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Graphic Subjects

Critical Essays on Autobiography and Graphic Novels

Michael A. Chaney

Publication Year: 2011

Some of the most noteworthy graphic novels and comic books of recent years have been entirely autobiographical. In Graphic Subjects, Michael A. Chaney brings together a lively mix of scholars to examine the use of autobiography within graphic novels, including such critically acclaimed examples as Art Spiegelman’s Maus, David Beauchard’s Epileptic, Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, Alan Moore’s Watchmen, and Gene Yang’s American Born Chinese.

            These essays, accompanied by visual examples, illuminate the new horizons that illustrated autobiographical narrative creates. The volume insightfully highlights the ways that graphic novelists and literary cartoonists have incorporated history, experience, and life stories into their work. The result is a challenging and innovative collection that reveals the combined power of autobiography and the graphic novel.

Published by: University of Wisconsin Press

Title Page

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pp. ix-x

I would like to thank the editors at the University of Wisconsin Press, Raphael Kadushin for supporting this project, as well as series editor William L. Andrews, who shepherded it through the publication process from initial formulations to its present incarnation. Hearty thanks are due to my tireless research assistants, Presidential Scholars of Dartmouth College...

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pp. 3-10

A fundamental distinction for analyzing autobiography usefully separates the narrating I from the narrated I. The narrating I, or the self that tells the events of a life and gathers together stray details of experience into the legible structures of a story, is therefore pried away from the narrated I that functions as an actor in the story. The confusing resemblance of these two ...

PART I. Art Spiegelman

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1. Reading Comics: Art Spiegelman on CD-Rom

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pp. 13-16

“Br—br—brown,” we sound out together. Miss Welsh makes the phonics seem easy, and soon we are reading about Dick and Jane and their dog Spot.These nice kids, however, are easily trumped by the good guys and bad guys I read about at home in my brother’s glorious stash of comics. This is what I really like: armed men in cowboy hats riding around on horseback in ...

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2. Mourning and Postmemory

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pp. 17-44

When my parents and I immigrated to the United States in the early 1960s, we rented our first apartment in Providence, Rhode Island, from the Jakubowiczs, a Polish- and Yiddish-speaking family of Auschwitz survivors. Although we shared their hard-earned duplex for four years, I felt I never came to know this tired elderly couple nor their pale and otherworldly daughter ...

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3. Art Spiegelman and AutobioGRAPHICal Re-Vision

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pp. 45-50

Art Spiegelman’s newest autobioGRAPHICal text, Breakdowns: Portrait of the Artist as a Young %@&*! (2008), which includes in its entirety a facsimile of Spiegelman’s earlier volume Breakdowns: From Maus to Now (1977) along with nineteen full-sized pages of introductory graphic panels and a prose afterword, begins with a series of panels organized around a single ...

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4. Breakdowns and Breakthroughs: Looking for Art in Young Spiegelman

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pp. 51-58

In Art Spiegelman’s afterword to Breakdowns: From Maus to Now (1977), the creator of Maus invokes the young, brash, skinny, self-declared artist who authored this reissued collection of short autobiographical and structurally experimental strips that first appeared—as he puts it, “against all odds”—thirty years ago. Spiegelman uses the third person to refer affec-...

PART II. The Global Scope of Autography

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5. Human Rights and Comics: Autobiographical Avatars, Crisis Witnessing, and Transnational Rescue Networks

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pp. 61-72

On any given day, graphic narration rides currents traversing the globe. Heterogeneous in their communities of origin and unpredictable in their routes to mass publics dispersed worldwide, diverse genres of graphic narration sometimes run parallel, sometimes intersect, sometimes swerve in their travels to publics, archives, and markets here and there. There is, for instance, ...

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6. Picturing Oneself as Another

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pp. 73-75

In a photograph by Richard Avedon, François Truffaut and Jean-Pierre Léaud, their heads close together, gaze out at the viewer.1 The two men, despite their difference in age, seem almost twinned in their coloring, hairstyles,and clothes. And even the shared shape of their noses, mouths, and chins is striking. If one did not know their history, one would guess: here are a father ...

