- The Comics of Julie Doucet and Gabrielle Bell: A Place Inside Yourself ed. by Tahneer Oksman and Seamus O’Malley
Tahneer Oksman and Seamus O’Malley, editors
University Press of Mississippi, 2018, 298 pp. ISBN 9781496821096, $30 paperback.
At the first meeting of the Forum on Comics and Graphic Narratives at the Modern Language Association annual conference in 2011, Hillary Chute, a leading scholar in comics studies, presided over “Drawing Women’s Lives,” one of three inaugural panels presented that year. One of the presenters, Tahneer Oksman, is an editor of this collection on Julie Doucet and Gabrielle Bell, a testament to the enduring importance of the intersection between life writing, women’s studies, and comics. Chute’s Graphic Women: Life Narrative and Contemporary Comics (2010) is considered the groundbreaking work in this field; other crucial references include Michael Chaney’s edited collection Graphic Subjects: Critical Essays on Autobiography and Graphic Novels (2011), Lynda Barry: Girlhood Through the Looking Glass (2012) by Susan Kirtley, and Drawing from Life: Memory and Subjectivity in Comic Art (2013) edited by Janie Tolmie. These studies primarily concentrate on the autobiographical comics of well-known women cartoonists such as Alison Bechdel, Marjane Satrapi, Phoebe Gloeckner, and Lynda Barry. Although Alisia Chase discusses Doucet’s work in her chapter in Drawing from Life, Doucet and Bell have received relatively less scholarly attention, and thus this volume is unique in foregrounding these two feminist cartoonists.
Before delving into the particular contributions of these artists, it’s worth considering how comics memoirs and diaries, referred to as “autographics” following Gillian Whitlock, differ from life writing in prose narration. One has to account for the visual representation as conveyed in the embodied quality of the line, the scenes and placement within the comics panels, and the layout of the pages themselves. Add to this the relationship between word and image, narrated speech vs. captions, [End Page 840] and it quickly becomes apparent that comics have different levels of complication than those that pertain only to prose. Comics also operate within their own field of references and genealogies, even when they focus on the subjective experience of the cartoonist. Thus, although Bell stresses the importance of finding “a place inside yourself”—also the subtitle of the current volume—the editors seek to expand and deepen our understanding of these two authors by “reading their bodies of work alongside each other as a way of honoring the feminist legacy of connection and engagement” (xiii). Doucet, a Montréal-based artist, is famous for the punk sensibility of her comics Dirty Plotte and New York Diary. British-American Bell, who cites Doucet as a formative influence, develops a more understated, introspective style in books such as Cecil and Jordan in New York and Voyeurs. Margaret Galvin’s opening chapter on feminist genealogies does valuable work in resituating these artists from the margins of male-dominated histories of alternative comics into a more cohesive history of feminist comics that includes anthologies such as Wimmen’s Comics, Weirdo, Twisted Sisters in the late 1980s and early 1990s for Doucet, and Mome, Kramer’s Ergot, and Scheherazade for Bell in the 2000s.
Following Philippe Lejeune’s “autobiographical pact”—which conflates the author, the narrator, and the main character—an obvious point of departure would consider the relationship between the author’s life and its artistic representation, and the chapters by Natalie Pendergast and Sarah Hildebrand examine this question in the works of Doucet and Bell respectively. Pendergast complicates the autobiographical formula by contrasting Doucet’s ostensibly autobiographical comic “The First Time” with the story “Monkey and the Living Dead” from the early 1990s to demonstrate how these two narratives can be read together in a way that significantly alters their meaning. In her discussion of Bell’s works The Voyeurs (2012), Truth is Fragmentary (2014), and Everything is Flammable (2017), Hildebrand invokes Cathy Caruth’s trauma theory to analyze how the fragmentary nature of Bell’s autographics alludes to familial traumas that Bell is reluctant to address but are nonetheless present. Hildebrand argues that this very reticence is...