it be more honest to say “When I looked back at my childhood in preparation for this book “? Since McCourt died in 2009, the sentence cannot be literally true for the author at present, but probably was at the time of writing, which returns us to the question of the implied author, whom I have called ‘auto/biographer’ throughout. If we accept him as another ‘I’ in this game of identities, our count goes up to six and reaches a nice balance between three childhood and three adult ‘I’s that we can discern in these three sentences. However, this narratological complication and multiplication of identities do not bother readers at all, as they effortlessly blend the adults into a narrating I and the children into an experiencing I and gradually all of them into a single ‘I’, as soon as they understand who Frank McCourt ‘really’ is, which is the point of reading autobiographies in the first place. Admittedly, this last sentence has an ironic undertone, but it illustrates an important fact: even the most basic distinctions are not clear at all. This is neither the writer’s nor the readers’ fault. The former cannot be blamed for the fact that our grammar does not distinguish between diachronically different identities of the same individual. The latter cannot be blamed ←358 | 359→for the ease of reading, when they effortlessly blend this montage of autobiographical facts into a tentative meaning. If anyone is to blame, it is McCourt’s parents and their horrible Irishness. This is the next thing readers should be wary of: auto/biographers are always biographers, who present their family, relatives and friends from one point of view and in accordance with the chosen themes of the narratives.

Since emotional truths are central to the study of autobiography, the question arises whose feelings are presented in these first few lines. The narrator says that his sister Margaret was “dead and gone”, which is odd, as his twin brothers Oliver and Eugene also died as children. Here, they are still alive and return to Ireland with the four-year-old Frank after having lost their sister Margaret only recently. The experience of a four-year-old boy at the death of his baby sister has to be different from the narrator’s retrospective acknowledgement of the fact. When the narrator says “my sister”, this is factually true in the sense of genealogy and family trees, but raises questions in every other respect. To what extent can the narrator reclaim her and the loss of her life forty years after the fact? Or maybe “my sister” refers back to the ‘I’ in “when I was four” and we have a case of internal focalisation from young Frank’s point of view or, alternatively, it includes all the boys’ reactions. I am still convinced that the three sentences above are easy to understand and that they establish a certain stance of the auto/biographer towards his own life. They may pose a challenge to narratological analysis all the same.

To return to the initial argument: in prose memoirs personal pronouns obscure the heterogeneity of identities and experiences by facilitating blending. To get a different perspective on this matter, let us consider this extract:

I’m in a playground on Classon Avenue in Brooklyn with my brother, Malachy. He’s two, I’m three. We’re on the seesaw.

Up, down, up, down.

Malachy goes up.

I get off.

Malachy goes down. Seesaw hits the ground. He screams. His hand is on his mouth and there’s blood.

Oh, God. Blood is bad. My mother will kill me. (McCourt 1999: 19)

Here the narrator playfully pretends to be three again, a case of aesthetic projection. Stylistically, this passage draws attention to itself and represents a case of strategic foregrounding. While readers blindly accepted the beginning of the memoir as a natural way of talking about oneself, McCourt’s James Joyce routine startles them and highlights the presence of very different ‘I’s in the narrative. As much as the beginning of the chapter foregrounds the narrator ←359 | 360→as a focaliser, here it is the three-year-old Frankie. However, what exactly did McCourt remember? Apart from the street name, which provides the illusion of context, this is a fairly generic children-at-the-playground-script. Children get hurt all the time, as their siblings cannot objectively judge the consequences of their actions. They know that they are going to be blamed anyway and that mothers always overreact – according to the generic script. So what does this scene mean? Does it add flavour? Should readers feel sorry for the boy? Is it an illustration of his mother’s failure to care for them? Does it add to Frankie’s sense of guilt for all that is happening around him? Who is the experiencing I here? Or in other words: why is the scene important to the narrator? Or should I say auto/biographer? The sustained presence of internal focalisation may obscure the fact that it is still the narrator/auto/biographer who believes that its inclusion reveals something essential about the way he interprets and feels about what happened to him as a child. Despite this seemingly clear-cut case of internal focalisation, there are two related points I would like to raise: there may be more layering of focalisation in prose auto/biography than is usually acknowledged and Barbara Dancygier’s concept of viewpoint compression is relevant here. The question is not so much how this scene works technically, but how to relate the experiences to the various selves in the narrative.

In comics, the narrating and the experiencing selves are not only encoded differently – verbally and visually – but also spatially segregated in many cases in the form of captions and drawings. In addition, the younger selves are usually cartoons, whose bodies often serve the expression of emotional states rather than the authentic depiction of physiognomy. This is a point that Michael Chaney addresses in his introduction to Graphic Subjects: “When the ‘I’ of autobiography is explicitly stylized as a kind of cartoon, the result is a brazen departure from the ‘seemingly substantial’ effects of realism that traditional autobiographies presume” (2011: 7). There are, in short, several reasons why comics foreground the fragmentation of the autobiographical self and are less likely to be blamed for a violation of veracity (cf. Jacobs 2008: 77). The scene in the playground above establishes the three-year-old Frankie as a distinct character and identity, which has been strategically separated from the domineering ‘I’ of the narrator. This move is rather unusual, precisely because of its artificiality, and McCourt often uses it for comic relief, e.g. when Frankie, the child, describes heaven as the place “where they have plenty of fish and chips and toffee and no aunts to bother you” (1999: 110). In comics, the split of the autobiographical self into several different characters and ‘voices’ is unavoidable: “the comics form not only invites the consideration of the fragmented and discontinuous nature of self, but demands we take note of it” (Jacobs 2008: 78–80). This leads Gardner to the following ←360 | 361→clarification of how autographics relates to testimony, eye-witness report and confession:

The comics form necessarily and inevitably calls attention through its formal properties to its limitations as juridical evidence – to the compressions and gaps of its narrative (represented graphically by the gutterspace between the panels) and to the iconic distillations of its art. The kinds of truth claims that are fought over in the courts of law and public opinion with text-based autobiography are never exactly at issue in graphic autobiography. The losses and glosses of memory and subjectivity are foregrounded in graphic memoir in a way they never can be in traditional autobiography. (2008: 6; see also 12; Versaci 2007: 6, 102)

Implicitly, this statement addresses the centrality, or rather the illusion of voice in prose auto/biography. The concept of graphiation suggests that the personality and character of an artist are manifest in his or her unique visual style, so that the handwriting of the creator communicates directly to the ‘reader’. As a cartoonist, Craig Thompson seems to be particularly susceptible to this type of intimate self-revelation. He has Craig respond to Raina’s handwriting as an intense form of flirtation. While he dismisses parts of the content of the box he receives from Raina as “high school nothings” (2007: 145), it is her style that speaks to him: “Most revealing was her handwriting – including the indentions traced on each page from the page above./(She must have been pressing her pen hard.)/An alluring line looped her ‘I’s./Her ‘f’s were ‘I’s that instead of linking with the next letter, fell” (2007: 146). This sets up an intriguing comparison between means of self-expression in the two codes that comics as a medium relies on. For prose autobiography, Smith and Watson use the term ‘voice’ to capture all those aspects of language that reveal the personality of the writer:

When we read autobiographical texts, they often seem to be “speaking” to us. We “hear” a narrative voice distinctive in its emphasis and tone, its rhythms and syntax, its lexicon and affect. […] Although life writing is published as words on a page, readers experience those words as the narrator talking to them, to persuade or demand, to confess or confide, to mourn or celebrate. […] In those “sounds” we have an impression of a subject’s interiority, its intimacy and rhythm of self-reflexivity. Voice as an attribute of the narrating “I,” then, is a metaphor for the reader’s felt experience of the narrator’s personhood, and a marker of the relationship between a narrating “I” and his or her history. […] In life writing, as opposed to the novel, readers may uncritically ascribe the voice of the narrative to the author. (2010: 79)

From daily practice alone, we are much more attuned to the interpretation of ‘voices’ than of personal drawing styles or handwriting, which are gone from daily communication, together with handwritten letters. In prose autobiography, the ‘voice’ of the narrator is all there is, so that a consistent tone together with ←361 | 362→the intimate setting and the overall confidential nature of the content can produce the illusion of a ‘real’ person honestly ‘talking’ about his or her life. Taking Fludernik’s ‘natural’ narratology (cf. 2005) as a point of comparison, the voice of the auto/biographical narrator is closer to the model of natural speech than in most other literary genres. This may facilitate the ‘naturalisation’ of words on a page as if they provided a shared intimacy with a human being who is willing to grant readers access to the backstage areas of a life in performance.

However, as with graphiation/style in comics, ‘voice’ may explicitly serve a narrative purpose in a particular scene, such as young Frankie’s stream of consciousness at the playground. If we associate verbal styles with the voices of particular characters, it may be fruitful to look at the range or “ensemble of voices” (Smith & Watson 2010: 80) and how they express different points of view through style. In the way that readers take a stance towards the narrative in Rosenblatt’s sense, so the writer may choose a particular approach, which is evident in Frank McCourt’s persistent use of irony or even sarcasm. In a much broader sense, we may find quotations from literature, TV shows, song lyrics or other cultural products that either comment on life in general, the life narrative of the auto/biographer or the younger selves at specific points in time, or directly influence the course of events. When John Lewis hears Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. speak on the radio for the first time (cf. Lewis, Aydin & Powell 2013: 55–6), it changes his life in the sense of how to have and be a voice that is relevant in the here and now. In this sense, some auto/biographical texts could also be seen as the history of finding a voice or “coming to voice” (Smith & Watson 2010: 84; see also El Refaie 2012: 15), which is especially important for groups that are underrepresented and are not usually heard. One interesting aspect of Blankets is that Craig does not talk much and feels awkward expressing himself in words. Especially in the first chapter, we find many adults talking at him as the voices of authority that represent specific discourses. He ultimately finds his own ‘voice’ in drawing. Other comics auto/biographers have a very distinct voice from the very beginning, such as Harvey Pekar or Alison Bechdel, that unifies the narrative to a large extent.

Having said that, style is usually one important element of a complex interplay of codes and layers of focalisation. Gardner argues that the inability to establish something like Smith and Watson’s ‘voice’ in autographics may be a motivation to turn to the medium in the first place:

The split between autographer and subject is etched on every page, the handcrafted nature of the images and the “autobifictional” (to borrow the term from Lynda Barry) nature of the narrative is undeniable. It is important that this split is not a casualty ←362 | 363→or regrettable cost of the autobiographer’s chosen form, but is instead precisely what motivates the drive to tell the self in comics form. (2012: 131)

The fragmented page, the layering of temporalities, identities, voices and styles (cf. Chute 2010: 5), the ‘bifictionality’ of prose and images are all consequences of some auto/biographers’ strategy of laying out voices, perspectives, remediated photos and other memorabilia, doubts and speculations for the readers to study individually, but then to blend them into a narrative. Since these artists cannot exclusively rely on the magical power of the pronoun ‘I’ to provide unity across heterogeneous matter, comics resemble reader-response criticism’s idea of the score or blueprint much more closely. They deliver building blocks, but not the finished building. Despite their status as works, as objects that have been completed, they foreground the autobiographical act as a life in the making. This is reinforced by the necessity of a dual mode of reading, going back and forth between a view of the whole page and the single panels in linear progression, which makes reading a comic recursive (cf. Chute 2010: 8). Hillary Chute argues that comics as a medium, despite its widespread use for escapist adventure fiction, offers “a representational mode capable of taking up complex political and historical issues with an explicit, formal degree of self-awareness” (2010: 9). As in a police procedural, comics put up leads on the board and recruit readers as fellow detectives to scrutinise the evidence alongside the artists. Where this conceptual metaphor ceases to be helpful is the expectation of a neat resolution for the case. Chute describes this formal aspect of comics in the context of Fun Home:

At the level of form Fun Home stages its own central preoccupation with the nature of revisiting the past, embodying through its word and image composition the fissures and contradictions that are the focus of its plotline. In its comics form we see the materialization of epistemological problems. The book does not seek to preserve the past as it was, as its archival obsession might suggest, but rather to circulate ideas about the past with gaps fully intact. (2010: 180; see also 181–2)

The deliberate arrangement of memories and memorabilia as a spatial layout can be compared to Jennifer A. González’s concept of ‘autotopography’ (cf. 1995; Smith & Watson 2010: 44–5). González discusses the role of physical objects, such as souvenirs, trophies, photos, memorabilia, mementos or gifts, as material anchors (cf. Fauconnier & Turner 2003: 195–216; Hutchins 2005), especially the way they can help to retrieve memories and narrate lives: “These personal objects can be seen to form a syntagmatic array of physical signs in a spatial representation of identity – what I call an autotopography” (González 1995: 133). She compares these objects to physical extensions of the body, such as clothes, ←363 | 364→tools or glasses: “Used initially as prostheses (to cover and protect, to extend and support the body), such objects often become, after years of use, integrated so inextricably with one’s psychic body that they cannot be replaced or removed without a subversion of the physical body itself. The same holds true for objects that function as prostheses of the mind” (1995: 133). Objects of this type cease to be mere tools and become essential parts of our interactions with the world: “It is only because of our own bodily existence, and our relation to the materiality of this body that we are able to become emotionally invested in external objects that represent an important aspect of identity” (1995: 141). They are capable of evoking experiences and memories through metonymic links (cf. 1995: 134), which – in turn – feed into the larger narrative that is suggested by their spatial arrangement. González treats these layouts as autobiographical texts: “Whether consciously or unconsciously, the creation of an autotopography is, in each case, a form of self-representation. Just as a written autobiography is a series of narrated events, fantasies, and identifications, so too an autotopography forms a spatial representation of important relations, emotional ties, and past events” (1995: 134). For people who have been severed from their cultural roots this can become a vital link to the past and their heritage:

… the autotopographies of immigrants, exiles, and minorities often form strong testimony, at the local or even personal level, of an ambivalent representation of identity in crisis. Objects that symbolically or indexically represent a “homeland,” whether actual or ideological, in this case serve to support a communal notion of “self.” Memories are made manifest in a material form. They obey the logic of decay but also are carefully preserved and located in a semiotic system of placement and display. In this context one could say that memories take place in a way that history does not. (1995: 138)

This creates an interesting case of co-dependence between people’s minds, bodies, memories, life narratives and personal objects. While the things and their arrangement are essential prostheses to call forth autobiographical narratives, they are equally dependent on the story and its teller to gain importance beyond their worn and tattered materiality. Without that care, they are just debris that washes up at flea markets. Accordingly, people tend to live in ‘museums’ of their own making. Based on Susan Stewart’s book On Longing (1984) González describes the homes of marginalised cultures in West Virginia in the following terms:

The interiors of the houses […] are crowded with signs of the past. Rooms are filled to overflowing with “whatnots,” and every inch of the walls is covered with nostalgic pictures of the dead and souvenirs of lost moments. The inhabitants seek a continuity in life by always piecing together what is always falling apart. Women piece together quilts from scraps of clothing, and in every scrap exists a memory and so a story. (1995: 138)

←364 | 365→

Humans depend on the narratives they weave between themselves and their objects for comfort and stability. These are important entanglements and life links, next to daily routines and physical interactions with a familiar environment. Since the mind reaches outward, its sphere of operation includes lived-in and social spaces. Humans constantly arrange physical objects to suit their sense of order and reflect their mental processes. According to the same logic autotopographies collect ‘pieces of evidence’, but these objects are then artfully arranged and deliberately framed: “Autobiography thus becomes an act of collection, arrangement, and authentication of objects as much as the construction of narrative that accompanies these activities. In this case, there is an equally strong demand upon an object to both provide historical ‘proof’ of a particular occurrence and to allow for an imaginary development of narrative” (1995: 142). Thus, the transaction between human minds and autotopographies opens up a space in which human creativity wins over fragmentation and the deterioration of mind and matter:

… an autotopography is a combination of “fictional” memory and “actual” history embedded in a material object. But more important, it is the representation of an identity that is also between fiction and history and between past and present that makes the autotopography a powerful tool of ‘evidence’ – linking time, space, and event in a material manifestation of “self.” (1995: 147)

It should not surprise, then, that artists find this spectrum of readings – from meaningless junk to tightly arranged auto/biographical texts – and the creative potential of autotopographies for the exploration of subjectivity inspirational.

Mieke Bal offers a fascinating reading of Louise Bourgeois’s installation Spider, which transforms the auto/biographical text into a literal space that can be physically explored (cf. 2002). Returning to comics for a moment, the spatial arrangement of panels on the page – the medium’s architectural dimension – resembles this idea of autotopography to a certain extent. This becomes apparent when Bal defines ‘exteriorisation’ as a key feature of installation art: “Unlike traditional psychoanalytical metaphors of depth, this is instead an exteriorization, for which the term ‘autotopography’ is more suitable than ‘autobiography.’ This movement outwards makes the subject’s thought yield available to the work’s viewers” (2002: 187). This literalisation of mind-maps, of showing cognitive links through the contiguity of images on the page, is evident in most graphic memoirs and I have already demonstrated how this works in Blankets. Bal’s observation can also be brought in line with Hatfield’s claim that “cartooning ostensibly works from the outside in” (2005: 115), by which he means that the inner lives of characters have to be externalised and dramatised, so that readers ←365 | 366→can draw conclusions about the complexities of a person’s inner life through the metaphoric devices of comics. Bal distinguishes between autobiography and autotopography, but it could be argued that comics meld the two together. As in Dewey’s example of the cathedral (cf. 2005: 229) two ways of reading are possible: we can take in first impressions all at once and/or follow a more linear path in our experience and reading of the intricate details. It makes sense to understand the Catholic cathedral or other places of worship, such as churches and temples, as autotopographies of these religions. The display of ‘personal objects’ from the Church’s history, from artworks to relics, embedded in meaningful spatial arrangements may make more sense from this point of view.

Blankets contains an interesting example of literal autotopography in the form of Raina’s quilt that becomes a metaphor for how comics can be read in a similar way. Using the medium of fabrics, she ‘inscribes’ Craig into her life by combining textures that have a personal meaning – such as her “spit-stained baby blanket” (Thompson 2007: 183 → Fig. 19) with fabrics that remind her of Craig. By stitching them together, she materialises and externalises in the form of art what only exists as a growing awareness in her mind – that these patterns are all related. Since she presents it as a gift to him, it becomes a material anchor of their relationship and a narrative anchor in the production of the auto/biography. For Thompson the object has a metonymic relation to past events (cf. Bal 2002: 192): it works like a key that grants access to past memories. Through the quilt Thompson discovers a similarity to his own art as a comics creator and auto/biographer (cf. 2007: 565–7; Stevens 2010: paragraph 52). He includes a blend in which Raina ‘walks him through’ her memories and hopes for the future in the form of a topographical exploration of the quilt. Thus, Raina literally and figuratively shares her memories with him. The act of stitching such patches together into a meaningful text that bridges past and present as a basis for a potential (shared) future clearly resembles autobiographical projects in general. The topographical logic of contiguity that breaks with linear patterns (cf. Bal 2002: 190) is typical of Raina’s quilt, autotopography and graphic memoir, where weaving/braiding constitutes a narrative logic that can be more important than a chronological arrangement of events.

This explains Pierre Fresnault-Deruelle’s fascination with ‘the tabular’ (cf. 2014) and Thierry Groensteen’s emphasis on ‘iconic solidarity’ (cf. 2007: 17–20) and ‘braiding’ (cf. 2007: 145–9, 158). Despite the absence of physical objects, which have to be remediated in autographics to allow for their inclusion, the topography of the double page spread allows for spatial arrangements and the contiguity of seemingly unrelated matter that is similar to material autotopographies, but more difficult to achieve in prose. Together with embodiment/dramatisation, ←366 | 367→ ←367 | 368→this represents a second important narrative resource in comics and autographics in particular, next to the more prose-related notions of emplotment and verbal narration.

In the classroom, this can have a number of practical consequences for autobiographical work in general and approaches to autographics in particular. While it is unlikely that all students can draw autobiographical comic strips that live up to their own expectations, they can work with material objects – such as photographs or personal things – and create autotopographies in the form of (digital) collages or ‘museums in a shoebox’ (cf. Zack 1995: 115–9). The same applies to the design of a personal tattoo, a (family) coat of arms, or of real or simulated social media profiles, which present multimodal self-representations in the form of a spatial arrangement. As learner texts, they can serve as material anchors for oral storytelling and life narratives (cf. Georgakopoulou 2007; Bamberg 2007), but also as mysteries for other students who attempt to guess what these arrangements mean. This can be extended to biographical work, in the most primitive form based on interviews in class and involving the presentation of another student, which automatically raises awareness of imperfections in human communication and the necessity of interpretation.

These activities contribute to and raise awareness of a number of important things that have been addressed throughout this study: that auto/biographical texts require selection, foregrounding and active construction; that modality, mediality and materiality play a central role by imposing limitations, but also allowing for unique forms of self-expression; that these narratives always depend on the translation and externalisation of inner thoughts, feelings and convictions; that auto/biographies do not tell ‘the truth’, but rely on a certain perspective – literally and figuratively, but also on foregrounding to convey ‘a truth’ etc. This is why I find the contributions in Autobiographies: Presenting the Self (cf. Hallet 2015a) so helpful, as they link autobiographical work to critical media literacy, but they also foreground the close ties between memories and personal objects.

5.2 Life Writing & Blending

5.2.1 The Autobiographical Act as Blending

In his essay “Narrative and Self-Concept” (1991) Donald Polkinghorne uses Paul Ricoeur’s ‘emplotment’ as a starting point to explore the ways people make sense of their lives. As a psychologist he was directly confronted with his patients’ problems to integrate troubling or even traumatic episodes into their self-concepts (cf. 1991: 136). Talking about them and assigning them a meaningful ←368 | 369→place in one’s personal (hi)story can mark a significant step in regaining control over what seem to be random acts of cruelty. Like all narrative psychologists, Polkinghorne embraces the restorative power of storytelling: “Narrative is the cognitive process that gives meaning to temporal events by identifying them as parts of a plot” (1991: 136). This raises the question where the plots come from.

According to George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, the conceptual metaphor life is a story is “rooted deep in our culture. It is assumed that everyone’s life is structured like a story, and the entire biographical and autobiographical tradition is based on this assumption” (2003: 172). They use the word ‘assumption’ wisely, as the source domain (story) only highlights certain aspects of the target domain (life) and obscures others. ‘Story’ makes us think of protagonists and antagonists, turning points, character development, the restoration of equilibrium and a happy ending – just to name a few potential associations. Zoltán Kövecses discusses the life is a journey metaphor as a potential alternative (cf. 2010: 4, 71), which turns the protagonist into a traveller or even adventurer, maybe on a quest, who has a clear goal or destination in mind which, despite detours and obstacles, he or she intends to reach. Metaphors help to reduce the complexity of actual circumstances, for “thinking about the abstract concept of life is facilitated by the more concrete concept of journey” (2010: 4). Yet, if we believe that “All the world’s a stage,/And all the men and women merely players” (Shakespeare, As You Like It 2.7.140–1), then we conceive of people’s lives again in very different terms (cf. Kövecses 2010: 85). Lakoff and Johnson observe that, “when we construct life stories, we leave out many extremely important experiences for the sake of finding coherence” (2003: 175), which, in turn, is determined by the metaphor we choose. Stanley argues that “the use of tropes is important in the structuring and impact of auto/biography” and a single “metaphor can drive an entire factual narrative” (1992: 129). Eakin goes one step further and proposes that “autobiography not only delivers metaphors of self, it is a metaphor of self” (2008: 78; see also 121). If we accept life is a story or life is a journey as a meaningful way to make sense of one’s experiences, then all autobiographical narratives work according to the same logic: the configurations of signs and symbols are a blueprint that scaffolds the evocation of a human life, but cannot be that life itself. Emplotment, narration, embodiment/dramatisation, layout/tabularisation, iconic solidarity and metaphors are all important strategies of foregrounding in autographics that reduce the complexity of real life and facilitate blending and viewpoint compression. Metaphors can operate on all levels of autobiographical writing/drawing, from the minute details of specific events to the entire structure of the narrative, which becomes evident in the conceptual metaphors discussed above. They also dominate myths of all kinds ←369 | 370→(cf. Lakoff & Johnson 2003: 185–6), which are highly metaphorical stories that “provide ways of comprehending experience” (2003: 185) by tying human lives to the major conceptual metaphors of a culture. They seem inherently objective and true, as they directly mirror cultural ways of thinking. This suggests that basic plots and ways of understanding are provided by our social environments.

In “Life as Narrative” Jerome Bruner takes a clear position on the spectrum between cultural determinism and free forms of self-expression: “The heart of my argument is this: eventually the culturally shaped cognitive and linguistic processes that guide the self-telling of life narratives achieve the power to structure perceptual experience, to organize memory, to segment and purpose-build the very ‘events’ of a life. In the end, we become the autobiographical narratives by which we ‘tell about’ our lives” (2004: 694). Despite Polkinghorne’s approval of plotting and temporal structuring, he treats the process of autobiographical reasoning like any type of reading – as a dialogue: “emplotment is not the imposition of a ready-made plot structure on an independent set of events; instead, it is a dialectical process that takes place between the events themselves and a theme that discloses their significance and allows them to be grasped together as parts of one story” (1991: 142). Under the influence of gestalt psychology (cf. 1991: 136–7) he acknowledges that there are other ways to conceive of one’s life than linear progression: “Although emplotment can consist of a single thread that serves to draw elements together, it often consists of multiple threads of subplots woven together into a complex and layered whole” (1991: 141). This process of synthesis breaks with a simplistic temporal sequence and organises experiences according to themes and/or feelings. Polkinghorne also observes that, if readers replace the narrative pattern in the generic space of their cognitive network, they get a different blend based on the same input spaces: “More than one plot can provide a meaningful constellation and integration for the same set of events, and different plot organisations change the meaning of the individual events as their roles are reinterpreted according to their functions in a particular plot” (1991: 142). Applying this logic to auto/biography he comes to the following conclusion: “Plot lines used in the construction of self-narratives are not usually created from scratch. Most often they are adaptations of plots from the literary and oral stories produced by one’s culture” (1991: 147). The concept of ‘adaptation’ that Polkinghorne ascribes to autobiographical reasoning acknowledges the appropriation of existing patterns, but it also stresses a certain amount of creative freedom and independent thinking.

The introduction of new structures to reconfigure a reading of one’s own life is the ultimate aim of any therapy based on self-narration: “Therapists working with clients as they reconstruct their self-concept through ‘re-emplotment’ must ←370 | 371→understand the operation and power of narrative configuration in the creation of stories of self-identification” (1991: 136). Based on a strictly narratological understanding of ‘plot’, the meaning of a narrative would be “an interpretation of the causal relations among a chronologically ordered sequence of events” (Kafalenos 2006: 25). I would argue that this applies to certain types of narratives at best and auto/biography may not be one of them. The point of a cancer memoir is not to find causal relations between events in a temporal sequence. That may be the story the doctors are interested in, e.g. how chemotherapy halts the cancerous growth, but then turns out to be ineffective as metastases begin to develop in other organs etc. Cancer patients, however, have to make sense of their new situation. They review their entire lives and all their social relationships from the perspective of impending death, often as outsiders caught in a liminal sphere (e.g. hospitals). In such cases, autobiographical reasoning and writing is likely to deviate from established patterns.

