Project GraphicBio Research Fellow Jamie Michaels wrote this auto/biographical comic for Bruno Cornellier's Fall 2017 Concepts in Cultural Theory course.
Project GraphicBio Research Fellow Jamie Michaels wrote this auto/biographical comic for Bruno Cornellier's Fall 2017 Concepts in Cultural Theory course.
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)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
In James Joyce: Portrait of a Dubliner, cartoonist Alfonso Zapico approaches his subject with a mixture of whimsy, reverence, and attention to his many eccentricities. While Zapico clearly has the utmost respect for Joyce as a writer, Portrait highlights both the fawning praise of lauded contemporaries for works such as Ulysses and lifelong struggles such as Joyce’s bouts with alcoholism. Zapico’s attention throughout the graphic biography to offering a full depiction of the author’s life, further contextualized by references to the historical events occurring in the background of his career, make Portrait a compelling telling of the life of a giant of twentieth century literature.
Zapico tells Joyce’s story chronologically, beginning with brief summaries of the lives of his father, grandfather, and great-grand grandfather. Details in the overviews, such as the description of his great-grandfather’s nationalism and his father’s excess of prodigious talents, suggest some of Joyce’s most famous and infamous qualities to be genetically inherited. Zapico’s depiction of life in the Joyce family prior to James’s birth also introduces the text-heavy style that characterizes most of the rest of the book, with images primarily used to illustrate key points from the captions adorning nearly every panel.
Both the textual focus and introduction of Joycean characteristics to be fleshed out as he grows up continue in the representation of James’s early childhood. Father John’s fawning builds his son’s ego from a young age, establishing his conviction about his own greatness early on. The younger Joyce clashes with both his religious governess and a priest in his Jesuit boarding school, which foreshadows later fights with moral authority figures over the content of his work. Joyce’s famed sexual appetite also makes an appearance through a sex worker who literally whisks him off his feet as a young teenager while his hat flies parallel to his head, an image highlighting the humourous touch with which Zapico furnishes many of his drawings. Zapico complements these personal details by depicting some of the political turmoil happening in Ireland simultaneously, such as British military repression of Irish citizens.
As Joyce reaches his early adult years, Zapico introduces one of the key figures in the author’s personal life: his eventual wife, Nora Barnacle. In Portrait’s telling, Joyce meets her while exploring the streets of Dublin with his young male friends, who drunkenly court various female passers-by as part of their regular nightly outings. She rebuffs his initial advances, but eventually agrees to a date with him, which leads soon enough to romantic images of the two kissing and holding hands. A panel- and text-free page of the couple lying together on a grassy hill early in the relationship is among the book’s most striking moments, with Zapico taking a break from the book’s verbiage to let the images breathe. As befits the storied love affair, Zapico depicts it with some of his most memorable drawings.
Despite the focus on Joyce’s relationships, Portrait also captures key moments in his development as a writer. In a particularly notable incident, an adolescent Joyce publishes a review of a Henrik Ibsen play in a Dublin literary magazine, to which Ibsen himself responds enthusiastically. The young Joyce has yet another encounter with a literary heavyweight when he meets William Butler Yeats, to whom Joyce laments with hubris, “What a pity we met so late: you’re too old for me to have any influence on your work.” In addition to these cameos, Zapico constructs his küntslerroman in part by highlighting the influence of the French author Édouard Dujardin, who inspires Joyce’s early writings, including the famed first novel A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Although the comic describes it, unequivocally, as Joyce’s “first great piece of literature,” Zapico also calls attention to the adversarial stance of many publishers due to the book’s literary difficulty and obscenity.
