- Reading Lessons in Seeing: Mirrors, Masks, and Mazes in the Autobiographical Graphic Novel by Michael A. Chaney
Like the protagonist of an early Stephen King story, or like artist George Marcoux’s Golden Age character Supersnipe, the central figure of Michael Chaney’s new book Reading Lessons in Seeing is a fearless child with a boundless imagination. In a series of sophisticated, often striking readings of a variety of texts—from Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis and David B.’s Epileptic to Joe Sacco’s Palestine and John Lewis’s March—Chaney returns again and again to the precocious children who fill the pages of autobiographical graphic narratives. In the opening of Chapter two, for example, he asks, “What does the face of American comics look like?” (57). The answer to this question provides a map for the rest of the book, in which Chaney explores the formal and metaphysical qualities of these real-life stories: “Regardless of the graphic novel’s pretentions,” he argues, “the child or youth remains an emblem of the comics and an archetype of its mediation” (57). If studied carefully, that “emblem” opens a new realm for comics scholarship, one in which the child draws our attention to a “philosophical reflection on the complicated nature of temporality” (57). In learning how to read a comic book, Chaney suggests, we might also learn to understand the personal, often unspoken narratives that have shaped us as scholars or as comic book fans. Maybe Marcoux’s 1940s kid hero Supersnipe—“The Boy with the Most Comic Books in America”—was onto something after all.1
Chaney’s new book might be read as a sequel to the arguments he offered in his 2011 edited collection Graphic Subjects: Critical Essays on Autobiography and Graphic Novels, an anthology that collects a number of essential readings on the form. If you are teaching a course on memoir comics, selections from Reading Lessons will complement any syllabus that includes Joseph Witek, Charles Hatfield, Hillary Chute, Elisabeth El Refaie, and Tahneer Oksman, to name just a few scholars whose work on these narratives has been illuminating and influential. Throughout the book, however, the iconic, almost mythic figure of the cartoon child continually reminds us of the issues these narratives raise for readers: “comics promote adolescence and its rejection; they encompass both the view of (or as) the child and the child’s view under verbal erasure” (59). This “paradox,” Chaney [End Page 403] continues, might explain “the comics’ formal preoccupations with the child” (59), but I suspect that it also calls attention to the phenomenological conditions in which we experience these texts. There can be no escape from the mirrors and the labyrinths that fill autobiographical comics, Chaney implies, until we readers find something of ourselves in these empty, often lonely spaces. Like the “prophetic child” that Chaney describes in Kyle Baker’s Nat Turner (76–81), what we see in the mirror, or find at the center of the maze, always reflects what we brought with us in the first place. Throughout the book, Chaney echoes an argument from his introduction to Graphic Subjects, the notion that the “tension between objective and subjective truths in creating realistic fictions of the self prod us to reconsider what is at stake in telling our life stories in pictures”2—and also, I would add, what might be at stake for those of us who study these intimate and sometimes joyous narratives.
In Chapter three, “Picture Games in Story Frames and the Play Spaces of Autography,” Chaney describes the playfulness of Lynda Barry’s One Hundred Demons, which, in its closing pages, invites us to paint our own pictures. Although they take a different form, the games and quizzes in Chris Ware’s Jimmy Corrigan or in Epileptic, Chaney adds, also serve as puzzles that “point optimistically and perhaps nostalgically to a notion of the human (and of the humanities) in tandem with a transformative, progressive model of learning, which sees reading as a site of participation already...