Returning to Fauconnier and Turner’s vital relations (cf. 2003: 93–102, 312–5), time and cause-effect are obviously central to blending, but so are change, identity, space, part-whole, representation, role, (dis)analogy, property, similarity, category, intentionality and uniqueness. Maybe a few examples can help to clarify the limitations of the conceptual metaphor life is a story. The central challenge of autobiographical reasoning is to compress the identities of the younger selves into uniqueness in the blend. Fauconnier and Turner use auto/biography to explain what that means:

… identity is taken for granted as primitive, but it is a feat of the imagination, something the imagination must build or disassemble. We connect the mental spaces that have the baby, the child, the adolescent, and the adult with relations of personal identity, despite the manifest differences, and we relate these identity connections to other vital relations, of Change, Time, and Cause-Effect” (2003: 95).

For a more specific example of how analogy, intentionality and part-whole become compressed, we can turn to Liz Prince’s Tomboy. The book starts in medias res with a young Liz screaming blue murder, as she refuses to wear the pretty dress that she received from Grandma (cf. Prince 2014: 9–11). Then we are presented with an idealised self-portrait as a four-year-old with trousers, baseball cap, a blazer and sneakers (cf. 2014: 11/3). Finally, the narrator appears, labelled “Liz Prince, Tomboy, Age 31” (2014: 12), and shares her family photo album with the readers (cf. 2014: 13–14).

Looking at various pictures she observes: “The bulk of my dress-wearing took place before the age of two, when even if I had wanted to complain, I didn’t have the capacity to” (2014: 13/4) and explains two pages later: “Once I was old enough ←371 | 372→to object, dresses became a thing of the past” (2014: 15/1). A number of interesting things can be observed here: Prince reads a power struggle between herself and her parents over the appropriate dress code into different contexts and situations, represented by the photographs she includes as remediated drawings. This allows her to compress analogy (similar situations) and intentionality (a refusal to wear dresses) into uniqueness in the blend (tomboyish nature), which is expressed in the statements quoted above. Prince rejects, selects and blends experiences depending on how well they fit into her attempt to naturalise her quirky, tomboyish nature by finding evidence in the past for her retrospective reading. According to the logic of autotopography, she selects and arranges these photos in such a way that they provide both material anchors for and powerful evidence of the life narrative she has chosen to tell.

Page 14 (cf. 2014: 14) includes such an arrangement in the autographical text, for which Prince drew the photos as cartoon representations to make them stylistically blend in. However, this obscures their higher modality and powerful reality effect by bringing them in line with re-invented hand-drawn scenes from her past. Readers cannot tell any longer which is which. The three ‘photos’ are not arranged as equally important, as they overlap and foreground the one on top. The lowest in the stack shows young Liz crying ‘like a girl’. The next one depicts her as “the flower girl” at her aunt’s wedding and “[l];ooks okay in picture form” (2014: 14). The last is the most interesting, as it represents a clear progression towards tomboyish self-assertion and agency. Prince comments: “But the story my parents tell involves me removing the dress the minute the wedding ended, then dancing onstage at the reception in my footy pajamas” (2014: 14). Why does she not refer to the actual photo for evidence? Is the third picture just an illustration of the story she has heard from her parents? Does it matter? Prince ostentatiously announces on the title page that this is not an auto/biographical text in a traditional sense, but the story of how she has come to realise that she is a tomboy and has learned to identify as such.

In a defiant act of self-invention, throwing all pretence of verisimilitude over board, Prince shows her own birth and has the doctor say “CONGRATULATIONS! IT’S A GIRL!”, to which newly-born Liz replies in a thought balloon and with a disgruntled face: “That’s what you think” (2014: 13/1). Despite the fact that the narrative roughly follows a chronological order, the scenes are selected to invite a specific reading in terms of gender studies and role expectations. Time is a loose framework in the text that allows for a coming-of-age story that highlights challenges and obstacles to her self-determined lifestyle. What seems more pressing than a re-creation of what happened in the past is the discovery of vital relations between past and present and especially between the younger selves ←372 | 373→and the narrator. Prince’s direct address to the readers creates the impression of oral storytelling and an informal communicative act in the here and now. There is a narrative purpose that transcends a straightforward recount of Prince’s childhood and teenage years, which is even stronger in Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home, where the appropriation of her father’s life as an evolutionary first step in an alternative/queer family history, culminating in her own openly lesbian life-style, drives most of the narrative.

Referring to Marcel Proust’s Time Regained Daniel L. Schacter comments that a successful “synthesis of past and present […] heightens his [Proust’s] appreciation of his own identity” (1996: 28). Schacter’s adoption of Proust’s optical analogy leads him directly to a theory of autobiographical blending: “a feeling of remembering emerges from the comparison of two images: one in the present and one in the past. Just as visual perception of the three-dimensional world depends on combining information from the two eyes, perception in time – remembering – depends on combining information from the present and the past” (1996: 28). Memories are not simply retrieved and placed in a timeline, but they enter a dialogue with the present concerns of the auto/biographer. Therefore, Eakin argues that “memories are perceptions newly occurring in the present rather than images fixed and stored in the past and somehow mysteriously recalled to present consciousness” (1999: 19). In this sense, remembering is always a form of ‘re-membering’, allowing for a re-shaping of identity during auto/biographical work.

Before I address the important question of how autobiographical reasoning becomes a central issue during everyone’s teenage years and early adulthood, I want to comment on the Galen Strawson controversy. This academic dispute involved basic questions about the when, why and how of autobiographical work. In his article “Against Narrativity”, Strawson finds fault with narrative psychology’s endorsement of storytelling as a universal instrument of meaning-making, self-discovery and moral accountability. To understand his concerns, I quote from an article by Tilmann Habermas, which summarises this widespread doctrine:

I believe that it is not only a dearly held conviction of psychoanalysts, but also a fundamental belief of many educated people, which is deeply rooted in European and American intellectual and cultural tradition, that trying to understand yourself and your life is both morally required and good for yourself and others. (2011: 14)

Strawson opposes two related components of such claims: (1) the idea that we need a life story that rationalises all our actions and makes sense to our social circle as a complete and readily available narrative; and (2) that it is our ethical ←373 | 374→duty as citizens to be accountable in this way. Strawson’s counterargument, which introduces “Diachronics” and “Episodics” (2004: 431) as two basic, essentialist types of how humans experience their lives, is hard to defend, but he is adamant that the Episodics’ “happy-go lucky, see-what-comes-along lives are among the best there are, vivid, blessed, profound” (2004: 449). In a nutshell, Strawson finds the idea offensive that human beings have to verbalise and rationalise their lives all the time, not only regarding recent decisions, but across the entire lifespan: “The aspiration to explicit Narrative self-articulation is natural for some – for some, perhaps, it may even be helpful – but in others it is highly unnatural and ruinous” (2004: 447).

For obvious reasons, this triggered a substantial debate, which I do not want to reproduce and comment upon at this point. What seems important, however, are three distinctions that put these claims in perspective. First of all, narrative identity and self are not the same thing. When Smith and Watson argue that “identities are provisional” (2010: 38), or that they “are constructed” (2010: 39), they explicitly refer to the stories we tell about our lives. This becomes obvious when they add more characteristics: “They are in language. They are discursive. They are not essential – born, inherited, or natural” (2010: 39). Accordingly, we produce narrative identities in particular contexts for specific purposes (e.g. a job application), but these forms are selective in terms of what they reveal about our selves. In “Theoretical Foundations of Identity” Phillip L. Hammack makes a clear distinction between identity and self: “Identity is thus concerned with sameness and difference at the level of social categorization, group affiliation, and intergroup relations, as well as at the level of individual consciousness or subjectivity” (2015: 12). In contrast to that, self “deals chiefly with the interior world and one’s perception of it” (2015: 12). I find this distinction very helpful, as small children clearly have a self, despite the fact that they have not worked on their social/narrative identities yet.

To better understand this distinction between selves and narrative identities I turn to Ulric Neisser’s “Five Kinds of Self-Knowledge” (1988), where he tentatively distinguishes between five selves: the ecological self, the interpersonal self, the extended self, the private self, and the conceptual self (cf. 1988: 36; Eakin 1999: 22–5, 102; 2008: xii–xiii, 65–6). Narrative identity is a verbalisation of the conceptual self (cf. Eakin 2008: xiv), which is itself a rationalisation of the other four forms of self-knowledge. The first two, the ecological and interpersonal selves, provide a sense of being in the world and interacting with other living things. They are present and active from birth and “arise out of the immediacy of present experience, the encounter between the infant and the objects or persons of its physical environment” (Eakin 1999: 23). They correspond to ←374 | 375→core consciousness and core self in Antonio Damasio’s theory (cf. 2000: 168–94; Eakin 2008: 69–71) and represent the foundations of the enactivist approach to cognition. The self emerges through “ ‘bottom-up’ phenomena” (Eakin 1999: 30) and direct interaction with the environment:

Important as it is, optical flow is by no means the only determinant of the ecological self. The self is an embodied actor as well as an observer; it initiates movements, perceives their consequences, and takes pleasure in its own effectivity. […] Many theorists have noted the importance of agency in establishing a sense of self. I can cause changes in the immediately perceptible environment, and those objects whose movements and changes I can inevitably and consistently control are parts of me. This kind of self-perception is precisely time-dependent and richly intermodal. I can see and feel what I do … (Neisser 1988: 39)

Despite the fact that comics do not represent the world in a mimetic fashion, they do foreground the centrality of the embodied/ecological self. Through dramatisation, they also highlight intersubjectivity, the basis of the interpersonal self. Blankets contains a lot of non-verbal, embodied dialogue between characters that shows them in literal relation to each other. Eakin has a whole chapter on “Relational Selves, Relational Lives” (cf. 1999: 43–98) to counteract the myth of autonomy, with a focus on the self embedded in social networks at all times. He chooses MAUS as his prime example of intertwined lives (cf. 1999: 59–60, 86), which set a precedent for many relational comics auto/biographies to come. Susan Andersen and Serena Chen propose an interesting theory that conceptualises one’s interpersonal self as the foundation of all auto/biographical work. They argue “that the self is relational – or even entangled – with significant others and that this has implications for self-definition, self-evaluation, self-regulation, and, most broadly, for personality functioning, expressed in relation to others” (2002: 619).

Damasio conflates the next three selves into only one, the autobiographical self (2000: 174), but I find Neisser’s further distinctions very productive. All three are based on ‘extended consciousness’ that “goes beyond the here and now of core consciousness, both backward and forward” (2000: 195). The extended self is based on an awareness that we exist in time and have a history. Being able to store, retrieve and rely on episodic memories to make sense of present circumstances is the prerequisite for all ongoing social relations (cf. Neisser 1988: 48) and the starting point of autobiographical reasoning. Private selves are what most people consider to be their ‘true selves’, covering all the aspects of ‘who they really are inside’, such as hopes, dreams and fears. As Damasio emphasises, we reach out into the past and project into the future to explore how our self-image relates to where we come from and where we are going. The private ←375 | 376→self is based on the realisation that our experiences are not shared with everyone else, that there are parts of our personalities that are not (meant to be) public or that require extensive mediation and negotiation to become known to others. The conceptual self is the result of these private and intersubjective explorations and identity-formations: “the life story represents an evolving personal narrative concerned with the reconstructed past and anticipated future” (Hammack 2015: 21). People engage in “narrative identity development” (2015: 21), which, as the term ‘conceptual self’ reveals, is a theory of who we are, based on evidence, but also on conjecture. Above all, it is a ‘megablend’ of our experiences as different selves, which requires some creative effort when translating this tentative identity into a code. A life narrative, which is a partial narrativisation and explanation of the conceptual self, should not be confused with the life of that person, as it is created under specific circumstances and for a particular purpose and target group. Eakin argues that “there are many modes of self and self-experience […], more than any autobiography could relate” (2008: 3). Finally returning to Strawson’s objection, there is indeed a tendency in narrative psychology to produce sweeping claims, which tend to obscure the important details, such as who is sharing what type of autobiographical text with whom under what circumstances and for what purpose.

After this crucial distinction between self and identity, the motivation behind autobiographical reasoning is the next relevant point: is it required in the service of social accountability, do people see a practical benefit in autobiographical work or does it become an absolute necessity as a coping strategy during a time of distress? Teenagers often feel trapped by the increasing and often relentless demand for autobiographical self-management, while still in the process of finding out for themselves who they are and what they want, which puts them in a particularly vulnerable position. In The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life Erving Goffman has a whole chapter on “The Arts of Impression Management” (cf. 1959: 208–37) which particularly applies to social media profiles. Social accountability always involves the judgement of autobiographical reasoning based on “available cultural models of identity” (Eakin 1999: 4; see also 24, 127; 2008: 22, 97, 104, 108–9; Smith & Watson 2010: 39). Eakin argues that “we are embedded in a narrative identity system whether we like it or not” (2008: 16; see also 60–1) and that “the language we use when we present ourselves and our stories to others is a rule-governed discourse” (2008: 17). A quotation from Bruner’s “Life as Narrative” has already illustrated the impact of cultural norms on individual lives. Eakin is equally pessimistic about the chance to break free from the identity models available in any society: “when we talk about ourselves, in however fragmentary, spontaneous, and casual a fashion, we are also operating ←376 | 377→under the discipline of a rule-grounded identity regime” (2008: 17). This, he argues, becomes second nature to us, as “after years of practice, we operate on automatic pilot; we know the identity protocols by heart” (2008: 23). Here we cross a line from voluntary self-representation and public identification into a normative concept of filling predetermined roles and living up to society’s expectations. The more insidious component, as Bruner and Eakin imply, is not even the struggle over who gets to define one’s public identity and social roles, but that the thinking in social classifications and permanent accountability starts so early, that the “rule-governed identity regime” (Eakin 2008: 17) is taken for granted.

Robyn Fivush and her colleagues are less deterministic and even see auto/biography as a prime site for cultural negotiation and change: “These relations are, at all points, dialectical, such that individual autobiographical narratives reflect back to cultural forms in an evolving spiral; cultures inform individual narrative identities and individual narrative identities inform cultural forms. In a very real sense, autobiographical narratives are the point at which the individual and culture intersect” (2011: 323). This ongoing dialogue between cultural norms and individual responses and identities sounds more promising for educational settings, as it then makes sense for students to actively question existing social roles, experiment with alternatives and negotiate their own positions. Yet, there is no denying the fact that cultures play a central role. Stanley is more pragmatic and accepts that “the apparently referential and unique selves that auto/biographical accounts invoke are actually invocations of a cultural representation of what selves should be: these are shared ideas, conventions, about a cultural form: not descriptions of actual lives but interpretations within the convention” (1992: 62). As I demonstrated in the previous chapter, autographics developed out of underground and alternative comics, which often deliberately foregrounded so-called failed lives – and still do to a certain extent. However, the rebellious refusal to fall in line and embrace the established patterns is a viable narrative strategy precisely because social pressure is so strong in the first place.

A completely different context is the therapeutic application of storytelling as “a powerful tool for identity exploration and stabilization. Autobiographical reasoning especially helps explicitly bridge biographical disruptions by spelling out transformations and their motives” (Habermas & Köber 2015: 149). Here, Habermas and Köber argue that autobiographical reasoning can become a coping strategy that “is especially relevant in times of biographical upheaval and change. Once a change of identity is reflectively and explicitly integrated into the life story, simpler mechanisms of securing a sense of personal continuity will again do most of the work” (2015: 149; see also 150, 155–6, 159–61). This is an important qualification and allows for a co-existence of ‘diachronic’ and ←377 | 378→‘episodic’ approaches to autobiographical reasoning within the same person. During a time of crisis or upheaval, people are more likely to engage in an extensive narrative (re)construction of their lives, but in this case the motivation is intrinsic.

My third point in the context of the Strawson controversy is the increasing criticism of ‘big stories’ within narrative psychology itself. Michael Bamberg (2007) and Alexandra Georgakopoulou (2007) are leading scholars who favour so-called ‘small stories’ in their research, especially in the context of teenagers engaging in spontaneous autobiographical chatting/reasoning in intimate settings and within peer groups. Georgakopoulou criticises that

… narrative remains an elusive, contested and indeterminate concept, variously used as an epistemology, a methodological perspective, an antidote to positivist research, a communication mode, a supra-genre, a text-type. More generally as a way of making sense of the world, at times equated with experience, time, history and life itself; more modestly, as a specific kind of discourse with conventionalised textual features. (2007: 145).

This mirrors Strawson’s or Lakoff and Johnson’s objection to the life is a story metaphor. Georgakopoulou objects that, despite the wide-reaching application of the term to various contexts, research has been limited to full-blown life narratives (cf. 2007: 146). Instead of listening to how teenagers actually talk about their lives, their performance as auto/biographers is usually measured against an ideal of producing life stories as “grand narratives” (2007: 146). However, these ‘big stories’ rely on countless smaller stories in more intimate settings that are tentative and allow for a negotiation of experiences within groups. Georgakopoulou argues that “it is in the details of talk (including storytelling) that identities can be inflected, reworked, and more or less variably and subtly invoked” (2007: 149). Like learner texts (cf. Legutke 1996), they are important in-between steps towards producing more formal and systematic accounts. Bamberg believes that “to start with the assumption that narrative and the interpretation of selves (and others) are based on internal (psychological) constructs would seriously underestimate the dialogical/discursive origins of our interiors” (2007: 170). I return to the autographics equivalent of small stories in the final section of this part, as there is also a tendency in educational settings to focus on complex graphic novels and forget about the smaller texts. In her own research Georgakopoulou discovered that these social interactions among teenagers are equally about imagining the future as they are about making sense of what has (just) happened (cf. 2007: 150). She makes a strong case in favour of “narrative research beyond the reductive confines of a single type of narrative” (2007: 151), which offers “a unified, coherent, autonomous, reflected upon and ←378 | 379→rehearsed self” (2007: 152). In the following section I address the importance of autobiographical reasoning for teenagers and young adults in a more systematic fashion.

5.2.2 Developing Autobiographical Reasoning

In a study on autobiographical texts in the classroom it is necessary to focus on the kind of autobiographical work that teenagers and young adults engage in. In terms of personal development this represents a crucial “life phase – maybe together with very old age – in which individuals change the most and in which it is therefore most difficult to maintain a sense of personal continuity” (Habermas & Köber 2015: 155). Habermas and Bluck provide a wide range of evidence for these changes, from suicide rates via a sudden interest in keeping diaries or similar records to the collection of keepsakes and souvenirs (cf. 2000: 754). There are also more occasions to think about identity – new social environments, career coaching, job applications, holidays, a year abroad etc. Increasingly, teenagers “move in and out of multiple social contexts”, within which “they need to present themselves in terms of their biography” (Fivush et al. 2011: 330). Habermas and Bluck summarise these changes in the following manner:

The motivation for reflective autobiographical self-definition is typical for adolescence and results from an interaction of cultural and societal demands and both maturational and psychological age-specific requirements. The major adolescent developmental task […] is to form a mature psychosocial identity […]. This includes the development of a mature gender identity and sexual orientation and of commitments to significant others, to educational and vocational pursuits, and to basic values. (2000: 753)

Research shows that only young adults (18-19-year-olds) are fully capable of understanding the complexities of autobiographical reasoning (AR) (cf. 2000: 756–60), “which emerges in middle to late adolescence” (Habermas & Köber 2015: 160). Younger, especially prepubescent teens do not benefit from autobiographical reasoning to the same extent. This also explains why “only in adolescence are children’s prereflective identifications with parental values potentially questioned, critically reflected, refuted, or consciously reaffirmed” (2015: 151). Autobiographical memory “begins to develop in childhood […], but life-story construction requires particular cognitive and social skills not present until adolescence in most societies” (Hammack 2015: 22). Kate C. McLean and Cade D. Mansfield support this view that age is crucial: “Early adolescents […] have difficulty integrating concepts, particularly contradictory concepts, such as self-perceptions across time and situation” (2012: 438; see also 443). To investigate autobiographical reasoning in younger teens, they focused on two ←379 | 380→“aspects of narrative processing that are theoretically related to developing a healthy life story: (1) the ability to reflect on and learn from past events to better understand the current self – termed meaning-making; and (2) the ability to express, as well as manage, negative emotion – termed vulnerability and resolution” (2012: 437). With the help of parents’ scaffolding (cf. Vygotsky 1966: 103; Hammack 2015: 12; Habermas & Bluck 2000: 749; Fivush et al. 2011: 322–3) teenagers get better at the co-construction of auto/biographical meaning. “Basic narrative ability is acquired in memory talk with adults who help young children structure their memories by heavy scaffolding” (Habermas 2011: 9; see also Eakin 1999: 109–16; 2008: 25–6). Generally speaking, “spontaneous talk about the shared past is quite frequent in families” (Habermas 2011: 9), which may include elaborate “family stories” (2011: 9; see also Fivush et al. 2011: 337–9) that become an important influence on the interpretation of teenagers’ own lives and their place in society.

One detects a clear gender bias in this research on two levels: methodologically, the studies excluded fathers without even addressing this imbalance at first (e.g. McLean & Mansfield 2012: 437). In the case of McLean and Mansfield, the section on “Limitations and Conclusions” at the end of the article briefly comments on that fact: “we note that this study looked exclusively at the mother’s role in conversational processes, and we expect that fathers play a role in this process as well, though it may be different than mother’s roles” (2012: 445). As I noted previously, psychological studies are often limited in fundamental ways. McLean and Mansfield admit that, without a longitudinal study, their observations are only glimpses at more complex phenomena. All their test subjects were Caucasians because the local community was exclusively white. The conversations were artificially triggered and not naturally occurring and, due to the coding, it was not always clear whether the participating teenagers’ autobiographical reasoning was initiated by their mothers’ questions, occurred later in the conversation as a response to a previous point or surfaced as a new insight without direct scaffolding (cf. 2012: 444–5).

The other type of gender bias occurs through the kind of scaffolding that is provided for boys and girls (cf. Fivush et al. 2011: 327–8, 338). Fivush et al. observe “that from a very young age, Euro-American girls and boys are socialized to attend to and discuss their emotions differently in the context of different types of activities” (2011: 327). Over half of the conversations with girls focus on social events and parents tend to elaborate on emotional responses and social interactions with their daughters. This drops to a third with boys, while the focus shifts to more autonomous activities (cf. 2011: 327). One thing that all research reports seem to support is the social nature of auto/biographical acts. It may ←380 | 381→be true that life writing itself is a solitary act, but the raw materials – the tentative blends – are frequently products of social interactions (cf. Eakin 1999: 63–4; 2008: 25).

Fivush et al. argue that teenagers produce an “emerging identity” (2011: 321) by “extracting continuities across change” (Habermas 2011: 4). This reminds me of Fauconnier and Turner’s ‘emergent structure’ in the blend (cf. 2003: 42–4). Since “the links to the inputs are constantly maintained” (2003: 44), global insight illuminates all the involved input spaces. Thematic blending, e.g. “by reference to a central metaphor of oneself” (Habermas & Bluck 2000: 751), is important, as it transcends the linearity of time and cause-effect chains and implies viewpoint compression as a central mechanism to make sense of one’s life:

Thematic coherence is constructed hierarchically, by creating a higher level category that integrates more specific categories or instances. A major device in autobiographical narrations is exemplification. It mainly serves the rhetorical function of persuading the listener of a general claim by providing specific instances … (Habermas & Köber 2015: 157)

Liz Prince’s realisation that she is a tomboy had to emerge at a certain point in time, which made it then possible to explain events in view of a higher-level category and to use specific incidences as illustrations of this claim. There are a handful of autobiographical comics that carry the suggested thematic coherence in the title. Apart from Prince’s Tomboy or Harvey Pekar and Dean Haspiel’s The Quitter, which I have already named as obvious examples, there are also Jeffrey Brown’s Clumsy or Lucy Knisley’s Displacement and Relish. Here readers are presented with an identity label or central idea and, thus, a ‘reading instruction’ on the cover. Accordingly, the readers’ focus changes to questions of how the writers came to accept or choose this label, whether the term is appropriate, and if there is more to this life than a single-minded pursuit or overall feeling. In all these cases the autobiographical text is an extreme example of decompression. As readers, we start with the most condensed form of autobiography possible – a single word – and work our way backwards through narrative decompression to single incidences of episodic memory. We are provided with a lens and the ‘evidence’ that has been pre-selected for us, but this cannot keep readers from re-assembling and reblending what they discover in the individual scenes. They want to find out for themselves whether the pieces of evidence ‘add up’ to what has been suggested as the preferred reading.

While these are playful, or at least artful attempts of self-identification, narrative psychologists tend to equate narrative competence with autobiographical reasoning and treat both as a set of skills that has to be systematically ←381 | 382→developed and perfected throughout puberty, as the “ability to create coherence and continuity in one’s life story is normatively expected from adult members of Western cultures and contributes to a mature and healthy psycho-social identity” (Habermas 2011: 10). Habermas and his various collaborators distinguish between autobiographical reasoning, which is “the activity of creating relations between different parts of one’s past, present, and future life and one’s personality and development” or, more simply, “explicating the biographical relevance of memories” (Habermas 2011: 3), and the product, which is a “culturally, temporally, causally, and thematically coherent life story” (2011: 1; see also Habermas & Bluck 2000: 749). In contrast to more tentative or improvised approaches to identity-construction, autobiographical reasoning is often treated as serious business: “identity development is chiefly concerned with the integration of interior and exterior meaning through intentional autobiographical work” (Hammack 2015: 22). In addition, it is determined by “the normative cultural notion of the facts and events that should be included in life narratives” (Habermas & Bluck 2000: 750), which are derived from “the culturally available temporal and evaluative frameworks for interpreting a life, including culturally canonical biographies, life scripts and master narratives” (Fivush et al. 2011: 328; see also 334–6). These do not only provide guidelines for what people should do with their lives, but also when exactly they should hit all the milestones:

Life scripts not only define the typical age that one graduates school, gets married, has children, etc., but provide culturally shared information about when one should engage in these events. Indeed, if one’s own life deviates in significant ways from the prescribed cultural script, one is often compelled to provide an explanatory narrative (why I did not go to college; why I did not get married) although one is almost never called upon to provide an explanatory narrative for expected events (why I moved away from my parents’ home; why I had children). (Fivush et al. 2011: 332)

This last statement may contain a hint of criticism regarding the arbitrary nature of these social expectations, yet, more often than not, they are treated as simply given. Even if we acknowledge that life course models and social identities play a role in auto/biographical writing, there are many other potential sources or input spaces: episodic memory, photo albums, family stories, other people’s memories, historical documents, memorabilia & keepsakes, diaries, generic models etc. Habermas backpedals on the strictly formal requirements at one point:

Rather, autobiographical reasoning might be beneficial if it fulfills a criterion that transcends the formal definition adopted here, that is, if it follows communicative norms to adhere to common sense so that listeners may find it plausible and reasonable. […] Our conception of memory starts with everyday remembering that is both ←382 | 383→linguistic and meaningful, embedded in dialogue and relationships, and influenced by wishes and their biographical roots. (2011: 12)

This dialogic principle is far more useful for the classroom than working with normative expectations. It also implicitly acknowledges that wishes, dreams, hopes and intuitions may play a role, which runs counter to the argument that autobiographical reasoning is an exclusive System 2 operation with “its appeal to reason and logic” (2011: 3). This returns us to Strawson again: people may be perfectly happy and feel that they are doing the right thing without a need to rationalise how they ended up in this place, why exactly this is the right occupation or relationship, how they could optimise their lives and which alternative paths they should consider. With certain people, ‘common sense’ could even mean that decisions are ‘plausible and reasonable’ precisely because they defy conventional reason and rely on feelings and intuitions. Instead of normative prescriptions, students need a cultural studies approach that looks at the available life-course models in a critical manner, not as an undisputed model to be emulated at all costs. Since western societies demand self-optimisation in all aspects of life, especially in the areas of occupation, beauty and health, the models themselves have to be turned into topics for the classroom. Such questions are all related to identity and self-representation, which makes critical media literacy central to autobiographical work in the classroom. While this may sound like a new concept, Kaspar H. Spinner made self-implication and identity formation the central elements of literary teaching a long time ago (cf. Spinner 2013; 2015).