Both Zapico’s admiration for Joyce’s genius and depiction of his many personal and authorial challenges only become magnified further as he ages. Struggles with publishers and censors increase in the subsequent phases of his literary career, with Zapico vividly depicting the resistance to both Dubliners and Ulysses. Joyce develops a robust teaching career as he navigates the tribulations of publication, supporting his family as they move around Europe. As Zapico shows, the Joyce family grows to include two children, Giorgio and Lucia, and the latter in particular receives a moving portrayal of her struggle with mental illness (Lucia’s life story is depicted in a graphic novel by Mary Talbot and Bryan Talbot, Dotter of Her Father’s Eyes). Fatherhood only appears to aggravate Joyce’s proclivities for alcohol and pursuit of women, leading to squabbles with Nora. As with the depiction of Joyce’s early years, Zapico contextualizes the biographical narrative with brief references to the surrounding political events, including both World Wars.
Portrait conveys both the context and Joyce’s story with idiosyncratic, black and white images offering an artistic perspective both detail-rich and fantastical. Zapico’s faces receive some of his most expressive work, as exemplified by a page with consecutive panels showing Joyce’s bust as he demonstrates each of the seven deadly sins. The details also extend to Zapico’s depictions of the many European settings of Joyce’s life, such as in a gorgeous splash panel of rooftops amidst the Paris cityscape. The cartoonist’s taste for fancy comes through in his lack of care for physical realities, as seen in a panel of Joyce’s friend Francis Sheehy-Skeffington having his glasses fly off his face as a British soldier shoots him in a bar. Zapico combines such images with the level of detail to provide a unique and humourous take on the often dark incidents of Joyce’s life.
The visual humour befits Joyce’s joie de vivre and devil-may-care attitude, two attributes highlighted throughout Portrait. Zapico’s brief but informative look at Joyce’s life doesn’t fail to emphasize his literary genius and accomplishments, while still calling attention to the arrogance, infidelity, and alcoholism which haunt him throughout his adult life. Portrait shows Joyce as the giant of letters he was, and doesn’t posit him to be the saint he most definitely was not. As a result, Zapico offers an honest and hugely entertaining account of an icon of modernist writing.
Joyce, James. Dubliners. Penguin, 1993.
—-. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Dover Publications, Inc., 1994.
—-. Ulysses. Wordsworth, 2010.
Talbot, Mary and Bryan Talbot. Dotter of Her Father’s Eyes. Jonathan Cape, 2012.
Zapico, Alfonso. James Joyce: Portrait of a Dubliner. Translated by David Prendergast, Arcade Publishing, 2016.
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.
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.
In a footnote in Fire!! The Zora Neale Hurston Story, cartoonist Peter Bagge notes the similarities between the graphic biography’s subject and that of Bagge’s first, Margaret Sanger (2013’s Woman Rebel): both women valued sexual freedom, published prolifically, and came from humble origins. But whereas continued disputes over both birth control and Sanger’s legacy instantly justified her as a present day subject, the question of why to centre a comic around Hurston in 2017, aside from celebrating the life of one of the great twentieth century American authors, initially seems a bit more opaque.
Bagge provides an answer in his prologue (appropriately titled “Why Hurston”), and his justification echoes throughout the book: Hurston supposedly “despised all top-down, government imposed ideologies, seeing them as being diametrically opposed to human nature in general and freedom of movement and thought in particular.” Bagge contrasts his characterization of her worldview with that of most other Black artists of her era, many of whom supported socialism or communism. Bagge himself is a libertarian, and his description of Hurston in the prologue lays out a clear agenda for the rest of the graphic biography.
This agenda subsequently casts an inexorable shadow over Fire!!. In the comic’s opening pages, the young Zora’s father scolds her for befriending a white couple and warns her not to trust whites: whereas he writes people off due to their race, she doesn’t essentialize. In a comparable scene, Bagge lampoons Dr. Alain Locke, the first Black Rhodes scholar and a professor of Hurston’s, for being enraged with her and her peers for serving fried chicken and watermelon at a party hosted by Black students. Likewise, Bagge celebrates her independence from other left-leaning Black artists, including Langston Hughes, who idealize communist Russia and hope to go there to escape American racism. Bagge’s message is clear: Hurston was an independent firebrand who didn’t want to be defined by her race, and one whose views often contradicted leftism.
