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The Texture of Retracing in Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis
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In July 2004, the New York Times Magazine ran a cover story on graphic novels, speaking of them as a “new literary form” and asserting that comics are enjoying a “newfound respectability right now” because “comic books are what novels used to be—an accessible, vernacular form with mass appeal.” However, this lengthy Times article virtually ignores graphic narrative work by women: the piece excerpts the work of four authors, all male; depicts seven authors in photographs, all male; and mentions women writers only in passing: “The graphic novel is a man’s world, by and large” (McGrath 2004, 24, 30). This is not true. Some of today’s most riveting feminist cultural production is in the form of accessible yet edgy graphic narratives.1 While this work has been largely ignored by feminist critics in the academy, interest is now growing from outside the field of comics, as we can see in recent essays in journals such as Life Writing, MELUS, Modern Fiction Studies, and PMLA.2 Feminist graphic narratives, experimental and accessible, will play an important role in defining feminisms that “could provide a model for a politically conscious yet post-avant-garde theory and practice” (Felski 2000, 187).

I use “graphic narrative,” instead of the more common term “graphic novel,” because the most gripping works coming out now, from men and women alike, claim their own historicity—even as they work to destabilize standard narratives of history.3 Particularly, there is a significant yet diverse body of nonfiction graphic work that engages with the subject either in extremis or facing brutal experience. In much American women’s work, autobiographical investigations of childhood, the body, and (traumatic) sex—speciously understood as private, all-too-individual topoi— are a central focus. Yet whether or not the exploration of extremity takes place on a world-historical stage (as in, say, the work of Joe Sacco and Art Spiegelman), or on a stage understood as the private sphere (as in, say, the work of Alison Bechdel or Phoebe Gloeckner) should not affect how we understand these graphic narratives as political: the representation of memory and testimony, for example, key issues here, function in similar ways across a range of nonfiction work through the expansivity of the graphic narrative form, which makes the snaking lines of history forcefully legible. I am interested in bringing the medium of comics—its conventions, its violation of its conventions, what it does differently—to the forefront of conversations about the political, aesthetic, and ethical work of narrative. The field of graphic narrative brings certain constellations to the table: hybridity and autobiography, theorizing trauma in connection to the visual, textuality that takes the body seriously. I claim graphic narratives, as they exhibit these interests, “feminist,” even if they appear discrete from an explicitly feminist context.

Further, I argue that the complex visualizations that many graphic narrative works undertake require a rethinking of the dominant tropes of unspeakability, invisibility, and inaudibility that have tended to characterize recent trauma theory—as well as a censorship-driven culture at large. Unquestionably attuned to the political, these works fundamentally turn on issues of the ethical, in Lynn Huffer’s important sense of the ethical question as “how can the other reappear at the site of her inscriptional effacement?” (2001, 3). I am interested in this notion of ethics as it applies to autobiographical graphic narrative: what does it mean for an author to literally reappear—in the form of a legible, drawn body on the page—at the site of her inscriptional effacement? Graphic narratives that bear witness to authors’ own traumas and those of others materially retrace inscriptional effacement; they reconstruct and repeat in order to counteract. It is useful to understand the retracing work of graphic narratives as ethical repetitions (of censored scenarios). In Sexuality and the Field of Vision Jacqueline Rose writes that the encounter between psychoanalysis and artistic practice draws its strength from “repetition as insistence, that is, the constant pressure of something hidden but not forgotten—something that can come into focus now by blurring the fields of representation where our normal forms of self-recognition take place” (1986, 228). This repetition is manifested with particular...



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