- Autobiographical Comics by Andrew J. Kunka
The Bloomsbury Comics Studies series, launched in 2017 with Chris Gavaler's Superhero Comics, is designed to provide "accessible, authoritative and comprehensive introductions to key topics in Comics Studies" (jacket copy). Andrew J. Kunka's Autobiographical Comics is the second title in this series, a welcome recognition by the publisher that graphic life narratives have become as central to comics studies as superhero comics. Designed primarily for students and teachers, the books in this series introduce the genre, describe its history, survey critical questions in the field, explore the social and cultural impact of the genre, provide short summaries of key texts, and include extra resources for further study. Autobiographical Comics is a well-informed, highly readable, and perceptive overview that will be extremely useful for students and teachers looking for introductory material and bibliographic references for further study.
One benefit of the series' format is that each section of Autobiographical Comics can be read independently because each chapter is clearly subdivided into sections. The first, shorter chapter, "Introduction: What Are Autobiographical Comics?" starts by explaining the centrality of graphic life narratives to comics studies and immediately references eminent critics who reappear throughout, including Charles Hatfield, Elisabeth El Refaie, Thierry Groensteen, Scott McCloud, and Hillary Chute. Kunka also engages with formative theories in life writing studies. In "The Study of Autobiography," he introduces Philippe Lejeune's formative concept of the autobiographical pact and then problematizes the idea of singular authorship for a collaborative medium such as comics. Kunka appeals to comics scholars Rocco Versaci, Jared Gardner, and Frederik Byrn Køhlert to work through how the multimodal [End Page 430] form of comics can challenge truth claims, an appeal that leads into the next section, "What Is an Autobiographical Comic?" A survey of the "taxonomical anxieties" (13) of the genre and its "permeable, hazy boundaries, yielding such terms as 'semi-autobiographical' and 'roman à clef'" (11) allows Kunka to tease out definitional issues and conclude that "'autobiography' as a genre can have porous boundaries through which creators can find openings to challenge and play with generic conventions" (15). None of this will be new to life writing scholars, but it is important ground to clear at the beginning of an introductory guide, and Kunka balances depth and brevity with skill.
Chapter two, "The History of Autobiographical Comics," begins by asserting that "scholars and historians identify Justin Green's 1972 comic, Binky Brown Meets the Holy Virgin Mary, as the seminal work in the genre" (21). Kunka lists a number of US cartoonists who cite this work as crucial to their own comics: Art Spiegelman, Aline Kominsky-Crumb, Robert Crumb, and Phoebe Gloeckner. To his credit, Kunka does not rest there, intervening in this origin story to explore "strains of autobiography" that predate Green's work to show that "the potential for comics to serve as a venue for autobiographical stories was apparent early on" (21). The chapter begins with examples of "proto-autobiographical comics," looking to the ways pioneering, early twentieth-century US newspaper cartoonists Winsor McCay (Little Nemo in Slumberland), Bud Fisher (Mutt and Jeff), and Will Eisner (Spirit) explore self-representation in their strips through the self-reflexive figure of the cartoonist. Kunka also references a few autobiographical comics that predate the 1960s US underground comix, notably Henry Yoshitaka Kiyama's Four Immigrants Manga (1931), Miné Okuba's Citizen 13660 (1946), and manga creator Shinji Nagashima's The Cruel Story of a Cartoonist (1961). Although he acknowledges "none of these works had the popularity or cultural penetration to kick off a trend in autobiographical comics" (32), Kunka stops short of analyzing the cultural and racial biases that sideline these Japanese and Japanese American auto/bio comics in the predominantly white and US narrative of the genre's origins.
From there, the chapter shifts firmly into the established narrative of the origins of auto/bio comics in the 1960s US underground comix movement, out of which emerged Green, Kominsky-Crumb, Crumb, and Spiegelman. Kunka also provides a rich history of feminist and queer cartoonists in...