Project GraphicBio

Dr. Candida Rifkind, University of Winnipeg

Holocaust History and Visualizing Trauma in Reinhard Kleist's The Boxer

Review by Jamie Michaels, Project GraphicBio Research Fellow 2017-18

Reinhard Kleist brings the gritty, horrific world of combat sport in the German death camps to life in The Boxer: The True Story of Holocaust Survivor Harry Haft. Originally serialized in Germany by Frankfurter Allgmeine Zeitung, The Boxer brings intimate, accessible, and sickening Holocaust history to a new generation of German readers, and following numerous international awards and translations, to a global audience.

This graphic biography draws heavily from Alan Scott Haft’s biography of his father, and fittingly opens in a prologue between the two of them, with Harry proclaiming, “One day I’ll tell you everything.” The first part of the story takes the reader on the harrowing journey from the Jewish Ghetto in Nazi occupied Bełchatów to Auschwitz, and the inhumanity of the Nazi death camps. A young Haft is marked out as a survivor by Schneider, a member of the SS who recruits him to box in illicit death matches for the entertainment of the Nazi guards.

Haft survives through his tenacity, willpower, and implicitly at the expense of the lives of the men he defeats in the ring. During a forced death march towards the end of the war Haft escapes. Surviving the Holocaust, he despondently searches for friends and family in the ruins of a newly liberated Europe. With only his brother Peretz surviving, Haft is forced to find a degree of meaning in simply existing, winning the 1946 Jewish Boxing Championship purely to show the world he is still alive.

The book’s second act takes place in New York City, where a recently immigrated Haft decides to resume boxing with the goal of being world champion. His intentions are based on the hope that Leah, his prewar love, has also survived and will see his name in the paper, leading to the reunification of the lost lovers. The strength of part one is it is impossible-to-put-down pacing. Kleist takes the reader on a sprint through history, and the stakes of life-and-death give the text a constant tension. The second act of The Boxer slows its tempo, thematically mirroring the search for meaning in a post Holocaust world, with varying degrees of success.

In some places, the work stumbles as Kleist struggles to draw meaning and clear-cut narrative arcs for the reader. In the first depiction of professional boxing, the artwork alternates between the present and the past with illustrations moving between boxing in-the-ring, and the life-or-death struggle in the camps (Fig. 1)

Fig. 1 Haft VS Mincey: Page 135 of Reinhard Kleist’s The Boxer.

Fig. 1 Haft VS Mincey: Page 135 of Reinhard Kleist’s The Boxer.

This juxtaposition, although creating the potential for readerly participation, can be awkward. Is Haft holding back, remembering the fate of those he defeated at Auschwitz? Is he motivated to fight harder, drawing strength from having survived impossible odds? These are big questions without overt answers. Initially this device works well— allowing for reader interpretation in the gutter between the panels. However, these mechanics become increasingly problematic as we move to the culmination of Haft’s career and his defeat by Rocky Mariano.

Kleist shows a defeated Haft slumped against the ropes, and this image is juxtaposed by the following panel where he is dressed as an Auschwitz prisoner sprawled across the ground before a cheering crowd. The text below the image of the defeated Haft reads, “the crowd knows full well that Haft entered a fight he could only lose” (160). Kleist clearly wants to indicate the impossibility of overcoming the trauma of lived experiences.

However, the writing takes the reader out of the immediacy of the narrative and the writer peeks out from behind the panel images, coming across as over-indulgent, even exploitative of the source material. This is not to say that temporal juxtapositions are an ineffective way to represent trauma; in fact, the pages have the potential to be evocative. My critique is rather that, in presenting this work as the “True Story of Holocaust Survivor Harry Haft,” Kleist is faced with the dilemma of elasticity of representation, how far a writer can fictionalize, infer from, or stretch his source material before the suspension of disbelief snaps.

This is an especially precarious question for graphic biographies representing real experiences of the Holocaust. Harry Haft was a very closed person, and representing his story as truthful requires walking a narrow edge between facts to create a narrative arc. That Haft felt the emotional weight of the Holocaust while boxing and this led to his defeat by Marciano seems unlikely, thus making the role of the writer feel more prominent. For me, this resulted in  breaking the genuine feel of the narrative, and calling the authenticity of the rest of the work into question. It also begs the questions, why now? why in this fight?, especially when contrasted with past panels where Haft overcame opponents, even though similar panel juxtapositions representing traumatic memory propelled his success. The incongruous use of these temporal juxtapositions removed me, as a reader from what, until this point had been a completely immersive story.

Fig. 2 Haft VS Marciano: Page 160 of Reinhard Kleist’s The Boxer.

Fig. 2 Haft VS Marciano: Page 160 of Reinhard Kleist’s The Boxer.

Despite stumbling in how to best represent past trauma affecting an uncertain present, The Boxer is still an immersive, tightly written biography of a man whose story deserves to be told.  As both the writer and illustrator, Kleist’s artwork comes across as natural, seamlessly fitting the story. Strong line work, gritty details, and partially-completed backdrops all lend themselves to focusing the reader on particular points in the panels. If a camp guard is drawn faceless, it is because he is unknown to Haft –a backdrop to inhumane times. If a boxing foe is rendered in blood-spattered detailed line work, it’s because for Haft, and therefore the reader, that moment in time is all-encompassing.

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Fig. 3 & 4 Known and Unknown Faces: Pages 74-75 of Reinhard Kleist’s The Boxer.

Fig. 3 & 4 Known and Unknown Faces: Pages 74-75 of Reinhard Kleist’s The Boxer.

Although in some instances the choices of representation are problematic, Kleist takes artistic risks in bringing Harry Haft’s story to life, and most of them pay off. A horrific history rendered in a stylistically effective way, The Boxer is a must read for anyone searching for a human window into the terrors of the Holocaust, and the multigenerational struggle for normalcy that followed it.

Works Cited

Haft, Alan Scott. Harry Haft: Auschwitz Survivor, Challenger of Rocky Marciano. Syracuse University Press, 2006.

Kleist, Reinhard. The Boxer. Translated by Michael Waaler, Self Made Hero, 2014.

Suggested Further Materials

Chute, Hillary L. Disaster Drawn: Visual Witness, Comics, and Documentary Form. Harvard University Press, 2016.

Jacobson, Sid and Erni Colón. Anne Frank: The Anne Frank House Authorized Graphic Biography. Hill and Wang, 2010.

Rothberg, Michael. Traumatic Realism: The Demands of Holocaust Representation. University of Minnesota Press, 2006.

Spiegelman, Art. The Complete Maus: A Survivor's Tale. Penguin Books, 2003.

Victor Young Perez. Directed by Jacques Ouaniche, Océan Films, 2013.

 

Reflection: Understanding Biographical Comics by Max Bledstein

For his final blog post as the Project GraphicBio Research Fellow 2016-17, Max Bledstein offers a reflection on graphic biographies and comics reading.

