- The Graphic Lives of Fathers: Memory, Representation, and Fatherhood in North American Autobiographical Comics by Mihaela Precup
Palgrave Macmillan, 2020, xvi + 244 pp. ISBN 9783030362171, $84.99 hardcover.
In The Graphic Lives of Fathers, Mihaela Precup examines eight North American autobiographical comics that “explicitly attempt to define good paternal conduct” (2), four by women writing about their fathers and four by men writing about their experience of fatherhood. She carefully explains the boundaries of her study, noting that she focuses on North America to compare works in a common cultural context. She uses the term “autobiographical comics,” rather than autography or graphic memoir, in order to encompass short forms and diary-style comics as well as book-length narratives. And while families, including fathers, are featured in many autobiographical comics, Precup focuses on those where fatherhood is central, those that present a “coherent narrative about fatherhood” (6). Her objective appears to be twofold: to analyze the representation of questions about fatherhood in autobiographical comics and to use those comics as evidence of how fatherhood has changed over the last several decades.
To pursue these aims, Precup employs scholarship about life writing and graphic narrative as well as feminism and historical studies. She deftly incorporates key ideas relevant to autobiographical comics, notably postmemory—the concept first developed by Marianne Hirsch in her work on Maus—and the unique construction of the “I” in comics. Citing several scholars including Sidonie Smith and Julia Watson, Jared Gardner, and Charles Hatfield, she discusses how comics create a clear separation between the “I” who tells the story and the “I” who is the subject of the story. Here Precup explores the difference between photography and [End Page 843] drawing and the ways that authors use photographs as a kind of evidence in autobiographical comics. Precup places her study in the context of “filiation narrative,” an integration of autobiography and biography, and throughout the book, she foregrounds questions of ethics in autobiography. Who owns a life story? Is it ethical to write about a family member without consent? Precup also evaluates the works through a feminist lens: “This book asks questions about the contribution made by the vocabulary of graphic narration to the representation of fatherhood, the manner in which hegemonic masculinities influence paternal conduct and often exist in the same space as alternative masculinities, as well as the gendered and generational dynamic of parenthood” (23). Her analysis of how both female and male authors are shaped by patriarchal forces contributes significantly to the growing body of scholarship on autobiographical comics.
The four autobiographical comics by women discussed in chapters 2 through 5 are all published in the twenty-first century but describe events from decades earlier. Each narrative positions the daughter as an investigator, sifting through memories, photographs, and documents to try to understand a father who is mysterious or absent. In Soldier’s Heart (2015)—a one-volume revision of the three-volume You’ll Never Know (2009, 2010, 2012)—Carol Tyler tries to uncover the source of her father’s anger and reserve by solving the mystery of what happened to him during his World War II service. Precup argues that Tyler blames too much on war trauma, using it as an excuse to forgive her father, “but she also introduces enough material to undermine her own (ambivalent) argument” (53). Precup reads Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home (2006), the award-winning narrative of Bechdel’s own coming out in conjunction with discoveries about her father’s sexuality and his suicide, as a quest to discover what makes a good father. Bechdel’s work foregrounds the question of what she owes to her father, and Precup notes that she “uses multiple techniques of persuasion that allow the narrator to construct the convincing portrait of a difficult father while also building a case for his redemption” (76). In The Imposter’s Daughter (2009), Laurie Sandell literally becomes a detective, tracking down the many lies that her father used to construct his identity. Finally, in the short comic, “August, 1977” (2013), and the book Fatherland...