Another important issue in this context is genre competence. There are three types of genre competence that have to be kept apart: (1) an understanding of auto/biography as a literary genre; (2) a critical understanding of what is involved in autobiographical work; and (3) familiarity with formalised genres of life writing, such as a CV. When Eakin states that by “the time we reach adulthood we know how to deliver a suitably edited version of our stories as the occasion requires” (2008: 28), there are two observations to make: the first is that the occasion has a significant influence on the type of story we are going to tell; and, secondly, Eakin tends to think about life in terms of “social accountability” (1999: 68; see also 2008: 24–5, 44, 49–50, 96, 152–3), as if we were constantly on trial: “To be accepted as responsible individuals by listeners, narrators are obliged to either endorse their past outlook or justify why they have changed their mind” (Habermas & Köber 2015: 158; see also 162; Fivush et al. 2011: 328). Fivush et al. take the conceptual metaphor life writing is testimony in a literal sense: “A mature autobiography normatively requires more than an assembly of unrelated memories. When reading autobiographies or listening to life narratives we ←383 | 384→expect a more or less coherent account of how individuals understand their own development and of how they have tried to lead a meaningful life” (2011: 324). This would mean that the most boring texts are the greatest autobiographies. Especially in the context of life narratives and celebrities in the media the most interesting stories are those that deviate from established patterns, preferably in the area of moral ambiguity. Even in the case of a redemption arc that reestablishes equilibrium at the end, the primary interest of readers seems to be in the struggle to overcome self-inflicted obstacles in life. More to the point of this argument is the problematic tendency to talk about a genre that is incredibly broad in its scope as if other readers would automatically conceive of it in the same narrowly defined terms, which are neither explained nor questioned. It may be unfair to associate these studies with a law and order attitude, but the kind of autobiographical work that is suggested in some of these articles seems to have more to do with social engineering than with the creative exploration of identities and the critical discussion of life course models.

The much more pressing moral question in the context of auto/biography is the inseparability of the two genres, which means that auto/biographers of all ages implicate parents, siblings, relatives, (former) classmates, friends, other peers and acquaintances in their stories (cf. Eakin 1999: 157). In the case of social media, for example, this adds another layer to the already questionable practice of instantaneous self-publishing. In a less dramatic fashion, the same issues apply to published auto/biographies. Using Spiegelman’s MAUS as his major example, Eakin foregrounds the unavoidable hybrid nature of life writing: “Because identity is conceived as relational in these instances, such narratives defy the distinctions we try to establish between genres, for they are autobiographies that offer not only the autobiography of the self but the biography and the autobiography of the other” (1999: 176). This level of added responsibility is directly addressed in chapter 2 of the second volume, when Artie shows himself having scruples over becoming famous by exploiting his family history (cf. Spiegelman 1997: 201–2).

Even in the most respected autobiographical comics, we find cases of exploiting family members or friends for specific narrative purposes without even asking them for permission. Therefore, Eakin asks whether “there [is] a sense in which life writers themselves can be said to be abusive” (1999: 156). In an interview with Hillary Chute Alison Bechdel discusses the problem of making confidential information public:

I didn’t tell my mother I was writing this book until I had worked on it for a year. I wanted to get a purchase on the material before I had to grapple with her feelings about ←384 | 385→it. I felt like I could very easily be dissuaded from the whole project. Her initial reaction, I think, was to laugh. She just thought it was absurd. She didn’t ask me not to do it, which I was really grateful for. At some point, though, she told me she was going to have to cut me off from any further information about my father. She felt betrayed – quite justifiably so – that I was using things she’d told me in confidence about my father. So she wasn’t going to tell me anything else. (Chute & Bechdel 2006: 1006)

At a later point in the same interview Bechdel acknowledges the moral implications of her act: “But since the book came out, she hasn’t said anything about the content of the book itself. But you know, how could she? This memoir is in many ways a huge violation of my family. I can’t expect them to give me strokes on my style, you know?” (2006: 1009). Blankets is an even more radical case. Craig Thompson published his ‘novel’ without the permission of either Raina or his parents. The latter learned about the book on its release and were shocked by their portrayal, especially his father. In an interview with Mike Whybark Thompson comments on their initial reaction:

They were incredibly upset at first. I had to share a six-hour car drive with them from Minneapolis to Milwaukee and they just tore into me. And, uh, some of the first issues they brought up were um that they thought that they were depicted like monsters. And they wondered what right I had to take our private life and make it public – but then beyond that, and on a much larger level, “Spiritually awful” they called it, um. They said that it “bore witness for the devil.” (2003: transcript 6)

Because of this tendency to use relatives strategically for narrative purposes, they are often reduced to roles in a personal drama that has to keep readers’ attention on the protagonist(s). This peripheral existence and one-dimensionality invite a stereotypical reading. Therefore, it may be necessary to draw attention to such characters and counterbalance the dominant reading with a change of perspective that acknowledges other ways of interpreting the action.

If students are to develop a critical understanding of auto/biographical work and the effects of implicating family members, friends and classmates in self-representations that are meant to be made public or even published (online), they need to study existing life writing – from auto/biographies to social media profiles – and face the challenges of practically going through the process of publication themselves – step by step. It is more feasible to start with ‘small stories’ first and explore how they work as auto/biographical texts, such as bringing photos and favourite objects (cf. Kieweg 2015) into the classroom for short oral narratives. Thus, they are made public and presented in front of an audience with the safety net still intact. This can be extended to collages later on, mini exhibitions and in-class presentations with media support. A final step would then be to start a blog or create a website. Autobiographical writing is ←385 | 386→a dialogic process and should be open to feedback and scrutiny. Since social media dominate students’ lives and their online activities are auto/biographical in the broadest sense, an ongoing engagement with identity and life writing should be a central issue throughout the years. Such a syllabus is directly related to key concerns in cultural studies, gender studies or postcolonial studies, which have to be addressed anyway. Comics autobiographies are only one piece of the puzzle, but they foreground important questions concerning autobiographical work that may be less transparent in other media.

Unavoidably, the production and reception of life writing involves blending: looking at the larger picture means bringing a past and present self in line, a single event and a larger narrative, a life script and personal experiences, the recollections of parents and friends, official documents and emotional truths. In each case the blend has a potential to illuminate the network and the interconnected spaces. Since autobiographical comics are also autotopographical and sometimes deliberately unfinished, readers are invited to draw their own conclusions, assisted by iconic solidarity and braiding. Readers synthesise the fragments and perspectives into a holistic view or gestalt that transcends the linearity of presentation. Up to this point, we have had a look at different sources and several material anchors that allow us to reconstruct the past. The next section returns to the prime repository of autobiographical narratives – a person’s long-term memory. While the retrieval of information from memory constituted an important focus of part 3, it is necessary to look at these mechanisms again in the context of auto/biography.

5.2.3 Autobiographical Memory

In 1972 Endel Tulving introduced a distinction between semantic and episodic memory as two largely independent systems. The latter was a new concept and Tulving described it like this:

Episodic memory receives and stores information about temporally dated episodes or events, and temporal-spatial relations among these events. A perceptual event can be stored in the episodic system solely in terms of its perceptible properties or attributes, and it is always stored in terms of its autobiographical reference to the already existing contents of the episodic memory store. The act of retrieval of information from the episodic memory store, in addition to making the retrieved contents accessible to inspection, also serves as a special type of input into episodic memory and thus changes the contents of the episodic memory store. The system is probably quite susceptible to transformation and loss of information. (1972: 385–6)

←386 | 387→

Two things are interesting here: first, episodic memory depends on autobiographical significance, as people only encode and retrieve information that they find relevant and emotionally engaging. Secondly, since episodic memory is a tool that helps us cope with the present, e.g. recognise people and remember our relations to them, these memories can be transformed through new developments and insights. In contrast to semantic or procedural memory, which provide basic orientation, episodic memory is holistic and triggered by present concerns: “More than simple episodic recall, autobiographical memory is rich with thoughts, emotions, and evaluations about what happened, and provides explanatory frameworks replete with human intentions and motivations” (Fivush et al. 2011: 322). Daniel L. Schacter adds that “we do not store judgment-free snapshots of our past experiences but rather hold on to the meaning, sense, and emotions these experiences provided us” (1996: 5). He explains “memory’s imperfections” (1996: 3; see also 16) by stressing “that our memories are not just bits of data that we coldly store and retrieve, computerlike” (1996: 3), but lasting impressions that are strongly coloured by emotional responses. We can, of course, “operate on automatic pilot” and “not reflect on our environment and our experiences”, but then “we may pay a price by retaining only sketchy memories of where we have been and what we have done” (1996: 46). The autopilot, which I have referred to as ‘System 1’ throughout, operates swiftly and is highly efficient at executing familiar tasks, for which we do not have to be consciously engaged. Active encoding and retrieval have are based on curiosity and personal relevance. Whenever we recall memories to become input spaces in our short-term memory, they become susceptible to manipulation, cross-space mapping and blending:

… there has been a great deal of research recently concerning the phenomenon of reconsolidation, where reactivated memories enter a transient state of instability in which they are prone to disruption or change. Reconsolidation is an extension of the well established phenomenon of memory consolidation (i.e., processes that render a memory resistant to forgetting): when a memory is retrieved or reactivated it needs to be consolidated anew, raising the possibility that the reconsolidated memory may include new information not present in the original … (Schacter 2013: 56)

A reinterpretation of the past in view of new insight is nothing unusual. Alison Bechdel reveals that “the whole story [Fun Home] was spawned by a snapshot I found of our old babysitter lying on a hotel bed in his Jockey shorts” (Chute & Bechdel 2006: 1005). This photo began to interact with her memories and other autobiographical materials in a most productive way – providing a new perspective on and attitude towards what Bechdel thought she knew about ←387 | 388→her father. Because of this obvious malleability, Schacter is eager “to demolish another long-standing myth: that memories are passive or literal recordings of reality” (1996: 5). Leaving aside the problem of reconsolidation, our experiences “are encoded by brain networks whose connections have already been shaped by previous encounters with the world” (1996: 6), which means that, at best, we can retrieve an accurate memory of a subjective experience. Antonio Damasio makes a similar point: “It is easy to imagine, given that memories are not stored in facsimile fashion and must undergo a complex process of reconstruction during retrieval, that the memories of some autobiographical events may not be fully reconstructed, may be reconstructed in ways that differ from the original, or may never again see the light of consciousness” (2000: 227).

Why, then, can we rely on our memories at all? There are three reasons why some of them are surprisingly accurate (cf. Schacter 1996: 94). The first has to do with events that are so integral to someone’s life – either through direct experience or retrospective ascription – that they become permanent points of orientation:

Self-defining memories are typically unique, onetime events, which become personally significant and integral to individuals’ understanding of who they are. Self-defining memories are often high points (stories about particularly positive experiences), low points (stories about particularly negative experiences), or turning points (experiences that set in motion a new direction for the self). (Fivush et al. 2011: 333)

These may become modified and recontextualised like all episodic memories, but they tend to be more stable. Habermas and Köber use the same term to refer to a type of memory that is even more resistant to change:

The conceptual self is linked to self-defining memories […] of situations that are typical of the central concerns and conflicts of the individual. These memories condense a variety of past events into one prototypical representation […]. They represent the highly stable core emotional and relationship patterns of an individual […]. They remain rather insensitive to situational requirements and new life experiences. (2015: 153)

Narrating these memories, every sentence could potentially begin with: “When I was young, I/we used to …” or “I always …”. These are experiences that people have made again and again over long stretches of time and that have become memorised as blends. Schacter differentiates between three tiers of autobiographical memories, which represent different states of conceptual integration: event-specific knowledge, general events and lifetime periods (1996: 89–90). Habermas and Köber’s ‘self-defining memories’ are general events, which “capture a good deal of the distinctive flavour of our pasts, and are readily accessible because ←388 | 389→they have been strengthened through repetition” (Schacter 1996: 91). Schacter observes that autobiographical narration predominantly relies on this middle tier (cf. 1996: 90), which I demonstrated in part 4, using chapter I of Blankets as an example. There are several reasons why auto/biographers rely on this type: while event-specific knowledge may be too particular, memory of lifetime periods is too broad. As prototypical experiences general events are both more reliable and more relatable for a broader group of people.

Using Tomboy as an example, this process can be easily observed in practice: Liz Prince starts with a very general observation, which is that, even as a young girl, she was already a tomboy. This reminds her of general events, such as refusing to wear trousers on a number of occasions from the age of three onwards, which in turn leads her to event-specific memories of single incidents. Autographers tend to dramatise general events, which means that the scenes we witness can be more or less generic, depending on how much the artists remember, feel comfortable to reveal or consider necessary for an understanding of the narrative. I discussed the scenes at the beginning of Blankets as hybrids between event-specific knowledge and general events. While the first assault of the bullies (cf. 2007: 20–25) seems generic in the sense of representing many incidents of the same type, Thomson added enough details to make the action appear specific: Craig is called ‘ “SKINNY”, “ETHIOPIAN” (2007: 20/1) and ‘baby’ (cf. 2007: 22–3), while his father is insulted as being “poor” and “MEXICAN” (2007: 21/2). I believe that Thompson blended several memories/scenes into just one and retained details from several of them to keep the specific flavour. Since Blankets is a work of art with a specific vision/perspective, it is impossible to tell how much the artist changed or added to suit this creative purpose, independent of how precisely he could remember his childhood in terms of event-specific knowledge, general events and lifetime periods. As readers, we cognitively reverse the process and reassemble and blend together what has been laid out for us. Schacter argues that all three tiers together constitute autobiographical memory (cf. 1996: 93). Since general events tend to be reliable, based on repeated experiences of a similar kind, “the broad contours of our lives are fundamentally accurate” (1996: 94).

One interesting phenomenon in this context is the shift from field (first-person) to observer (third-person) memories (cf. 1996: 21; Habermas & Köber 2015: 155). The older, more compressed and recontextualised a memory is, the more likely it is remembered from an external point of view. Also the necessities of the present situation play a role: “an important part of your recollective experience – whether or not you see yourself as a participant in a remembered event – is, to a large extent, constructed or invented at the time of attempted ←389 | 390→recall. The way you remember an event depends on your purposes and goals at the time that you attempt to recall it” (Schacter 1996: 21–2; see also 66). In consequence, “memories emerge from comparing and combining a present sensation with a past one, much as stereoscopic vision emerges from combining information from the two eyes” (1996: 70). Thus, remembering itself is already a form of conceptual integration.

5.2.4 Photographic Evidence

In all forms of autobiographical work photographs play a central role as material anchors. In some cases, such as Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home, they even trigger an intense engagement with the past and the creation of an entire graphic novel. One aspect that has not been sufficiently explored yet is their status as (judicial/historical) evidence and their impact as reproduced or remediated images on the visual modality of comics, which is the indicator of “how real, or not, a representation claims to be” (Machin 2011: xvi). This concept is closely related to linguistic modality and modal auxiliaries as grammatical modifiers of the truth value of sentences, which can be low, median or high (cf. van Leeuwen 2005: 162). In social semiotics and multimodal analysis, modality is one of the key areas of interest and most introductory handbooks contain an entire chapter on this concept (cf. van Leeuwen 2005: 160–77; Kress & van Leeuwen 2006: 154–74; Machin 2011: 45–61). Significantly, Gunther Kress and Theo van Leeuwen relate ‘modality’ to a social “theory of the real” (2006: 154), as the legitimacy of photographic evidence depends on cultural practices and negotiation rather than on the inherent quality of objects. We bear witness to the whole spectrum of possibilities every day, from compelling documentary evidence to ‘photoshopped’ models on magazine covers. This provides a rich source of texts for the classroom, as modality and its truth claims are a communicative resource that photographers, artists and cartoonists employ to create specific effects. From an educational point of view, this requires the development of critical media literacy (cf. Serafini 2014; Scheibe & Rogow 2012; Baker 2012) or visual literacy in the way Monika Seidl uses the term (cf. 2007). Since autobiographical comics include photographs and deliberately blur the line between fact (documentation) and fiction (art), it is necessary to study visual modality and its effects more closely.

Elisabeth El Refaie discusses their inclusion as a distinct strategy of authentication (cf. 2012: 138, 158–65), alongside “a realistic quasi-photographic style” (2012: 150) of hand-drawn images that may equally connote higher modality. She explicitly relies on visual modality as a theoretical approach (cf. 2012: 152–8) ←390 | 391→and discusses the implications for autographics. There are essentially three ways to include photographs in comics: Prince renders them in exactly the same cartoonish style as her other panels (cf. 2014: 14), which blurs the line between photographic ‘evidence’, scenes drawn from memory and meta-narrative panels that show ‘her’ talking directly to the reader. A second widely established approach is to render them as photo-realistically as possible, but within the overall style of the book, which we find in Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home (cf. 2007). Although it is quite time-consuming to remediate photos in such a way, it preserves the visual integrity of the narrative, presents photos in the artist’s ‘handwriting’, which signals an intimate relationship through graphiation, and retains the higher modality that is associated with photorealism. Layering all of these modes of expression within a single image draws attention to its status as a work of art and functions as a metaphor for what autographics is and does. The third option is to reproduce photos as they are, which provokes a clash of modalities. Art Spiegelman decided to make use of that potential for MAUS and strategically placed three of them throughout the narrative. Before we look at these possibilities in greater detail, it has to be stressed that modality plays a central role in several contexts beyond the inclusion of photos. When I discussed Harvey Pekar’s “A Marriage Album” (cf. 2003, n. p.) in part 4, I argued that the couple’s first meeting constitutes a dramatic shift in their relationship and its modality, but readers continue to see cartoon renderings of characters. They often have to compensate for such a low modality of drawings by infusing the scenes with their own emotions, ideas and interpretations to turn the blueprint into a fully-fledged narrative. As a second observation I want to add Kai Mikkonen’s criticism of Scott McCloud’s typology of panel transitions, which “does not take the context into consideration” and describes “panel relations at varying levels of organisation and meaning-making” (2017: 41).

One rather common type of transition is the change of truth-value (modality in the linguistic sense) with regard to the image content in the panels. The modality-to-modality transition, involving a transition in the truth-value or credibility of what is seen, for instance, in a dream, fantasy, hallucination, or memory sequence, is regularly accompanied by stylistic markers, such as changes in the graphic line, lettering, and colour, or alterations in verbal narration, layout, and perspective. (2017: 42)

This also explains why I discuss modality as a means of foregrounding in the context of blending: readers are challenged to bridge the gap between two ontologically different frames. Mikkonen differentiates between formal stylistic markers, e.g. a change in colour, and the meaning of such a highlighted panel, e.g. a dream sequence. A distinction between sign and meaning may not always ←391 | 392→be as clear-cut as in this case, but modality often draws attention to panels that require conscious blending.

In autographics, material anchors often become narrative anchors, which is another way of theorising the integration of photos. Since material anchors as mnemonic devices are ubiquitous in all cultures, Smith and Watson observe that “communities are aided in their acts of remembering by different technologies”, which, in turn, “shape the memories conveyed and the selves those memories construct” (2010: 25). They see a wide spectrum of possibilities to work with material anchors, but their integration also depends on the type of narrative and the target audience:

Frequently, life narrators incorporate multiple modes and archives of remembering in their narratives. Some of these sources are personal (dreams, family albums, photos, objects, family stories, genealogy). Some are public (documents, historical events, collective rituals). One way of accessing memory may dominate because it is critical to a narrator’s project, his sense of the audience for the narrative, or her purpose for making the story public. (2010: 25)

If artists were to take Liz Stanley’s concept of the ‘accountable biography’ (cf. 1992: 9–10) seriously, the reproduction or remediation of sources would not be enough: the crucial point is the auto/biographer’s interaction with and interpretation of them. Stanley reminds us that the inclusion of photographs has been a widespread practice for a long time and is not exclusive to visual narrative media. Despite the fact that prose auto/biographies are often multimodal texts in this sense, there is usually a lack of contextualisation and narrative integration. Photos appear as a special section, often in the middle of the book, “surrounded by an ocean of words” (1992: 20). Presumably, the selection and arrangement of these images is deliberate, but the rationale remains a mystery. This leads to one of the central paradoxes that the inclusion of photos produces: “Photographs of auto/biographic subjects and our readings of them are importantly involved in constructing characters and biographies, lives-with-meaning” (1992: 20). At the same time, without the necessary contextualisation, they remain unrelated oddities in a very different modality. Captions cannot compensate for their isolation in the middle of the book or their relegation to the appendix. Stanley suggests that they have to be frequently revisited, as the narrative presents new insights all the time: “the linear sequencing of biography does not operate in a forward mode only. From ‘the end’ – a death or some major rite of passage in a life – we can read images and other biographical information backwards through time, to impose ‘real meaning, with hindsight’: an account of ‘what it all meant’ that eluded us at the time but was supposedly ‘really’ always there” (1992: 21). While ←392 | 393→this “retroactive effect” (Iser 1980: 111) is not unusual, it raises the questions when, why and how frequently these photos should be (re)visited. Do they represent their own story that just happens to come packaged with a different narrative? What is their ontological status outside and inside of the auto/biography?

In “Dr Liz and the tardis” (cf. 1992: 45–51) Stanley uses her own photo album and three images in particular (cf. 1992: 46, 49) to demonstrate how her adult sensibilities dominate her perception of the past. About “Author seated in frock” she says:

This photographed child has all the hall-marks of 1940s and 1950s high street dominant cultural convention that one could hope to find; so clean, so posed, so careful. The photograph is a monument to ‘the child’ as she ought to be. The child is me – or so she is said to be, so I am told. But I do not know her. My memory cannot reach this child: she sits alone looking out and I look back into her eyes and see and feel nothing. (1992: 45)

This is fascinating, as the photo as a material anchor is supposed to provide access to the past, but here it alienates Stanley from her own younger self, exactly the same way that Liz Prince disowns her dress-wearing alter ego. In both cases the photos are debunked as false representations, arranged by adults who were driven by projecting a certain look instead of trying to capture the ‘real’ nature of the child. Roswitha Henseler and Monika Schäfers’s idea of studying and recreating childhood photos is an excellent application of these processes to the classroom (cf. 2015). Stanley’s reading of the second image, subtitled “Author with football”, could not be more different:

Consider this second child, the footballing girl, also me. Here, like Athene from the head of Zeus, I, a conscious subject, spring into life. Here I am four in Johnny Davies’s grandparents’ back garden. Here memory reaches, and reaches beyond. In the ‘moment’ of this photograph is collected a perpetual transformation of clothes – what I was supposed to wear and what I wanted to wear. It also encompasses all the forbidden activities: streams and newts and dirt and forbidden building sites and, more concretely, scrumping apples, for in this child’s shirt there is literally stolen fruit. And beyond the photograph, in its subsequent ‘moment’, lies a round of battles over what kind of a child I was to be, mine or my parents’; a round of partial losses and later gains. And there is more here, for I can connect this child to the ‘me’ I know now. (1992: 47)

This is a prime example of how blending works. In part 3 I introduced Don Kuiken, David S. Miall and Shelley Sikora’s “Forms of Self-Implication in Literary Reading” (2004), which is based on Ted Cohen’s article “Identifying with Metaphor” (1999). It may seem odd at this point to refer to a theory of how readers identify with characters in fiction, but I would argue that auto/biographers have to become readers of their own lives first and identify with their former selves as characters. Stanley’s reading of “Author with football” signals ←393 | 394→a high degree of self-implication that produces connections – what cognitive linguists would call mappings. Stanley is aware of the fact that she constructs a past identity for herself:

Both of these moments collect in what is of course not literal memory, in the sense of recollection which has a direct and unproblematic link with past ‘facts’; it is rather a post hoc construction of the past based on the understandings, assessments, conclusions and conjectures of’ ‘now’. ‘Now’ is a prism through which both ‘moments’, and also the pivot of the photograph to which they connect, are refracted. (1992: 47)

However, the autobiographical reading of the photo also constitutes her identity in the present. The past is as much a prism as the ‘now’. The ‘understandings, assessments, conclusions and conjectures’ are triggered, we have to assume, by such a confrontation with the past, which means that there is a chance of self-modification. Cohen describes the tentative identification with a literary character as a form of “metaphorical understanding”, which involves “a blending of oneself with another, and here one must add to and subtract from oneself” (1999: 407). This “blend of what I know of you and what I know of me” (1999: 402) is only metaphorical. It takes a leap of the imagination to look at a piece of paper and identify with it.

Stanley’s discussion of her childhood photos has shown that their supposedly self-explanatory power is a myth. As autobiographical anchors they trigger memories and play a crucial part in the reconstruction of the past, but they are meaningless without the subject that grants them this extraordinary power. At the same time, her comments seem to suggest that the first image is staged, whereas the second appears to be true to her nature and transparent in the sense of revealing her true self. Stanley captures this ambivalent role in the following statement: “Photographic images are powerful. They are not, however, all-powerful. Photographs do not speak for themselves: they require interpretation and this interpretation may be mediated by words which surround, literally, particular photographs, or from ‘texts’ which readers of photographs import from their general knowledge” (1992: 25). In “The Photographic Message” (1978: 15–31) Roland Barthes discusses the significance of a press photograph in relation to the title of the newspaper article it has been attached to, the caption that anchors its meaning and the full body of the text. Barthes is fascinated by the paradox (cf. 1978: 16–20) that the photo is intended to bridge the gulf between the written report and what happened, in the sense of a literal, unfiltered and mimetic representation of reality, while in truth it is as constructed and deserving of a critical reading as the words: “the press photograph is an object that has been worked ←394 | 395→on, chosen, composed, constructed, treated according to professional, aesthetic or ideological norms” (1978: 19).

Again, there is a direct link between critical media literacy and autobiographical work in the classroom, as the playful and creative engagement with mixed-media messages and one’s own photos can raise awareness of what Barthes calls ‘denotation’ and ‘connotation’. The seductive power of ‘photorealism’ makes it possible to “pass off as merely denoted a message which is in reality heavily connoted” (1978: 21; see also 26). Stanley chooses to read the two photographs as an illustration of an ongoing battle between her parents and herself over who is entitled to define her looks and personality. While the first conforms to expectations, stereotypes and cultural norms – serving an ideal rather than the unique character traits of an individual – the footballing girl becomes a subversive antidote to this image of perfection. It challenges a socially and historically situated observer to question his or her views and classifications (cf. Barthes 1978: 28–9).

In “Rhetoric of the Image” (1978: 32–51) Barthes introduces the terms “anchorage and relay” (Barthes 1978: 38) to specify two types of relations between words and images. He says that all images are “polysemous”, as they “generate a floating chain of signifieds” (1978: 39), so the meaning needs to be fixed or anchored. The text as an anchor provides a metaphorical lens or filter that helps readers to focus the image in a particular way. Barthes states that “anchorage is a control, bearing a responsibility” (1978: 40), for framing texts in a particular way has a powerful effect on readers’ reception. Paratexts, such as genre labels, often function as such lenses. In contrast, relay describes a “complementary relationship” (1978: 41) which can often be found “in cartoons and comic strips” (1978: 41). Here, “the words, in the same way as the images, are fragments of a more general syntagm and the unity of the message is realized at a higher level” (1978: 41). This is Barthes’s version of blending, but this phenomenon applies to anchorage in equal measure, as readers still have to relate the caption to the image.