As I reflect on my time researching graphic biography and struggle to consider what, if any, commonalities can be found across the genre, I think about an exchange between two friends I was privy to several years ago. This was before I had any clue that I’d even go to grad school, let alone spend a significant portion of my time there reading and writing about biographical comics, yet the anecdote continues to stick with me and loom over my work.

At the time, I was a member of a reading group dedicated to discussing comics. Although the friends in question (neither of whom were regular comics readers) weren’t part of the group, my participation in it led to comics becoming a topic of conversation.

I really, just, find comics boring,” said Friend #1 (a white man). They don’t interest me.”

That’s because they’re not for you,” said Friend #2 (a Latina woman). They’re for women and people of colour. You’re a white guy.”

While both responses troubled me for different reasons, I held my tongue at the time, unsure of how to respond to either assertion (though, being the petty person I am, I grumbled about the conversation to other friends later on). The two statements undoubtedly came out of a lack of familiarity with comics, but they nonetheless help to illuminate parts of what I find so compelling about the form (and graphic biography in particular). 

As for Friend #1’s statement, he followed it up by explaining that he was referring to the plethora of coming of age memoirs that have been a fundamental part of the alternative comics landscape for years. While I would take issue with the assertion that these comics can’t be distinguished from one another, his expression of exhaustion speaks to the gap that graphic biography has been filling: if comics is a medium conducive to people telling their own lives (as countless cartoonists have demonstrated), why can’t it be used just as much for telling the lives of others?

Furthermore, two of the graphic memoirs that have been embraced the most by readers and scholars alike (Art Spiegelman’s Maus and Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home) are as much about other people’s lives (the cartoonists’ fathers in both cases) as they are about the cartoonists themselves. As both of those comics (and countless others) show, even if the vast majority of scholarship on non-fiction comics has examined memoir, there’s plenty of room for scholarship to be done on how cartoonists tell others’ stories.

To Friend #2’s point, I’d take issue with the suggestion that art can’t be appreciated across racialized and gendered lines, but the subjects of some of my favourite graphic biographies speak to her point. I’m thinking specifically about three works: Chester Brown’s Louis Riel, Peter Bagge’s Woman Rebel: The Margaret Sanger Story, and Ho Che Anderson’s King. These comics narrate the lives of an influential Indigenous leader, a pioneering birth control activist, and an African-American civil rights martyr, respectively, and each does so using techniques only possible in the comics form. As a number of scholars have argued (including, in relation to King, Candida Rifkind), the works all feature novel approaches to depicting history, none of which can be separated from the form in which they appear. I’d suggest that these books demonstrate just a few of the ways that comics can depict the lives of marginalized people in a unique fashion.

Even in the stories of more conventional biographical subjects, cartoonists have proven comics to be a particularly adept medium for taking innovative approaches to narrating those subjects’ lives. In a paper I’m currently preparing to submit for publication (revised from a presentation I gave at the Calgary Comic and Entertainment Expo), I examine how Noah Van Sciver’s The Hypo, a 2012 graphic biography of Abraham Lincoln, deconstructs his legacy by showing him as an emotionally vulnerable young man rather than the magnanimous leader who continues to loom over American culture. My paper looks at how Van Sciver uses the visual language of comics to represent Lincoln’s suffering, thereby exemplifying how the tools of graphic biography can interrogate the legacy of well-established historical figures. 

Thus, whether through novel views of well-trodden historical ground or the shedding of light on lesser-known subjects, graphic biography has provided readers with depictions of neglected (but vital) people and events. In retrospect, I’d offer any of the aforementioned graphic biographies, and many other extraordinary works of the genre, to either Friend #1 or Friend #2 as examples of the dynamic nature of comics art. As readers, artists, and scholars continue to explore the unique capacities of graphic biography, I look forward to hearing thoughtful and provocative questions and answers about the form’s contributions to biography, cartooning, and visual narrative. 

Works Cited

Anderson, Ho Che. King: A Comics Biography. Fantagraphics Books, 2005.

Bagge, Peter. Woman Rebel: The Margaret Sanger Story. Drawn & Quarterly, 2017.

Bechdel, Alison. Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic. Mariner Books, 2007.

Brown, Chester. Louis Riel: A Comic-Strip Biography. Drawn & Quarterly, 2015.

Rifkind, Candida. “Metabiography and Black Visuality in Ho Che Anderson's King.” Canadian Graphic: Picturing Life Narratives, edited by Candida Rifkind and Linda Warley, Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2016, pp. 177–203.

Spiegelman, Art. Maus: A Survivor's Tale. Pantheon, 2011.

Van Sciver, Noah. The Hypo. Fantagraphics Books, 2012.

 

Drawing Evil: Review of Shigeru Mizuki’s Hitler by Max Bledstein, Research Fellow

With Art Speigelman’s Holocaust comic Maus a firm fixture in syllabi worldwide and a canonized work even in traditional literary eyes, the thought of another non-fiction comic examining the Holocaust may at first seem like hardly the most welcome addition to North American bookshelves. But Shigeru Mizuki’s Hitler, a manga biography of the titular subject (published in Japanese in 1971, and translated into English in 2015), more than justifies its interest for Western readers through both a unique approach to telling the events of World War II and a compelling narrative in its own right.

In fact, the Holocaust goes mostly unmentioned in the book, a move which could perhaps alienate some readers but serves Mizuki’s primary ostensible objective: a compelling portrait of Hitler examining the conditions and attributes which facilitated his rise to power. After a brief prologue showing unnamed Jews hiding in attics, French resisters plotting an attack, and a young German man rebuking his Nazi father, Mizuki turns to the life of Hitler himself. The narration introducing the main story simultaneously calls attention to the book’s focus: Never in history have the Germans been as rapturous as they are for their Führer. But what kind of human being is this Adolf Hitler…?

Initially, as has oft been told, he was a starving and floundering artist in Vienna, which is where Mizuki begins telling Hitler’s tale. He rents a room with his friend Gustl Kubizek, who plans to attend a music conservatory while he assumes Hitler will be attending art school; in fact, he had been rejected for two consecutive years on account of low scores on entrance exams. He winds up homeless on the streets of Vienna, until he finally finds a purpose for his life by volunteering for the German army in World War I.

Near the War’s end, he gets sent home to Munich after being caught in a British mustard gas attack, where he begins to explore an interest in politics. This opening section is also the weakest part of Mizuki’s book, as he relies a bit too heavily on obvious foreshadowing (I am poor and unpopular. This is entirely the fault of the Jews,” says the young Hitler during a period of particular desperation) for the character to really come to life. Mizuki’s dialogue does a good job of establishing the rapport between Hitler and Kubizek, but the book gets weighed down by heavy-handedness.