Although Bagge’s own ideological bent does detract on occasion from his telling of Hurston’s life, she nonetheless comes across as a compelling and singular figure. The book’s episodic narrative style keeps Bagge from lingering on Hurston’s political views or any other facet of her life for too long at a given time, hopping between periods such as her origins in Eatonville, Florida, time spent studying at Barnard, and the writing of her 1937 magnum opus Their Eyes Were Watching God with fluid ease. This narrative approach, which similarly served Bagge well in Woman Rebel, presents a comprehensive overview of Hurston’s life while also remaining cohesive enough to function as a unified character study. Fire!! packs an impressive amount of detail into the individual episodes both through detailed footnotes (nearly every page is accompanied by an extensive prose description in the footnotes of the events depicted, citing Hurston’s work and other primary and secondary sources), which allow Bagge to circumvent clunky exposition in the comic itself, and jam-packed, brightly coloured wide panels rich with visual information.
As he does throughout his oeuvre, Bagge fills those panels with frenetic images reminiscent of early Loony Toons animation, which he cites as a major influence (Douresseau). The visual style is particularly effective for capturing more mythical moments in Hurston’s life, such as her interest in the world of voodoo. Bagge’s cartoonishness works comparably for capturing the outrage of Locke and others, highlighting their fervency and Hurston’s resilience in the face of it. In two particularly effective scenes, in which a young Zora discovers the joys of reading through Norse mythology and Milton, the drawings do the difficult work of capturing the intellectual development of a young artist, revealing Fire!! to be something of a Küntslerroman. But even in heavier moments, such as the death of Hurston’s mother, Bagge’s gonzo visuals keep the comic light on its feet and remain true to the grandiosity of Hurston’s life.
Bagge also remains true to Hurston’s prose in his dialogue, sharing her interest in and affection for the rhythms of colloquial speech. As such, the book as a whole functions as a metacommentary on the critiques of Hurston by Locke and others (in a footnote, Bagge admits to using Locke as a representative of a sentiment shared by many critics of the time) for her representations of Black people as impoverished and anti-intellectual. Simultaneously, white fans of her work (and financial supporters) such as philanthropist Charlotte Osgood Mason fetishized Hurston’s interest in depicting Black culture, and Bagge doesn’t let them off the hook, either.
Yet Bagge’s inclination towards satire doesn’t detract from the pathos throughout Fire!!. The relationship between Hurston and Hughes is particularly affecting, as Bagge artfully captures their platonic intimacy (many assume that Hughes was gay) without engaging in too much gossip or speculation. In a particularly traumatic sequence late in the comic, Hurston is falsely accused by a neighbour of molesting her ten-year-old son (she had caught him engaging in homosexual acts with his friends and was looking for someone to blame), and Bagge highlights both the absurdity of the charge and the pain it causes Hurston. As with the rest of the book, the details provided in the footnotes add to Bagge’s thoroughness and help to bring Hurston to life.
Such details, along with Bagge’s trademark visual style and the comic’s energetic verve, make Fire!! a compelling portrait of a fundamental figure in American letters. Although Bagge’s interest in claiming Hurston for libertarianism occasionally overshadows other facets of the graphic biography, Fire!! nonetheless provides an entertaining and thoughtful depiction of her public and private life. Aside from her literary contributions, Hurston lived an adventurous existence, and Bagge captures the vitality of both.
Bagge, Peter. Fire!! The Zora Neale Hurston Story. Montreal, Drawn & Quarterly, 2017.
—-. Woman Rebel: The Margaret Sanger Story. Montreal, Drawn & Quarterly, 2013.
Douresseau, LJ. “Interview with Peter Bagge.” ComicBookBin, Toon Doctor Inc, 16 Nov. 2003, www.comicbookbin.com/charlie02.html. Accessed 18 Apr. 2017.
Hurston, Zora Neale. Their Eyes Were Watching God. New York, NY, Harper Collins, 2006.
