As stated, the ability to evoke an emotional response or connection is linked in part to the empathy that we as a reader feel towards the narrative and characters in front of us. Based in realism, the autobiographical genre has the ability to evoke emotion based in familiarity; we see familiar situations, relationships and events that we too have experienced in our own lives and can relate to them first hand. The effects of these situations that are heightened within autobiography, in comparison to pure fiction, are more emotively powerful, as we are often experiencing – or led to believe we are – what that the writer themselves has experienced.
In discussing the relationship between an author and their work, Michel Foucault explains that “a novel narrated in the first person pronoun refers to an alter-ego whose distance from the author varies, often changing in the course of the work (1)”. The distance between the text and the influence of the author is perhaps the key component in autobiographical comics. Unlike prose, where the term ‘I’ forms the writer’s perspective, comics require the artist to draw themselves within the diegetic world of the panel, personifying the work much more than descriptive prose has the ability to do.
Candida Rifkin says that “this self-objectification demands that the cartoonist externalise an interior sense of self in a visual sign at once intimate and drawn at a critical distance, both expressive and descriptive”(2). As such, when an artist draws themselves into a panel, they are reducing the distance that this alter-ego or representation has with the artist, providing from a reader’s perspective, an air of authorship and authenticity in what is before them. Versaci describes how these drawn images encourage readers to see the story as the artist-author’s personal expression, and that the devices used by the artist-author represent how a given memoirist “sees” the world (3). In his paper ‘What is an Author?’ Foucault establishes that when the identity of an author is removed, as is the identity behind the story and the relationship between author and text; the experience, anecdote and influence that make that story what it is (4).
The question as to whether the term ‘memoir’ is apt in a narrative that falls outside of nonfiction is a focus in Versaci’s research, in which he establishes that “autobiographical comics undermine simplistic notions of “truth” (5). He elaborates that “retelling one’s personal history is, in part, an act of invention. That is, the very nature of the medium – the fact that the images are drawn, the details arranged within panels, the panels arranged within a page – foregrounds that the comic is an active reconstruction of the past” (6). As such, no comic memoir can be constructed without an element of fiction; the degree to how large this fictive element is pushes the boundaries between representation and influence.
Canadian artist Seth’s ‘picture novella’ It’s A Good Life, If You Don’t Weaken presents Seth as the protagonist as he fleetingly searches for a 1940’s New Yorker cartoonist by the name of ‘Kalo’. The narrative and Kalo are fictional, yet as the comic is told in the first person by the artist-author, the notion of truth and fiction are blended. The work follows a caricature of Seth, set within a world that mimics reality. We are shown cultural objects and figures that exist non-diegetically, and as such we are inclined to read what is being shown as truth, despite the comic having never being advertised as non-fiction. Regardless, the novel explores the history of the cartooning medium and the nostalgia that Seth feels towards a particular time in cartooning history. By fabricating the events of the memoir, Versaci explains, that Seth reveals emotional truths about himself and his sometimes counterproductive nostalgia more aptly than he would be able to communicate without creative invention (7). The novel concludes with a series of images that his alter-ego has collected through the course of the narrative; the works of Kalo, which are penned by Seth using the nostalgic aesthetic that was popularised during the time period Kalo was said to have worked, reflect Seth’s appreciation and emotional connection to the medium.
In contrast, Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth uses the fictional character of Jimmy to convey similar experiences to that of artist-author, Chris Ware. Ware, whose father abandoned him as a small child, parallels his own experience of meeting his estranged father as an adult, in his isolated, lonely alter-ego that is Jimmy Corrigan. Ware states in the postscript of his novel, that upon starting the comic, he had hoped to provide himself a ‘semiautobiographical’ setting in which he could work out some of the more embarrassing problems and emotional truthfulness that he was experiencing (8). Rifkind outlines that Ware’s work is a ‘veiled account of his real experiences, producing a comic the very smallness of which stands for the smallness of his relationship with his father’ (9). Through the use of an alter-ego that is distinctly separate from Ware, he has been able to amplify his loneliness and the internal distress of these situations without presenting an overly detailed or descriptive insight to his own life.
These two works present a direct comparison in the notion of authorship. The works are both autobiographically influenced thematically and emotionally, more so than they are in a realistic depiction of each artist-author’s own life. From Foucault’s descriptions, these works, when analysed from the perspective that we are reading from an artist’s experience hold greater emotional currency than they may otherwise communicate. The personal expression that these artists have communicated is idiosyncratic of their own visual styles, and in the broader spectrum of their work, these memoirs provide a representation as to how these artists see both themselves and the world around them, reinforcing the emotional sincerity of the content they have produced.
- M Foucault, ‘What is an author?’ in D Lodge, Modern criticism and theory: a reader, Longman, London, 1988, p.205
- C Rifkind, “Comics Artists and Intergenerational Auto/biography”, Canadian Review of American Studies, vol.38, 2009, p.403
- R Versaci, This Book Contains Graphic Language: Comics as Literature, Continuum International, London, 2007, p.44
- Foucault, p.205
- Versaci, p. 36
- Versaci, p. 58
- Versaci, p. 76
- C Ware, Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth, Jonathan Cape, Random House, London, 2000
- Rifkind, p.432