Nevertheless, Hitler picks up quite a bit as the narrative progresses and Hitler evolves into the monstrous tyrant more familiar to most readers. He joins the DAP, which soon becomes the Nazi party, where he discovers his natural talent as an orator and insatiable hunger for power. Although the other DAP members are skeptical of Hitler’s extremism and unwillingness to compromise, his popularity as a speaker and the corresponding donations he brings in are too much to turn down. Mizuki’s drawings do an excellent job of illustrating Hitler’s rhetorical appeal without endorsing it, as impressive splash panels of cheering crowds wearing swastikas bring the dynamics seen in films such as Triumph of the Will to life within the world of the book.

The attention to historical detail also shines here, with noteworthy figures and events in Hitler’s rise being presented in the comic and fleshed out in more depth in the meticulous footnotes. Mizuki wisely uses the comic itself to focus on characters’ psychological developments and their interactions, allowing the drawings and dialogue to stand on their own and leaving the footnotes as a supplement for readers seeking more historical information.

The artwork and detail only become more of an asset as the story moves on, capturing the failure of Hitler’s blood thirst and megalomania. As he gets further into World War II, Mizuki shows Hitler’s interaction with historical figures such as Neville Chamberlain and Benito Mussolini, and the latter particularly stands out due to Mizuki’s distinct caricature. Mussolini’s flashes of pride and disputes flesh the character out well in spite of his brief appearance, revealing a man who was alternatively Hitler’s rival, friend, and fellow despot. In the case of Chamberlain, Mizuki doesn’t shy away from an ugly part of Western history, highlighting Chamberlain’s reluctance to stop Hitler without overly glorifying Winston Churchill’s eager hawkishness. 

These characters are only a few of the many who come to life in Hitler, which contains a cast of characters” at the beginning with busts of the various figures in the book and brief biographical descriptions of each. Though this section helps as a reference tool, the distinct facial features of the characters make them all remarkably memorable by sight alone. Mizuki draws them in a cartoonish manga style, which contrasts with the detailed realism with which he illustrates cityscapes and battle scenes. The contrast imbues Hitler with a singular approach to historical narrative which brings out the individual characters while also rooting them in the landmarks of the Second World War.

Mizuki likewise presents a deeply humanistic perspective on history, an achievement made all the more remarkable when considered in conjunction with the inhumanity of his subject. Hitler delves into the possibly incestuous relationship between Hitler and his half-niece Geli (he kept her in his Munich apartment and many assume that they slept together), showing a lesser known but nonetheless insightful portrait of his cruelty. Depictions of power struggles between German political figures help to contextualize Hitler’s rise, showing the conditions which precipitated his seizure of power.

The representation of these conditions, and Hitler’s life as a whole, makes Hitler into a compelling and informative read providing insight into its subject’s life without condoning his actions or sympathizing with him in the slightest. Mizuki’s work simply helps readers to understand the figures and factors underlying Hitler’s atrocities, and, in doing so, pulls off a remarkable feat.

Works Cited

Mizuki, Shigeru. Shigeru Mizuki's Hitler. Translated by Zack Davisson, Montreal, QC, Drawn & Quarterly, 2015.

Riefenstahl, Leni, director. Triumph of the Will. Universum Film AG, 1935.

Spiegelman, Art. The Complete Maus: A Survivor's Tale. London, Penguin Books, 2003.

Suggested Further Reading

Chute, Hillary L. Disaster Drawn: Visual Witness, Comics, and Documentary Form. Harvard University Press, 2016.

LaCapra, Dominick. History and Memory after Auschwitz. Cornell University Press, 1998.

Rothberg, Michael. Traumatic Realism: The Demands of Holocaust Representation. University of Minnesota Press, 2006.

Smith, Philip. Reading Art Spiegelman. Routledge, 2016.

Williams, Benn E., and Aukje Kluge. Re-Examining the Holocaust through Literature. Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2009.

 

 

Graphic Biography Symposium (GENG 7820/ENGL 4740)

The ten students in my Winter 2017 Graphic Biography seminar are presenting their course papers in a public symposium two Wednesday evenings in a row (March 29th and April 5th) at UWinnipeg.

Graphic Biography Symposium
Department of English
University of Winnipeg
March 29th & April 5th
1L12 (1st floor Lockhart)

Wednesday Mar. 29th 1L12
6:00-7:15pm Chair: Dr. Bruno Cornellier
Panel 1: Ethics and Graphics: Chanie Wenjack & Margaret Sanger

Colleen Chau, “Gordon Downie and Jeff Lemire’s Secret Path: The Communicative Aspect of Silence”
Taylor Daigneault, “White Noise: Settler and Foreign Artists’ Framing of Indigenous Biographies”
Max Bledstein, “Pastiche as Pedagogy: Reclaiming Stereotypes in Peter Bagge’s Woman Rebel”

Wednesday Mar.29th 1L12
7:30-8:45pm Chair: Dr. Naomi Hamer
Panel 2: Body and Spectacle: André the Giant & Ana Mendieta

Dylan Jones, “Wrestling with Legends: The Biomythological Elements in Box Brown’s André the Giant”
Mylène Cooney, “Repeating Second-Wave Feminism in Christine Redfern and Caro Caron’s Who is Ana Mendieta?”
Dunja Kovačević, “An Archive of Traces: Addressing the Absent Body of Biography in Who is Ana Mendieta?”

Wednesday Apr. 5th 1L12
6:00-7:15pm Chair: Dr. Andrew Burke
Panel 3: Resurrection and Insurrection: Marie Curie & Nat Turner

Sara Jantzen, “Impressionism and the Mythologized Subject in Redniss's Radioactive: Marie & Pierre Curie: A Tale of Love and Fallout”
Allison Norris, “Radioactive Images: Biography, Science, and Séance”
Jon Bitton, “Exploring Religiosity in Kyle Baker’s Nat Turner”
Matt Dueck, “Blood and Paper: Mediated Violence and Comics Formalism in Kyle Baker’s Nat Turner”

"The Arc of Biography Theory" by Max Bledstein, Research Fellow

In this blog post, Max Bledstein surveys over 100 years of biography theory to chart shifting critical perceptions of this popular form.

Theorists of biography have gone from being gatekeepers of truth” intent on pursuing historical fidelity to postmodernists who interrogate the possibility of such a notion. The transition has accompanied an increasing intersection with autobiography and other types of self-life writing, forms which all (including biography) fall under the umbrella term "life narrative,” which Sidonie Smith and Julie Watson describe as “a moving target and an ever-changing practice without absolute rules” (8). The line between self-life writing and biography has become blurred to the point that only twenty of the sixty-seven articles published in Biography (the first academic journal initially dedicated to the study of the titular form) from 2006-2011 focused explicitly on biography, with the rest concentrating on self-life writing forms such as memoir and autobiography (Howes 166). 

