A panel from Craig Thompson’s Blankets
I read comics, but not in the “I have a pull-list of 60 at my local store” sort of way, and not in the “I’ve been buying Harvey issues since 1970” sort of way either. I’m not a collector, a creator, or a finger-on-the-pulse-of-the-industry kind of commentator. I read comics in the most pedantic of ways. I read comics so that I can write about them, in the hopes of publishing that writing.
Not in insightful and interesting blog posts (present work, hopefully, exempted), in trade journals read by retailers determining what to stock, or by pencillers, colourists, and conceptual designers looking for inspiration, but in peer-reviewed academic journals, and edited collections of literary scholarship.
I read comics so that I can talk to other people about them—not in that “you’ve got to read this awesome webcomics artist’s work” way, or even in the “you won’t believe the direction Bendis and Pichelli are taking the Miles Morales arc” way either. I talk to people about comics in the “you should write this down, because it might be on the midterm” kind of way.
I teach literature at a public regional university in the United States, so I read comics as part of my ongoing attempt to contribute to professorial conversations about contemporary literature (and, perhaps even more importantly, to earn tenure and thus have, after decades of schooling and the relative poverty that comes with it, a stable enough income that I can drive a car that has none of its parts held on with duct tape or bungee cords). I read comics to write about them for my colleagues in higher education and to teach them to my college students.
Increasingly, I am in the company of other professors who read and write about comics. Comics are becoming canonical—accepted, lauded even, in academic literary circles. There are more than a few courses in comics offered in universities, although those courses are frequently not called “Interpreting Comics” but rather have titles like “Literary Graphic Novels” or “Narratives in Sequential Art.” This irritates me, in part because it smacks of elitism (which, I think, is in direct opposition to the ethics with which many comics are created), but mostly because it is usually inaccurate. Many of the works included on the syllabi in these courses are not novels—works of fiction—at all. They are works of what critic Hilary Chute has called “autography”—graphic narrative that is literally drawn from the life of its creator. The legitimation of comics in the academic and literary world is largely due to the critical and commercial success of a few works of graphic autobiography.
The huge volume of sales and the growing number of critical articles in scholarly journals (and books) on Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home, and Art Speigelman’s Maus makes it difficult to deny that there is an emerging canon of graphic non-fiction that counters the low expectations of comics’ literary merit.
These works are so widely read, discussed, critiqued, and taught that they’re even being anthologized alongside the works of Ondaatje and Bellow. One of the reasons, according to a good deal of academic criticism on autography, that comics memoirs have such traction with college professors and literary critics is that they recuperate the medium from decades-old associations with genre fiction, which, like comics, has been long considered inferior to so-called literary fiction. As critic Min Hyoung Song writes in the journal Mosaic:
The disproportionate attention works [of graphic memoir] have received reinforces an implicit assumption that there are some comics that are worthy of attention and others that are not, and inevitably these other works end up being precisely those that have always been left out of any kind of critical consideration. As a result, the term graphic narrative becomes a marker of distinction that elevates one group of works, tending toward realism, above another implicitly inferior group.
Song’s argument, that realism in comics is one predictor of the success and reception of autographic sequential art, cannot be discounted, but I’d argue that there may be another reason for the legitimation of the medium through autography.
Many works of autography participate in the production of narratives that serve a particular kind of identity politics. This discourse is part and parcel of some of the most important cultural conversations that we can have right now. To a greater or lesser extent, much autography functions as testimony, bearing witness to experiences of disenfranchisement because of cultural, racial, and sexual difference.
Spiegelman’s reimagining of his father’s experiences as a Holocaust survivor inherently provides a comment on the cultural trauma of genocide. It asks readers of Maus to consider how this historical moment might shift contemporary thinking about geopolitics and American intervention. Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home is among the most complete and personal of coming out narratives to explicitly present some potential consequences of repressed same-sex desire, which tacitly calls for readers to participate in creating a society in which those desires are more accepted. Marjane Satrapi’s story of her own journey from Iran to Western Europe couldn’t be timelier, as a global conversation about how to most ethically deal with the flood of migrants from the Middle East into the global North receives 24-hour news coverage.
Although these three auteurs may be the most lauded practitioners of that specific political and personal art form, these works aren’t singular instances of autographic brilliance, but rather the most well-known examples of a growing corpus of comics with just this sort of radical potential.
For instance, Craig Thompson’s Blankets encourages readers to reflect on their own experiences of the metaphysical in order to craft a more authentic religious identity and to be more tolerant of others’ beliefs (or lack thereof ). Toufic el Rassi’s Arab in America asks its audience to see Islamophobia through the eyes of a Lebanese-American struggling to reconcile his heritage and his patriotism. Phoebe Gloeckner’s Diary of a Teenage Girl provides an unflinching look at the human consequences of our culturally ubiquitous hypersexualization of young women and a growing pandemic of addiction among the American working class. Erika Moen’s DAR! demonstrates the fluidity of desire and gender and the struggle many young people go through to understand the intersections of identity and sexuality.
Al Davison’s The Spiral Cage presents a first-person account of living with spina bifida and a scathing critique of ableism and inaccessibility for its audience. Gabrielle Bell’s The Voyeurs demonstrates the sometimes crippling anxiety produced by social media, and she evocatively frames the experience of living with mental illness, as do Jeff Guntzel and Andrew Warner in Invisible Injury, and Ellen Forney in Marbles. Understanding these issues becomes ever more essential as diagnoses of social anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder continue to grow exponentially as the 21st century progresses. John Lewis, Andrew Aydan, and Nate Powell use March to encourage readers to reconsider the Civil Rights Era retrospectively in ways that prompt readers to rethink news coverage of Ferguson and Baltimore. I could go on, as there are a great many comics creators using personal stories to engage readers on a political level.
A sample strip from Erika Moen’s DAR!
It’s powerful stuff. Entering these lives through the windows provided by autobiographical comics can be transformative for readers, and, I suspect, one of the things that generates attention is the ability of autography to open these difficult and incredibly important topics for conversation. It’s imperative that we have these sorts of conversations, and that we broach these subjects openly rather than polemically. Too frequently legacies of silence and shame prevent us from discussing the lives of people who are rendered invisible by systemic inequity. Autographers invite their audiences to identify with their personal experiences of marginalization and, in doing so, call for readers to reflect carefully and think critically about identity and social justice movements.
This is the reason I read comics. It’s also the reason I teach them and write about them. Autography is a powerful didactic tool. Reading, teaching, and writing about these texts can begin the tough work of cultural change, and the role of the individual in advocating for equality is almost universally highlighted in these texts. In an era when public discourse takes up debates about whether or not GLBTQ folks should marry, or if Black Lives Matter, or how racial and religious intolerance and mental illness might contribute to mass shootings, graphic memoirs can provide important context by visually, and often viscerally, imparting a personal story of struggling with oppression.
Seeing those stories can alter our perspectives and change our positions. It can make us more knowledgeable, more empathetic, and thus better equipped to take action as conscience and conditions demand.
That is why I read comics, and it’s why I want you to read them too.
Sandra Cox holds a PhD in literature from the University of Kansas and is an assistant professor in the Department of English and Modern Languages at Pittsburg State University. The comic she’s loving most right now is Kelly Sue Deconnik and Valentine De Landro’s Bitch Planet, which is decidedly a work of “genre fiction.”