Unlike most academic conferences, the audience for the Calgary Comic & Entertainment Expo, does not consist mostly of academics. Instead, the Expo, which ran for the twelfth time on April 27th-30th, is primarily populated by fans and aficionados of comics, games, movies, and anything science fiction or fantasy related. The panelists are mostly comic book artists, writers, and actors from beloved films and television shows. But although the Expo focuses more on the work of creators, the Academic Track, of which I was lucky enough to be a part, features graduate students and professors from a variety of disciplines speaking about comics and other topics using their specialized knowledge.
Of course, the creators had specialized knowledge of their own, which made for a different angle on comics than I typically encounter amongst academics, but a valuable and insightful one nonetheless. At a panel featuring Canadian publisher Chapterhouse, comics artist and writers Ray Fawkes and Jim Zub talked about their excitement in creating Canadian superhero comics for an audience of both Canadians and international readers. They also discussed, as did several other panelists, the increasing audience for digital comics. While some speculate that comics readership is declining, Fawkes, Zub, and others suggested that readers were instead migrating to reading online as opposed to hard copies.
Creators also discussed the artistic side of their work, which again was an important insight into comics that I don’t frequently see as a graduate student. Cartoonist Vic Malhotra, artist for comic book adaptations of novels such as Jim Thompson’s The Killer Inside Me and Thumbprint, described the process of turning prose into comics. Another frequent topic among the cartoonists was the influence of Jack Kirby, considered by many to be the artistic forefather of modern superhero comics. Kirby would be 100 years old this year, and the Expo had panels to celebrate his centennial accordingly. Cartoonists at the Expo repeatedly praised the narrative focus of Kirby’s art, as well as his economic storytelling. Jim Shooter, a legendary Marvel editor who oversaw the work of Kirby and many others, hosted a panel in which he analyzed a Kirby comic to demonstrate his visual narrative techniques.
Along with the cartoonists, there was also a strong contingent of academics. A particularly popular style of talk consisted of academic scientists and doctors using the technical knowledge of their field to analyze a film or comic book. But other talks were closer to my own work as a Cultural Studies student. Dr. Orion Ussner Kidder, an English professor at Vancouver’s Columbia College, used data he had aggregated about recent scholarly publishing on comics to conclude that academic publishers’ books on comics have been aimed at comic book fans in addition to typical scholarly audiences.
Dr. Ben Whaley, a professor of Japanese at the University of Calgary, talked about the surprising amount of Holocaust stories told in manga form (including a manga biography of Hitler). In my own presentation, I examined how cartoonist Noah Van Sciver, in his 2012 Abraham Lincoln graphic biography The Hypo, uses visual representations of Lincoln’s depression as a young man to counter the typical American narrative of him as the grandiose “Honest Abe.”
While my own presentation hewed closer to the formal conventions of academic talks, Dr. Kidder and Dr. Whaley used more informal presentation styles which were perhaps better suited to the Expo. Although I did receive thoughtful and insightful questions from attendees at my panel, Dr. Kidder and Dr. Whaley did an exceptional job of conveying dense subject matter in an accessible way. Much like the Expo itself, they presented fascinating material in a manner compelling to both longtime comics fans and relative newcomers.
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.
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”
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?”
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 life of model, artist, singer, and general bon vivant Kiki de Montparnasse (born Alice Prin), cannot be easily summed up in a few sentences, and Catel Muller and José-Louis Bocquet attempt to do nothing of the sort in their eponymous graphic biography of her (Trans. Nora Mahony. London: SelfMadeHero, 2011). Instead, the sprawling, dense yet highly readable, nearly 400 page comic attempts to capture Kiki’s many complexities in an attempt that would be laudable for its ambition alone. But Catel and Bocquet’s graphic biography succeeds at an astonishing rate, creating a funny, melancholy, and moving portrait of a woman instrumental to the history of 20th century art.