There is a great variety of activities for the classroom that require students to (re)combine words and images: finding titles/captions for images, matching pictures and their descriptions, writing new captions for press photos, adding speech and thought balloons to comics etc. (cf. Cary 2004: 72–4, 78–88). These are usually considered to be creative or fun activities that train language skills, but they also highlight conceptual integration, anchorage and connotation. In other words: they teach Barthes to students in an engaging and explorative manner.

Susan Sontag’s On Photography (2008) shifts the focus from reception to production. Instead of looking at how text anchors images, she is concerned ←395 | 396→with how photography anchors reality: “Photography inevitably entails a certain patronizing of reality. From being ‘out there,’ the world comes to be ‘inside’ photographs” (2008b: 80). This is how Stanley feels about her parents’ attempt to fix reality. People regain control over a chaotic environment by making it accessible on their own terms. Photography puts “oneself into a certain relation to the world that feels like knowledge – and, therefore, like power” (2008a: 4). This is clearly at odds with the general misconception that photos “furnish evidence” (2008a: 5) and preserve reality in a transparent, documentary manner: “What is written about a person or an event is frankly an interpretation, as are handmade visual statements, like paintings and drawings. Photographed images do not seem to be statements about the world so much as pieces of it, miniatures of reality that anyone can make or acquire” (2008a: 4). Inadvertently, Sontag addresses a key concern of comics studies, which is the assumed difference in modality between drawing and photography. Bechdel’s discovery of a snapshot of their former babysitter “lying on a hotel bed in his Jockey shorts” (Chute & Bechdel 2006: 1005), raises a number of questions, not least of which about the significance of the image. Sontag ascribes our fascination with photographs to the mystery of their ontological status:

Photographs are, of course, artifacts. But their appeal is that they also seem, in a world littered with photographic relics, to have the status of found objects – unpremeditated slices of the world. Thus, they trade simultaneously on the prestige of art and the magic of the real. They are clouds of fantasy and pellets of information. (Sontag 2008b: 69)

As Stanley’s “Author seated in frock” demonstrates, “photographers are always imposing standards” (2008a: 6). Sontag sees a moral issue in the appropriation of people for personal interests: “To photograph people is to violate them, by seeing them as they never see themselves, by having knowledge of them they can never have; it turns people into objects that can be symbolically possessed” (2008a: 14). Professional photographers working for charities retake pictures until the poor and destitute look properly poor, but also aesthetically appealing in their misery and deserving of our pity and generosity.

Since photography is a form of art, we find the exact same phenomena as in literature, such as foregrounding, overdetermination, dramatisation and hyperreality, which Sontag calls ‘surrealism’: “Surrealism lies at the heart of the photographic enterprise: in the very creation of a duplicate world, of a reality in the second degree, narrower but more dramatic than the one perceived by natural vision” (2008b: 52). Like comics panels, photographs are staged for additional metaphorical meaning and emotional impact. However, it is a thoroughly democratic art form in which everyone can participate: “Through photographs, each ←396 | 397→family constructs a portrait-chronicle of itself” (2008a: 8). Since cameras became widely available in the first half of the twentieth century, there has been a shift from documenting the reality of family life in the form of a diary to staging shared experiences for their audio-visual recording. This returns us to the question whether photographs can provide documentary evidence at all. Like Kress and van Leeuwen (cf. 2006: 163–6), Sontag considers different ‘coding orientations’ of what constitutes ‘the real’ in various cultural settings and what role photos are to play in these contexts: “To spies, meteorologists, coroners, archaeologists, and other information professionals, their value is inestimable. But in the situations in which most people use photographs, their value as information is of the same order as fiction” (2008a: 22). This statement may polarise, as the truth can be found somewhere in between. There is always the temptation of blissfully confusing the secondary world of photos, TV shows and films with ‘the real’, but critical media literacy enables students to balance entertainment with scrutiny: “Photography implies that we know about the world if we accept it as the camera records it. But this is the opposite of understanding, which starts from not accepting the world as it looks” (2008a: 23). The “photographic stylisations” that Stanley associates with the “high street photographer’s depictions of ‘ourselves’ as children, as brides, mothers” (1992: 29) have become incredibly widespread with the advent of digital technology and allow for the self-stylisation and self-presentation on social media platforms. Therefore, the photo as an autobiographical text and anchor provides a rich resource for students’ practical, creative and critical engagement with the medium. After this lengthy preamble, let us consider two comics that have attracted the most attention in terms of their strategic use of photographs.

In both volumes of MAUS there are only three pictures in total that are exact photographic reproductions and not hand-drawn and fully integrated images (cf. e.g. Spiegelman 1997: 274–6). Since MAUS is a special case, this also means that they depict real people instead of mice. The first one shows Art as a young boy with his mother Anja in the inserted “Prisoner on the Hell Planet” comic, the second one his dead brother Richieu at the beginning of Volume II and, finally, his father Vladek in a KZ uniform towards the end of the book (cf. Spiegelman 1997: 102, 165, 294). In each case the photo draws attention to itself, but it is more interesting to discuss what the photos do in the context of the narrative rather than what they depict. In “Mourning and Postmemory” Marianne Hirsch explores the role of these photographs in the context of ‘postmemory’, which is a heightened awareness of historical events, especially regarding the Holocaust, by the survivors’ children, who did not experience them in person.

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Hirsch chooses to focus on the clash of modalities as her starting point: “The truly shocking and disturbing breaks in the visual narrative – the points that fail to blend in – occur in the section called ‘Prisoner on the Hell Planet’ in MAUS in which an actual photograph appears and in the two photos in MAUS II. These three moments protrude from the narrative like unassimilated and inassimilable memories” (2011: 29). Despite the photos’ ostentatious foregrounding, they remain irreconcilable at first glance with Spiegelman’s otherwise consistent cartoon style. The medium allows for this strategic use of mise-en-page or montage to invite some form of integration and reconciliation without providing the necessary clues how readers are meant to solve the puzzle. Nancy Pedri addresses a similar point about autographics when she observes that “photographic images can serve not to confirm that what is being related – identity, self, personal experience – is real or factual or accurately portrayed” (2015: 137). Photos may score higher on a modality scale, as readers tend to associate photorealism and higher resolution with ‘the truth’, but through their ambiguous contextualisation they appear equally representational (cf. 2015: 138). This leads Pedri to the conclusion that the “union of photography and cartooning in MAUS (and in other graphic memoirs) exposes the historical experience supposedly captured in the photographic image as always actualized by its narrative presentation” (2015: 139). As with Stanley’s examples, the meaning of photographs completely depends on their context and reception. Sontag observes that a “photograph is only a fragment, and with the passage of time its moorings come unstuck. It drifts away into a soft abstract pastness, open to any kind of reading (or matching to other photographs)” (2008b: 71). Like Billy Pilgrim in Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, photos become unstuck in time and require (narrative) mooring.

One potential approach would be to put them right next to each other and arrange them in the form of an autotopography: “Taken together, the three photographs in MAUS I and II reassemble a family violently fractured and destroyed by the Shoah: they include, at different times, in different places, and in different guises, all the Spiegelmans – Art and his mother, Art’s brother Richieu, and the father, Vladek” (Hirsch 2011: 31). However, this family reunion would send the wrong signal. Artie discusses his “ghost-brother” (1997: 175) and the various readings of his portrait, which hung in his parents’ bedroom. As material anchors, photos have histories of their own and become loaded with meaning – either through years of witnessing/storytelling or their quiet, haunting presence. Like exhibits in museums, they are in need of anchorage. This generates a close symbiotic co-dependence between autotopographies, the auto/biographers who rely on them and the narratives that are based on this transaction.

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Spiegelman takes another approach and foregrounds his struggle to find a meaningful spot for them in his version of the family history. While they retain their precious and unique status through foregrounding, they also resist any straightforward attempt to blend them with the ongoing narrative. Spiegelman’s postmemory permanently intrudes upon the present (cf. 1997: 176) and haunts him. He uses the ghostlike presence of his fragmented family in the liminal spaces of the text as a metaphor for Jewish lives after the Second World War in general and his own experiences in particular. This is a point that Hirsch makes in relation to all documentary evidence, which tends to become elusive and liminal over time: “Photographs, ghostly revenants, are very particular instruments of remembrance, because they are perched at the edge between memory and postmemory and also, though differently, between memory and forgetting” (2011: 22). For Hirsch, Spiegelman’s mother is the most strongly felt absence in the text: “Through her picture and her missing voice Anja haunts the story told in both volumes, a ghostly presence shaping familial interaction – the personal and the collective story of death and survival” (2011: 34). While Vladek gets a voice and is allowed to speak for himself to a certain extent, “Anja is recollected by others; she remains a visual and not an aural presence. She speaks in sentences imagined by her son or recollected by her husband. In their memory she is mystified, objectified, shaped to the needs and desires of the one who remembers – whether it be Vladek or Art” (2011: 34).

For the purposes of a conclusion I want to focus on the third photograph (cf. 1997: 294), which Hirsch finds “particularly disturbing in that it stages, performs the identity of the camp inmate. Vladek wears a uniform in a souvenir shop in front of what looks like a stage curtain; he is no longer in the camp but he reenacts his inmate self even as he is trying to prove – through his ability to pose – that he survived the inmate’s usual fate” (2011: 39). Spiegelman chose this uncomfortable picture, which proved Vladek’s survival to his wife Anja, to mirror the complicated relation between reality and the medium of comics: Spiegelman also tells true stories through fake images. While the medium of comics is often compared to film or prose, the truth claims of autographics can be efficiently explored through a study of photography, which is often the first step in autobiographical work anyway.

Contrary to the widespread belief that autobiographers just write what they know, whereas biographers engage in meticulous research (cf. Smith & Watson 2010: 6–7), Bechdel compiled a massive archive and “did some standard detective work”, such as looking up her “Dad’s police record and his college transcript” (Chute & Bechdel 2006: 1006). To accomplish these tasks, she had to occupy several roles: autobiographer and biographer, writer and researcher, daughter and ←399 | 400→detective. Her research was motivated by a desire, bordering on obsession, to find “evidence of her father’s secret life that was hidden in their everyday interactions and rereading family photographs for evidence of his covert homosexuality” (Watson 2011: 138). Bechdel appropriates these images in service of a specific family genealogy, recovering a direct link between herself and her father, which she actively constructs, for example by putting two photos next to each other to suggest similarities (cf. Bechdel 2007: 120). Watson is intrigued by “Bechdel’s ‘interested’ act of looking at a resemblance that viewers may find less evident” (2011: 144). Her best piece of circumstantial evidence and the starting point of the entire project is presented as the centrefold of the comic (cf. 2007: 100–1). Bechdel’s single-minded pursuit and specific point of view are not unusual for auto/biographies at all; they are only more visible in Fun Home. Nancy Pedri observes that Bechdel’s work “exposes her awareness that the ‘facts’ about her life are merely what she perceives to be true, that her narrative and the past experiences that give rise to it are relentlessly framed by her own aspectuality” (2015: 130). Instead of hiding this fact, she ostentatiously signals her presence in the text through incessant verbal narration. Like Harvey’s ‘voice’ in American Splendor, Bechdel’s prose is quite unique. In contrast to Pekar’s efforts to make his soliloquies sound like the spontaneous ruminations of a disgruntled, middle-aged everyman, Bechdel’s verbal style foregrounds how carefully edited, aloof and stilted it is – or seems. The very first sentence reads: “Like many fathers, mine could occasionally be prevailed on for a spot of ‘Airplane’ ” (2007: 3/1). This unusual formal register adds a level of mystery, otherworldliness and drama that would be lost when using more contemporary prose. It demonstrates that the verbal texts of comics are as carefully arranged as the visual signs. It also serves as a connective tissue to the countless intertextual references to world literature.

Bechdel integrates her remediated photographs in two distinct ways: as thematic anchors on the title pages of the seven chapters and as ‘evidence’ throughout the narrative. Bechdel shares her motivation to integrate the former in an interview with Hillary Chute:

These are photos that feel particularly mythic to me, that carry a lot of meaning. They felt like a natural part of the story, somehow. At some point I just realized they’d work really nicely as chapter heads. I also like the way they anchor the story in real life – the book is drawn in my regular cartoony style, but the photos are drawn very realistically. It’s a way to keep reminding readers, these are real people. This stuff really happened. (Chute & Bechdel 2006: 1009)

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In this passage, Bechdel reveals how she understands and feels about the photos in, and their importance to Fun Home as its author/protagonist. To readers, the same textual elements may appear in a different light.

When readers encounter Bruce Bechdel on page 1 of the book (2007: 1 → Fig. 20), the image is neither mythic nor a ‘natural part of the story’. Despite Bechdel’s effort to add photo corners (cf. Chute 2010: 179), readers may not immediately understand the status of this drawing. They are more likely to interpret the chapter title “Old Father, Old Artificer” as a caption and maybe an ironic comment on the picture, provided that they are related. Without anchorage, this “photograph is only a fragment, and with the passage of time its moorings come unstuck. It drifts away into a soft abstract pastness, open to any kind of reading”, as Sontag observes about homeless pictures in general (2008b: 71). Even if we naïvely accepted this reproduction of a scanned page of an original drawing of ←401 | 402→a photo of a man (who might be the eponymous father) as the real thing (cf. McCloud 1994: 24–5), the way that Bechdel approaches the narrative is so obviously artistic and constructivist in intent that the reason for its inclusion cannot be documentary evidence. As Watson correctly observes, she is interested in her father’s new role in a queer family history, in which he represents a first, but ultimately failed step in a direction that Bechdel herself was willing to take. Chute argues that “Fun Home is about the procedure of close reading and close looking. The narration of the book is rooted in acts of looking at archives” (2010: 182), but it has to be said that Bechdel is highly selective, “reading photos for their transgressive content” (Watson 2011: 135). At one point Chute implies that the material did not remain untouched when Bechdel “re-created absolutely everything in the book, reinhabiting the elements of her past to re-present them – and to preserve them, to publically rearchive them” (2010: 185–6). Such a process naturally involves selection, blending and rearrangement. Bruce Bechdel’s ‘mythic’ presence on page one only makes sense in retrospect.

While the title pages remediate isolated photos as material anchors, supporting the auto/biographer’s meaning-making rather than the readers’, the chapters feature contextualised photos that are more directly intended to “anchor the story in real life” (Chute & Bechdel 2006: 1009). Since Bechdel attempts to rewrite her family history as a queer genealogy, the photographic evidence she offers to readers has to ground the newly-discovered similarities between Alison and Bruce in reality. While she tells her own coming-of-age story in a largely chronological manner, the chapters represent tentative approaches to her father’s personality, a shared homosexuality and his potential suicide. The text obsessively returns to these concerns and each chapter either begins or ends with one of them. Bruce Bechdel dies and reappears again and again. This also highlights the curious temporality of auto/biographies, where key events that have already happened, are going to happen and will do so forever, in the eternal presence of the scenes we read.

Since Bechdel’s mappings between the two lives are not materially manifest, but very real to the auto/biographer, she seeks to recreate her own process of discovery by inviting the same blends that have already led to global insight in her own case. An obvious example is the arrangement of two remediated photos next to each other (cf. 2007: 120/2) that depict Bruce and Alison in what she considers to be almost the same situation during a previous stage of their lives. However, I would like to discuss a panel in which she equally attempts to decrease the distance between the two, but through very different means (cf. 2007: 150/3 → Fig. 21). The third panel of this page is low on the modality scale, which creates an effect of amplification through simplification: through the use ←402 | 403→ ←403 | 404→of silhouettes, Alison can become a smaller version of her dad. Significantly, it is she who leans over and desires to be closer to him. This conceptual metaphor of spiritual communion is being physically close plays a role throughout the book (cf. 2007: 3–4, 22, 54, 86, 120, 124, 150, 189, 218–21, 225, 230–2). It reveals Bechdel’s attempt to rewrite history by selecting, reworking and adding scenes that suggest Bruce Bechdel’s homosexuality and a much stronger bond with her father. The mass of meticulously reproduced evidence appears next to such imagined scenes, which raises the question of how the two modalities blend together. Watson explains the co-presence of such heterogeneous elements in the following way:

I think about autographical practice as a visual and comparative act: by contrasting Bechdel’s drawings of photographs (no actual photos are reproduced) as archival documents with the cartooned story of a remembered – and fantasized – past, we can observe how she reinterprets the authority that photos as “official histories” seem to hold, and opens them to subjective reinterpretation. In her focus on varying visual versions of her father and her wildly changing impressions of him (recorded in her diary) at different moments, Bechdel composes a textured autobiographical reflection that moves by an ongoing process of her own recursive reading. (2011: 133)

Watson’s description of autobiographical work “as a visual and comparative act” (2011: 133) is very astute, as subjects contemplate different aspects of their lives together – literally, in the form of photographs and documents, or figuratively, as mental spaces in their working memory. She also discusses modality in the context of blending, which becomes relevant both during production and reception. The building blocks of auto/biography are usually of various modalities, from hard facts via speculations to wishes and desires. Instead of solving the ‘puzzle’ beforehand, autographers can use the double page of comics to lay out tentative blends or just the various input spaces to involve readers in the process of meaning-making. There are three basic ways in which cartoonists can suggest specific readings: the selection of elements (Iser’s repertoire), layout and foregrounding, but also adjustments to modality. By lowering the modality of the evidence through hand-drawn reproduction, Bechdel not only makes the facts personal (graphiation), but she also facilitates blending. Her uniform style integrates heterogeneous matter into what looks like a seamless presentation – despite extensive quilting. This humanises and subjectivises the facts, but it also glosses over the more speculative aspects of the narrative. Fun Home is a prime example of ‘emotional truth’: throughout, readers acquire a profound understanding of how Bechdel feels about her past and the awkward relationship with her father, but it is by no means a documentary of what really happened. The mixed modalities of Fun Home remind readers of the ambiguity that is inherent ←404 | 405→in all life narratives and the necessity to make facts serve a narrative purpose. Liz Stanley argues that the “ ‘truth’ about the totality of a life all depends on the viewpoint from which it is examined” (1992: 6), which serves as a meaningful transition to the next topic.

5.3 Authenticity & Emotional Truth

In her article “The Entangled Self: Genre Bondage in the Age of the Memoir” (2007) Nancy K. Miller uses Stephen Colbert’s neologism “truthiness” (2007: 538) to refer to a tendency in recent life writing to take some liberties with the concept of authenticity. The American Dialect Society, which voted ‘truthiness’ the 2005 Word of the Year, defines the winner as “the quality of stating concepts or facts one wishes or believes to be true, rather than concepts or facts known to be true” (Metcalf 2006: 1). This is a widespread phenomenon on social media, where people seek confirmation of their beliefs rather than an open-minded exchange of ideas. If we accept Charles Hatfield’s conceptualisation of autographics as being mainly concerned with “emotional truths” (2005: 113; see also Miller 2007: 543), then the allegation of ‘truthiness’ may not be far-fetched. However, Miller’s ultimate point is not to criticise auto/biography for failing to provide documentary evidence, but to encourage literary critics, journalists and common readers to develop a more realistic and differentiated understanding of what autobiographies can and should be (cf. 2007: 545). This is reflected in an ongoing “expansion of autobiography studies” that now “includes dramatic developments in the equally rich and interdisciplinary domains of memory studies, trauma and testimony, law and ethics, illness and disability, ethnography, performance, and visual culture” (2007: 545). Despite this impressive list of academic fields and potential approaches, Hatfield’s simple observation provides a much appreciated first orientation when facing autobiographical comics. In El Deafo, which deals with Cece Bell’s loss of hearing at the age of four, the artist describes the veracity of her account in the following way:

El Deafo is based on my childhood (and on the secret nickname I really did give myself back then). It is in no way a representation of what all deaf people might experience. It’s also important to note that while I was writing and drawing the book, I was more interested in capturing the specific feelings I had as a kid with hearing loss than in being 100 percent accurate with the details. Some of the characters in the book are exactly how I remember them; others are composites of more than one person. Some of the events in the book are in the right order; others got mixed up a bit. Some of the conversations are real; others, well, ain’t. But the way I felt as a kid – that feeling is all true. (2014: 236)

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There are two basic insights to take away from this: truth is always mediated and the power of narrative is not the accurate representation of facts and figures, but a notion of what it feels like to be another person under very different circumstances. Referring to the centrality of the father-daughter relationship in Bechdel’s Fun Home, Miller comments that “in autobiography the relational is not optional. Autobiography’s story is about the web of entanglement in which we find ourselves, one that we sometimes choose” (2007: 544). No other medium foregrounds its artistic transformation of reality to the same extent that comics does.

Practically all theorists of autographics have broached the issue of authenticity and dedicated whole chapters to the idea (cf. e.g. Hatfield 2005: 108–27; Versaci 2007: 34–80; El Refaie 2012: 135–78). Here is Duncan, Smith and Levitz’s summary of the major arguments:

A comic is not a recording of what happened: it is a drawing of what the cartoonist remembers doing and feeling. […] A memoirist’s experiences are always mediated through memory and the motives of self-presentation, but in a comics memoir the presentation of those experiences is also shaped by the encapsulation, layout, and composition choices demanded by the comics form. (2015: 243)

This logic applies to all examples, no matter how truthful and authentic the protagonists appear to be, as the material has to be shaped in one way or another to become a work of art. Narrativisation is not a flaw or defect, but a creative step that makes the experientiality of other people’s lives accessible in the first place. John Dewey conceptualises the relationship between experiences and art in exactly the same manner: “The subject-matter of experiences of childhood and youth is nevertheless a subconscious background of much great art. But to be the substance of art, it must be made into a new object by means of the medium employed, not merely suggested in a reminiscent way” (2005: 118). Based on gestalt psychology, reader-response critics consider selection and foregrounding as two key mechanisms of turning reality into art. Duncan, Smith and Levitz apply a similar logic to the creation of autobiographical comics:

The act of molding experience into a coherent narrative requires a selective and distorted presentation of an already imperfectly remembered reality. Even Harvey Pekar, who felt his American Splendor stories presented an accurate and honest account of the mundane events of his life, could not show every moment of even a minor incident. He always had to make decisions about which moments of his real life experience to emphasize (and perhaps enhance) and which moments to totally omit. […] The memoirist has to shape incidents into a narrative and that often requires creating connections between incidents that did not exist in real life. (2015: 244)

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Since autographers are likely to understand their craft and are painfully aware of the slow process of translating personal experiences into drawn images, the question arises how cartoonists approach ‘truth-telling’ in their work, conscious of the fact that it is not possible in a naïve sense. With Fun Home we have seen a hybrid approach that combines the meticulous recreation of documentary evidence with the imaginative exploration of a queer family history centred around a close father-daughter relationship. In the following I focus on the extreme poles of this spectrum by looking at “strategies of authentication” (El Refaie 2012: 138; see also 143–72; Pedri 2015: 128; Stanley 1992: 110, 128), which cartoonists more or less consciously employ to convince readers of the veracity of their narratives, and strategies that subvert authenticity by foregrounding the metaphorical nature of all auto/biographical writing.

Autobiographers, who have spent a lifetime blending heterogeneous experiences of various younger selves into one potential narrative, have to decide whether to stay true to the facts or the tellability of this story, true to the mess that comes with multiple social entanglements (cf. Miller 2007: 544) or to the clarity of a neat sequence of events that inevitably leads to a predetermined conclusion. Spiegelman’s decision to foreground the father-son relationship as the centre of MAUS, against the backdrop of his family’s tragic history, forced him to pay less attention to other social relations, such as his roles as husband, father and (step-)son, which automatically diminishes the role of women in the book (cf. Hirsch 2011: 35–6). Accordingly, they are “made to have only shadowy existence” (Stanley 1992: 9), which seems appropriate for his dead mother, but clearly less so for his wife, daughter and stepmother. Deliberately, the narrative is not about them, despite the fact that, at the start of his exploration of their shared family history, he had rarely maintained any contact to his father for at least two years and did not know him very well (cf. Spiegelman 1997: 13/1). This has important repercussions on the narrative, as Art approaches the project with some critical distance, almost like a journalist, tape-recording interviews and documenting his research, while at the same time being directly affected by the tale as Vladek’s son. Thus, the truthfulness of the tale becomes explicitly tied to his father’s ability to remember his life ‘correctly’ and Art’s skills as a cartoonist to render it in a medium that was still associated with escapist fiction and childish entertainment. The practices of truth-telling and questioning the reliability of both memory and representation are bound to the specific content, the relationship between the two characters and the narrative medium. Spiegelman’s strategies of underlining and undermining are also tied to the generic hybridity of the text – both autobiography and biography – and his dual role as journalist and son – both observer and subject of the family history, a genetic piece of ←407 | 408→evidence. Spiegelman’s metanarrative passages, but especially METAMAUS, provide a counterbalance to these ambiguities and difficult decisions by opening the archive to the general public and commenting on the process of creation.

El Refaie dedicates a whole chapter of her book to the idea of “Performing Authenticity” (2012: 135–78), which she understands as an ongoing negotiation between auto/biographer and reader, concerning the framing of the narrative and its truth claims: “being authentic is not about being as true as possible to a coherent and stable inner self; rather, it is something that is performed more or less convincingly and either accepted or rejected by an audience” (2012: 138). These ‘performances’ are not exclusively paratextual or metanarrative, but constitutive elements of the auto/biographical text itself. There is a wide spectrum of what readers may understand as ‘authentic’, which has to do with the word’s several contradictory meanings: it usually refers to the real and original, in the sense of not being a copy. However, it may also be used for faithful reproductions, such as authentic Mexican cuisine in other countries. A third possibility is the idea of an authentic self, in the sense of ‘staying true to oneself’. All of them rely on an essentialist notion of identity or quality. For El Refaie, these definitions are unsuitable for a discussion of auto/biographical writing, for which she replaces the notion of essence with performance (cf. 2012: 138). According to this logic, self-presentation is successful when it is convincingly performed (cf. 2012: 141) and readers feel that they can trust the auto/biographer. El Refaie names a dozen strategies that are meant to signal to readers that what they are holding in their hands may not be an exact replication of what happened to a particular person, but that it is sincere and trustworthy enough to warrant their sustained interest. Hatfield argues that critical readers are unlikely to confuse hand-drawn images with reality anyway, as “first-person prose invites complicity”, but “cartooning invites scrutiny” (2005: 117). In a more ironic tone he adds that “what passes for frankness in comics must be a matter of both subjective vision and graphic artifice, a shotgun wedding of the untrustworthy and the unreal” (2005: 118). In the following, I discuss some of the major strategies that cartoonists may employ to enter a negotiation with readers concerning the veracity of their narratives.

