Comic Studies: Metafiction meets Autobiography

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.

This week, we took a trip on the weird side with Metafiction meets Autobiography, for which we studied the works of Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell. Moore, of course, is well known in the comics world, having written an impressive bibliography of acclaimed works from the groundbreaking "Watchmen" to the still-continuing "League of Extraordinary Gentlemen," but he is also a consummate performance artist who has given a number of one off recitals. Most famed among these, perhaps is "The Birth Caul," a rumination on language and identity as told by a human life, reversing the process from death to life.

"The Birth Caul" was transformed into comics form by Eddie Campbell, (who had previously collaborated with Moore on "From Hell") after hearing a recording of Moore's performance, Campbell and asking permission to adapt it. The result was self-published by Campbell, with the artist later giving another Moore performance, "Snakes and Ladders," the same treatment.

Unlike "From Hell," neither of these adaptations were collaborations; Campbell took the recording and attached his own interpretation of the words. The result is remarkable, if not a little formidable. "The Birth Caul" is autobiographical at its core; the story of Moore finding his mother's birth caul (a membrane that can cover the face of a newborn baby), his loss at her death is terrifically rendered in words as well as images. Moore ties many other threads into the narrative: the relationship between people and spaces; psychogeography, Moore's pet interest; the emergence of magic in the writer's life; and most prominently, an examination of how we wear many cauls or masks throughout our life.

The audio recording of Moore's performance is, in some ways, quite separate from the comic. Anyone who has ever heard Moore speak will tell of his hypnotic voice and his ability to make you picture what he is saying. It's an odd experience then to see another person's interpretation of the same words, even if you read and listen at the same time.

This adaptation is strange for a comic, in that it follows none of the rules we have come to understand; panels, gutters, transitions, and even a pictorial narrative seem to come away at the edges leaving behind what looks like an illustrated story. And yet it isn't; the images Campbell has created don't simply repeat what is in the narrative, instead they develop, stretch, and play tricks with both the reader and story. Truly, this is metafiction.

But what is metafiction? "Meta" is a term that is thrown frequently in current times ("Oh, yay -- more metadrama.") and is often said to mean "self-referential." In fact, that's only half the story, as "meta" has a more general meaning: an abstraction of a concept, used to add in some way to the original concept. In fiction terms, it is a piece of work that is aware of its status as a created entity and draws attention to that fact, most often to pontificate on the relationship between fiction and reality. Metafiction abounds in comics -- think of Deadpool regularly addressing the fact he's in a comic book, She-Hulk reading her own comics or the Flash begging readers to buy his comic to save his existence. (Breaking the fourth wall is a form of metafiction, but metafiction includes a lot more than that.) Pick up pretty much anything that Alan Moore has ever written for more examples, from the Tales of the Black Freighter in "Watchmen" to the self-referential "Supreme." Grant Morrison is the master of metafiction, with "Animal Man," "The Filth" and "The Invisibles" are perhaps the best examples from a wealth of material.

But one Scottish artist had been up to these metafictional tricks since the early 80s: Eddie Campbell. His autobiographical comics turned into "Alec," with that name replacing his own as the central character. The "Alec" comics have now all been collected into one massive phone book of 640 pages, covering twenty years in the life of the artist. It's fascinating reading, not least due to Campbell's friendships with the likes of Moore and ruminations on fellow comic artists such as Art Spiegelman.

As it stands, "Alec" was a bit much to get through in one week, but Campbell's "The Fate of the Artist," is a playful look at his real-life disappearance that cunningly avoids actually explaining where he went, is a nice, bite-sized read. Campbell poses as a private investigator attempting to uncover where Campbell has gone through interviews with family members, reenactments and a treasure trail of comic strips. Free to showcase his mastery of disparate styles, "The Fate of the Artist" is an intriguing if fragmented read. It was suggested in class that the readers enjoyment of this title very much depends on how easily you can identify with Campbell's personality; the book is either profound or obvious, post-modern or post-interesting.