In its basic structure, the comic book appears to fall victim to the trappings of many maligned Hollywood biopics: Kiki is born in 1901 at the beginning, and she dies in 1953 at the end. Yet unlike perfunctory and oft-critiqued biopic narratives, Catel and Bocquet’s work weaves strong themes, motifs, and character development within a comprehensive and chronological arc.
Bocquet also imbues the arc with an impressive attention to historical detail, both within the comic itself and in its useful appendices. The appendices offer a yearly, prose-based timeline of Kiki’s history and brief prose biographies of some of the many famous figures featured in Kiki De Montparnasse, including Ernest Hemingway, Pablo Picasso, and Jean Cocteau (among others). The timeline and biographies provide useful elaboration on and illumination of events depicted in the comic, corresponding with Catel’s drawings while also giving greater detail for readers interested in learning more about a particular occurrence.
Occasionally, such as in the depiction of Kiki and Henri-Pierre Roché’s first meeting, there’s a discrepancy between the comic and the appendices (the comic shows it happening in 1921, whereas Roché’s biography lists 1922), and moments such as these highlight the adjustments often made when narrativizing history. As Andrew Lesk writes of the differences between the comic and the footnotes in Chester Brown’s Louis Riel: A Comic-Strip Biography, such instances “suggest that it is up to the reader to examine afresh not only the distortions caused by his apparently innocent compressions, but, more significantly, the inferences such distortions provoke as they resonate and rumble throughout the history” (71).
But Catel and Bocquet still attend to a remarkable degree of historical fidelity throughout Kiki De Montparnasse. Following a brief prologue depicting Kiki’s birth in Châtillon-sur-Seine, the comic’s main narrative begins with Kiki’s childhood, during which her grandmother raises her with her cousins. The close affinity between Kiki and her grandmother is just one of many female relationships the comic memorably depicts, positioning them against the ugly misogyny which also recurs throughout Kiki De Montparnasse. “Prince Charming only exists in fairytales. In real life, there are only frogs,” Kiki’s grandmother tells her just before she leaves the countryside to live with her mother in Paris, conveying a mantra which reverberates throughout the rest of the comic.
If only the men in Kiki’s life actually were frogs. Kiki’s relationship with her mother is not one of the strong female alliances in Kiki De Montparnasse, as she soon kicks her daughter out of their shared apartment. Alone, vulnerable, and strapped for cash, a 15-year-old Kiki begins accepting cash to get naked for Parisian men, both self-proclaimed “artists” and those without even the pretension of loftier ambitions, in the interest of pulling together money however she can.
As exploited as she may be, Kiki’s modeling career has its fair share of upsides, particularly as she becomes older and more acquainted with the Paris art scene. Her first encounter with a major artist comes with Amadeo Modigliani, whose painting of Kiki helps her to overcome youthful insecurities and recognize her own beauty. She finds one of her most important artistic partners several years later in Foujita Tsuguharu, who both has a major success with a portrait of her (entitled “Reclining Nude with Toile de Jouy”) and inspires her to begin her own art career by drawing him. Shortly after meeting Foujita, Kiki meets a man who goes onto become perhaps her most significant collaborator and romantic partner: Man Ray. Their tumultuous relationship includes domestic violence, infidelity, and substance abuse, but the two also have indelible influences on one another which shape their artistic and personal lives.
At the same time, Catel and Bouquet don’t shy away from the relationship’s darker elements, and much to their credit. Catel draws Kiki and Man Ray’s fights with the motion lines and onomatopoeia of comics covering lighter subject matter, but the juxtaposition doesn’t dampen the impact of the brutal reality being depicted. Man Ray’s violence functions in tandem with the sexism Kiki and other women experience throughout the comic to create an ugly portrait of the misogyny amongst the supposedly freewheeling and progressive artists of Paris in the early 20th century.
But Kiki and her female associates hardly take the discrimination lying down, and some of the comic’s most compelling moments come in the interactions between various women as they discuss their tribulations at the hands of the many abusive men in their lives. Catel’s depiction of facial expressions shines in these scenes, as the women’s reactions to each other’s stories of violence capture the pain of trauma survivors while also showing their ability to revel in jouissance.
