Comic Studies: Autobiographical Comics and Trauma

The University of Dundee in Scotland recently launched the world's first mainstream postgraduate degree course (an MLitt) in Comic Studies. In this weekly column, I cover the course from a student's perspective, looking at and discussing what the term "Comic Studies" really entails.

With only three classes left, the semester seems to be flying past at a rather alarming rate! Interestingly though, this is the last week of what can definitely be called 100% autobiographical. In the following two weeks, we embark on the wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey journey of metafictional and displaced biography. If I mention the names Alan Moore and Dave Sim, you might be able to hazard a guess at what is to come!

It's been a hectic month, with essays underway and an interview with Alan Moore for a UK newspaper that required extra brainpower to whittle down an hour of wonderful conversation to a mere 1000 words! At the end of this column, I'll be detailing some of the secondary reading we've been doing on the course, and next time I'll talk a little about the essay requirements.

This week, the class looked at the topic of Autobiographical Comics and Trauma. To some extent, the majority of autobiographix deal with trauma in some way (and indeed, comics as a whole -- I'm looking at you, Bats), but the two designated titles for this class focus almost solely on various forms of trauma, and most notably on medical trauma. "Epileptic" by David B, and "Stitches" by David Small are both traumatic childhood memoirs, but while both are similarly emotional and innovative, the reading experience of the two titles is completely different. I do recommend having something a little lighter to read; I had several breaks to read "Action Comics" and "Catwoman" to recharge my happy meter!

"Epileptic" is the story of a man who grew up with an elder brother, Jean-Christophe, who has severe epilepsy, but that summary and the title are a bit misleading; this isn't the story of David B's brother and his illness, but of the author's resentment towards his brother for having an illness and the effect it has on the entire family (this may be down to a translation issue; the original French title is "L'Ascension du Haut Mal" which translates as "The Rise of the High Evil"). Anyone who has ever cared for or known someone with a challenging condition knows what a difficult position it is to be in, and that some resentment is often impossible to avoid. However, "Epileptic" takes things way past that level; family members are barely sketched-out, personality-wise, never mind David B's brother and the epileptic attacks are drawn in gruesome detail, but with a detachment that seems quite dehumanizing.

The book is packed with detail and information, but only that which relates to the author himself. Two weeks ago, I wrote about the very different reactions I had to two of Joe Sacco's titles, stating that I found "Palestine" very frustrating to read because it seemed like the journalist was intruding too much into the story he was trying to convey. On reflection this week, I think perhaps what annoys me more is the feeling that the author is being more selfish than I find reasonable given the circumstances. Now that, of course, is quite subjective(!), but while I do have sympathy for the young David B growing up in the shadow of his brother, it really does feel as though the author is wallowing in self pity while Jean-Christophe is the one sentenced to a more and more reclusive and solitary existence.

Some people talk about how brave the author is for telling his story honestly, and yes, perhaps that is true. But is it really brave to reveal to the world that you're a bit of a jerk? I'd have liked to have read more about David B's brother and his experiences (and the sister who is relegated even further to the sidelines) to provide a bit more balance, to be honest. It's hard to read a comic when you feel frustrated by the narrator.

Visually, "Epileptic" is stunning; a vibrant clash of black and white and an iconic style that reminded me of Marjane Satrapi's "Persepolis." When I mentioned this to a classmate, she revealed that David B was in fact Satrapi's teacher and mentor in comics -- something my own research hadn't turned up. I'd known that Satrapi started out as an illustrator of children's books, but I hadn't realised that David B was amongst those who encouraged her to move into comics. Makes sense!

"Epileptic" uses a lot of heavy black, which gives a very clear feeling of claustrophobia and underscores how inescapable the narrator finds the situation he lives in. Unlike "Persepolis" though which handles both a narrow and wide focus so well, I felt that "Epileptic" was a very blinkered read. I did enjoy the frequent trips into the authors childhood imagination and the use of symbolism; the portrayal of Master N, a character that helps the authors brother a lot and is portrayed as a happy tiger, was particularly clever.

I think "Epileptic" is of huge benefit to those who know or care for anyone with a demanding condition but I personally would have liked to see more of the other perspectives. But of course, any comic that provokes such a strong reaction is worth reading!