The most obvious strategy of authentication is to classify a book as an autobiography and/or non-fiction on the cover. In The New York Times Book Review pages of 8 December 1991 the second part of MAUS was listed as fiction, as some journalists could not conceive of a comic with mouse characters in it as anything else. Spiegelman wrote a letter to the editor in which he thanks “The Times for its recognition and support”, but complains about “seeing a carefully researched work based closely on my father’s memories of life in Hitler’s Europe and in the ←408 | 409→death camps classified as fiction” (cf. 1991: n. p.). The New York Times online archive also provides the editor’s response to Spiegelman:

The publisher of “Maus II,” Pantheon Books, lists it as “history; memoir.” The Library of Congress also places it in the nonfiction category: “1. Spiegelman, Vladek -- Comic books, strips, etc. 2. Holocaust, Jewish (1939–1945) -- Poland -- Biography…. 3. Holocaust survivors -- United States -- Biography….” Accordingly, this week we have moved “Maus II” to the hard-cover nonfiction list, where it is No. 13. (1991: n. p.)

This illustrates that the negotiation of what counts as fact or fiction is not limited to the personal communication between author and reader, but affects cultural and commercial practices. It is one thing for a publisher to promote a comic book as ‘memoir’ and ‘history’ (cf. Spiegelman 1997), but quite another for the New York Times and the Library of Congress to confirm these genre labels. This put booksellers in the awkward position of having to decide where to place copies of MAUS in the shops. In the ‘history’ section they would still cause outrage, but they were equally out of place among novels or children’s books. Today, MAUS is grouped together with all other comics in the newly introduced ‘graphic novels’ section of bookshops, which privileges medium over content and still evokes the wrong associations. Auto/biographical comics can contribute to important debates about the artificial fiction/non-fiction divide and genre labels in general. There are legitimate concerns that ‘truthiness’ and ‘fake news’ obliterate the border between fact and fiction, which may lead to attempts to present them as diametrically opposed, but students have to become critical readers of all texts and this negotiation has to take place in the classroom.

Most autographical texts are classified as ‘memoirs’ (cf. MAUS, Fun Home, Tomboy), which is an ambiguous term itself, if we follow Duncan, Smith and Levitz’s definition:

In an autobiography there is an emphasis on documenting one’s life, providing facts about events, whereas the writer of a memoir is often more concerned with conveying her or his feelings about events. […] An autobiography usually spans all of the person’s life up to the point of the writing. A memoir usually covers a much shorter span of time, and often focuses on particular life-changing incidents and their consequences. (2015: 230)

This distinction may be misleading as it attaches truth value to (historical) text types instead of considering authenticity as a stance and performance, whose veracity has to be negotiated between readers. Since paratexts are likely to present authors’ preferred labels, the publishers’ marketing terms and/or critics’ classifications, it may be worth studying them comparatively.

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Blankets is introduced as “an illustrated novel” on the cover, which is in line with the key words ‘graphic novels’, ‘cartoons’ and ‘fiction’ that the publisher chose for its categorisation. The critics, however, who are quoted on the back cover, understand it as an autobiography and a very personal story. The truth is that the line between fact and fiction is hard to draw in this case and calling Blankets a novel solved a number of practical problems that may have arisen were it promoted as ‘the truth’ about his family. Thompson did not ask any of the represented people for permission, including Raina, so for legal reasons alone it made sense to call it a work of fiction. In the interview with Michael Whybark Thompson admits that it was “creepy enough that [he] made this book without her permission” (cf. 2003: transcript 7). He also removed his sister for conceptual reasons, ignored the fact that he did not even attend school in his final year before graduating from high school (cf. 2003: transcript 6) and even used his girlfriend at the time of writing to sit for him and portray the character of Raina. Thompson even had to redraw a number of pages from the early chapters to make Raina’s look more consistent across the narrative, as she began to look more like Thompson’s new love interest (cf 2003: transcript 7). What may sound counterintuitive was motivated by a desire to (re)capture his original infatuation by tapping into his feelings for his new girlfriend. He felt that the narrative would become more authentic and truthful that way. My point is not to discredit Thompson, but to illustrate the complex processes of turning personal experiences into a work of art and then having to maintain the integrity of the narrative. There are no easy answers and the meaning of the text cannot be fixed through labels.

Another obvious way to convince readers of the truthfulness of the narrative is to have the narrator declare that all of what they are about to read really happened (cf. El Refaie 2012: 145). Authenticity as a gamble is prominent in postmodern autobiographies, such as Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, which begins with the lines: “All of this happened, more or less. The war parts, anyway, are pretty much true” (1991: 1). In J.M. DeMatteis and Glenn Barr’s Brooklyn Dreams the narrator starts with a similar declaration:

This is the story of what happened to me during my senior year in high school. Now, everything I’m about to tell you is true, I swear it. But the problem is – I don’t really believe that there’s any such thing as a ‘true story.’ Perception is limited. Memory is faulty. I think the moment the words come out of our mouths, we create something wholly different from the truth we’re trying to communicate. A shadow-show of reality. A waking dream, if you will. (2003: n. p. [p. 1])

←410 | 411→

Two pages later the narrator walks onto a stage, ready to draw the curtain and reveal his childhood, when he remembers a book he once read in which an old man commented on his autobiographical tales in the following manner: “Call this memoir fact, fairy tale, or whatever else may give you comfort, […] but know that there are moments that remain true under any classification” (2003: n. p. [p. 3]). Together with the theatre metaphor of life is a stage there may not be a better introduction to a comics autobiography than this one. While it is almost expected to start a postmodern text with metanarrative commentary, most memoirs just begin somewhere. Since comics do not depend on a verbal narrator, captions may indicate times and places without providing any commentary for several pages (cf. Liz Prince’s Tomboy, Raina Telgemeier’s Smile). An explicit declaration of veracity may even have the opposite effect of raising doubts.

A third possibility is to be disarmingly, painfully and/or brutally honest about your life. While this cannot grant autobiographers privileged access to what happened, readers may find this kind of confessional writing and drawing more believable as the artists are willing to reveal the unpleasant or shameful aspects of their lives. Harvey Pekar’s American Splendor perfected such an approach early on, which started a long tradition of “self-portraits in autographics” that “are deliberately ironic and self-deprecatory” (El Refaie 2012: 148). A more widespread practice is to depict autobiographical reasoning itself – the act instead of the product – which allows autobiographers to include doubts, false starts or blends that are tentative at best. Nancy Pedri is convinced that this strategy dominates in Bechdel’s Fun Home: “the narrator builds credibility by questioning her writing while she writes, by recognizing that the very act of making sense of her self and her history is part of the problem” (2015: 133). Instead of undermining her authority, Pedri argues, Bechdel strengthens her position: “Authority and doubt thus unite to ensure credibility” (2015: 134).

Another simple strategy is to use the name of the autobiographer for the narrator and the protagonist. In Tomboy, both the cartoonist’s younger self and the narrator are explicitly labelled “LIZ PRINCE” and referred to as “I” (cf. 2014: 11–12). This may seem almost too obvious to include, but my reading of Angela’s Ashes has shown that the use of the personal pronoun camouflages the heterogeneity of identities and represents a narrative strategy that encourages blending and viewpoint compression. In Blankets, which is marketed as a novel, the protagonist is still called Craig. This suggests that authenticity, like salience or modality, is a scale and that different textual elements may invite different readings. The exact opposite is also possible: a book can be marketed ←411 | 412→as an autobiography, but the protagonist has a different name. This applies, for example, to Eddie Campbell’s Alec books (cf. 2009):

… for years Eddie Campbell shared incidents and insights from his own life using the “character” Alec MacGarry. An avatar with a different name might be used because the author wants to maintain some emotional distance from the protagonist or wants to emphasize that while the story is representative of their experiences it is not an absolutely factual account. (Duncan, Smith & Levitz 2015: 239)

Another example is Peter Kuper’s Stop Forgetting to Remember (2007), in which he uses ‘Walter Kurtz’ as his alter ego. Both strategies are clear reminders that readers should not take the narrative as factually true in every respect.

Apart from the name, a visual resemblance between cartoon selves and artists is an obvious indicator of authenticity. Kuper includes a split-portrait of himself on the back flap of the cover that combines a hand-drawn self-representation as Kurtz with a photo of himself, which serves as a playful reminder that his disguise is intentionally thin (cf. 2007: back flap → Fig. 22). At the same time, it offers an incredible liberty, as writers do not have to pretend that they are producing a history book.

A visual correspondence between real-life author and protagonist may seem to constitute a basic requirement for any autobiographical comic to be believable at all, but we have already encountered the most important exception to ←412 | 413→the rule: MAUS. However, there are more exceptions to the rule than one may think. James Kochalka’s highly influential diary comic American Elf (1999–2012) features the main characters as elves, in Cece Bell’s El Deafo (2014) all characters are anthropomorphic rabbits and Malik Sajad’s Munnu (2015) depicts the citizens of Kashmir, including Sajad’s own family, as endangered deer.

Comics may be the only mass medium that allows for such a wide range of metaphoric expression. Rocco Versaci adds that, traditionally, we “associate comics with talking animals or superheroes”, which means that “we come to the medium with certain assumptions about the form. Specifically, we see comics as a metaphoric interpretation of reality and are therefore accepting – whether we are aware of it or not – of the subjective nature of ‘truth’ in comics” (2007: 74). This is just one of the reasons why I am reluctant to separate ‘graphic novels’ from comics, as many phenomena only make sense with some understanding of the form’s history.

The next strategy is to recreate scenes with such a level of detail that readers begin to understand them as faithful representations of what transpired. While it is quite impossible to accurately remember long stretches of dialogue, dramatisation can trick readers into believing that entire scenes naturally play out in front of their eyes. Based on Amy Spaulding’s The Page as a Stage Set (1995) I have argued that comics largely rely on externalisation, embodiment and performance. This form of decompression creates the illusion of time-travelling and directly bearing witness to events as they are unfolding. Yet, to get at the emotional core of scenes, cartoonists have to use their art. This dilemma is perfectly expressed in El Refaie’s notion of authenticity as performance. Readers are willing to believe things as long as they are successfully staged/presented.

A photorealistic style could signal that what readers are witnessing is real, as images with a high modality are understood as iconic and as references to a reality outside of the book, whereas Spiegelman’s mice, for example, suggest a metaphorical or symbolic approach (cf. El Refaie 2012: 152). From a practical point of view, Bechdel’s meticulous recreations of photos and other pieces of evidence are tedious to execute, so the norm is rather cartooning and amplification through simplification. John Porcellino’s work may seem overtly child-like (cf. 2005: n. p. → Fig. 23), not to say primitive, at a first glance, but his minimalist style is very precise and representative of cartooning in general.

As a strategy, the idea is that ‘graphiation’ conveys more of the creator’s personality and attitude through style than an orientation towards photorealism ever could. Hillary Chute avoids the term and rather speaks of “handwriting”, but the effect is described in very similar terms: “That the same hand is both writing and drawing the narrative in comics leads to a sense of the form as diaristic; there ←413 | 414→ ←414 | 415→is an intimacy to reading handwritten marks on the printed page, an intimacy that works in tandem with the sometimes visceral effects of presenting ‘private’ images” (2010: 10; see also Chute & DeKoven 2006: 767). This personal touch and “subjective mark of the body”, Chute argues, “is rendered directly onto the page” and thus “underscores the subjective positionality of the author” (2010: 11). I have already discussed this point in the previous part. While it is true that graphic styles communicate a lot more than the monotony of standard fonts in prose fiction, I am more inclined to follow El Refaie and treat them as a resource or strategy that can be used in various contexts and for different purposes. Craig Thompson’s travel diary Carnet de Voyage (2006), for example, contains a plethora of more realistic drawings, as he was collecting material for his new book Habibi at the time. Since cartoonists are usually excellent draftspersons and their styles deliberate choices, Thompson’s sketches look different from the cute cartoon style he prefers for most of his narrative work, but which we also find interspersed throughout Carnet. In the following panel, Thompson uses a clash of styles to contrast his lowly upbringing with the glamorous photo-shoot in Paris that produces images hardly reconcilable with his self-image. Both poses are exaggerations and thus stereotypes (cf. Mitchell 2010: 263): the celebrated graphic novelist and the “country bumpkin” (2006: 22/2 → Fig. 24). Adrielle Mitchell describes the image in the following terms:

Thompson presents us with [an] unambiguous representation of split identity. The juxtaposition […] is terrific: the more faintly drawn tractorriding double rests his bare feet on ‘Craig’s’ suited shoulders. What an apt illustration of double consciousness made more interesting by what the graphic medium allows. Drawing permits Thompson to personify a psychological state and insert the figure into the representation of a realistic scene. Thus can a panel, too, carry double identity, setting two scenes simultaneously: an objective one based on memory, and a subjective one based on a state of mind. (2010: 263–5)

Mitchell’s description is very accurate, but if we acknowledge the panel as a tentative blend, there has to be emergent structure. Fauconnier and Turner name three processes that facilitate “the creation of new meaning in the blend” (2003: 20): they are composition, completion and elaboration (cf. 2003: 42–4; Evans & Green 2006: 409–10). Composition refers to the phenomenon that structures from the input spaces have already been projected, which places them in a direct relation to each other. Craig’s alter ego – the country bumpkin – does not appear in a thought balloon, which would have kept the two modalities and forms of focalisation (visual & mental) neatly apart. He does more than rest his feet on Craig’s shoulders: he weighs him down. It is the happy-go-lucky Midwestern farm lad that is having a good time, completely oblivious to what is ←415 | 416→going on in the wider world. Craig, however, seems downcast, feeling the pressure of handling social encounters and contractual obligations for which his upbringing did not prepare him. It has become a burden that he cannot easily shake off. Completion can be achieved by adding additional cognitive frames and input spaces that may provide further structure and background knowledge and thus stabilise the blend. For readers of Blankets, the country bumpkin is incompatible with the way Thompson presents himself in his other autobiographical comic – an artist among a Christian farming community. Mitchell is right in ←416 | 417→observing that Craig feels “ill at ease and awkward in Europe” and that he “seems to be nationally self-conscious” (2010: 263). In Europe, the auto-stereotype of being an American redneck seems to come first. While the verbal narrator identifies with the lad on the tractor, cartoon Craig is haunted by what seems to represent his upbringing and background. In Blankets, Thompson often feels out of place and ashamed of his own inadequacy, which is mirrored in some of these experiences abroad. Maybe the two modalities also express a tension relating to his status as an artist. They are representative of comics, in which stereotypical characters do not even speak proper languages and lead solipsistic lives, and ‘real’ art that has immediacy and transacts with the world, where people speak French and lead exciting lives.

Elaboration is the third process that is involved in ‘running the blend’. New meanings may emerge by thinking further along the lines that have been established. Thompson’s pose is awkward. He keeps his hands in his trouser pockets, forgets to look at the camera and the right leg in front of his body causes an imbalance. What does the photographer see? Why is the pose “parfait”? The photographer looks equally ridiculous in his attempt to get the best ‘glamour shot’. Craig looks like his teenage self to me, still awkwardly out of touch, introverted and slightly out of his league. I called Thompson’s panel a tentative blend, as it compresses and condenses information, but leaves room for interpretation. It requires more cognitive effort and study than expected. The verbal text suggests a simplistic reading, but there is more going on. Looking at the image from the point of view of autobiography, both versions of Craig are wrong. It is the image of the rockstar graphic novelist that Casterman, his French publisher, tries to push that leads to self-deprecation and shame. In Carnet de Voyage Craig’s identities are free-floating. While the more realistic style that he uses for portraits of friends, street scenes and other impressions ground the book in reality, his cartoons (e.g. 2006: 40, 86–7,118–9, 139) provide a look inside of Craig’s mind.

Moving away from style, the next strategy of authentication is to reproduce photos or other documents that may serve as evidence. I have already discussed their narrative functions and forms of integration in section 5.2.4. El Refaie suggests that artists draw “on the mythical status of photography as a particularly authentic medium” (2012: 138), but the higher modality that photos provide is just one more resource, not a pocket of truth in a cartoon narrative. She argues that the exact opposite may have the same effect: by “adopting an ostentatiously naïve cartoonish drawing style or by employing deliberately incongruous elements” (2012: 138) cartoonists foreground the impossibility of recovering the past, which “may come across to the reader as a particularly sincere form of authenticity” (2012: 138–9). To some readers, a deliberately naïve or amateurish style ←417 | 418→may have the same effect as a metanarrative comment on the impossibility of remembering one’s entire life in accurate detail: a welcome recognition of human limitations.

A similar sign of honesty is to open the archive to the public and let the readers see for themselves. This corresponds to Stanley’s argument in favour of more critical editions and Spiegelman’s decision to publish METAMAUS. Readers get to see the backstage area, where autobiographical acts are rehearsed and tested. They see the contradictions and the doubts, the limitations of memory and the unavoidable choices that have to be made when personal experiences have to serve the requirements of a compelling story. This openness signals honesty and reliability. Autobiographers could take this approach one step further and actively undermine any claim to veracity through irony and blatant exaggeration (cf. El Refaie 2012: 167). In chapter 19 of Thinking, Fast and Slow, entitled “The Illusion of Understanding”, Daniel Kahneman offers a devastating view of human understanding, which suggests that irony is indeed the only way to approach one’s memories:

You cannot help dealing with the limited information you have as if it were all there is to know. You build the best possible story from the information available to you, and if it is a good story, you believe it. Paradoxically, it is easier to construct a coherent story when you know little, when there are fewer pieces to fit into the puzzle. Our comforting conviction that the world makes sense rests on a secure foundation: our almost unlimited ability to ignore our ignorance. (2012: 201)

A postmodern or ironic approach to auto/biography is incompatible with Liz Stanley’s feminist view on authorship and experience, but she cannot deny the facts: “if memory is necessarily limited, and fictive devices are always necessary in producing accounts or our selves, then all selves invoked in spoken and written autobiographies are by definition non-referential even though the ideology of the genre is a realist one” (1992: 62). She also acknowledges the constructivist nature of the autobiographical act: “Memory’s lane is a narrow, twisting and discontinuous route back through the broad plains of the past, leading to a self that by definition we can never remember but only construct through the limited and partial evidence available to us – half-hints of memory, photographs, memorabilia, other people’s remembrances. Autobiography and biography are as one here” (1992: 62; see also 99). And, yet, from an enactivist point of view this cannot be entirely true. There have to be experiences that shape humans, their bodies and minds, in such dramatic and/or permanent ways that the embodied nature of the experience exceeds the question of how ←418 | 419→accurately autobiographers can remember details of their past. Stanley extends this logic to the basic experiences of everyday lives:

However, ordinary social life and interaction takes it as axiomatic that these accounts or versions are contingent upon real events: births and deaths, shopping and childcare, loving and hating, work and holidays, rapes and assaults, elections and wars, and all the other material events that are lived (and died) by people. What those feminist theorists influenced by postmodernist and deconstructionist thinking seem decidedly in danger of forgetting or even denying is that this ordinary and extraordinary material world exists and is prime – not the world of texts. (1992: 93–4; see also 109)

For Stanley, who is aware of the problems of mediation, embodied experience is central and worth reporting: “Autobiographical textuality is neither deterministic of a life nor (usually) a complete invention: in autobiography graph is predicated upon bio, writing upon life, and not the other way about” (1992: 110). Stanley urges readers to consider “what the denial of authorship actually does” (1992: 16), as it silences a lot of voices that have not been heard in the first place and devalues what they might have to say. For “a few white middle class male first world elite self-styled ‘intellectuals’ ”, she argues, the death of the author is indeed a “very convenient death” (1992: 17).

5.4 Autobiographical Selves

Paul John Eakin observes that “the writing of autobiography is properly understood as an integral part of a lifelong process of identity formation in which acts of self-narration play a major part” (1999: 101). Therefore, the starting point for any autobiographical project is not a fragmented assortment of random pieces of evidence, but a “megablend”, which “is giving the best global insight into the entire network” (Fauconnier and Turner 2003: 151). Autographers start with a hypothesis, in the purest form just a label like Tomboy or The Quitter, which they explore through elaborate ‘backward projection’ (cf. 2003: 44; Evans & Green 2006: 410). Barbara Dancygier provides an excellent illustration of how autobiographers can work through their memories and past lives by decompressing their sense of a unified self into various personalities and identities in the narrative:

While any person normally conceptualizes herself or himself as one entity, whose physique, mental ability, style of clothing, et cetera are blended into one unique whole, there are situations when we see various aspects of our identity as independent. […] One’s sense of uniqueness is a result of a highly compressed blend but it is natural to decompress that whole when need arises, if only to be able to recognize the changes that inevitably occur. Decompression is thus the flip side of compression in that our need to ←419 | 420→achieve a holistic understanding of complex phenomena has sometimes to give in to the need to appreciate their inner complexity. (2012: 100)

Backward projection means that official documents, other people’s narratives, material anchors and memories are scrutinised in view of the blend, which may have an impact on the perceived value of clues. For a convincing narrative, most of them have to point in a particular direction. This entails a return to former stages of one’s life, which automatically requires an engagement with one’s previous social identities and roles. Sometimes a new piece of evidence, a crisis situation and/or a serious threat to one’s life may question the current understanding/blend and require a lot of autobiographical work leading up to a reconstitution of the self. In both cases, the process may lead to a reconfiguration: the viewpoint of the investigator drives the collection and integration of suitable material, whereas surprise discoveries or new leads may inevitably require reblending. In any case, autobiographers have to lay out the evidence in front of the readers’ eyes in various degrees of compression or dramatisation. Since all narratives are unavoidably perspectival, the question arises who presents whose experiences for what purpose.

In my brief discussion of the first few sentences of Frank McCourt’s memoir Angela’s Ashes, I made a point of the multiplicity of ‘I’s in autobiographical narratives, which Smith and Watson discuss at some length (cf. 2010: 71–9). While most readers do not require more than a simple distinction between narrating I (now) and experiencing I (then), a narratological analysis can become quite complicated in prose fiction and almost impossible in autobiographical comics, where focalisation is always layered instead of clearly attributable. For the moment, I would like to discuss Smith and Watson’s basic classification to arrive at a better understanding of what is involved. Instead of the two ‘I’s presented above, they extend the list to four: the historical I, the narrating I, the narrated I and the ideological I (cf. 2010: 72). Commenting on the flesh-and-blood author of a life narrative they observe that he or she is “unknown and unknowable by readers and is not the ‘I’ that we gain access to in an autobiographical narrative” (2010: 72). Autobiographers always write/draw during a particular stage of their lives and with a particular goal in mind, which has to have an influence on their work. At the same time, a few hundred pages of content only allow for one consistent narrative, not for a detailed portrayal of an entire life. As we have seen with Spiegelman’s MAUS, the chosen path has long-lasting effects on the selection and presentation of the available material.

In contrast, the ‘narrating I’ is the person who tells the story. They explain that “the narrating ‘I’ calls forth only that part of the experiential history linked to ←420 | 421→the story he is telling” (2010: 72). In prose autobiographies it may be possible to equate the verbal narrator with the “implied author”, which El Refaie defines as “the reader’s mental image of the person responsible for the selection and combination of events in a work” (2012: 57). I have referred to this autobiographical I as the ‘autobiographer’, who is the person engaged in extensive autobiographical work in preparation for the book, who creates the layout, determines a style, selects the episodes, the modality, the red threads etc. This is not the real-life author, but only the person working on the book. This becomes evident when reading or viewing conversations with autographers. In the interview with Craig Thompson Mike Whybark asks: “Uh – to what extent did you like, consciously shape and re-form your autobio? How great a degree of difference is there between the character of Craig in BLANKETS and the artist that invented that character?” (2003: transcript 6). Like most general readers, Whybark is interested in the narrating I versus the experiencing I, but Thompson’s answer reveals an added layer of complexity: “That’s another good question. And important to add to it – the character of Craig in the book is Craig in 1994, versus Craig ten years later. […] They’re definitely different characters” (Thompson qtd. in Whybark 2003: transcript 6). Thompson’s use of ‘character’ may be ambiguous here, but I am convinced that he refers to the narrator. While the role of verbal narration is strongly diminished in a book like Blankets, American Splendor, Tomboy and Fun Home feature highly intrusive narrators that even appear as characters in the text in the first two cases. However, if we treat the narrator as another character, who produced the pages of the book?

In Author and Narrator: Transdisciplinary Contributions to a Narratological Debate (2015) Dorothee Birke and Tilmann Köppe collect a number of interesting articles that address the question whether there always has to be a narrator present in fiction – no matter which medium – or whether he or she is optional. The first approach is called “pan-narrator thesis (PN)” and the second “optional-narrator thesis (ON)” (Köppe & Stühring 2015: 13). In the same volume, readers find an article by Frank Zipfel, “Narratorless Narration? Some Reflections on the Arguments For and Against the Ubiquity of Narrators in Fictional Narration”, that provides some basic orientation. Zipfel presents a broad and a narrow view of narration (cf. Zipfel 2015: 49–50): since narratives are always mediated, there is automatically narration. This is the broad view. If narratologists insist on a person, whose presence has to be detectable in the text, we have a narrow view. A third option would be no-narrator theories (NN) (cf. 2015: 46), which claim that film without voice-over, for example, does not have a narrator at all. Zipfel is not interested in the question whether there is a narrator in a text or not, but more so in how that could be proven. What he really wants to know is whether it ←421 | 422→is “legitimate, advisable or helpful to assume a fictional narrator or a narratorial instance” (2015: 47). He discusses five candidates for the role of narrator: (1) the author; (2) the implied author; (3) a mediating narrative instance; (4) a verbal narrator; (5) no one. I have already ruled out the first option (cf. 2015: 52–6), so the implied author is the next possibility. Zipfel’s ‘argument’ is so unusual, that I quote the whole passage:

According to this assumption, the act of narration (be it homodiegetic or heterodiegetic) is attributed neither to the author nor to the narrator but to this third instance called the implied author. But as the implied author is a very controversial concept and as the function it is supposed to fulfil in the present context, i.e. to serve as a communicative agent, is one of the most contested ones in the debate, I do not see any point in discussing this possibility. (2015: 56–7)

I am fully aware of the debates, which Zipfel lists as references in footnote 41 (cf. 2015: 57), but the point of this thesis is to find a meaningful reader-response approach to autobiographical comics and in this context the implied author makes more sense than in classical narratology. I return to this argument after the overview.

The third option is related to the pan-narrator (PN) thesis. Köppe and Stühring provide several arguments why readers may assume that there is some form of a shaping agent, even if readers cannot link that to a particular voice in the text (cf. 2015: 13–16). If, for pragmatic reasons, readers assume that there is some form of narrator, who should not be called the (implied) author and cannot be called the narrator, as it does not have a voice, the solution is to refer to it as a non-anthropomorphic ‘mediating narrative instance’. Based on film narratology, Markus Kuhn and Andreas Veits argue in favour of such an approach in the case of comics narration (cf. 2015: 240), for which they have to split the concept into verbal and visual narrative instances, of which only the latter is constitutive (cf. 2015: 237). Here is their definition:

In this context, the term ‘visual narrative instance’ (hereafter ‘visual NI’) neither refers to an anthropomorphized narrator concept nor an (audio)visual narrative instance realized through camera and post-production technology. Rather, it refers to an abstract concept which serves to describe the diverse narrative functions of visual acts of representation in comics. (2015: 240)

I do not see the advantage of divesting textual structures of human intentions, only because they cannot be attributed to a verbal narrator and the implied author is out of the question for unspecified reasons. When Nancy Pedri argues that “a diegetic self, and not a real self, is the focal point and the filtering mind of graphic memoir” (2015: 145), whom could she mean if not he-who-must-not-be-named?