Catel and Bouqet’s celebration of feminine strength ultimately reveals itself most in Kiki herself, though the comic wisely avoids hagiography. She resists the lechery of unwelcome gazes from men, but she doesn’t let her resistance ignore the pleasure she takes in the flattery of Man Ray and Foujita. Likewise, Catel’s detailed countenances and gestures highlight her enjoyment as she sings, dances, and reveals herself for men, yet the comic doesn’t shy away from the rampant alcohol and drug use that accompany her exploration of Parisian nightlife. Thus, Kiki De Montparnasse is a rollicking and entertaining look at a larger than life figure, but one with enough nuance and subtlety to never let her human flaws stray too far from the reader’s mind.
Brown, Chester. Louis Riel: A Comic-Strip Biography. Montreal, Drawn and Quarterly, 2006.
Lesk, Andrew. “Redrawing Nationalism: Chester Brown's Louis Riel: A Comic-Strip Biography.” Journal of Graphic Novels &Amp; Comics, vol. 1, no. 1, 2010, pp. 63–81. Taylor and Francis Journals, doi:10.1080/21504851003798595.
Muller, Catel, and José-Louis Bocquet. Kiki De Montparnasse. London, SelfMadeHero, 2011.
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].
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.
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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.
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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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Howes, Craig. “What Are We Turning From? Research and Ideology in Biography and Life Writing.” The Biographical Turn: Lives in History, Edited by Hans Renders et al., Routledge, London, 2016, pp. 165–175.
Levi, Giovanni. "The Uses of Biography.” Theoretical Discussions of Biography: Approaches from History, Microhistory, and Life Writing, Edited by Hans Renders and Binne De Haan, Edwin Mellen Press Ltd, Leiden, 2013, pp. 61–74.
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McNeill, Laurie, and John David Zuern. “Online Lives 2.0: Introduction.” Biography, vol. 38, no. 2, 2015, pp. v-xlvi. JSTOR [JSTOR], doi:10.1353/bio.2015.0012.
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Artistry and Eroticism: A Review of Joann Sfar’s Pascin
Max Bledstein, Research Fellow
Joann’s Sfar’s Pascin (Trans. Edward Gauvin. Minneapolis: Uncivilized, 2016) takes a whimsical, lyrical, and charming look at the life of Julius Mordecai Pincas—better known as “Pascin” (pronounced “pass-KIN”)—a Jewish modernist artist born in Bulgaria towards the end of the nineteenth century. Pascin moved to Paris in the early twentieth century, and key artistic figures who lived in the city contemporaneously such as Ernest Hemingway, Marc Chagall, and Chaïm Soutine all make appearances throughout Sfar’s graphic biography.
To depict Pascin’s story, Sfar relies on a non-linear, episodic narrative style which consists of often fanciful anecdotes capturing a variety of moments in the artist’s life. The vignettes cover topics ranging from Pascin’s sexuality, friendships, childhood, and artistic process. Together, these episodes form a portrait of Pascin account aiming to be as freewheeling, bawdy, and creative as the artist himself.
Sfar’s lack of interest in tight structure or rigid form also pertains to the art style, which occasionally flirts with uniformity but mostly conforms only to what a given moment requires. Pascin rarely features consecutive pages with panels of similar sizes and shapes, and Sfar’s black and white inking often leaks beyond the panels’ jagged edges. Within the panels, Sfar favours busy images of characters existing within detailed backgrounds of urban life and landscape, but he also forgoes cordoning off images altogether when it doesn’t suit his purpose. Memorably, Sfar uses occasional full page images to highlight particularly important moments, such as the haunting drawing of a man clinging dearly to a mannequin in bed. Sfar similarly fluctuates between styles when depicting people, whose faces and bodies fluctuate between realism and caricature, sometimes on the same page. Overall, as he does with narrative, Sfar shifts his art throughout the comic to fit the needs of a particular event rather than stick to a singular style or vision.