Over the course of its history, biographical criticism has addressed questions of truth, the relationship between biographer and subject, biographical ethics and aesthetics, how to tell the stories of women’s lives, and what form a biography can take. In addressing these subjects, biographical criticism has evolved from being a field invested in ideals of objectivity to one reflective of contemporary theoretical developments, such as postmodern ideas of representation and subjectivity.

Biographical theorists’ shifting thoughts on truth epitomize the evolution of the field as a whole, since critics have gone from demanding outright veracity from biographers to understanding that history is too complex to be fully depicted through a singular representation of events. More traditional biographical critics, ranging from Harold Nicolson's early work on the form in the 1920s to Leon Edel’s more modern but still prescriptive criticism in the 1980s, have argued that any instance of fictionalization disqualifies a work from being considered a biography (Edel 16; Nicolson 14). Writing contemporaneously to Edel, Joseph D. Lichtenberg moves the field forward by acknowledging the role of a biographer’s creatively unique awareness” in the telling of a subject’s life (54).

Subsequent scholars have built on Lichtenberg’s acknowledgement and recognized both the impossibility of providing a full depiction of the past and the importance of context, thereby showing the challenge of depicting a single life (Moraitis 349; Levi 72; Wilson 167). Thus, more progressive critics ofmany critics in the 1980s and 1990s recognized that biographies must be understood as acts of knowledge creation ideal for depicting the marginalization of others (Epstein 287; Ross 158-9). Whereas the reportage of biography once seemed hard and certain” and fiction could be dismissed as ‘make believe,’” boundaries between the two have become less clear (Hamilton 283).

As a result of scholars’ changing views on the possibility and meaning of biographical accuracy, concepts of biographers’ responsibilities to their subjects and history have adapted to reflect the complexity of historical depiction. Initial commentators on biographical ethics, writing in the nineteenth to early twentieth century, have argued that biographers are ethically bound to present historical facts” without any room for invention (Stanfield 71; Oliphant 99; Maurois 168). In their view, possible methods of invention include techniques such as psychoanalysis, which turns facts” into “interpretations” (DeVoto 149). Instead of any potential fictionalization, early to mid twentieth century critics have suggested that biographers should narrate lives with as much detail as possible, even if some details tarnish a subject’s character (Gosse 118; Clifford 60; Mendelson 17). However, James Thomas Flexner recognizes that any included details will be tainted by a biographer’s subjectivity, and her only intellectual responsibility is to be transparent about her role (182). Thus, contemporary critics argue that readers must recognize the egoistic elements of biography” which many ignore (Loriga 90).   

The evolving demands of biographical ethics have engendered a corresponding change in critics’ views on the aesthetics of biography. Although scholars have always acknowledged the role of aesthetics in the biographical process, more modern thinkers consider them to be as inextricable from the form as literary devices in fiction or poetry. Even the earliest, most staid biographical theorists of the nineteenth century have argued that biographies are works of art that meld the history of a subject’s life with a biographer’s artistic prowess (Saintsbury 106). Nevertheless, critics such as Hugh Brogan also restrict the artistic license available to biographers, suggesting that a biographer aiming for artistry merely rejoices” in the chains” of the limitations of biographical writing (110). But, where Brogan is prescriptive, present-day scholars such as Lois W. Banner grant biographers more freedom by explaining that a biographer’s artistry influences the depiction of a subject to the extent that often times the persona created in one biography bears only partial resemblance to that in another” (104).

Aesthetics’ changing importance reflects a comparable shift in scholars’ opinions of the relationship between biographer and subject: biographers have gone from being seen as mere conduits for depictions of people’s lives to subjective artists with an undeniable influence over biographical narrative. Samuel H. Baron argues that authorial subjectivity must be kept within proper bounds” in order to avoid distortion” (17). By contrast, other critics have embraced subjectivity as an inexorable part of the biographical process (M. Chute 193; Malone 175; Woolf 127). In a similar spirit, scholars of the late 1970s to 1980s have suggested that biographers should be transparent about their subjectivity and acknowledge its influence (Honan 117; Pletsch 360).

Jack Halberstam explains that a refusal of transparency regarding biographical subjectivity potentially constitutes an act of violence against a subject, particularly a marginalized subject, such as a transgender person (149). Halberstam’s warning about depicting marginalization echoes Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak's assertion in her discussion of postcolonial representation that “the intellectual is complicit in the persistent constitution of Other as the Self’s shadow,” an argument which underscores the importance of recognizing authorial perspective (75).

Biographer subjectivity becomes especially crucial in writing the narratives of women, whom feminist biographical scholars, since their initial appearance in the late 1970s to early 1980s, have agreed must be represented through frameworks different from those used to depict men. From the beginning of feminist biographical scholarship, critics have argued that biographies of women must account for gender marginalization in order to provide as complete a depiction as possible of their subjects (Barry 79; Wagner-Martin 29). The creation of such a depiction requires a distance from the language of patriarchy in order to account for the differences in women’s and men’s opportunities in society and how gendered subjects leave historical evidence of themselves (Heilbrun 44; Strouse 118). Bell Gale Chevigny most fervently insists on the specificity of women writing about women, arguing that female biographers make their female subjects into maternal figures (96).

Critics writing in the 1990s have contested Chevigny’s essentialism by suggesting that attendance to the singularity of a female subject must be maintained by not understanding her solely through the lens of her gender (Painter 162; Booth 103). With these feminist techniques in mind, biographers can deconstruct the monolithic category ‘woman’” and provide new ways of interrupting or rethinking theory” (O’Brien 128). Feminist scholars have thereby opened up the representational possibilities for biography, paving the way for intersectional approaches to the form.

Thus, biographical methods must adapt to reflect the increasing variety of subjects being depicted, and the variety of media used for contemporary biographical representation provides welcome opportunities for change. Biographical films, often referred to as biopics,” compensate for their inherently reductive historical view by providing mass audiences with information they may never access otherwise (Custen 18; Bingham 8).

Comics have a similar ability to reach readers, while also going beyond biopics by providing specific mechanisms for depicting radical activists, scientists, and experiences of trauma (Gordon 192; Nayar 163; Rifkind 16; H. Chute 296). New mechanisms are needed for the innovations of modern life such as the internet, which has provided biographers with unprecedented materials for understanding subjects and complicated comprehension of individuality (Podnieks 314; Arthur 301). Increased internet usage has only further facilitated acts of self-representation and thereby encouraged scholarly focus on autobiography rather than biography, a fact reflected in the dominance of articles on autobiography in Biography's Spring 2015 issue on digital life narratives (McNeill and Zuern viii) The modern innovations of life writing move the form into the contemporary moment, giving all life narrators a range of tools to represent our current understanding of how to tell stories of lives.

 

To cite this blog post in the MLA Style (8th Ed.):

Bledstein, Max. “The Arc of Biography Theory.” Project GraphicBio. Jan. 16 2017,  http://www.projectgraphicbio.com/blog/2017/1/16/the-arc-of-biography-theory-by-max-bledstein-research-fellow.  [your date of access].

