- Autobiographical Comics: Life Writing in Pictures by Elisabeth El Refaie
Since the publication of Art Spiegelman’s groundbreaking Maus as a two-volume book (in 1986 and 1991 respectively), literary scholars working with life writing have turned to comics as promising objects of study that might challenge and redefine traditions and conventions of auto/biography. Although autobiographical comics are more often the subjects of literary criticism than superhero comics, there are only a few books devoted to this mode. Charles Hatfield’s Alternative Comics, an insightful analysis of comics influenced by the underground comix movement of the late 1960s and 1970s, is not exclusively focused on autobiographical comics, but two chapters are dedicated to them, and the other chapters explore historical and formal issues that are relevant to autobiographical comics. Hillary Chute, besides publishing a number of significant articles, especially on Art Spiegelman’s work, produced the only monograph on autobiographical comics, Graphic Women, which focuses on the contributions of important female comics artists. Michael Chaney edited a collection of essays, Graphic Subjects, which has begun to reveal the range of autobiographical material in comics, as well as possibilities for approaching them.
In contrast to the previously mentioned books, Elisabeth El Refaie’s Autobiographical Comics is a broad-based survey of the major, current trends in autobiographical comics. The book provides a helpful assessment of the field, as well as explores the many different ways that comics can be analyzed. El Refaie’s own background is in visual and media studies, especially the newspaper, and she has published articles in those fields, as well as on literacy and, of course, on comics.
El Refaie’s approach is shaped by two key decisions. First, she does not rely solely on narrative theory to analyze comics, but draws from many different approaches, including semiotics, discourse analysis, and psychoanalytic theories, to name a few. She also decides not to concentrate on a few autobiographical comics, but rather mentions, with varying degrees of detail and focus, eighty-five different comics from Europe and North America. While previous significant studies either focus primarily on American or European [End Page 862] comics, El Refaie draws from both traditions (though not from manga). It is likely that readers will discover several comics featured in El Refaie’s study that they had not previously encountered.
Each of her chapters is organized into sub-sections, and in each, she clearly explains a specific theoretical concept or disciplinary approach and then turns to an autobiographical comic that can illustrate it. In that way, the comics function more as examples of the application of a specific concept or approach, which is perhaps more edifying of the concept than of the comic itself. Her analysis of comics is sharp and focused, but limited by the constraints of her approach—she sacrifices depth of analysis for the number of comics and the variety of interdisciplinary interventions covered in each chapter.
Chapter One provides a helpful overview of the key scholars and trends in research on autobiography, debates over defining comics as a unique medium, the social histories of comics in Europe and North America, and the developments and current trends in autobiographical comics. She successfully and succinctly surveys the important scholarly conversations, and lands on an intriguing observation about the tension between autobiographical comics’ relatively newfound cultural respectability and their status as subversive and marginal, but she does not delve into its implications. This tension between comics’ respectability and marginality taps into current debates about the relationship between comics and academia, the identification of comics as literature, and the development of an increasingly predictable comics canon. In this instance and several others, I would have liked her to develop her own perspectives on current issues in comics studies.
Literary scholars have already critiqued and complicated Philippe Lejeune’s argument about the “autobiographical pact” between author and reader, and in Chapter Two, El Refaie shows how it does not really apply to autobiographical comics. The necessity for creators of autobiographical comics to make multiple self-representations—and...