- Canadian Graphic: Picturing Life Narratives ed. by Candida Rifkind and Linda Warley
Candida Rifkind and Linda Warley, editors
Wilfrid Laurier UP, 2016, 305 pp. ISBN 978-1771121798, $29.99 paperback.
The "comics boom" of the last three decades has produced important critical work that provides renewed perspectives on the multilayered ways this creative medium functions today. Candida Rifkind and Linda Warley's groundbreaking project makes a compelling case for the legacy of both mainstream and underground Canadian graphic narratives in the context of the transnational comics industry in North America. As the first volume published specifically on Canadian graphic life narratives, this timely book speaks to the myriad ways Canadian artists envision their experiences in shifting contexts, providing comics studies with broader critical perspectives. In general, the text covers substantial material on forms of life writing from established cartoonists to younger artists, to picture books and graphic life writing for young adults. The editors highlight not only a range of texts, but draw our attention to generations of print Canadian graphic artists, with essays on Chester Brown, Julie Doucet, and Seth, for the first generation—and the second generation is represented by Ho Che Anderson, Scott Chantler, Sarah Leavitt, and David Alexander Robertson. Specifically, the volume consists of essays on ten Canadian cartoonists and their work from 1980 to 2011, but also locates itself at "the cusp of a new era in alternative Canadian comics, in which diversification of many different kinds is taking place; the cartoonists' identities and subject positions are diversifying, and so are their styles, stories, and publishing platforms" (4). The book's value, thus, lies partly in how it offers a comprehensive history of the ways life, in its broadest sense, has been graphically represented in Canada, in order to signal ongoing experimentation, diversification, activism, and the need to develop renewed forms of critical examination.
The collection is divided into three sections: "Confession and the Relational Self," "Collective Memory and Visual Biography," and "The Child and the Nation." The essays in the first section "consider how the intersubjectivity of comics as a form that demands active reading on the part of the reader/viewer connects to the intersubjective narrative mode of confession," particularly in the context of what Sianne Ngai calls "ugly feelings" (13). Importantly, each of the essays in this section draws from diverse rhetorical theories or autobiographical forms to elucidate the comic artists' strategies and purposes. The essays, therefore, provide intersectional critical frames that support the discussion of the graphic texts, opening up ways of understand forms of self-representation. The essays in the second section center on the ways cartoonists deploy lifewriting forms, specifically biography, in the larger context of political narratives or discourses of personal or collective memory. The third section links notions of representation of childhood with the idea of the nation within the broad context of historical representation as a pedagogical tool in texts produced for young adults. This section's privileging of graphic novels for adolescents and picture books is a welcome contribution to graphic narrative theory, as [End Page 436] it implicitly broadens the definition of what might be strictly considered "comics."
In general, the contributors balance their theoretical frames with discussions of the texts, providing useful critical vocabulary and access to the analytical perspectives that have shaped comics theory in the last three decades. Kevin Ziegler's essay makes a compelling case for the mode of confession as a "common motif" in Canadian graphic life narratives. The engagement with Lauren Berlant's notion of "intimate publics" usefully structures his discussion of this mode of self-representation, and he references a wide range of texts that illustrate his argument regarding the status of confessional texts. In her persuasive and insightful essay on her mother's Alzheimer's disease—framed by questions of loss of self-narrativity and identity in the context of illness narratives such as Sarah Leavitt's graphic memoir Tangles: A Story about Alzheimer's, My Mother and Me—Kathleen Venema effectively shapes the story of personal and relational disintegration. James Hall's essay on Chester Brown's I Never Liked You offers perhaps...