Works Cited

Arthur, Paul Longley. “Digital Biography: Capturing Lives Online.” The Routledge Auto | Biography Studies Reader, Edited by Ricia Anne Chansky and Emily Hipchen, Routledge/Taylor & Amp; Francis Group, London, 2016, pp. 300–307.

Banner, Lois W. “Biography and Autobiography: Intermixing the Genres." The Routledge Auto | Biography Studies Reader, Edited by Ricia Anne Chansky and Emily Hipchen, Routledge/Taylor & Amp; Francis Group, London, 2016, pp. 101–107.

Baron, Samuel H. “Psychological Dimensions of the Biographical Process.” Introspection in Biography: The Biographer's Quest for Self-Awareness, Edited by Samuel H. Baron and Carl Pletsch, Analytic Press, Hillsdale, 1985, pp. 1–32.

Barry, Kathleen. “The New Historical Syntheses: Women's Biography.” Journal of Women's History, vol. 1, no. 3, 1990, pp. 75–105. JSTOR [JSTOR], doi:10.1353/jowh.2010.0066.

Bingham, Dennis. Whose Lives Are They Anyway?: The Biopic as Contemporary Film Genre. New Brunswick, Rutgers University Press, 2010.

Booth, Alison. “Biographical Criticism and the ‘Great' Woman of Letters: The Example of George Eliot and Virginia Woolf.” Contesting the Subject: Essays in the Postmodern Theory and Practice of Biography and Biographical Criticism, Edited by William H Epstein, Purdue University Press, West Lafayette, IN, 1991, pp. 85–108.

Brogan, Hugh. “The Biographer's Chains.” The Troubled Face of Biography, Edited by Eric Homberger and John Charmley, St. Martin's Press, New York, NY, 1988, pp. 104–113.

Chevigny, Bell Gale. “Daughters Writing: Toward a Theory of Women's Biography.” Feminist Studies, vol. 9, no. 1, 1983, p. 79. JSTOR [JSTOR], doi:10.2307/3177684.

Chute, Hillary. “Comics Form and Narrating Lives." The Routledge Auto | Biography Studies Reader, Edited by Ricia Anne Chansky and Emily Hipchen, Routledge/Taylor & Amp; Francis Group, London, 2016, pp. 295–299.

Chute, Marchette. “Getting at the Truth.” Biography as an Art: Selected Criticism 1560-1960, Edited by James L. Clifford, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1962, pp. 190–194.

Clifford, James L. From Puzzles to Portraits: Problems of a Literary Biographer. Chapel Hill, University Of North Carolina, 2011.

Custen, George F. Bio/Pics: How Hollywood Constructed Public History. New Brunswick, Rutgers University Press, 1992.

DeVoto, Bernard. “The Skeptical Biographer."Biography as an Art: Selected Criticism 1560-1960, Edited by James L. Clifford, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1962, pp. 144–150.

Edel, Leon. Writing Lives: Principia Biographica. New York, NY, Norton, 1987.

Epstein, William H. “Recognizing the Life-Text: Towards a Poetics of Biography.” Biography, vol. 6, no. 4, 1983, pp. 283–306. JSTOR [JSTOR], doi:10.1353/bio.2010.0714.

Flexner, James Thomas. “Biography as a Juggler’s Art." Biography as an Art: Selected Criticism 1560-1960, Edited by James L. Clifford, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1962, pp. 178–184.

Gordon, Ian. “Let Us Not Call Them Graphic Novels: Comic Books as Biography and History.” Radical History Review, vol. 2010, no. 106, 2009, pp. 185–192. JSTOR [JSTOR], doi:10.1215/01636545-2009-02

Gosse, Edmund. “The Ethics of Biography." Biography as an Art: Selected Criticism 1560-1960, Edited by James L. Clifford, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1962, pp. 113–119.

Halberstam, Jack/Judith. “Telling Tales: Brandon Teena, Billy Tipton, and Transgender Biography.” The Routledge Auto | Biography Studies Reader, Edited by Ricia Anne Chansky and Emily Hipchen, Routledge/Taylor & Amp; Francis Group, London, 2016, pp. 145–153.

Hamilton, Nigel. Biography: A Brief History. Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press, 2009.

Heilbrun, Carolyn G. Writing a Woman's Life. New York, NY, W.W. Norton, 2008.

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Critical Round Up: Max Bledstein on the Reception of Chester Brown's Louis Riel

The Critical Reception of Chester Brown’s Louis Riel

By Max Bledstein, Research Fellow

Tenth Anniversary Edition of Chester Brown's Louis Riel

Tenth Anniversary Edition of Chester Brown's Louis Riel

Chester Brown’s Louis Riel: A Comic-Strip Biography has been well-received by critics since its initial release as a collected work in 2003, following the initial publication of the comic in ten serialized issues released from 1999-2003 (Bell 165). Vice calls Louis Riel thorough and obsessive,” praising the more than 272 pages of stunning Chester Brown drawings” (Tidbits”). Publisher’s Weekly joins the praise, proclaiming Louis Riel a strong contender for the best graphic novel ever” (Nonfiction Book Review”). The CBC explains that Brown’s work transforms history into legend” (The Canada Reads: True Stories Top 10”). Christopher Shulgan also notes Louis Riel’s deft treatment of historical events, referring to it as a story that entertains as well as informs.”

More specifically, critics have praised Brown’s ability to capture the complexity and evasiveness of Canadian history. Phillip Hawes explains that the disparity between depictions of events in the comic and in the footnotes make the text a self-critical work,” arguing that the act of adapting history becomes as engaging a subject as Riel himself.”  Alyson E. King praises Brown’s approach, since it leaves room in the text for the reader to interpret—the ambiguity in some aspects of the presentation opens a door…to talk about interpretations; and to analyze the choices made by the author in his presentation of Riel, the Métis, and the Canadians” (215). Andrew Lesk links the text’s ambiguity specifically to the nature of Canadian history, as Brown sketches the vast category that is ‘Riel’ as an allegory of how the ongoing construction of Canadian nationalism, so often tightly connected to the historical remaking of Riel, cannot be finalized” (64).

By contrast, others have been more critical of Brown’s approach to history. Dennis Duffy writes, “It does strike me as a bit slippery to invoke history’s trademark without actually delivering the product” (447). In a feminist critique, Samantha Cutrara reproaches Brown for failing to properly credit women for their role in the events represented in the comic. Cutrara argues that Brown conveys an ”old, outdated story of male power and male action that does not challenge the conventional ways we understand and read history. Taken together, the text and graphics in Louis Riel accentuate a tradition in history writing that marginalizes and excludes the existence of women from ever being part of the past” (124).