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7. Dominique Goblet: The List Principle and the Meaning of Form

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pp. 76-92

French and Francophone bande dessinée, an umbrella term that continues to label the whole range of comics production, has been faster in exploring the creative possibilities of the comics medium than the U.S. graphic novel. Long before Will Eisner coined the term “graphic novel” in the late 1970s, there existed a rich and diverse production in Europe that has played a dra-...

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8. The Animal Witness of the Rwandan Genocide

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pp. 93-100

In Maus, Spiegelman’s elevation of the funny animal comic as a means of reenacting the anguish of bleeding history has provided a somewhat reluctant academy with the occasion to investigate the unique properties of storytelling in the comics mode. And yet, Maus is not the only genocide narrative in the comics form, nor is it the only one to thematize the animal ...

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9. Autobiography as Discovery in Epileptic

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pp. 101-116

William Howarth some time ago delineated three kinds of autobiographies: the oratorical, the dramatic, and the poetic. The oratorical autobiography (Howarth gives the examples of The Education of Henry Adams and The Autobiography of Malcolm X, among others) has an ideological point to make, and makes it from the start, rhetorically shaping the life of the ...

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10. Manga and the End of Japan’s 1960s

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pp. 117-120

The year 2009 was a very good one for Japanese manga artist Urasawa Naoki. It brought not only the publication of the final volume of Pluto, his eight-part, award-winning manga based on a story arc found in Astro Boy (by the grandfather of modern manga Tezuka Osamu), but also the release of the final installment of the film trilogy based on his twenty-four-volume 20th...

PART III. Visualizing Women's Life Writing

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11. Autographic Disclosures and Genealogies of Desire in Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home

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pp. 123-156

Gillian Whitlock has observed the “potential of comics to open up new and troubled spaces” (“Autographics,” 976). Alison Bechdel’s autographic memoir Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic (2006) is such a text, a provocative exploration of sexuality, gendered relations in the American family, and Modernist versions of what she calls “erotic truth” (228). It both enacts and reflects ...

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12. Witnessing Persepolis: Comics, Trauma, and Childhood Testimony

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pp. 157-164

Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood (2003) is a graphic memoir about family crisis, historical upheaval, and coming of age that features Satrapi’s young self, Marji, as autobiographical protagonist. The text tracks the Satrapi family through the turbulent years following the shah’s overthrow in 1079 and the establishment of an Islamic theocracy in Iran. It concludes as Satrapi’s ...

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13. A Story Told in Flashback: Remediating Marjane Strapi's Persepolis

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pp. 164-177

Marjane Satrapi’s two-volume (in English, four volumes in French) autobiographical comics about her coming-of-age in revolutionary Iran were published to critical acclaim in 2003 and 2004.1 This chapter will focus on the remediation of the Persepolis books into an animated feature film, written and directed by Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud, released by Sony ...

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14. Autobiography: The Process Negates the Term

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pp. 178-179

I have been told that I have, on occasion, achieved a semblance of intimacy with my readers through works where I seem to imbue a central character with physical and personality traits similar to my own. This is a wonderful result, but the implications are complex. ...

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15. Up from Surgery: The Politics of Self-Representation in Women’s Graphic Memoirs of Illness

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pp. 180-194

Phoebe Gloeckner’s 1997 illustration “The Breast,” which is included in her 2002 collection A Child’s Life, invites viewers to reconsider what passes as a normal body as well as what constitutes a normative vision of the world. In the illustration a medical chart showing pre- and postoperative illustrations of breast-augmentation surgery is anchored by a large panel of a side ...

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16. The Gutter Effect in Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s A Dialogue on Love

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pp. 195-199

Graphic autobiography comes in many forms—not all of them the familiar form of serial illustration characteristic of the comic strip and its offshoots. This fact is well known in the field of graphic narrative, especially in works that consider the history of the gutter in its broadest sense. For example,the spaces between Hogarth’s series of paintings, The Rake’s Progress and ...

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17. Photau(gyno)graphy: The Work of Joanne Leonard

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pp. 200-206

Some twenty-five years ago in the introduction “Autogynography: Is the Subject Different?” of The Female Autograph, I examined the (then scant) autobiographical writing done by women to ascertain whether there were important differences from those done by men. Emulating Virginia Woolf’s task in A Room of One’s Own, I reached tentative conclusions that, I sug-...

