- Reading Lessons in Seeing: Mirrors, Masks, and Mazes in the Autobiographical Graphic Novel by Michael A. Chaney
Many of us who study and teach life writing have found the rise of the memoir in comics form an exciting phenomenon to observe. Across literary and cultural studies, influential texts such as Maus, Fun Home, and Persepolis have prompted a renewed interest in accounting for the unique power of autobiographical storytelling and presented scholars with the challenge of reckoning with a new textual form. Michael A. Chaney's Reading Lessons in Seeing sits at the intersection of a media-specific theory of comics and the study of [End Page 399] autobiography, arguing that reading autobiographical comics requires more—from critics, teachers, students, and readers—than a glancing familiarity with the complexities of life writing or the comics form. Chaney demonstrates that in reading autobiographical comics we learn to read anew.
Chaney's central premise is that comics themselves teach us how to read them. These pedagogical moments are staged using a range of techniques Chaney elucidates across five chapters concerned with mirror scenes, the figure of the child, games and other non-narrative forms of play, extradiegetic panels that present the comic autobiographer at work, and the possibility of communitas that reckons with the history of racial violence. Reading Lessons in Seeing is full of careful, nuanced, and revelatory close readings that demonstrate how the combination of the comics form with autobiographical content generates an entirely distinct textual encounter. One of the strengths of this approach is that these chapters focus on moments of braiding between the diegetic and extradiegetic fields of the text in which the autobiographical acts as a punctum and as chimera. In my experience of teaching autobiographical comics, these are the moments to which the strongest and most engaged students are drawn when introduced to autobiographical comics in the undergraduate and graduate curriculum. Such students want to understand what is communicated by Art Speigelman's self-portrait where he sits at his drawing table wearing a mouse mask with the bodies of dead mice at his feet and a guard tower out his window. Chaney's work helps us read such moments, which are undeniably compelling yet difficult to describe. His book will be a valuable resource for teaching, and for supporting the independent research projects of undergraduate and graduate students. In these readings Chaney teaches us how to identify and consider the seemingly impossible balance comic autobiographers strike between artifice and truth. The grounding of the book in Chaney's own teaching reminds us of the importance of the classroom as a space for the scholar to think and learn alongside their students. In this work it leads to numerous clarifications of the complex work of form and genre, positing comics as, among other things, "a set of self-reflexive, visual statements uttering life and inner life in brazenly non-realistic tones" (25).
In his close readings that support statements such as the one above, Chaney utilizes Gillian Whitlock's conceptualization of "autographics" and Hillary Chute's careful examination of women's comics in Graphic Women: Life Narrative and Contemporary Comics. The scholarly originality comes from connecting these theories directly to psychoanalysis in order to argue for the formal specificity of comics. In his chapter on mirror scenes, framed perhaps unsurprisingly by Lacanian psychoanalysis, the "formal operations of the medium, as well as its formal unconscious" are considered to analyze "not just [End Page 400] the subjects talked about in graphic novels but the models of subjectivity that do the talking" (25). While the exploration of a text's unconscious may put off those readers who dismiss the utility of a psychoanalytic approach, Chaney convinced me of the generative possibilities for interpretation and reading such a frame can yield. For Chaney, the form of comics refers to "the method rather than the content of comics" (7)—and thus what the method displaces, as well as what it makes explicit, must be accounted for. Chaney's...