But other critics counter Cutrara and Duffy’s critiques by accounting for Brown’s subjectivity and his self-awareness of it, particularly within the visual style of the comic. As Dave Howard notes, you feel the artist’s hand on the page” through the artwork. Montserrat Terrones writes of Brown, His drawings reflect his attitudes toward the Métis people, showing them…well-dressed and sitting around a table smoking cigars and drinking. More than words, Brown’s visuals reveal his political message” (299). Andrew D. Arnold acknowledges the presence of Brown’s authorial voice through the drawings of characters, which are deliberately cartoonish—sometimes absurdly so.” According to Ross Langager, the caricatures of Prime Minister John A. Macdonald and Thomas Scott are the “visual focal points of Brown’s critique of governmental (and, by extension, colonial) power in Louis Riel(60). Thus, Brown’s art, like his use of footnotes, draws attention to the constructed nature of his telling of history.

Without contradicting Brown’s overt subjectivity, the visuals of Louis Riel also convey a disaffected style. The disaffectedness, as inspired by Harold Gray’s Little Orphan Annie, corresponds with the flatness and isolation of the region” represented, according to Jeet Heer. Maya Hajdu notes a further detaching effect through Brown’s lack of close-ups, which seems to mirror the distance and perspective of encountering historical events.” The “perspective” captures panels in which details are kept to a minimum,” as Ben Lander writes, in order to emphasize the tone of panels” when more details do appear (117).

The visuals also play a crucial role in understanding Brown’s approach to one of Louis Riel’s key themes: language. Throughout most of the text, brackets indicate when French is being spoken, which Amanda Murphy claims indicates the linguistic divide more clearly than narrative alone could” (470). The use of brackets also sets up their conspicuous absence during Thomas Scott’s execution (73-4), as Tim Lanzendorfer highlights. Lanzendorfer argues that the representational shift puts the anglophone reader in Scott’s shoes: Like Scott, we have to make do with untranslated French; like Scott, we are essentially deprived of a fuller contextualization of the scene” (33). This shift becomes particularly complicated when considered in conjunction with the scene of Louis’s religious epiphany (106-7), which Lanzendorfer argues puts the reader in Louis’s perspective, since his voyage through space and the commands he hears from a French speaking god appear to be inside of Louis’s head (30).

Through the shifts in perspective, Brown further complicates his depiction of Riel in a manner befitting a complex historical figure. As Anabelle Bernard Fournier explains, even though the book is definitely sympathetic to Riel,” he remains a human being with flaws” as opposed to an uncomplicated hero. Matthias Wivel notes the contradictions within the portrayal of Riel, calling him a righteous champion both of earthly and spiritual values and an unstable, detached, and ultimately dangerous fundamentalist,” a tension Wivel argues iscentral to Brown’s story.” As a result, John Bell writes, Brown is able to avoid simple conclusions regarding issues such as the legitimacy of Riel’s sense of mission, his true motives, and his achievements” (166). Rather than ask us to make illusory bonds of identification,” Stephanie Boluk claims, Brown’s refusal to pick sides achieves a new kind of authenticity” (93).

Thus, Brown uses his idiosyncratic approach to narrative, history, and art to compose a biography of Louis Riel worthy of the man and his legacy. As I have discussed, critics have found a variety of issues to ponder and argue over in Louis Riel, and undoubtedly will for years to come.

Guest Post: David Alexander Robertson's Graphic Novels on the Life and Death of Helen Betty Osborne


Still Sharing Helen Betty’s Story: David Alexander Robertson’s Graphic Novels on the Life and Death of Helen Betty Osborne

Jessica Fontaine, Research Fellow

In an interview on CBC’s Unreserved with Rosanna Deerchild, David Alexander Robertson, author of two young adult graphic novels about the life and death of Helen Betty Osborne, urged listeners to both read and share the knowledge contained within Osborne’s life’s story.  More than the basic facts or narrative of Osborne’s murder in 1971, both of Robertson’s comics seek to inform readers of the roles that racism and indifference play in violence against Indigenous girls and women.  Comparing the shifts in narratives and contextual frameworks that Robertson employs in 2008’s The Life of Helen Betty Osborne: A Graphic Novel and 2015’s Betty: The Helen Betty Osborne Story illustrates how much work still needs to be done to secure the rights and safety of Indigenous women in Canada. 

Education is central as a theme and purpose in both depictions of Osborne, but it is particularly prominent in Robertson’s first telling.  Robertson stresses Obsorne’s desire to become a teacher in order to provide education in her community in Norway House, Manitoba.  It is because of this drive and the lack of educational infrastructure in Norway House that Osborne leaves home to attend school, first at Guy Hill Residential School and then in public high school in The Pas.

Robertson sets The Life of Helen Betty Osborne within a school context.  The story shows a light-haired student struggling to learn about residential schools, institutionalized racism, and social discrimination in The Pas through the life and death of Osborne.  The student’s gender is ambiguous, suggesting that the story of Helen Betty Osborne is one with which every student should connect.  Red, blue, and green speech balloons and text boxes, accompanying almost all of Madison Blackstone’s illustrations, emphasize what can be learned from her murder.  The green text in particular shows the thoughts and emotions of the student as they try to comprehend and give sense and meaning to Osborne’s death.  The text focuses heavily on the positive legacy of Osborne, particularly extolling how an inquiry into the subsequent investigation of her death concluded that racism, sexism, and indifference contributed to mishandling her case.  As such, the text’s educational tone almost suggests that so much has changed as a result of Osborne’s death that discrimination and violence against Indigenous women is no longer an issue.

However, Robertson’s return to Osborne’s story in Betty, seven years after the first graphic biography was published, makes it clear that this is not the case nor his belief.  Upon witnessing thousands march in Winnipeg to honour Tina Fontaine, a 15-year-old Indigenous girl whose body was pulled from the Red River in August 2014, Robertson felt the need to “re-contextualize [Osborne’s story] again against today’s epidemic.”  He opens Betty with representations of the march and of a boy reading a Facebook page.  This introduction reveals not only the social media discussions of distress surrounding the numerous disappearances and murders of Indigenous women, but also the destructive and racist comments that accompany these conversations. 

The need for empathy and action are central motifs in the recent graphic biography, as Betty loses Robertson’s previous work’s instructive feel.   Robertson does away with the colourful, didactic text and instead focuses on the images to tell a two-fold story of hope and hate.  In Betty, Robertson sets a quiet narrative of Osborne’s last night against the raucous partying and violence of the four men who killed her.  She spends time visiting with friends, dreaming of the future, and walking down the street, leaving her soft footsteps behind her.  Conversely, and because of the sparse dialogue throughout the comic, the men’s drunken discussions about “cruising for some squaw” to have sex feel both potent and ominous. 