←422 | 423→

The fourth possibility is the optional-narrator (ON) thesis, which Köppe & Stühring explain in the following manner: “There is a fictional narrator if, and only if in the fiction there is someone who tells the story that the reader reads” (2015: 13; cf. Zipfel 2015: 46). For comics, this would mean that the presence of a narrator depended on the inclusion of ‘voice-over’ narration in text boxes, which would be absurd, as verbal and visual signs are inseparable. The final option is the no-narrator (NN) thesis (cf. Zipfel 2015: 46), which simply claims that if there is no verbal narrator in the story, then there is none. This is an option for film scholars who consider the pan-narrative approach, involving a mediating narrative instance, of little use.

El Refaie’s solution for comics is the entangled writer/cartoonist, the implied author, whom I call ‘autobiographer’. In Franco-Belgian comics studies this entity is often referred to as the ‘meganarrator’, whose duties encompass both telling/narrating (recitant) and showing/visualising (monstrator) (cf. El Refaie 2012: 57; Groensteen 2013: 84–6, 88–90). Calling the implied author ‘meganarrator’ may bring the concept in line with narratology, but it does not solve the problem that a real author sits down and creates a text with a clear artistic vision in mind and a communicative purpose. Whether this is compatible with the belief system of some narratologists or not should not be a reason for dismissing the obvious. In “Who’s Telling the Tale? Authors and Narrators in Graphic Narrative” Jan-Noël Thon comes to the same conclusion, which is that “the verbal-pictorial representation of a graphic narrative can usually be attributed not to a (fictional) narrator, but to the author or author collective of the graphic narrative in question” (2015: 87). I would like to add that Lynda Barry’s One! Hundred! Demons! contains photographic evidence (cf. 2002: 218, 224) that Lynda Barry produced the artwork at a certain point in her life and not the meganarrator or the NI. The biggest problem of narratology is the exclusion of real authors (and readers) from any theoretical consideration which forces scholars to attribute everything to either the narrator or the text, which is not compatible with comics studies. Concerning autobiographical narratives that have a writer and several artists attached to it, such as Harvey Pekar (writer), Dean Haspiel (artist), Lee Loughridge (grey tones) and Pat Brosseau’s (letters) The Quitter, it is obvious that Pekar provided the verbal narration and an outline for the book, but that Haspiel’s responsibility was to create the visuals. Thus, a split into different responsibilities, such as recitant and monstrator makes sense, as they are perceived as such by the creators. Yet, these are artists in real life, not types of narrators.

I use the surnames of writers/cartoonists to refer to their roles as implied authors or autobiographers. Verbal narration, embodied or disembodied, is a narrative resource that they can work with or not. This may seem like a dramatic ←423 | 424→departure from prose autobiographies, where nothing exists outside of first-person verbal narration, but I am not even sure about that. Generally speaking, auto/biographers make use of all the narrative resources that the media they work in afford. These could be paint on canvas, words on pages or cartoon drawings in sequence. Prose autobiographers also select a narrative path, a stance/attitude and a prose style (cf. Sontag 2009b), decide what to leave out and what to include, determine where and when to start, choose photos for reproduction etc.

If we recall Wolfgang Iser’s view on perspectives, he treats the narrator as just one resource that should not be confused with the meaning of the narrative:

As a rule there are four main perspectives: those of the narrator, the characters, the plot, and the fictitious reader. Although these may differ in order of importance, none of them on its own is identical to the meaning of the text. What they do is provide guidelines originating from different starting points (narrator, characters, etc.), continually shading into each other and devised in such a way that they all converge on a general meeting place. We call this meeting place the meaning of the text, which can only be brought into focus if it is visualized from a standpoint. Thus, standpoint and convergence of textual perspectives are closely interrelated, although neither of them is actually represented in the text, let alone set out in words. Rather they emerge during the reading process, in the course of which the reader’s role is to occupy shifting vantage points that are geared to a prestructured activity and to fit the diverse perspectives into a gradually evolving pattern. (1980: 35; see also 21, 47, 96)

The emergent meaning in the blend, he explains, transcends any of the input spaces, including the narrator. This way, Iser’s approach treats narration on the same level as characters or themes. They are all narrative resources, which means that the adjective ‘narrative’ becomes detached from the narrator. In service of a compelling story, prose autobiographers heavily rely on the narrator, of course, but this does not mean that no other perspectives or points of view can exist.

Smith and Watson complicate the identity of the narrator further by arguing that “the narrating ‘I’ is an effect composed of multiple voices, a heteroglossia attached to multiple and mobile subject positions, because the narrating ‘I’ is neither unified nor stable. It is split, fragmented, provisional, multiple, a subject always in the process of coming together and of dispersing” (2010: 74). In consequence, “the narrating ‘I’ is a composite of speaking voices” (2010: 74). It would be more accurate to say that the ‘I’ of autobiography is fragmented, not the narrator. In life writing, autobiographers present themselves as a variety of identities and voices, usually in the form of narrators and characters/younger selves. Since these identities are not random and writers have an overall plan, textual structures invite a certain reading of the text. James Phelan criticised the ←424 | 425→first edition of Reading Autobiography for leaving out the concept of the implied author in the typology of autobiographical ‘I’s:

If we accept the claims that the historical I is unknown and inaccessible, and that the narrating I may adopt multiple voices, we also must recognize that there is another, knowable agent involved: the one who determines which voices the narrator adopts on which occasions – and the one who also provides some guidance about how we should respond to those voices. That agent, as I argued in the previous chapter, is the implied author. (2005: 68–9)

In the second edition of their book Smith and Watson respond to Phelan’s suggestion, but their defence is incomprehensible to me (cf. 2010: 76), so I attempt to clarify the problem using Barbara Dancygier’s terms. The fragmentation of the self into various identities and voices is an expected result of decompression. To make one’s experiences vicariously accessible to the reading public, autobiographers have to arrange the material and dramatise scenes. They make use of all the narrative resources that media provide to set up an experience for the readers and guide them in their construction of a consistent narrative. Since readers cannot keep track of more than a few perspectives at the same time, they begin to compress the viewpoints into tentative gestalten, first for single narrative spaces and, progressively, for the entire text. Since narrative art is a guided experience, it is likely that readers arrive at a general understanding of the text that resembles the autobiographer’s initial intentions, but other aspects of a reading remain idiosyncratic experiences with the text.

Versaci argues that “comics are capable of demonstrating a broader and more flexible range of first-person narration than is possible in prose” (2007: 36; see also 38–44), for which Duncan, Smith and Levitz provide an overview of possibilities:

The Narrating I tells the story to the reader. This is most often achieved through “voice-over” narration that appears in captions. (However, as noted above, captions are not always synonymous with a narrator.) Sometimes, the Narrating I addresses the reader through word balloons emanating from an avatar that steps in and out of the diegesis (the world of the story), sometimes representing the protagonist of the story and sometimes representing the narrator of the story […]. In other instances the narration in word balloons is spoken by a separate avatar (distinct from the protagonist avatar). This avatar is usually drawn to look like the memoirist looks at the time of the creation of the memoir … (2015: 239)

To illustrate how this diversity manifests in autobiographical texts, I discuss some sequences from Harvey Pekar and Dean Haspiel’s The Quitter. The very first page suggests a chance encounter with the ‘real’ Harvey Pekar, who somewhat reluctantly turns to the readers and begins his narration in speech balloons ←425 | 426→(cf. 2005: n. p. [p. 1]). The fourth panel also introduces a frame behind Harvey that works as a metaphor on a number of levels. It marks an important step in Harvey’s transformation from a real person into the narrating ‘voice’ of this comic book – despite the fact that, ontologically, there is no difference between the four panels. Readers can see that the lower part of his body is still there, but outside the frame, which demonstrates how narratives rely on selection (repertoire) and foregrounding. His stance, verbal behaviour and eye-contact with readers signal his willingness to take on the role of narrator – after some hesitation in the third panel, which is still unframed. From the next page onwards, verbal narration moves to captions, until Harvey reappears and comments on the events in person. These metanarrative passages show an intrusive narrator whose appearance and form of address remind readers of who he is, which creates a translinear series (braiding). However, these panels do not only provide verbal commentary, but interact visually with neighbouring panels that belong to the ongoing narrative (cf. 2005: n. p. [47/4–6]). One double page shows the narrator looking backwards – literally – as a metaphor for remembering past events, which appear as unframed panels inside a black space that represents the canvas of memories inside of Harvey’s head (cf. 2005: n. p. [p. 36]). It is important to distinguish between Pekar and Haspiel as the auto/biographers (implied authors), the older Harvey as the (intrusive) verbal narrator and various younger Harveys as the experiencing ‘I’s.

Since I consider the ideological ‘I’ (cf. Smith & Watson 2010: 76–8) to be part of the implied author, the last autobiographical ‘I’ is the “narrated ‘I’ ”, which is “the protagonist of the narrative, the version of the self that the narrating ‘I’ chooses to constitute through recollection for the reader” (2010: 73). Smith and Watson insist that – in the case of young Frankie in Angela’s Ashes (cf. McCourt 1999: 19), for example – the “child narrating ‘I’ of the storytelling is an ‘I’ constructed by the experienced narrating ‘I’ to represent the meaning of that narrated child’s experience” (2010: 75). In other words, the younger selves are personae in the original Latin sense of the word (personare – to sound through): characters in a stage play through which the implied author can speak. The same applies to the verbal narrator, of course. In Pekar and Haspiel’s The Quitter, the older Harvey is still just a character that has been created by the auto/biographers for specific narrative purposes. The narrated I, the protagonist, is not a single entity, but a whole series of younger selves with their own experiences and points of view (cf. Hatfield 2005: 126). Rocco Versaci identifies “five versions of Art” in MAUS (cf. 2007: 87) and Mitchell “three figurations” (2010: 263) of Craig in Carnet de Voyage. Both scholars use viewpoint compression to explain how readers arrive at an understanding of the autobiographical I. Versaci proposes that we “assimilate ←426 | 427→these different images insofar as we recognize that they are versions of the same person” (2007: 87) and Mitchell argues that “we simultaneously follow the progress of each figuration, and conjoin all representations into a composite, layered version of Thompson’s self” (2010: 263).

These characters are “enactors” (Emmott 2004: 182) that autobiographers employ to perform particular roles in the staged recreations of their lives: “As a narrative progresses, time is always moving onwards and new events are occurring, so the character representation is constantly changing, with new past ‘personalities’ being constantly added” (2004: 181). Duncan, Smith and Levitz equally define the function of characters as actors in a play: “The Experiencing I is the protagonist of the narrative. In comics, the Experiencing I is represented by an autobiographical avatar, a performance of an earlier self enacted by dialogue, thoughts, attitude, and, in comics, an image that appears on the page or screen” (2015: 238). However, it would be a misconception to associate these scenes with naturalism. They are highly metaphorical and condensed, with enactors/avatars frequently communicating and emphasising key themes through body codes. Cartoonists tend to embrace “a less literal, more expressionistic, presentation of one’s past self” (2015: 239; see also 256–7) to facilitate legibility. This is going to be a major focus of the next chapter, so I turn my attention to the question whether readers experience these younger selves as separate entities, which takes us to the importance of focalisation in comics – for the last time.

In contrast to prose fiction, focalisation in comics is always multi-layered and overlapping (cf. Mikkonen 2008: 312; 2012: 71; 2017: 154). This has to do with the interplay of verbal and visual signs, but also with the question of what critics consider to be relevant forms of (subjective) perception: do they limit it to a literal point of view or perspective, which is called ‘ocularisation’ (cf. Jost 2006; Mikkonen 2017: 157–60) or “optical perspectivation” (Horstkotte & Petri 2011: 331), or should other sense impressions, emotional responses, cognition, ideological orientation and value judgements be included as equally relevant? (cf. 2011: 331) To what extent is ocularisation related to and representative of subjectivity? As we have seen, Alan Palmer uses the term “aspectuality” (2004: 52) to cut across narratological categorisations and to foreground the perspectives of characters as unified wholes that find expression across the whole spectrum of verbal and visual signs in comics, often in combination.

The problem with a traditional narratological approach to focalisation is perfectly captured by Horstkotte and Pedri: “Indeed, for signals of focalization to be registered by readers, there has to exist an aspectuality-neutral background against which the subjective inflection is introduced” (2011: 335). They associate the neutral or impersonal background with the narrator, which does not make ←427 | 428→sense in the context of autobiography, as the verbal narrator is neither neutral nor the only channel through which the story is conveyed. James Phelan’s argument in favour of acknowledging an implied author in Frank McCourt’s Angela Ashes addresses the problem that the narrator is as unreliable as the protagonist (cf. 2005: 67), which makes it impossible to define a neutral ground. As soon as Horstkotte and Pedri present their first case study, Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, they run into the same problems:

The protagonist’s confusions, interpretive difficulties, and mental turmoil are signaled both verbally and visually throughout the graphic narrative. Although undoubtedly indicating focalization, it is not always immediately obvious whether the mental processing originates within the experiencing or the narrating-I, whether it constitutes a character-bound or a narratorial focalization. At least in part, this ambiguity results from its non-realist, cartoony style that largely eschews perspectival construction in favor of two-dimensional surface impressions, thereby challenging assumptions about the primacy of optical perspectivation in visual focalization. Rather than relying on the perspectival construction of panels to individuate sources of focalization, Satrapi often uses visual metaphor and symbolism to indicate an aspectuality that is not always easily attributable to a specific character. (2011: 337)

I find Horstkotte and Pedri’s failure to apply narratological concepts to autographics illuminating, as they manage to demonstrate that comics is a different medium altogether, that there is no neutral ground and that in many cases it is not even possible to ascribe focalisation to a single agent. Subjectivity, like salience or modality, is a scale and not a dichotomy between subjective and objective. It is interesting that the title of their essay is “Focalization in Graphic Narrative”, but that their first two examples are Persepolis and MAUS, which represent a genre rather than a form. They struggle with the fact that Art Spiegelman appears on all levels of narrative transmission, but they do not keep the various roles sufficiently apart: “While Vladek functions as the intradiegetic verbal narrator, Artie is both the extradiegetic verbal narrator (in text boxes) of the 1980s storyline and the visual narrator – i.e., drawer – of the extra- and intradiegetic narratives” (2011: 339). If author, narrator and character are identical, as they suggest, and Spiegelman mediates his father’s narration of what he had experienced, then the “familiar problem of distinguishing between character-bound and narratorial focalization in graphic narrative (or, in the case of graphic memoir, between the focalization of an experiencing-I and that of a narrating-I) reaches a new level of complexity” (2011: 340). Spiegelman is the auto/biographer who created and published MAUS in the 1980s and early 90s. Artie is both a verbal narrator and a character in the narrative, just like his father Vladek. In their roles as narrators and characters they are Spiegelman’s ←428 | 429→creations and personae. Everything we read is filtered through Spiegelman’s consciousness at that point in his life, even his father’s narration, which is based on audio recordings. The ‘meganarrator’ who produced both words and visuals can be reconstructed based on the traces he left in the book, including his choice of style and depicting Jews as mice, but he is not a definable entity in the book, despite the fact that his impact on focalisation is huge. The implied author is the only way to acknowledge this presence, but also readers’ individual constructions of it.

Cartooning grants a lot more flexibility, especially in terms of experimentation and exaggeration, of which auto/biographers make ample use. In visual terms there is no objective world against which the subjectivity of the characters can be foregrounded, as the externalisation of emotions, thoughts and attitudes is seamlessly integrated into the overall design. In Blankets, bullies push Craig down a steep slope – head first – until he hits the ground about two to three meters below them (cf. 2007: 23–4). Instead of dying or becoming quadriplegic, he has a nosebleed. His father does not literally grow to three times his usual size when he gets angry (cf. 2007: 13) and Craig does not shrink when he feels ashamed (cf. 2007: 202–7). There are no monsters in the cubby hole (cf. 2007: 16), Craig’s head does not dissolve when he has an identity crisis (cf. 2007: 59), and there are no sharks coming out of his mouth (cf. 2007: 60). All of these scenes are part of the main ‘objective’ narrative and not marked as a dream sequence or altered state. The subjectivity of experience that critics would like to ascribe to a character is as much a narrative strategy of autobiographers who metaphorically express how they think they felt at the time. To cut a long argument short: comics persistently sacrifice objectivity in favour of emotional truth. Image schemas and conceptual metaphors play a central role in externalising inner states. Readers simply accept the fact that the characters in Art Spiegelman’s MAUS have animal faces or that half of the time we see characters against a blank background. Foregrounded subjectivity is an auto/biographer’s acknowledgement of specific sources or a deliberate attribution of consciousness. When Artie confronts his father Vladek with doubts about what he is narrating (cf. e.g. 1997: 210, 228), readers are presented with two clearly marked subjective views, but this neither clarifies the truth-value of Vladek’s statement, nor does it prove the objectivity of everything else they have witnessed. In the end, markers of subjectivity belong to the larger operation of building a relationship with the readers and gaining their trust over time.

Another attempt to grasp focalisation in comics is Mikkonen’s exclusive focus on ocularisation, to make a finer-grained analysis possible and “to contribute to a more rigorous visual narratology” (2012: 72). At first, Mikkonen states that he intends to “discuss these aspects in relation to storytelling in a holistic sense, ←429 | 430→as part of the interplay between different visual and verbal semiotic resources contributing to the narrative” (2012: 72). This is immediately followed by a qualification: “However, I must make one further note: In what follows, I will be operating with a consciously limited notion of focalisation, restricted to questions of access to perception in strict sensory bounds” (2012: 72). Mikkonen is aware of the fact that an aesthetic reading is incompatible with the kind of analysis he pursues, which is one of the key arguments I have been making throughout. Gérard Genette was one of the first who proposed that narration should be distinguished from focalisation (cf. 1983: 186), to “avoid the too specifically visual connotations of the terms vision, field, and point of view” (1983: 189). Therefore, he describes ‘internal focalisation’ as “Internal analysis of events” early in the chapter on perspective, to counteract any wrong associations with the question “who sees?” (1983: 186). Later he declares that internal focalisation is only fully realised in interior monologue (cf. 1983: 193), which is a rendering of characters’ thoughts and feelings rather than of their vision. It is often claimed that Genette later “redefined” (Mikkonen 2012: 73) the concept, but I believe that he only specified what he had meant in the first place. Following Mikkonen, focalisation is reduced to a simple relation in the following paragraphs: types of shots and subjectivity.

Mikkonen argues that “graphic storytelling, when it comes to the visual perspective of the narrative, uses an extremely rich and complex scale of potential intermediate positions between the subjective or internal focalization on the one hand, and clearly non-character bound perspective or external focalization on the other hand” (2012: 83). He takes a list of shot types that are familiar from film studies and looks at their use in comics, together with their potential to express subjectivity. He starts with what seems to be a safe bet, that “the point of view shot (POV) is the most internal and subjective perspective in film narratives. It assumes the viewer’s position; the image frame functions as the representation of someone’s gaze and a field of vision” (2012: 84). Interestingly, the transmedial narratologist Jan-Noël Thon argues that the POV shot “still represents an intersubjectively valid version of the storyworld, albeit from the specific spatial position and resulting ‘visual perspective’ of a particular character. Hence, [… it] may be considered the least subjective of the pictorial strategies of subjective representation” (2014: 73; see also Wilson 2006: 84–5). Thon believes that subjectivity is tied to “the consciousness of the characters” (2014: 67), which explains why the POV shot has little to offer: Viewers do not learn anything about characters’ thoughts and feelings when they are looking away from them. This can be remedied with the help of a “perception shot” (Mikkonen 2012: 86), which is a specific type of POV shot that also “reveals the mental condition of ←430 | 431→someone looking at something” (2012: 86). Thon follows George Wilson who states that “subjective enhancements and distortions of the character’s field of vision” (2006: 85) can turn a point-of-view shot into a subjective shot, which means that it visualises how the world is perceived in addition to what a character sees. In other words, it combines internal ocularisation with internal cognitive focalisation.

Next in line is “the gaze shot” (Mikkonen 2012: 84), which shows a character looking at something. This is the exact opposite of the POV shot: we now have access to characters’ faces and may even discern a reaction, but we have no idea what they are looking at. The “eyeline shot/match cut” (2012: 84) – a combination of the first two – provides the only meaningful way of employing these shots, as viewers need to see who looks at what and how they react to it. In this sense the ‘gaze shot’ should better be a close-up or medium shot combined with a “reaction shot” (2012: 85) to grant the audience access to the characters’ facial expressions and feelings. The “over-the-shoulder shot” (2012: 84) places viewers somewhere near the character, so that they get to see parts of the character’s body and what he or she is looking at. Depending on the utilisation of body codes, which may be discernible from behind a character’s back, this might reveal more about a character’s interaction with the environment than a POV shot.

The most complicated of these shots is what Wilson calls an ‘impersonal subjectively inflected shot’ (cf. 2006: 87) which combines a perception shot with external ocularisation focusing on the character who is experiencing the situation. While we look directly at a character, his or her subjective experience of the scene is visualised, so that we find a combination of external ocularisation with internal focalisation. Jan-Noël Thon calls such a “subjective representation, in which the pictorial representation simulates (quasi-)perceptual aspects of a character’s consciousness without also simulating his or her spatial position, ‘(quasi-)perceptual overlay’ ” (2014: 75). When we see Craig Thompson’s brother Phil staring in utter horror into the cubby hole (cf. 2007: 16), and having his fears represented as monsters at the same time, we get a perfect example of ‘(quasi-)perceptual overlay’. Again, what is easy to read, is hard to describe in technical terms. While the layering of focalisation is treated as a rare exception in narratology, it is a widespread phenomenon in comics.

There is an obvious mismatch between how (transmedial) narratology approaches comics and how readers understand them. This is perfectly encapsulated in the following statement by Horstkotte and Pedri: “if readers fail to ask who focalizes each of the repetitions [of the initial murder scene in Watchmen], then a crucial dimension of the story is lost on them. Focalization is the narrative tool that makes it possible for readers to experience what the storyworld is ←431 | 432→and feels like, thus ensuring their engagement with it” (2011: 349). First of all, they confuse aesthetic and efferent reading or, more specifically, transaction and narratological analysis. Then they wrongly assume that narratological analysis has to come first for readers to enjoy a narrative and have any experience at all. Tied to that is the implicit assumption that only an elaborate study of the text can guarantee a ‘proper’ understanding, which propagates a deficit model of reading. In this sense, common readers always fail to live up to the expectations of narratologists. However, it is a perfectly acceptable reading in the case of Watchmen that we first do not know who killed the Comedian and later on we do, because the murderer confesses his deed (cf. Moore & Gibbons 2005: chapter xi, 24–6). My criticism is not directed against narratology itself, to be perfectly clear, but against the idea that it is closely tied to reading and dominates readers’ experiences of texts.

Returning to my example from Blankets, even a small child can understand this situation of being afraid of sleeping in a dark room in which monsters may hide under the bed. This feeling is instantly relatable and accessible through personal experience or countless narratives that foreground how young children are afraid of the dark. If critics apply theories of focalisation to comics, it is important not to lose track of the larger picture, as an analysis of single panels and their visuals can become very elaborate without much added benefit. Mikkonen’s list of shots demonstrates that most of them only make sense in combination and that the context clarifies many issues that seem unnecessarily complex in isolation. He ultimately concedes that the study of particulars does not lead to the expected results:

In comics, therefore, the processing of narrative information involves paying attention not just to the distinction between Who perceives? and Who narrates? but to the interplay between a narrative voice, a verbal focaliser, a centre of visual perception (the visual focaliser), a centre of attention (the visual focalized), and the image field seen in the picture frame. We have to take into consideration the multiple ways in which the textual element (by which I mean written and drawn language) and visual focalisation interpenetrate each other and thus allow a multiplication of perspectives by way of typography, page and panel setup, and other means. (2017: 154)

Despite this intricate layering, Mikkonen believes that we get “a sense of the prevailing frame of perception” by assuming a “global frame of narration that enables us to estimate the meaning and importance of the alternating perspectives at the micro-level of the narrative” (2012: 71). In other words, unless a specific point-of-view is explicitly foregrounded, we do not even notice the layers of aspectuality as separate, but ‘estimate the meaning’ by blending them into a single perspective, a process that Dancygier calls ‘viewpoint compression’. In contrast to the ←432 | 433→auto/biographer who engages in an act of self-exploration and decompression, readers have to synthesise a viewpoint that allows them to make sense of individual scenes by compressing the aspectualities of different characters and scenes into a superordinate viewpoint. Following Palmer I would argue that characters, most obviously in auto/biography, play a central role in narratives and that Iser’s gestalt-forming involves a synthesis of aspectualities.

Mikkonen is clearly torn between aesthetic and efferent reading: as an avid reader of comics he experiences flow and the ease of reading, while he finds mindboggling complexities as an analytical narratologist. At one point he asks: “when or why do we stop worrying about who sees and perceives, meaning worrying about the identity of the see-er, since the question is not relevant for understanding the story?” (2012: 71). Building on Fludernik’s ‘natural’ narratology, Mikkonen suggests that the source of the information may be less significant than what we learn about a character: “What may be much more important is how the reader, or the viewer of visual narratives, gets optimal information about a character’s consciousness, his or her motivations, thoughts and perceptions” (2012: 74; see also 2017: 153). As I tried to illustrate with a reading of Phil’s emotional state in part 4, there is an enormous gap between an understanding of what is happening in a scene as compared to an analysis of how this is technically encoded. In educational settings, narratology ceases to be helpful as a practical tool in support of readers’ transactions with a text, when it invites a classification of visible phenomena that runs counter to a holistic understanding. At the same time, it is a valid task to hand out comics pages and have students highlight perspectives and selves in different colours to illustrate the fact that we experience them as separate entities and ‘voices’, and that there may be a tension between some of these elements. In most cases, basic thoughts, emotions and attitudes should be easily recognisable from body codes, situational contexts and direct speech.

5.5 Embodiment & Enaction

In the second chapter of Reading Autobiography, entitled “Autobiographical Subjects”, Smith and Watson define six “concepts helpful for understanding the sources and dynamic processes of autobiographical subjectivity” (2010: 21), which are memory, experience, identity, space, embodiment and agency (cf. 2010: 21–2). Out of these, embodiment seems to be a natural choice for a discussion of autographics. Confirming this prioritisation, El Refaie dedicates a long chapter to “Picturing Embodied Selves” (cf. 2010: 49–92), as readers of autobiographical comics cannot escape the necessity to read bodies as major carriers of ←433 | 434→literal and metaphorical meaning. Smith and Watson address the misconception that “subjectivity and life writing have little to do with the material body”; on the contrary, “life narrative is a site of embodied knowledge” and “autobiographical narrators are embodied subjects” (2010: 49). Smith and Watson’s other five categories are completely dependent on the physical existence of an autobiographical subject in the world. The body constitutes an archive of memories and experiences, retained in multiple ways, a source and contested site of identity, and the instrument of agency in one’s social and physical environment. In this chapter I am especially interested in three particular contexts: the communicative potential of bodies in graphic memoirs; a fresh look at dramatisation and acting out scenes from the past; and the special case of illness and disability. Before I engage with these more comics-related issues, it is necessary to briefly contextualise my reading of characters in a broader (cognitive) context.

In their introduction to Characters in Fictional Worlds, Jens Eder, Fotis Jannidis and Ralf Schneider provide a helpful overview of how characters and their (re)presentations have been conceptualised in various narrative media (cf. 2010). They define four basic approaches – hermeneutic, psychoanalytic, structuralist/semiotic and cognitive, but the overall aim of this collection is to bridge the gulf between the four and work towards a more integrated approach (cf. 2010: 5). All three scholars underline the centrality of characters in contrast to fictional worlds theories, in which they are just “component parts” of story worlds (2010: 7), and to plot-oriented approaches, where characters are reduced to mere functions (cf. 2010: 21–3). They also stress thematic concerns over action/plot: “In many artworks and media products, it is not action that is the organizing principle, but a theme or an idea, and the characters in these texts are determined by that theme or idea” (2010: 46). This is especially important in the context of autobiography, as we have seen.