Most frequently, the art depicts Pascin’s conflicts over his sexuality, both in terms of how they relate to his work and to his life more broadly. The two overlap in the opening vignette, in which his lover Lucy notes that he feels compelled to draw anything which gives him an erection. His sexuality continues to be a theme as the scene develops, since the two discuss whether or not they can sleep with other people, and he gets furious at the suggestion that she might cheat (in spite of his desire to do so, and his knowledge of her husband). Pascin’s ability to get an erection comes up once again in one of the final vignettes, entitled “The Cuckoo,” in which he performs oral sex on a married woman but finds himself impotent when he tries to penetrate her. Humourously, Sfar gives speech balloons to Pascin’s penis in this scene, as it says “Wa-wah” and “Limp.” The encounter ends with yet another memorable full page image, as the couple lies naked on a bed while caressing each other’s genitals. “Bla bla bla…” reads Pascin’s speech balloon; Sfar mocks the artist yet again.
Similar mockery also happens between Pascin and his male friends as they cavort through Paris. Soutine is burdened with constant feelings of inadequacy around Pascin, both because of his own insecurities and Pascin’s willingness to exploit them. After Pascin leaves Lucy, Soutine comes over and begs to see her naked, revealing his desire to want what Pascin has. This dynamic continues as he reenters and calls Soutine, “My headless chicken, my drawn-and-quartered Lithuanian hare,” to which he responds by taking Pascin along with him to the butcher rather than fighting back. Although the criminal Toussaint evinces a more masculine persona than Soutine, Pascin still turns their relationship into one of aggressive competition and one-up-man-ship. Art and sexuality once again become intertwined through their competitiveness, as Pascin taunts Toussaint for struggling to draw a naked Kiki de Montparnasse, following which she engages in sexual acts with both men.
The scene epitomizes Sfar’s depiction of women throughout the comic, which ranges from sophomoric crudity to mean-spirited misogyny. A pre-adolescent Pascin visits a brothel with money stolen from his father, where Pascin, in one of the comic’s most surreal images, climbs atop an adult sex worker’s back while she crawls on her hands and knees. That he appears to be a quarter of her size diminishes the ugly reality of the situation, which only increases as he calls her a “horse,” then a “whore,” then makes her cry in order to draw her while tears run down her face. Sfar appears to be increasingly unconcerned with sexualizing children as the comic progresses, particularly through the adult Pascin’s relationship with the fifteen year-old daughter, Ada, of the elder statesman Lithuanian artist Antanas. Although Sfar doesn’t explicitly condone any of the behaviour, his lack of critique endorses Pascin’s pedophiliac interests by nature of its omission.
Sfar’s treatment of the relationship with Ada is particularly disturbing when considered in conjunction with the depiction of Pascin as a liberated sexual being. Graphic drawings of naked bodies and sexual acts abound throughout the comic, and the relations with children become just another part of the bacchanalian romp. Pascin is also unafraid to embrace his homoerotic desires, such as when he fantasizes about performing oral sex on the husband of a woman he meets at a brothel or describes himself as “a regular fairy” in order to instigate a fight. Although these scenes have the upside of lauding Pascin for his sexual liberation, they have the potential to embody a reactionary stance equating homosexuality with pedophilia when read in conjunction with Pascin’s childhood brothel outings or later attraction to Ada.
This troubling depiction of sexuality undermines Sfar’s ability to critique the relationship between Pascin’s aggressive sexual tendencies and his artistry. The comic works towards such a critique in drawing a connection between Pascin’s impotence and his capacity to draw, but Sfar undermines his efforts at coherence through the whimsy with which he depicts sexual acts between children and adults. Pascin deserves credit for being an entertaining look at the life of an important artist, yet such praise should be tempered by Sfar’s failure to critique his subject when he deserves it.