Scott B. Henderson’s black and white, action-centered illustrations send the two narratives on a collision course, fuelled by the men’s racism and misogyny.  Henderson depicts their car’s headlights as blinding and predatory, particularly in the final sequences in which the men kidnap and then beat and murder Betty.  Although the majority of the violence takes place outside of the comic’s panels, the comic retains a sense of brutality because of the aggressive build up to the murder and the use of onomatopoeia in the final scenes.  Multiple renderings of the word “Thump”, written in a horror-style font, fill an image on the rear window of the car and connote the intentional, repeated assault Betty endured.    

Although Helen Betty Osborne is not included in the 1200 cases of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls compiled by police over the last thirty years, Betty joins the calls action to end the violence.  Concluding with an image of the vigil for Tina Fontaine in front of a Winnipeg memorial for the missing and murdered Indigenous women, Robertson asks, “But what can we do?”  By asking this question, Robertson implicates the reader and challenges their passivity.  For Robertson, both the education provided in The Life of Helen Betty Osborne and the empathy incited by Betty require a response from each individual in order to create and sustain social change. 

Other projects calling attention to the issue of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, Girls, Trans and Two Spirit People in Canada (MMIWGT2S):

The REDress Project

Walking with Our Sisters

Women’s Memorial March


Guest Post: Jessica Fontaine Reviews Malcolm X: A Graphic Biography

Facing Malcolm X: A Review of Malcolm X: A Graphic Biography by Andrew Helfer and Randy DuBurke

Jessica Fontaine, Research Assistant

MalcolmXcover.jpg

“Toward the end of his life, Malcolm X kept a loaded rifle in his Harlem hotel room.” 

These ominous words, in a small text box, open Malcolm X: A Graphic Biography, published in 2006 by Hill and Wang/Serious Comics.  The text appears on a full-page recreation of the iconic 1964 Ebony photograph of Macolm X holding a rifle as he peers out a curtained window.  On the page that follows, illustrator Randy DuBurke closes in cinematically on Malcolm’s face over six panels, blurring and de-saturating Malcolm’s face until the iconic image becomes unrecognizable.  From this point on, the graphic biography develops a narrative that visually and textually deconstructs the icon, stereotypes, and legends of Malcolm X.  

Writer Andrew Helfer, a group editor and creator at DC Comics, draws on his experience with superheroes to uncover and create the human rights activist’s origin story.  Beginning with Malcolm’s account of his mother defending her home against the Ku Klux Klan while she was pregnant with him, Helfer shows how Malcolm’s memories informed his identity and understanding of his own destiny.   Although he relies heavily on The Autobiograpy of Malcolm X, Helfer places Malcolm’s recollections in conversation with conflicting accounts from other selected biographies of Malcolm X.  He notes that Malcolm’s mother had no memory of the event with the Ku Klux Klan.  Yet, far from undermining Malcolm’s memories, Helfer’s display of contradictions thoughtfully present Malcolm’s recollections as being inseparable from the all-encompassing experiences of racism in America. 

Noting the discrepancies, Helfer describes Malcolm’s formative memories: the dismantling of his family due to poverty, the racist jokes about “benevolent” foster parents, and Malcolm’s prison sentence for burglary, which also included punishment for the crime of “corrupting white women.”   In doing so, Helfer never shies away from the dehumanization Malcolm experienced.  However, he remains attentive to Malcolm’s agency, focusing on Malcolm’s responses, particularly his conversion to the Nation of Islam and the hunger for knowledge it produced in him. 

When Elijah Muhammad, the leader of the Nation of Islam, replaces Malcolm’s last name “Little” with the iconic “X”, Malcolm’s place within the black separatist group and Civil Rights Movement appears secure.  By the time Helfer depicts Malcolm X entering the consciousness of the American public, more than half way through the comic book, it is clear that he is a complicated man driven by a desire for justice.  Because of Helfer’s attention to the details of Malcolm’s life prior to his public role, the fear-mongering stereotype of “the angry black man” dispelled by documentaries and articles published in the early sixties fall flat.  Helfer ensures that Malcolm appears as vulnerable as he is powerful.   

As the comic book nears Malcolm’s assassination, the opening image of Malcolm holding the rifle, which has often been depicted in the media as a call to arms, embodies the reader’s knowing dread and Malcolm’s fear that his dissention from the Nation of Islam may cause his death.  Although Helfer reserves conclusions as to who ordered Malcolm’s death, his narrative of Malcolm’s life suggests that Malcolm’s intelligence, charisma, and drive posed a threat to not only the white establishment but to the leadership of the Nation of Islam as well. 

Helfer ultimately creates more questions than answers when it comes to Malcolm X.  His work suggests that all biographies will fall short in capturing the real Malcolm.  DuBurke’s murky illustrations echo Helfer’s enigmatic narrative.  His muddled, dark style often recalls the smudginess of old newsprint photograph and suggests that there was much obscured in contemporary accounts of Malcolm’s life, work, and death.  From Spike Lee’s biopic to Malcolm X for Beginners, many people have attempted to distill a single image of Malcolm X.  By pointing to the unknowns with the knowns, Malcolm X: A Graphic Biography creates a space for readers to consider Malcolm X ‘s contributions to black rights in America and to ask what work still needs to be done. 

For an interesting article on Malcolm X's relationship with the media, see Maurice Berger's New York Times Article, "Malcolm X as Visual Strategist" (Sep. 9, 2012)

Guest Post: Jessica Fontaine Reviews Reinhard Kleist's The Boxer

Fists of Violence and Loss: A Review of Reinhard Kleist’s The Boxer

Jessica Fontaine, Research Assistant

Reinhard Kleist, who published the graphic biography Johnny Cash: I See a Darkness in 2009, delves further into the dark recesses of a man’s nightmares and memories in his 2014 offering, The Boxer: The True Story of Holocaust Survivor Harry Haft. His illustrative style of stark black and white images works well to both shadow and expose the violence and loss held within Haft’s story of survival.   

In The Boxer, Kleist adapts Alan Haft’s account of his father’s experiences as a Polish-Jewish fighter forced to fight for the entertainment of Nazi soldiers within concentration camps. Haft first published his father’s story in the prose biography, Harry Haft: Survivor of Auschwitz, Challenger of Rocky Marciano

The relationship between father and son frames the narrative, which opens in America with Alan describing his father as “the toughest guy in the world.”  It’s a statement made in fear, not pride.  Harry Haft first appears as a raging brute with hands always fisted.  Like Spiegelman’s Maus, Kleist’s comic does the heavy work of creating an understandable subject of the father, who has been rendered unknowable to his son through the unthinkable and unbearable trauma of the Holocaust.  As the story shifts back to Poland in 1939, it transfers to Harry’s perspective, allowing both Alan and the reader into the haunting memories of Harry.