An artist posing as an investigator to discuss his own life. Very meta, indeed. It's autobiography, of a kind, but fact and fiction blur at the edges more so than usual, and questions of authenticity start to arise. If this counts as autobiography, and we accept that in autobiography some fictionalization is inevitable to create a stronger narrative, or to prop up weak memories, or even to pose questions to the reader, is there any real difference between autobiographical comics and fictional ones? Can a reader feel cheated by a work of autobiography in a way that fictional comics are incapable of? And does it really matter?

These questions and more besides will be answered in our last week of class, when we look at Displaced Autobiography with Dave Sim's "Cerebus" and Seth's "It's a Good Life, If You Don't Weaken."

In the meantime, the class have been discussing essay topics. The 4000 word research essay makes up 50% of the module mark and the topic is of each students choice, on the subject of autobiographix in some form. (20% of the module mark comes from our journal entries each week commenting on the set titles; 15% from our presentation; 15% from the literature review which analyses the secondary texts used in the research essay.) There is an option to submit your own autobiographic comic which would count as 1000 words. Most people are keeping their topics close to their chest, but I know that Jewish humor as expressed in autobiographix, as well as photographic imagery in autobiographix are two of the essays in the making.

My own essay focuses on the efficacy of political comics; I knew immediately when reading Art Spiegelman's "In the Shadow of No Towers" that I wanted to write about that highly political comic, and I'd been intrigued by class discussion about Joe Sacco's "Palestine" [link:https://www.comicbookresources.com/?page=article&id=35317] on whether or not political comics really had any kind of political impact. I'll be focusing too on "Maus," "Persepolis" by Marjane Satrapi [link:https://www.comicbookresources.com/?page=article&id=35082] as well as "Cuba: My Revolution" by Inverna Lockpez and Dean Haspiel which was not on the course but recommended to me by Haspiel and which pretty much blew me away.

"Cuba: My Revolution" is written by Lockpez, and is the true story of her time in Cuba during and after the revolution. The entire comic is black and white, with a splash of red on every page; the colour used differently by Haspiel every time, to highlight or fix the eye on some detail. It is an engaging read, harrowing at times, with a real feeling of authenticity. The young Lockpez is idealistic and naïve, and her struggle with the country she loves is quite heartbreaking. The stylish art almost has hints of propaganda posters at times, panels and gutters are experimented with to add tension and fear, but rarely distract from the narrative. Most interestingly of all, "Cuba: My Revolution," unlike many other autobiographix, is published by a mainstream comics publisher: DC Comics' Vertigo imprint.

The first part of my essay focuses on whether comics are capable of communicating a political message, while the second deals with whether the medium can achieve a political impact (as compared to other media). The first is simple enough to argue which ever way you choose, using comics theory to discuss "amplification by simplification," iconic art that increases accessibility, the animal metaphor of "Maus" that allowed the subject of the Holocaust to be breached, the importance of visuality to transmitting information, and the question of the authenticity of the narrator to name but a few avenues.

The second part is more difficult, as impact is a rather subjective term. Yet, how persuasive these titles are at bringing you across to their political beliefs is a major part of any impact they may have. The imagery used, iconic art and repeated motifs are all designed to influence the readers' reaction to the comic. Critical reception, sales figures, placement on academic programs and political bias are additional signals: the high sales figures of "Maus" indicate a plausibly great impact, but conversely the relatively low sales figures of "In the Shadow of No Towers" also signal a plausibly great impact, as no one in the US wanted to publish it due to its strong political messages.

I'm sure I shall have great fun tying myself in knots and attempting to somehow wrangle this beast of a topic to under 4000 words! The wide angle has ensured that I won't be contributing a comic this time around, but as next semester sees a whole module devoted to Creating Comics (along with hints of some rather spectacular guests from the industry), I'm quite content to doodle away in anticipation of that for now.

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.

Gwenpool Just Shot (and Killed) a Founding Avenger

More in Comics