PART IV: Varieties of the Self

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18. The Diary Comic

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pp. 209-226

In a story Jesse Reklaw contributed to the parody minicomic Krayons Ego, a young comics artist seeking inspiration attends a “superstar lecture” by the cartoonist James Kochalka. When a student in the audience asks for a topic for her “first comic,” the parody version of Kochalka, with a bright grin, replies, “Oh, that’s simple. Do diary comics. They’re totally easy!” 1 The ...

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19. Justin Green: Autobiography Meets the Comics

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pp. 227-230

Justin Green’s Binky Brown Meets the Holy Virgin Mary (1972) has long been acknowledged as a fundamental breakthrough in the history of the comics form. Green’s wildly hilarious and deeply moving story of his alter ego Binky’s youthful psychic torment has a legitimate claim to be, if not the first autobiographical comic ever, certainly the seminal instance in English ...

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20. Narrative Worldmaking in Graphic Life Writing

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pp. 231-243

In the structuralist-narratological vocabulary so influentially developed by Gérard Genette (1980), autobiography constitutes a special case of first-person or homodiegetic narration, namely, autodiegetic narration, in which the narrator is also the main character of the story. This understanding of autobiography is serviceable so far as it goes, capturing a key property of ...

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21. In Praise of Joseph Witek’s Comic Books as History

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pp. 244-246

Twenty years ago the University Press of Mississippi published Joseph “Rusty” Witek’s Comic Books as History: The Narrative Art of Jack Jackson, Art Spiegelman, and Harvey Pekar. Although not the first academic book-length study of American comics, it was seminal in its longer-term impact. Perhaps the most striking thing about the book in retrospect is the pre-...

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22. Selective Mutual Reinforcement in the Comics of Chester Brown, Joe Matt, and Seth

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pp. 247-259

“Before I met Joe Matt, I figured he was exaggerating himself in his work. . . .Now I know he’s not! If anything, he’s making himself look better.” 1 So begins Seth’s two-page strip in the seventh issue of Drawn and Quarterly magazine (March 1992). During the course of “Some Things I Think You Should Know about Joe Matt,” Seth lays into his “true friend” and fellow ...

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23. Keeping it (Hyper) Real: Autobiographical Fiction in 3-D

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pp. 260-264

At one point in time, before we had ever met, John Jennings wrote a short story called “No More Candy,” based on an exercise in a book of story prompts. This prompt offered a challenge paraphrased as “Write about when you first became aware of your own mortality. ”In 2006 the Athens Institute for Contemporary Art (ATHICA) in Athens, ...

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24. Fictional Auto/Biography and Graphic Lives in Watchmen

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pp. 265-278

Alan Moore and David Gibbons’s graphic novel Watchmen seems like a highly eccentric choice, at best, for the subject of a chapter on life writing and the graphic medium. However, the variety of autobiographical genres and media that it uses to construct identities and backstories for its super-heroes, including those born both before the Great Depression and after...

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25. American Born Chinese: Challenging the Stereotype

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pp. 279-281

Gene Luen Yang’s American Born Chinese, the first graphic novel nominated for a National Book Award, presents three parallel narratives that are revealed to be parts of the same whole: first, Yang retells the story of Monkey King, based on the legendary character of the sixteenth-century novel Journey to the West; in the second thread, Jin Wang, a Chinese American boy, wants to ...

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26. Materializing Memory: Lynda Barry's One Hundred Demons

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pp. 282-309

Almost from its inception, Lynda Barry’s work has focused on what she calls “trouble.” 1 Her comics are largely composed of black line art, and she paints her words and images with a brush: her lines are thick and round, often animated by energetic exaggerations of gesture; they can exude a scruffiness. Barry continually works with the absences the form of comics pro-...

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27. Reflections on Lynda Barry

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pp. 310-314

Picture this: It’s shortly before 7:00 p.m. on Tuesday, September 17, 2008, in Memorial Auditorium on the campus of Stanford University. Packed into the auditorium are some 1,600 new frosh and transfer students, squeezed into every seat and overflowing onto the stairs, waving banners and T-shirts, chanting rival dorm names—a swirling, raucous, glad-the-parents-...


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pp. 315-322


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pp. 323-339

E-ISBN-13: 9780299251031
Print-ISBN-13: 9780299251048

Publication Year: 2011