As a result, trauma informs every page.  It manifests not only in the panels referencing the mass murder of the Jewish people, but in the physical body of Harry Haft, who must violently battle for his life.  Throughout, Kleist transforms Harry from the curly-haired, teenage runt of the family into an angular, starving prisoner fighting for his life, and finally into a robust, underdog, New York boxer.  However, his eyes and hands never escape everything he has seen and done.  The consistent depictions of his dark, furrowed brow and closed fists draw attention to the inescapability of the trauma of the Holocaust.  Although Harry’s determination and fortitude allow him to survive, his survival comes at a deep cost, which Kleist makes clear during ruptures of Harry’s image. 

Harry’s perpetual glare breaks in moments of wide-eyed horror, such as when he realizes that the concentration camp opponents he defeats will pay for their losses with their lives.  Therefore, in every fight, Harry encloses power and vulnerability in each fist.  Every punch destroys as much as it saves.  The pain of this paradox persists with Harry long after he is physically free from the camps.  

In the New York flash-bulb spectacle of Harry’s match with the undefeated Rocky Marciano, the boxing gloves disappear from his hands and he is once again bare-fisted and exposed. The spectators transform into Nazi officers and he hears wolf-like dogs barking for blood within the crowd’s cheers.  Harry appears to himself and the reader as a skeleton-like figure, trapped within the fighting cage.  Harry’s body consistently remains the prisoner of both the violence he rendered and the violence enacted upon him.

An appendix at the end of the comic highlights the prevalence of boxing within concentration camps.  The information makes it clear that although Haft’s recollections of locations and times contain factual errors, forcing already imprisoned and desperate men to fight for spectacle existed among the many horrors inflicted within the camps. 

Kleist’s comic strips away the spectacle and resists a redemption narrative often found in Hollywood boxing pics and Holocaust films alike.  Instead, The Boxer bestows empathy upon Harry.  In doing so, it resists cutting off history and past.  Kleist’s Boxer serves as a dark reminder of the human losses of the Holocaust, including those carried within survivors.

 In May, 2014, the Toronto Comic Arts Festival hosted a conversation between Reinhard Kleist and Alan Scott Haft that you can watch here.

 

MA Research Fellowship Opportunity at U of Winnipeg

Opportunity for MA Research Fellowship

September 1, 2016-August 31, 2017

 MA in Cultural Studies, Department of English, University of Winnipeg

 Deadline to apply: February 1, 2016

Candida Rifkind, Associate Professor in the Department of English at the University of Winnipeg, is seeking one MA student enrolled in the Cultural Studies program to work on projects related to graphic biography (biographies in the form of comic books). The MA student will receive a 12-month stipend of $17,500 to work as a Research Fellow on the project. Additional project funding is available to present a paper at a North American conference.

The stipend will be divided evenly over the three terms of the MA program (Fall, Winter, Spring/Summer). The tasks are primarily related to textual research and knowledge mobilization of the project. As part of their research training, the student will learn how to assemble and evaluate existing scholarship, review books for general audiences, and analyze texts for scholarly audiences. This hands-on scholarly research will be complemented by the print and electronic communication of the project. The student will also plan a project book club, which will provide them with a valuable set of skills in professional organizing and communicating specialized knowledge to general audiences.

This is an ideal research fellowship for students interested in comics and life writing theory. Related fields include cultural studies, film studies, media studies, celebrity studies, and art history.

Prospective Research Fellows must follow the formal application process to the MA in Cultural Studies. More information about the program is available here: http://www.uwinnipeg.ca/cultural-studies/

All interested applicants should contact Dr. Rifkind (c.rifkind@uwinnipeg.ca) prior to submitting their application to the MA in Cultural Studies, and are encouraged to visit the project website: www.projectgraphicbio.com

This position is funded by an Insight Grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC) and the University of Winnipeg.

 

Guest Post: Jessica Fontaine Reviews Who is Ana Mendieta? by Redfern & Caron

Embodying Ana Mendieta: A Review of Who is Ana Mendieta?

Jessica Fontaine, Research Assistant

In Who is Ana Mendieta?, Christine Redfern and Caro Caron reanimate the life and work of Cuban American artist, Ana Mendieta.  Published in 2011 by The Feminist Press, Who is Ana Mendieta? introduces readers not only to Mendieta, but also to the feminist performance art movement of the 1970s and surrounding issues of sexism and violence that Mendieta took up in her work. 

Redfern narrates Mendieta’s biography in two parts: a mash-up comic and an annotated bibliography entitled “Blindspot”.  The mash-up comic moves like a biopic, placing the reader in contact with an extensive cast of characters from the 1970s New York art scene.  As the eyes of the reader move over Caron’s large, crowded, gray and black toned panels, Mendieta and the re-imaginings of her performances press up against the artists, curators, and critics who informed or challenged her career.  Redfern carefully chooses their dialogue and the narration from articles, reviews, and accounts, giving the comic a documentary feel.  The following newspaper-styled bibliography acts like footnotes.  It allows Redfern to explicate the comic’s short narrative and further illuminate how Mendieta’s work confronted the very frameworks of sexism that led to her violent death. 

Inseparable from the story of her life and art is the suspicious way Mendieta died, falling from the 34th floor of her New York apartment building in 1985.   Both Redfern’s narrative and Caron’s illustrations draw connections between Mendieta’s focus on the body and the earth as artistic mediums and Mendieta’s broken body crushed against a concrete roof. 

In the depiction of her death, Caron’s drawing of a Mendieta “Silueta” stands equally beside her picture of Mendieta’s lifeless body.  A boxed narration accompanies the images and muses that Mendieta’s death was “an eerie echo of a 1973 ‘Silueta.’”  Mendieta appears ripped from nature, the site of many of her sculptures and means of performance, and thrown into the urban public, a masculine space of violence.  This “Silueta” is the last of multiple recreations that fill and focus the comic’s panels on Mendieta’s physical shape.  Such a severe end to these recreations highlights not only the “Silueta’s”series’ performative and corporeal natures, but also gives Redfern space to examine how Mendieta’s art and legacy has been mistreated within the avant-garde art world.

In the “Blindspot” bibliography that follows the comic, Redfern points systematically to the incommensurate ways violence awards myth and legend to male artists, such as Pollack and Warhol, while it amputates the artistic reach and lives of women.  She is unapologetic in pointing to the inconsistencies in the testimonies of Mendieta’s husband, Carl Andre, who was in their apartment at the time of Mendieta’s death.  Further, Redfern’s varied collected sources, displayed together, protest against the ways institutionalized and social powers work to maintain these inequalities.   On a broader level, the bibliography and comic reiterate the feminist project of demonstrating how the personal is political.  For Who is Ana Mendieta? specifically, the repetition of embodying simultaneously Mendieta’s image and art resurrects Ana Mendieta for a new generation and continues protests against the way she and other female artists have been neglected within the arts canon.

See images from the book at the Caro Caron + Christine Redfern page of the Concordia University Faculty of Fine Arts web site.