Eder, Jannidis and Schneider also embrace Catherine Emmott’s theory of contextual frames (cf. 2010: 28–9), which is a pleasant surprise, as it requires a departure from more traditional narratological approaches. It means that readers learn about characters through their entanglements and social interactions. This is clearly motivated by the broader scope of the book, which includes visual narrative media. Accordingly, they have to work with an understanding of ‘characterisation’ that relies on various means of (re)presentation (cf. 2010: 30–4). They even argue that it should be “re-conceptualised as a process to which both the text and the recipient contribute” (2010: 34). This combination of a semiotic and a cognitive approach is very welcome. They are more reluctant, however, to support the hermeneutic approach, which propagates a reading of characters as if ←434 | 435→they were real people. Eder, Jannidis and Schneider find the confusion of reality and art suspicious (cf. 2010: 11, 16), which they express in the following passage:

The differences between characters and real persons come to the fore if we systematically consider the ways we understand and talk about them. Theories of reception stress the fact that we understand characters on several levels: Viewers, readers, listeners or users do not only grasp a character’s corporeality, mind, and sociality in the (fictional) world. They are building on those processes to understand the character’s meanings as sign or symbol, and to reflect on the character’s connections to its creators, textual structures, ludic functions, etc. (2010: 15)

While the overdetermination and artful arrangement of textual elements is undeniable, I would still argue that readers understand social encounters in narrative fiction by relying on the skills they have acquired in real-life situations, which includes body codes that are highly relevant in comics. I fully agree with the observation that symbolism and metaphor build on these basic processes and image schemas.

In his article “Encountering People through Literature” (2008) Herbert Grabes makes a valid point that most of what he said about the experience of literary characters in 1978 under the influence of reader-response criticism is now presented as brand-new insights under the label of cognitive literary studies (cf. 2008: 126, 131, 133). Grabes promotes a concept of art as experience that corresponds to John Dewey’s notion that art and life should not exist in separate spheres (cf. 1978: 407). Contrary to most narratologists, he cherishes literary critics’ and general readers’ ability to experience characters on stage or in films without analysing what they see. In other words, he defends aesthetic reading against narratological approaches that treat works of art as sources of information (cf. 2008: 137). Instead of slotting new data into mental models (cf. Schneider 2001: 620; Eder, Jannidis & Schneider 2010: 35), Grabes conceives of the reading process as a form of synthesis (cf. 1978: 420–1), which is another word for gestalt-forming or blending. Grabes is unique in this way as he witnessed the heyday of reader-response criticism in his own academic career and later on read all the major works of cognitive literary studies (cf. 2008: 138–9). It is not surprising that he finds many parallels.

Commenting on Palmer’s fictional minds, he regrets the fact that “the bodies of literary characters […] are practically absent in all the studies of literary character based on the cognitive-science paradigm” (2008: 136). Grabes makes a strong argument in favour of embodiment, as “it must not be forgotten that in the life-world we depend absolutely on what we get via the senses and that our cognitive strategies have been developed accordingly” (2008: 136). Since he ←435 | 436→draws close parallels between people and literary characters, he claims the same level of embodiment for the latter: “Like people in the life-world they normally have both body and mind, an outer and an inner life, and literary texts provide information about the one or the other or usually both” (2008: 125). This returns us full circle to the question of embodiment in graphic memoirs.

Elisabeth El Refaie observes that “the requirement to produce multiple drawn versions of one’s self necessarily involves an intense engagement with embodied aspects of identity” (2012: 4). The body becomes a complex sign system that can be flexibly used for various purposes. The most mundane and obvious one is a resemblance to the author, which El Refaie lists as one of many strategies of authentication (cf. 2012: 147). Secondly, for the “Character as a Means of Narrative Continuity” (cf. Mikkonen 2017: 90–108) and Thierry Groensteen’s ‘iconic solidarity’ (cf. 2007: 17–20; 2013: 12, 33–5), they have to look sufficiently similar in adjacent panels, but also across the entire network. At the same time, we have already seen anthropomorphic animals standing in for auto/biographical selves or Thompson’s willingness to sacrifice verisimilitude in favour of pure emotional expression. Charles Hatfield recognises this disparity between authentication and exaggeration:

Despite the implied claim to truth that anchors the genre, the autobiographer’s craft necessarily includes exaggeration, distortion, and omission. Such tendencies become doubly obvious in the cartoon world of comics, in which the intimacy of an articulated first-person narrative may mix with the alienating graphic excess of caricature. One may fairly ask how a cartoonist can use these disparate tools without seeming to falsify his or her experience. If autobiography promiscuously blends fact and fiction, memory and artifice, how can comics creators uphold Pekar’s ethic of authenticity? How can they achieve the effect of “truthfulness?” (2005: 114)

What Hatfield is interested in is how the interiority of characters, which is crucial to the genre, can be expressed through the exteriority of cartoon drawings that are far from realistic. Hatfield’s phrasing is interesting in this context: “We see how the cartoonist envisions him or herself; the inward vision takes on an outward form” (2005: 114). The metaphor of the self-image becomes literal in comics. What readers observe in autobiographical comics is not what happened, but how the autographer understands his or her younger self at a particular point in time. Instead of a photorealistic representation we are confronted with a visual externalisation of how the autographer – at the time of writing/drawing – feels about a situation in the past. This complicated ontological status of the images is not automatically transparent to readers, despite the fact that the panels cannot be documentary in any straightforward sense. Since the style – of which cartooning is a major aspect – expresses the attitude and the feelings of the autographer ←436 | 437→towards the past, more than the attempt to present ‘the truth’ (cf. Etter 2017), readers are not meant to understand visualisation at face value: it is all expression, concept & design. This includes the self-image of the cartoonist, which can turn into “self-caricature” and “parody” (Hatfield 2005: 114), a strategy to distance oneself from the younger self or to allow for greater openness or a confessional style (e.g. Justin Green’s Binky Brown) through exaggeration.

The worldview of the autobiographical subject, often a confused young naïf, contrasts with the more mature and comprehensive, or simply more jaded, view of the author. In comics, this sense of otherness may be enacted by the tension between representational codes: the abstract or discursive (the Word) versus the concrete or visual (the Picture). Such verbal-visual tension opens up a space of opportunity, one in which pictorial metaphors can multiply promiscuously, offering a surreal or wildly subjective vision to counterbalance the truth claims that certify the text as autobiographical. Thus bizarre, “unrealistic,” and expressionistic images may coexist with a scrupulously factual account of one’s life. The resultant ironies confer an authenticity that is emotional rather than literal: that of the present talking to the past. (2005: 128)

In most cases, however, the bodies of the younger selves become highly expressive signs, “a unique way for the artist to recognize and externalize his or her subjectivity” (2005: 115). Hatfield’s persistent use of the present tense reminds us of the slippage of tenses in autographics: readers are witnessing how the autographer felt about what had happened to his or her younger selves. Comics is a perfect medium to foreground these slippages of autobiography and turn them into advantages rather than problems. While prose autobiography may belie the heterogeneity of autobiographical writing through the all-encompassing ‘I’, Hatfield chooses to stress the fault lines of autographics:

Thus the cartoonist projects and objectifies his or her inward sense of self, achieving at once a sense of intimacy and a critical distance. It is the graphic exploitation of this duality that distinguishes autobiography in comics from most autobiography in prose. Unlike first-person narration, which works from the inside out, describing events as experienced by the teller, cartooning ostensibly works from the outside in, presenting events from an (imagined) position of objectivity, or at least distance. […] to tell a story of yourself in comics is to seek expression through outward impressions, because comics tend to present rather than narrate – or, at times, alternately present and narrate. Comic art’s presentational (as opposed to discursive) mode appears to problematize, or at least add a new wrinkle to, the ex/impression dichotomy. (2005: 115)

The inner lives of characters have to be externalised and dramatised, so that readers can draw conclusions about the complexities of a person’s life through the metaphoric devices of comics.

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Concerning emotions, we had a look at Ed Tan’s distinction between basic emotions (cf. Ekman 2007) which are “relatively clear-cut and straightforward” (2001: 35) and Art Spiegelman’s work in MAUS that allows for an “ambiguity of facial expression” that “invites the readers to use their imagination and delve deeper into the character’s appraisal of the situation” (2001: 40). In his “Essay on Physiognomy” Rodolphe Töpffer speaks of “non-permanent signs” that “are always fixed and reliable indicators of any given expression – laughter, tears, fright, or whatever” (1965: 17), in contrast to the faithful rendering of people’s physical features which may be deceiving (cf. 1965: 19, 30). Töpffer was interested in a science of physiognomy and a language of body codes (cf. 1965: 16). In Chapter 2 of Making Comics, “Stories for Humans” (cf. 2006: 58–127), Scott McCloud comes very close to providing such a vocabulary and grammar of drawn facial expressions. He starts with six paradigmatic emotions (cf. 2006: 83), demonstrates how their intensity can be visually increased, for example ranging from concern via the intermediary steps anxiety and fear to the highest intensity of terror (cf. 2006: 84), until he combines these primary into secondary emotions, such as joy and surprise into amazement (cf. 2006: 85). McCloud discusses their potential to become a language (cf. 2006: 88), but he concludes that they only make sense in the context of specific scenes and as idiosyncratic expressions of individuals (cf. 2006: 89).

In AS Film Studies: The Essential Introduction (2008) Casey Benyahia, Freddie Gaffney and John White provide a list of important body codes that is simple enough for the classroom, but names specific aspects that students can concentrate on when discussing the entanglement of characters in particular scenes:

The range of body codes

Actors are able to generate audience response to their performance in a whole range of subtle ways. A range of ten body codes have been identified:

direct bodily contact;

the proximity of one character to another (or proxemics);

the orientation of one to another (i.e. the extent to which characters stand with their bodies turned towards or away from each other);

general appearance of individuals (e.g. tall and thin, or short and fat);

head movements (e.g. nodding or shaking of the head);

facial expressions;

gestures (or kinesics);

body posture;

eye movement or contact;

aspects of speech, such as pitch, stress, tone, volume, accent, speech errors (all of which are termed paralinguistic codes). (2008: 26)

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This may not be spectacular, systematic or very precise, but a good enough starting point for a discussion of acting and the details of scenes in films and comics. These body codes are a semiotic resource that can take on the full range of signs from indexical via iconic to symbolic (cf. Klar 2011). Many of the body codes listed by Benyahia, Gaffney and White have a metaphorical or symbolic function, such as great distance for estrangement, avoiding eye contact for shame or shyness etc.

Another way of looking at bodies in comics is their correspondence to or subversion of cultural stereotypes. So far, we have discussed depictions of bodies as strategies of authentication, in service of narrative continuity, or as externalisations of inner states, but they can also be read in the context of identity concepts, self-representation and judging people based on first impressions. El Refaie highlights this cultural dimension, especially concerning dress codes, and begins her discussion of embodiment with a scene from Bechdel’s Fun Home, in which young Alison sees the first woman in her life in men’s clothes and with a short haircut (cf. 2012: 49–50; Bechdel 2007: 117–19). Liz Prince turns “clothing choices” (cf. 2014: 43) into a central element of Tomboy, from her refusal to wear dresses in the very first scene of the comic to the epilogue, where she is addressed by a paperboy as “sir” (2014: 254/3). While she is taken aback at first, her reaction changes in the very last panel of the book: “I’ve still got it” (2014: 255/3). In these two examples, personal identity is inseparable from socio-political concerns, which can be interpreted as ideological from a more conservative point of view. Instead of claiming these identities in a swift act of appropriation, readers witness their gradual development as an ongoing process of negotiation with parents, peers and strangers. The narrative format of autographics makes alternative lifestyles accessible and worth debating in class, as the conflicts and arguments for and against are directly addressed.

The same cultural reading can be applied to the gaze in autographics (cf. El Refaie 2012: 73–84): how does the autobiographer view/depict other characters? In my discussion of Blankets in part 4 I pointed out that the male gaze is very evident throughout the comic. This can be ‘naturalised’ as a male teenager’s point of view and an infatuation with his first love, an impression that Thompson wanted to recreate, but it is still a highly foregrounded aspect of the comic. Although Raina’s perspective and family situation can be reconstructed from the middle chapters of the book, this takes much more effort than following Craig’s perspective. Since Thompson did not ask for the woman’s permission to ‘use’ her like this in his thinly disguised ‘novel’, the problem of objectification may be even more pressing.

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El Refaie discusses two autobiographical books that promote beauty ideals and specific body images that some readers may find problematic. In The Big Skinny: How I Changed My Fattitude Carol Lay foregrounds the “beautiful, healthy body […] as a sign of a person’s discipline and self-control” (2012: 84–5) and Marisa Marchetto’s Cancer Vixen: A True Story treats cancer as a threat to the author’s beauty ideals and life-style, rather than to her life (cf. 2012: 85–9). In both cases, what should be concerns about health turn into concerns over attractiveness. On the cover, Lay portrays herself in a tight red evening gown in a triumphant posture to celebrate her self-control and beauty. In the book she explains that “at age 50, after being at least 30 pounds too heavy for most of my life, I realized that to manage my weight I needed to budget my calories and walk or work out every day” (2008: 5/1). Considering that the book was published in 2008, when she was 56, her cartoon self shows an unnaturally thin woman in her late 20s or early 30s (cf. 2008: 3/1, 5/1, 6/5, 14/5-6, 33/6, 34/5, 38/4-5 etc.). The comic documents a life-long obsession with food, overweight, shame and diets, which I find important as a counter-reading to the foregrounded triumphs of The Big Skinny, and Lay’s self-stylisation only makes sense against such a background. Thus, autobiographical writing/drawing is not just a personal act, but “a profoundly social and political activity” (El Refaie 2012: 73). In a medium that asks for perpetual self-representation, cartoonists have to navigate and reconcile social stereotypes, self-image, metaphors, strategies of authentication and the necessary legibility of bodies in transaction with their environments.

Based on Amy Spaulding’s differentiation between picture books and comics in The Page as a Stage Set (cf. 1995), I have repeatedly argued that comics show a certain affinity to the dramatic arts. This may seem more obvious in the case of superheroes and film, but I would argue that alternative and autobiographical comics reveal a comparable level of theatricality, e.g. through a frequent minimalism of scenes and pure ‘acting’. Thus, characters’ voices, stances and points of view become embodied, a concept I have traced from enactivism and cognitive linguistics via comics studies to autographics. Relying on Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenology of Perception, a seminal study in enactivism, Horstkotte and Pedri propose an interrelated web of human minds and material anchors that generate life narratives through direct transactions:

This tangling of subjective experience within the material world of objects enabling that experience, within an intersubjective context, and within the physical, perceptual, and cognitive conditions set by the human body is foregrounded in graphic memoir, both because graphic memoir often explicitly works against a mind-body split, and because the medium-specific pictoriality of graphic memoir highlights the physicality of bodies and objects. (2017: 81)

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They speak of “entangled bodies”, which emphasises “the view of selfhood as existing in and being shaped through its relationship with others” (2017: 85), but also as developing within specific contextual frames. Experiences are embodied and not simply memory traces, which means that a return to scenes of the past requires an embodied approach, albeit as an artistic re-creation. Paul John Eakin argues “that ‘self’ is not only reported but performed, certainly by the autobiographer as she [Mary Karr] writes and perhaps to a surprising degree by the reader as he reads. […] ‘Doing consciousness’ – this emphasis on autobiography as performance, as action, will be my theme in the rest of this book” (Eakin 2008: 84–5). As I stated above, the lives of many auto(bio)graphers are not reshaped and streamlined to follow a clear teleological path, one of the major points of criticism against traditional auto/biography, but writers/cartoonists ‘do consciousness’ in the form of autobiographical work, finding out how they understand themselves. In this sense, the comics autobiography is often a documentation of the process – a making-of – rather than the end result. Autobiographers present themselves as readers of their own lives, which means that readers are invited to look with them as much as they get a chance to look at them.

One of the more surprising aspects of Bechdel’s work on Fun Home is that she literally enacted the entire graphic novel. This is how Hillary Chute comments on this process:

If we see a kind of compulsive reproduction of particular textual objects like letters and photos – a going back into the past to re-mark archival documents with her own body – we can also note a literal reenactment in production. Bechdel did five or six successive sketches for each panel in the book. In addition, for every pose of every panel in the entire book – which comes out to roughly one thousand panels – Bechdel […] created a reference shot by posing herself for each person in the frame with her digital camera […]. In the cases where she already had a photographic reference shot from her parents’ collection, she yet posed herself in a new photo. In one panel, say, depicting a classroom of children sitting at desks, Bechdel posed for every child. In this way, Bechdel created for Fun Home a shadow archive of the archive of photographs and other documents at the book’s center.” (2010: 200)

This may seem like a monumental task, but in the interview with Chute Bechdel comments: “It didn’t take as long as you would think. In fact, it expedited matters, because I could draw more quickly, once I had these images” (Chute & Bechdel 2006: 1010). Through embodiment, Bechdel made sense of the scenes she had envisioned and thus found it easier to draw them. “Bechdel repeats her parents’ role, both at a figurative level and at a literal visual level – a physical level in space. And in her re-creation, her body is never separate from their bodies: she performs their postures, remakes the marks they made” (Chute 2010: 200). Cognition and ←441 | 442→embodiment are not two separate things in this process, but an integrated procedure. Building scenes and (re)creating reference material by having family members and friends pose as actors is not unusual (cf. e.g. McCloud 2006: 94). In the case of autobiographical comics, a memory is a starting point at best, not an entire scene. Schacter argues that we may use our memories of a ‘lifetime period’ to gain access to more details: “Lifetime periods help us to find general-event knowledge and event-specific knowledge; they provide the skeletal structure of our autobiographical memories” (1996: 91). If episodic memories are not readily available, the meat on the bones has to come from creative choices.

In a narrative, scenes also have to work as scenes, not as subjective impressions of ominous emotions. They need a dramatic structure, character conflicts and foregrounding. In this context, Lisa Zunshine discusses the unique situation of ‘mind-reading’ in the theatre:

Theatrical performance, after all, engages our Theory of Mind in ways markedly different from those practiced by the novel, for it offers no “going behind,” in [Henry] James’s parlance, that is, no voiceover explaining the protagonists’ states of mind (though in some plays the function of such a voiceover is assumed, to a limited degree, by a Chorus or a narrator figure). Instead, we have to construct those mental states from the observable actions and from what the protagonists choose to report to us […]. Moreover, in the case of the live performance – as opposed, that is, to simply reading the text of the play – this exercise of our mind-reading capacity is crucially mediated by the physical presence of actors and thus the wealth of embodied information (or misinformation) about their characters’ hidden thoughts and feelings. (2006: 23)

To a certain extent, cartoonists may rely on ‘voiceover’, which Bechdel does a lot, but otherwise the scenes have to be rehearsed enough to communicate directly to the audience. In “Theater and the Emotions” Noël Carroll observes that, in real life, we have to understand what the emotions that we are experiencing mean. They have to become feelings first, meaningful under the present circumstances, and through appraisals we can judge their importance in relation to our personal affairs. In the theatre, these processes are heavily guided. In absence of a narrator, actors have to rehearse scenes with great care to communicate central ideas and emotions in a readily accessible manner:

… in the theater, the playwright, the director, the actors, and so on have already done a great deal of the selection necessary in order to sculpt the scenes before us emotionally. Much of the selection that the emotions do for us in daily life has been done by the dramatist and the production team. That is, they have criterially prefocused the fictional events before us in such a way that the emotions the scene calls for – the emotions the creators of the play desire – emerge smoothly and reliably, at least in the ideal case. One might think of the criterial prefocusing here as a matter of jump-starting the audience’s ←442 | 443→emotions. The playmaking team has already foregrounded the kinds of considerations that shift us into and encourage us to enlarge the relevant emotional states.” (2015: 322)

Alan Palmer argues that the “attribution to the character by the narrator of motives, dispositions, and states of mind is at the center of the process of constructing fictional minds and is central to the reader process of comprehending texts” (2004: 137). In other words, even the most renowned writers, like Jane Austen, are very explicit about the emotional lives of their characters: “A large number of Emma’s feelings are explicitly labeled: sorrow, anger, mortification, concern, self-reproach, vexation, agitation, grief, and depression. Several conclusions can be drawn from the passage: The emotions are reported in the mode of thought report because this is the mode best suited for the presentation of emotion” (2004: 113). Palmer continues with more subtle forms of presenting social minds and emotions, but the dramatic arts not only have to externalise these processes, but make them legible through characters’ interactions with each other. In an enactivist paradigm, thoughts, intentions and feelings are closely tied and only make sense in specific contexts and transactions with the (social) environment.

At the end of this chapter, I would like to comment on the depiction of (physical/mental) illness and disability in autobiographical comics for three reasons: first, a surprising number of these books focus on impairments; secondly, embodiment becomes an important factor in these contexts; and, thirdly, to work against the cultural ostracism of the ill and the frail, it may be beneficial to confront students with the reality of lives that may be very different from their own. Following Drew Leder, El Refaie observes that “it is only in times of dysfunction, when we are ill, in pain, or experiencing the physical changes associated with puberty, disability, or old age, that the body forces itself into our consciousness” (2012: 61). Antonio Damasio argues that our mind is usually directed outwards, in support of our interactions with the world (cf. 2000: 28–9), and only begins to turn inwards or look for bodily signs when something is out of order. This could be understood in a literal sense, as when the body/mind fails to perform in the expected way, and/or in a metaphorical sense, when the body/mind fails to live up to the norms of social performance, regarding beauty ideals, social presence and a charming personality. Usually, the second case is not considered a (physical) disability in its own right, but it represents a social disability and leads to self-consciousness in much the same way. What unifies the two is a culturally determined concept of the body that influences our judgement of its (in)adequacy and performance: “our bodies do not constitute a prediscursive, material reality; rather, they are constructed on the basis of social and cultural assumptions about class, gender, sex, race, ethnicity, age, health, and beauty” (El ←443 | 444→Refaie 2012: 72), often in an intersectional manner. While it would be absurd to claim that our bodies do not exist before we begin to think about them, for the purposes of autobiographical reasoning they are always already embedded in discourses. While El Refaie associates ‘the gaze’ with gendered bodies and beauty ideals (cf. 2012: 73–84), it plays an equally important role in all of these contexts. People begin to pay attention by looking at their own or other bodies and by commenting on their normalcy and performance, often based on standards set by the media. Eating disorders as life-threatening illnesses often start as observations about the social inadequacy of bodies. The reason why El Refaie considers The Big Skinny as a controversial text is the idea of pathologising bodies as abnormal and in need of attention that may be perfectly all right under different social norms. Admittedly, it is difficult to draw a clear line between beauty ideals and health risks. Since the body and the body image of a cancer patient dramatically change through chemotherapy, for example, the obstacles to a person’s physical and/or social performances turn out to be the same thing.

Realising how many autobiographical comics focus on mental or physical illness (cf. Squier 2007; Williams 2012; Brunner 2012; Czerwiec et al. 2015; Foss et al. 2016), the question arises why such a serious topic has found a perfect match in a pop-cultural medium. Leaving aside the influence of institutions for a moment, there are three answers that have to do with the narrative potential of comics. This chapter has already demonstrated that comics grant cartoonists a great flexibility in the visualisation of physical and mental conditions that range from attempts at photorealism to pure expression in the form of symbols and visual metaphors. While medical terminology, lab reports, scans and screenings (e.g. X-rays) dominate the discourse about illness in hospitals and surgeries, the medium offers a whole range of possibilities to approach illness from very different perspectives. In contrast to the language of science, comics may deal in wishes and dreams, hopes and fears, quiet moments and emotional outbursts etc. Conceptual metaphors play an important role in getting to grips with illness and cancer in particular, which is often envisaged as a foreign invader that has to be fought back. illness is war (cf. El Refaie 2012: 88–9) may be the most basic of these metaphors, but artists find many more ways to illustrate patients’ and their relatives’ changing views of the affliction.

A second reason is the medium’s foregrounding of embodiment, performance and social entanglements. Patients find themselves either trapped in hospitals or returning to their former lives, facing the practical consequences of the new situation. Those who cherished their independence and carefree existence suddenly depend on the support of medical professionals, family members and friends. In Seeds, Ross Mackintosh illustrates this sudden intimacy very well (cf. 2011: 34 ←444 | 445→ ←445 | 446→Fig. 25). At the same time, patients are confronted with several, often contradictory views on how they are supposed to lead their lives now. Readers bear witness to the daily challenges that living and coping with such a condition have to offer. The third reason is comics’ reputation as a popular and ‘fun’ medium. The lives of patients are serious enough, the medical side of things is incomprehensible to lay persons and no one dares to laugh in their presence any more. The ridiculousness of cartooning may be a welcome departure for patients themselves and a more accessible medium for relatives who have to find out what their role is, how they are supposed to react and how others have dealt with a similar situation before (cf. 2011: 28 → Fig. 26).

This leads me to the institutional context. Especially in the United States, humanities departments have become attached to medical faculties to confront future doctors with alternative ways of looking at illness and disability. This is how Susan M. Squier defines their role:

Given the scale of its ambitions, perhaps it is understandable that biomedicine often seems to lose sight of the individual – not only the patient, but also the health care worker. This is where the medical humanities have played a crucial role. By introducing into the curriculum of medical schools the kinds of knowledge that cannot be reduced to scientific or quantitative terms, they have reclaimed the personal, even spiritual, aspects of illness. By reading stories, plays, and poems about medicine, medical students, physicians, and other health workers can learn new and productive perspectives on medicine. They can engage in ethical explorations of trust, responsibility, and choice; psychological explorations of the relationship between the physician or nurse and the patient or patient’s family; and rhetorical analyses of the case history or patient chart revealing how important facts are obscured in the process of marking others. These new perspectives redefine what constitutes medically significant knowledge, adding to evidence-based medicine and bringing welcome attention to the personal, anecdotal, and spiritual of illness and medicine. (2007: 335)

A very popular field within the medical humanities is ‘graphic medicine’ (cf. Williams 2012; Czerwiec et al. 2015), which has its own websites (e.g., conferences, podcasts, book series and institutional support from a number of universities (e.g.