"Stitches," on the other hand, is a book that deserves any and all praise lavished upon it. Moody's upbringing is pretty traumatic and will strike a chord with anyone who had a less than stellar childhood. The emotional abuse he suffers is heartbreaking, but this is ultimately an uplifting tale that brings hope and strength to the reader. "Stitches" often almost steps outside of the conventional comics format, with pages that don't use any panels, and pages of illustrations and sketches. The result is almost a cross between a fine art book and a comic. It reminded me a little of Brian Selznick's novel "The Invention of Hugo Cabret,' which breaks from text to tell full chapters through images alone, but with "Stitches," it is the conventional comic that pauses for the illustration work. The story, however, does not pause, and the sequential images without text or panels are as integral to the book as the more traditional pages.

I say that it almost steps outside the format, but that's not entirely true -- comics really do have limitless potential to push the boundaries and experiment within the medium. Moody has said he would have been unable to tell his story in any other form; having lost the ability to speak as a child, drawing became his primary language.

"Stitches" has a very grey and depressive gloom hanging over the entire story, utilizing washed out coloring that really conveys the mood of the piece. This comic really fascinated me: the changing styles, the disappearance and reappearance of panel borders, the frequent changes of perspective, and different types of panel to panel transitions. The portrayal of Small's child self who isn't allowed to express emotion is something I deeply identified with, and the little dream sequence of him as a little bat who can express emotion made me choke up more than anything else in the entire book.

The depiction of the therapist as the White Rabbit from the Wonderland that Small wished to be in as a child brilliantly demonstrates the power comics have to suspend disbelief (as does Master N in "Epileptic"). In written form alone, an autobiography that appears to say a person is an actual rabbit would be hard to believe, but in comics, the appearance of a giant bunny is unsurprising (after all, we know that anything can happen in a comic!) and we are able to immediately see the symbolism of this chosen portrayal. The visit to this therapist is a turning point in the narrator's life, as the therapist helps him so greatly and leads him out of the dark into a more hopeful future -- into Wonderland.

"Stitches" is an incredibly important book. There are countless "misery memoirs" on the shelves that tell of the many horrible and frightening experiences that many children have, but the less physically abusive stories are rarely told, often because they are rationalized by the child at the time as being deserved or normal. For anyone who has grown up and been negatively affected by their childhood, this is an angry but ultimately uplifting read and I feel that the more fluid and expressive art style really underlines that.

I've been asked to comment a little on the secondary reading for the module (and I'm always open to more suggestions on what to include here!). First and foremost, the one book I have found the most helpful for getting to grips with comic theory is "Understanding Comics" by Scott McCloud. This is comics theory explained in comic form itself, and is an invaluable read for any fan; I've found myself quoting McCloud a lot in my journal entries that are submitted each week for class.

"Documentary Graphic Novels and Social Realism" by Jeff Adams is one of the newer books available on the subject of documentary and political comics, published in 2008. It's a bit on the pricier side, but is an invaluable resource. Covering "Palestine,' "Persepolis" and "Maus,' Adams' provides concise critical analysis of the titles and emphasizes the importance of visuality when it comes to making these works and their political messages more accessible.

"Graphic Subjects: Critical Essays on Autobiography and Graphic Novels" by Michael A. Chaney was published this year and covers "Maus,' "Persepolis" and "Epileptic,' as well as the non-autobiographical "Watchmen" and "American Born Chinese." I found the two essays on "Persepolis" particularly useful, as they examine the modified memories of autobiographix (and thus their authenticity), and how the author sets the reader as witness to political events.

"Comic Books as History" by Joseph Witek, looks at three key authors: Art Spiegelman, Harvey Pekar, and Jack Jackson. The first two there are of course integral to this module on autobiographical comics, and although this is an older book (published in 1989) it remains an important and relevant text. Witek's writing on Spiegelman is particularly interesting, arguing that the animal metaphor is integral to the books success and appeal, along with the framing of a biography and autobiography through the lens of world history.

Honorable mentions now to the books that may also be helpful, but that I don't quite own yet: "Reading Comics: How Graphic Novels Work and What They Mean" by Douglas Wolk; "A Comics Studies Reader" by Jeet Heer; "Comics and Sequential Art: Principles and Practices from the Legendary Cartoonist" by Will Eisner. Sadly, a student budget can only be stretched so far, and there have been a lot of titles to get through this semester!

No doubt I'll be able to pick up any others next semester for International Comics Cultures and Creating Comics.

Next week: Metafiction meets Autobiography, with Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell's "The Birth Caul" and Eddie Campbell's "The Fate of the Artist" and "Alec."

Laura Sneddon is a freelance comics journalist in the UK, writing for mainstream press and websites alike. You can follow her on Twitter and read most of her work at www.comicbookgrrrl.com. In her working hours she sells comics to an unsuspecting public and formulates her plan to become an evil professor of comics.

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