In educational settings, it seems highly appropriate to confront teenagers and young adults with views on human life, health and beauty that counteract dominant discourses of normativity. While some of the most interesting titles may not be the easiest to deal with in class, such as Harvey Pekar and Joyce Brabner’s Our Cancer Year (cf. Squier 2007: 342–5; Hatfield 2005: 108–10), Al Davison’s The Spiral Cage (cf. Versaci 2007: 54–7; Oppolzer 2011) or Steven T. Seagle and Teddy Kristiansen’s It’s a Bird… (cf. Oppolzer 2013; Crilley 2016), an increasing ←446 | 447→ ←447 | 448→number of comics introduces such ideas to middle-school readers in the United States. Raina Telgemeier’s Smile (2010) is essentially a book about missing front teeth, dental surgery and braces. As a sixth grader Raina shows more concern about her nickname “Vampire-Girl” (2010: 53), having to wear headgear (cf. 2010: 55) and kissing boys (cf. 2010: 132, 160–2). This may sound childish, but Smile highlights all the issues discussed so far and makes them vicariously accessible to younger readers: the sudden self-consciousness after an accident (cf. 2010: 6–9); being exposed to treatments she does not really understand (cf. 2010: 33–5); facing social encounters in which her physical blemish plays an increasingly important role (e.g. she cannot smile without revealing her dental gap, her braces/retainer or her vampire teeth); but also basic things, such as encountering problems when eating solid food (cf. 2010: 46–7, 107, 116). Cece Bell’s El Deafo (2014), which depicts the main characters as anthropomorphic rabbits, is a narrative about losing most of her hearing at the age of four due to meningitis. When she starts school, she has to wear a Phonic Ear (cf. 2014: 38–9) as a front pack, which is an enormous apparatus and becomes a visible sign of her disability. Teachers have to wear a microphone around their necks, which allows Cece’s Phonic Ear to amplify their speech. However, when they forget to remove it, Cece can hear everything they do while out of class (cf. 2014: 41–3, 216), which provides her with special powers that raise the other children’s curiosity and turn her into a superhero (cf. 2014: 217–21). Embodiment and enaction play central roles in these texts, as the protagonists find out about their new conditions by interacting with their social environments and learning how to adapt. These scenes are clearly re-imagined, dramatised and artfully arranged, but they also become more accessible that way.

5.6 Types of Autobiographical Comics

In this final chapter I briefly address the educational relevance of different themes, forms and subgenres of autographics. While Elisabeth El Refaie’s Autobiographical Comics (2012) still represents a milestone in comics scholarship, Hillary Chute’s Graphic Women (2010) or her more recent Disaster Drawn: Visual Witness, Comics, and Documentary Form (2016) have demonstrated that particular approaches to and modes of life writing warrant their own studies. The field diversifies and even within autographics it is becoming harder to keep track of all new developments. With prose autobiographies, it is already impossible. Smith and Watson list sixty subtypes of life writing (2010: 253–86) that usually appear in combinations. I have privileged autographics (cf. 2010: 260) and a/b or auto/biography (cf. 2010: 256) throughout, which are listed as two of the ←448 | 449→sixty. Taking a closer look at the list, they represent quite a heterogeneous assortment of labels: some of them reference the medium (e.g. autographics, digital & social media, oral history) or text type (e.g. case study, diary, essay, journal, letters), some foreground the (social) environment or location (e.g. academia, captivity narrative, ecobiography, ethnic life writing, prison, slave narrative, travel narrative, war or front experiences), quite a few highlight a condition, an affliction or life-changing circumstances (e.g. addiction, autism, blindness, illness, losing a child, migration, trauma), a handful focus on the phases of life (e.g. coming-of-age, old age), passions (e.g. art, music, sports) or attitude/intention (e.g. autohagiography, apology, confession). It is important to look at the ways in which these choices intersect, as they represent major concerns and themes of the narrative and are likely to relate to the major representatives of that subgenre.

Blankets is as much a coming-of-age narrative as it is a portrait of the artist as a young man, which both become thematic concerns in the text. In Fun Home, Watson argues, “Bechdel brilliantly deploys a wealth of autobiographical genres juxtaposed as alternative life possibilities. But the use of such templates also poses questions about life narrative in this autographic moment. How is the story of coming of age linked to or rewritten in the coming-out story […]?” (2011: 132) This is a crucial point: if genres are largely determined by their content and themes, then a proliferation of identities and life models inescapably leads to genre hybridity. Cece Bell’s El Deafo is a simple narrative, but it operates with a whole spectrum of identities – from a scared little girl noticing that she is ‘disabled’ for life (cf. 2014: 12/4) to ‘El Deafo’, her superhero identity (cf. 2014: 45/1; 221/4). We find the same range in Steven T. Seagle and Teddy Kristiansen’s It’s a Bird …, but this time for an adult audience. The comic juxtaposes the Seagle family, which is afflicted with incurable Huntington’s disease, and Superman, whose invulnerability can only be overcome with Kryptonite. When Seagle is asked by DC to work on the new run of Superman comics, the two worlds begin to collide. Not only do we get one of the best autobiographical comics, but also a meditation on and deconstruction of the Man of Steel (cf. Oppolzer 2013).

In Framing Fear: The Gothic Mode in Graphic Literature Christian W. Schneider discusses Fun Home in terms of Gothic tropes (cf. 2014: 220–39). While I do not believe that Bruce Bechdel is “portrayed as Fun Home’s villain figure” and “tyrannical patriarch” (2014: 222), or that “Fun Home can be largely read in the light of trauma theory” (2014: 225), Schneider makes some pertinent points about the “limits of representation” (2014: 229), the potential unreliability of the narrative (cf. 2014: 230), the “Gothic doubling” (2014: 230) of father and daughter and the centrality of artifice in both of their lives (cf. 2014: 230). Another important link is the Gothic’s theatricality, which is very strong in Fun Home on all levels – from ←449 | 450→Alison Bechdel’s role-playing her parents to produce reference photos to Bruce Bechdel’s aesthetics. I may not agree with all of the details of Schneider’s analysis, but the idea of reading autobiographical comics as genre hybrids is highly relevant and not sufficiently researched. El Deafo and It’s a Bird … invite a comparison between the fragility of human life and superheroic strength directly, which allows for a meaningful integration of superhero narratives in teaching. Sometimes, the same character can be read in a number of ways, depending on which genre one picks as an interpretative frame.

On a broader scale, the unavoidable mixture of autobiography and biography (a/b), which Smith and Watson describe as “different, even opposed, forms” (2010: 256), seems important to me, as it raises students’ awareness of implicating others in their own production of autobiographical texts. Two of the most celebrated books, Blankets and Fun Home, were created without the consent and/or support of family members. The concept of personality rights may be very abstract to students, but cyber bullying has a lot to do with the misrepresentation of peers on social media. Since the coordination of perspectives is a central concern of Wolfgang Iser’s theory (cf. 1980: 169) and the teaching of literature in general (cf. Schinschke 1995; Nünning 1997; 2007; Nünning & Surkamp 2010: 32), a discussion of how secondary characters are portrayed in autobiographies is an important concern. Unavoidably, this requires reading against the grain, or what Delanoy calls “resisting” (Widerstehen) (2002: 103). Eakin warns against the “illusion of disarming simplicity” (1999: ix), as the power of narration can be very deceptive. As a reminder, here are the second and third paragraph of McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes:

When I look back on my childhood I wonder how I survived at all. It was, of course, a miserable childhood: the happy childhood is hardly worth your while. Worse than the ordinary miserable childhood is the miserable Irish childhood, and worse yet is the miserable Irish Catholic childhood.

People everywhere brag and whimper about the woes of their early years, but nothing can compare with the Irish version: the poverty; the shiftless loquacious alcoholic father; the pious defeated mother moaning by the fire; pompous priests; bullying schoolmasters; the English and the terrible things they did to us for eight hundred long years. (1999: 9)

Discounting the narrator’s self-conscious and highly ironic play with readers’ expectations, his statements are horrific when taken at face value. Not only does he invoke the worst stereotypes about the Irish imaginable, but he actively invites readers to understand his own childhood in exactly these terms. He brags about his horrible past, denounces everyone else as whiny, and implies that the worst lives make the best autobiographies. Then he reduces parents (alcoholic father; defeated mother), whole professions (pompous priests; bullying schoolmasters) ←450 | 451→and nations (the terrible English) to a single characteristic. In short, the narrator is either highly unreliable (cf. Phelan 2005: 67) or playing a game with his readers, which is my take on this passage. McCourt frequently shifts genres and introduces his father’s backstory as the stuff of legends: “My father, Malachy McCourt, was born on a farm in Toome, County Antrim. Like his father before, he grew up wild, in trouble with the English, or the Irish, or both. He fought with the Old IRA and for some desperate act he wound up a fugitive with a price on his head” (1999: 10). What should we make of this melodramatic portrayal of his father? While Angela’s Ashes may be an extreme case, all autobiographies require some critical distance, even when an identification with the narrator and/or protagonist helps at first to find a way into the world of the story.

MAUS combines an autobiography by Spiegelman, a biography of his father and an autobiography by Vladek. This multiplicity of (sub)genres and perspectives also plays a role when a team of artists is involved. As Bredehoft convincingly argues, the contributions of Harvey Pekar’s collaborators have to be seen as biographical work within an autographical text (cf. 2011). The same applies to the even more complex case of John Lewis, Andrew Aydin and Nate Powell’s auto/biography March, which represents Lewis’s life as written by Aydin and drawn by Powell. Aydin, in turn, based his comic script on Lewis and Michael D’Orso’s prose memoir Walking with the Wind (cf. Oppolzer 2017a: 231–2), which makes the question of authorship and generic classification slightly more complicated. Aydin comments on this question in the following way: “I think we’re all struggling to understand this project because it’s never been done like this. There’s never been a primary figure in history who’s taken the time to work on a graphic novel like this” (Aydin qtd. in Heaney 2013). Still, Aydin promotes the idea that they were “pushing it [the autobiography] closer towards primary source material. I think there’s going to be a debate over where that line is [between history writing and auto/biography]. I know we worked really hard to make sure that every detail was as accurate as possible” (Aydin qtd. in Heaney 2013). Powell offers a more pragmatic view of his work:

With a book like this there’s this line between accuracy and leaving enough room for gesture and iconographic representation to breathe life into something without it being dry. I feel like there’s a point where I have to stop trying to nail everything one hundred percent because you’re going to wind up with a boring history comic that looks dry because you’re so concerned about sticking it in a certain place and time. (Powell qtd. in Heaney 2013)

For obvious reasons, even an auto/biography like this requires some creative freedom to make it work as a narrative. There have always been ghost writers ←451 | 452→and collaborators in the field of autobiography, as in D’Orso’s case, but the impact of visuals (style, layout etc.) on comics narratives is undeniably considerable.

My final point concerns the three major form(at)s in which comics are usually published: strips, books, and graphic novels (cf. Fingeroth 2008: 4). I have followed the general trend and used many examples from longer narratives in book form, with Harvey Pekar’s short stories being a notable exception. In the following, I would like to stress the importance of diary and web comics, which are often listed under “slice-of-life”, a category that Duncan, Smith & Levitz closely associate with Pekar’s influential work (cf. 2015: 252–3). They list Thompson’s Carnet de Voyage and Josh Neufeld’s A Few Perfect Hours as typical examples, which they characterise as “travelogue diaries that present no grand adventures, just a series of incidents and impressions” (2015: 253). Isaac Cates’s article on diary comics (cf. 2011) is still the only one I am aware of that offers a systematic overview of the form, so I refer to it for a general orientation.

James Kochalka’s American Elf plays a “seminal role in the diary comics phenomenon” (Cates 2011: 209), as it ran for a little longer than fourteen years (26 October 1998 – 31 December 2012) and inspired many young cartoonists to follow in his steps. In the “Introduction” to The Everyday, a collection of some 200 diary strips, British cartoonist Adam Cadwell describes his approach in the following way: “When I drew my first autobiographical comic strip in late August 2006 it was an experiment. I was trying to recreate the day to day observations of Harvey Pekar’s American Splendor stories in the 3 or 4 panel format of James Kochalka’s diary comic American Elf” (2012: n. p.; see also 60). This model is very appealing to young, aspiring graphic artists: there are just four panels to draw and the topic can be any experience of a particular day. However, the strip format is hard to master:

The four-panel comic strip has a number of built-in structural characteristics – what most cartoonists refer to as the strip’s “rhythm” but what we might also think of as its rhetoric. Typically, the first three panels set up a fourth-panel punch line or a revelation; alternately, the punch line comes in panel three, followed by a panel of reaction. These structures are familiar from daily Peanuts or Doonesbury comic strips, and this rhythm has been so thoroughly explored by Charles Schulz, Garry Trudeau, and others that it has become part of our national culture of humor. […] But the adoption of any fixed size or format limits the scale of the diary entry, restricting most diary cartoonists to a handful of brief moments, one sustained reflection, or a single event or anecdote. Unlike the typical prose diary, a diary comic cannot expand to contain more information on more eventful days, imposing constraints on the diary cartoonist in how much experience he or she can represent. This formal limitation requires a degree of self-consciousness about storytelling technique for the diarist, a constant sense of economy and of the chosen form’s structure, as every image or word crowds out other representational ←452 | 453→possibilities – as if a diarist chose to write the events of his or her life in sonnets or daily haiku. (Cates 2011: 217–8)

Kochalka did not simply work within this tight framework, he shaped its aesthetics and turned it into an art form. This may sound like a bold claim considering the banality of most of the vignettes, but there is more to discover than meets the eye.

Cates argues that “the notion for the diary comic was originally a reaction against the fashioned closure of the memoir, the narrative structural devices that such writing borrows from fiction” (2011: 210). However, there are also practical considerations. Kochalka’s four-panel strips, Pekar’s short stories and Thompson’s Blankets represent decidedly different ways of ‘doing’ consciousness (cf. Eakin 2008: 85), autobiography and storytelling. What is recorded in each case serves a different purpose, for which Cates chooses to find an ideological explanation: “if life is a network or tangle of threads, or if it consists more of gradual change and repetition than the closed structures of narrative, then other modes of writing might better capture both the experience and the meaning of everyday life” (2011: 211). The diary comic works against the notion of autobiographical reasoning, social accountability, the teleology of a meaningful life, traditional narrative closure or any other attempt to make human experiences fit neat structural patterns. What the diary comic perfectly illustrates is Monika Fludernik’s ‘natural’ narratology and her re-definition of narrativity:

Actants in my model are not defined, primarily, by their involvement in a plot but, simply, by their fictional existence (their status as existents). Since they are prototypically human, existents can perform acts of physical movement, speech acts, and thought acts, and their acting necessarily revolves around their consciousness, their mental centre of self-awareness, intellection, perception and emotionality. (2005: 26)

For casual readers, the daily strips represent nothing more than weird and seemingly random glimpses at a person’s consciousness and life at first. Kochalka repeatedly demonstrates that his consciousness is embodied and geared towards interactions with the environment. As in Strawson’s criticism of narrativity (cf. 2004), we witness a life as lived rather than as narrated. “Kochalka establishes the tension between ‘story’ – the narrative structures familiar from fiction and anecdote – and ‘the story of my life,’ which consists of cycles, repetitions, processes without closure, and moments of indeterminate or undetermined significance” (Cates 2011: 211). Keeping a diary of this kind means autobiographical work without much retrospection: “Diary strips cannot know the future of the ‘story’ in which they participate” (2011: 211). Cates insists on a programmatic stance against narrativity that transcends the unavoidable restrictions of this form: “By ←453 | 454→privileging the brief and only potentially meaningful events of daily life, rather than the larger arcs and major events that appear prominent in retrospect, the diary strip pushes against the narrative expectations of the autobiographical genre” (2011: 213–4).

While the interlocutors of ‘small stories’ (cf. Bamberg 2007; Georgakopoulou 2007) are familiar with the contexts and details of spontaneous autobiographical chit-chat, readers of diary comics only have the text as a source. Apart from a reliance on general frames, reading diary comics is largely a bottom-up process:

The experience of reading American Elf is inevitably a process of inference and imaginative construction, extrapolating from each individual strip to the other events of that day, or to the connections between these events and other ones: the reader wonders whether the Kochalkas’ drug-dealing neighbor will cause trouble, tracks Eli’s linguistic and social development, and waits for Kochalka to spin into another temper tantrum. This process of extrapolation is motivated as much by the strip’s serialization (the knowledge that tomorrow’s installment is yet to be written) as by its lyric mode and attendant lack of narrative closure. (Cates 2011: 223)

Obviously, Cates had followed Kochalka’s antics for several years and had clear reader expectations based on his previous experiences with the series. For a new reader, the only type of continuity and vital relation is the ‘identity’ of the protagonist – the American Elf. Why would readers be interested in such a heavily fragmented life narrative that requires constant adjustments based on little concrete information? Cates offers a tentative answer:

If memoir is, as Jerome Bruner implies, literature’s best approximation of the way we remember and understand our lives, a diary comic like Kochalka’s might still be a better representation of the way we live those lives. The continually advancing present, always contingent in its meaning and uncertain in its value, nevertheless swarms with noteworthy, moving, humorous, or beautiful moments that might never need to appear in the so-called story of a life; Kochalka strives to record and honor these moments as they pass, even if their significance is fleeting. (2011: 223–4)

In “Narrative Worldmaking in Graphic Life Writing” David Herman looks at Jeffrey Brown’s slice-of-life books Clumsy (2002) and Unlikely (2003) that loosely tell the story of two failed relationships. What is fascinating about this article is the clash between classical narratology and the alternative aesthetics these comics rely on. Brown undermines all of Herman’s expectations: there is no older, narrating I; no traditional temporal order; no chapters, but much smaller units (strips); no clear causal connections; no explicit autobiographical reasoning; no clear teleological orientation and no ‘worldmaking’ in Herman’s sense. Readers gradually build an understanding of what is going on, based on observations, ←454 | 455→conversations and intuitions, not on the processing of information provided by the text. How does Herman respond to this challenge?

At one point he observes that “Brown’s narratives focus more microanalytically on the events associated with two failed relationships” (2011: 235). However, Brown does not analyse or rationalise these events in any way. He adjusts the lens on the microscope, if you will, and lets us see for ourselves. There is selection and foregrounding, as in all works of art, but in terms of a plot-orientation these vignettes show an extreme level of decompression, to the point of becoming confusing. Some may expect the story beats of Hollywood cinema, but these characters – like Kochalka’s American Elf – are socially entangled in weird ways. Readers may be tempted to go back and forth between different microscope slides and look again and again or skip a few pages to find out when the artist finally delivers the next milestone. The scenes do not line up in an orderly fashion; in the case of Clumsy they are even deliberately jumbled. We often become drawn into situations that almost feel too real and uncomfortable to be suitable for a narrative, such as “Waiting for her to call” (cf. 2006: 8–9). Some vignettes may provide fascinating details, but do not contribute to our understanding of this relationship – at first, or never – whereas others become retrospectively illuminated by events that we read later, but may have happened earlier. Herman seems to acknowledge this approach by stating that “the self figured in Brown’s serially linked microsequences is always emergent, a fragile, vulnerable achievement, with the incremental method of emplotment suggesting the need to reevaluate this precarious accomplishment on almost a moment-by-moment basis” (2011: 236). Herman’s analysis is brilliant, but he cannot let go of ‘emplotment’ and ‘(re)evaluation’. As in Tilmann Habermas’s work (cf. 2011), there is always the implied notion that lives are supposed to conform to standardised models. Herman’s observations are astute, especially when he describes the generally low level of compression in these texts. However, his evaluation oscillates between the idea that Brown delivers an unfinished autobiographical work and that he deliberately involves the readers in the process of looking at his life:

… rather than using an older narrating self to provide explicit assessments of the meaning or impact of events encountered by the younger experiencing self, and thereby distancing the world of the telling from the world of the told, Brown’s texts can be viewed as a tentative, provisional, still-unfinished attempt to come to terms with the events they portray. These narratives are less an encapsulation of the past than a lived engagement with its ongoing legacy. The lack of an overarching narrational layer in the verbal track (e.g., in the form of text boxes) suggests how past events resist distillation in the form of retrospective assessments, which would literally preside over and frame the contents of individual panels. By the same token, the absence of commentary by an overt narrating ←455 | 456→I requires readers to draw their own conclusions about exactly how the teller’s current understanding (and evaluation) of his earlier experiences may have shaped his presentation of events in the storyworld. (2011: 240)

Herman solves the mystery by choosing key constituents of the ongoing story and reading them as recognisable patterns of behaviour:

The result is a highly detailed method of presentation in which brief vignettes are used to outline atomic constituents of an ongoing story – the first feelings of romantic attraction, a phone call expected but never received, a hurtful or troubling remark, the last night a couple ever spent together. In this way Brown’s narratives can explore, in a fine-grained manner, patterns of behavior that the texts diagnose as fatally destructive for the two relationships whose trajectory they record. (2011: 235)

It is fascinating to witness how Herman struggles with these comics and constructs a purpose for them, ascribing a diagnostic interest in Brown’s own ‘fatally destructive’ behaviour. Towards the end of the essay, Herman addresses the elusive temporal sequence of Clumsy. Although the back cover contains a map on the inside that presents the major events in chronological order, it is still impossible to determine when exactly the scenes took place. Clumsy starts with the first night Jeff spends with Theresa (cf. 2006: 1–2), which is immediately followed by the last night with his previous girlfriend Kristyn (3). “My day at the beach” (4–6) with Theresa seems to represent a particularly pleasant memory. Then “I draw her naked” (7) is contrasted with the uncomfortable “Waiting for her to call” (8–9). Finally, on page 23, we reach “The very first time I saw Theresa”, where he observes that she “looks kind of like a dirty hippy” (23/6 → Fig. 27).

So, even if we could recreate a perfect timeline, how would that help? Herman’s conclusion remains somewhat ambiguous, but he seems to suggest that, despite Brown’s effort, he just could not make sense of his relationships:

In Brown’s narratives, by contrast, the sparseness of the visual and verbal tracks, coupled with the scenic mode of narration, suggests that even when microanalyzed, the past cannot be fully understood from the vantage point of the present. Some past events remain, by their nature, unfinished business; they continue to resist assimilation into a larger life story, despite the present self’s best efforts to make sense of them in those terms. (2011: 241–2)

It is possible that Brown is a failed autobiographer who could not make sense of his own life, no matter how hard he tried, and had no other choice but to offer the unassimilated fragments of two doomed relationships to the reading public. However, this reading precludes the possibility that Brown deliberately left the relationships as messy and life-like as they had been, despite the fact that he could have streamlined, rationalised and sanitised them to fit the established ←456 | 457→ ←457 | 458→patterns. We have to keep Kochalka’s aesthetics in mind and how American Elf deliberately subverted the grand narratives of social accountability and endless self-improvement. Herman’s article sets up a theoretical framework that begins with Gérard Genette (cf. 2011: 231) and Philippe Lejeune (cf. 2011: 232), which signals a willingness to remain within clearly delineated parameters. Herman reads Clumsy as a deviation from established patterns, which it is, but he seems to have difficulties appreciating it on its own terms. He even quotes Kochalka’s endorsement of Clumsy, which attests to a perfect match between Brown’s style and the content of the narrative (cf. Herman 2011: 242 fn. 6). In turn, Brown thanks Kochalka for his support in the credits/copyright section of the book, but Herman does not connect the dots. It is ironic that both Herman’s and Cates’s articles were published in Graphic Subjects (2011), but they are vastly different in their approaches. I have already ruled out Clumsy for underage students due to the publisher’s explicit “parental advisory” warning, so what does this mean for the classroom?

First of all, diary comics or slice-of-life comic strips are a genuine format and thus authentic texts. They are widely available for free, especially in the form of web comics. A good starting point are Comic Rocket’s autobio page (, which also contains material for mature readers, Adam Cadwell’s The Everyday, which has been published as a book (cf. 2012), but is still available online (, or Joe Decie’s website (, which offers his own diary comic. As a short form, diary comics can be easily read in class. They are self-contained, provide a template for creative work, serve as prompts for writing, but also as building blocks for larger narratives, as certain characters, hobbies, obsessions, types of behaviour etc. reappear. They are compatible with the activities suggested by Stephen Cary (2004: 70–156) and belong to the same format as well-known comic strips, such as Peanuts or Calvin & Hobbes, which have been suggested as suitable texts for lower-secondary English classes (cf. Gubesch & Schüwer 2005; Rumlich 2013; Heim 2013). As a form of comics, they contain all the elements typical of the medium, which means that they prepare students for the reading of longer texts. I end this chapter with the centre piece of Cadwell’s The Everyday to demonstrate that comic strips warrant a closer look.

In his introduction to the book Cadwell explains that he was “particularly proud” of his one-hundredth strip, which may have to do with his belief that “the strongest comics have no words” (2012: n. p.). Surprisingly, there are no references to where he is or what has happened. Strip 99 is dated “24th May 2008” and shows Adam in a bar with ‘Liz’, while the next one (101) suddenly takes readers to New York’s Central Park. Since The Everyday first saw publication as a ←458 | 459→weekly strip, this very personal event seems to take place outside of regular time and outside of ordinary life: a family member or close friend in the emergency unit does not blend in with the light-hearted, whimsical blunders of Adam’s regular life. Apart from the very first strip, this is the only one without a date and one of the few that extends over two pages. There is curious tension between this doubling of narrative space and the title “The Wait”, which is confirmed by the fact that Adam spends ten out of the twelve panels passing the better part of a day inside a hospital ward. The strip is not entirely wordless: a sign above the entrance reads “PATIENTS” (100/1), a door is labelled “family room” (100/2; 100/4) and there is another partly visible sign indicating the “emergency unit” (100/4). Cadwell makes sure that the building cannot be mistaken for anything else. While the previous strip ends with laughter (cf. 2012: 99/3), I interpret Adam’s look in 100/2 as a worried face.

Despite its publication both online and in book form, this is still Cadwell’s diary: “Through these strips I can recall the colours and the heat of New York in June, the evening light on the water in Stockholm and the sounds and the energy of the Glastonbury Festival” (2012: n. p.). Judging from this comment, he recorded specific holistic experiences, involving all the senses and strong emotions, which are exceptionally hard to capture in the form of black and white strips. These are intended to function as material anchors that trigger vivid memories, but cannot represent in any mimetic sense the complex interplay of sense impressions, emotions and actions. How are readers supposed to relate to these glimpses into Cadwell’s life without having been there with him? If we do not know who the person in the recovery room is, why should readers care? He addresses this question in the last paragraph of his introduction: “I hope that you see a part of your life in The Everyday and see more of the everyday in your life” (2012: n. p.).

If there is no story, what can we relate to and why is it relevant? The feeling of waiting long hours, for example in an airport terminal, “Waiting for her to call” (cf. Brown 2006: 8–9), maybe even for a patient to become conscious again after an operation, belongs to every human’s repertoire of experiences. Judging from the second panel, Adam assumes it is going to be a short wait; otherwise he would not sit on the floor. In 100/5 he has moved to a designated waiting area and we find him sitting on a chair. In 100/8 he has lunch, which may suggest that he arrived in the morning and is still there. In 100/10 it has become dark outside. Then a nurse asks him in (100/11) and in the final panel we see him kissing a woman on the forehead. Since there is no verbal narration, everything is told through pantomime, if you will. Adam’s body language communicates more than just boredom: hospitals, like all public buildings, are not places to be comfortable ←459 | 460→in. The strip builds a whole repertoire of bodily (in)activity and sensations: sitting, walking, pushing buttons, drinking, gazing, watching the rain fall outside the window, waiting, listening to the air conditioner, tapping one’s feet, beating a rhythm on one’s knee, eating a sandwich dripping with sauce, reading, restlessly shifting, sleeping, listening to the voice of the nurse and kissing the woman with the tube up her nose. The final panel is without a frame, which is the most important signal that the kiss breaks an established pattern. It is the culmination of a strip that has been extended over two pages and represents a form of release after an endless period of waiting. It is a whole day ‘wasted’ in the hospital that makes this sign of affection and support so endearing. While Adam’s mouth is foregrounded, the woman does not have one. She may still be incapacitated. The strip builds towards this one brief moment of physical contact that stands out from a day of complete inaction and isolation. Cadwell is right: it may be enough to get a feeling of what happened, to experience the boredom of endlessly waiting and making it all count as a gesture of selflessness.