Pascin’s paintings can be viewed via The Barnes Foundation
The Critical Reception of Chester Brown’s Louis Riel
By Max Bledstein, Research Fellow
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 is “central 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.
Questioning What I See: Representation and Style in Graphic Biographies
One of the great perks of being the research fellow for Project GraphicBio has been that when family members asked me what did for a living, I got to answer that I was being paid to read and research comics. I couldn’t always read their reactions, but often it fell somewhere between surprise and confusion. I felt a similar surprise and confusion when I began. Having just dipped my toes into the murky waters of comics with The Sandman series, Watchmen, Louis Riel, and Maus, it was both exciting and disorientating to learn the conventions and concepts particular to the comics form. After a year of reading and researching, as clichéd it sounds, what I’ve learned most is how much I have yet to learn about comics and the scholarship rising up around it. Therefore, I fittingly focus my final blog post on the questions stemming from a year of digging around comics and graphic biographies.
In Biography: A Very Short Introduction, Hermoine Lee describes the metaphor of a portrait as it applies to biography. She writes that a “portrait suggests empathy, bringing to life, capturing the character” (2). In the case of the graphic biography, the comics writer and/or artist paints both a textual and visual portrait of their subject across the panels of their work. As a result, issues relating to the biographical narrative, such the ethics of telling another person’s story and what details authors choose to include and omit, must be navigated along side the narratives constructed through the use of panels, closure, and the interplay between words and images. How a comics artist chooses to paint their portrait, the colour (or lack of), the style, and likeness of the image, plays an important role in how the subject will be read. Therefore, the metaphor of biography as portrait seems even more apt.
Although issues of representation and likeness permeate the pages of all graphic biographies, the recent publication of SelfMadeHero’s Art Masters series, which brings to life artists Vincent Van Gogh (2014), Pablo Picasso (2015), and Edvard Munch (2016), raises further questions about what unique challenges arise when visualizing both the life and work of artists within the panels of a comic. How do we read a graphic biography portrait of a person whose art itself is often viewed as a window into their biography? Do the sequential-image narratives of the graphic biography further conflate the artist with their art by suggesting and depicting that we can see the life of the artist through their visual creations? How do the comics artists’ capture the angular lines of Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon or the harrowing twists of Munch’s The Scream while working within their own style? In an age where digital images and recordings of people proliferate, I wonder if the issues of representation and re-visualizing individuals and ubiquitous images that affect the graphic biographies of famous artists will affect the biography of any individual.
In contrast, as comics continue to grow and graphic biographies become more common, a new question in regards to the visualization of a subject’s life arises. How might we consider how an individual comic artist’s visual style affects how we read individual life narratives as they continue to publish different graphic biographies within their style? For example, Reinhard Kleist’s inky black and white drawings extend across each individual subject’s narrative in his collected works. Does the darkness in the panels of The Boxer: The True Story of Holocaust Survivor Harry Haft operate differently than in those in Johnny Cash: I See a Darkness? How do we read the borderless panels in An Olympic Dream: The Story of Samia Yusuf Omar versus those in Castro: A Graphic Novel? After reading multiple texts by Kleist, I ask myself if I come to his work with visual and narrative expectations from my previous encounters. New scholarship may consider how reading the visual work of an established or familiar graphic biographer may differ from reading the work of someone whose style is unknown.
As more and more graphic biographies continue to be published, I hope that the questions that I ask and seek to answer will both vary and dig deeper into the ways the comic form can uniquely portray life narratives.
In the opening panel of the 2010 Anne Frank: The Anne Frank House Authorized Graphic Biography, Anne, sitting with pencil in hand, writes, “Have I ever told you anything about our family?” Over the following pages of the first chapter, co-authors Sid Jacobson and Ernie Colón detail the family history of the Franks, focusing primarily on the noble character of Otto Frank, Anne’s father. Their narrative frame situates Anne’s story and her iconic diary in relationship to Otto, who published Anne’s diary in 1947.
Jacobson and Colón’s emphasis on Anne and Otto’s relationship within the graphic biography links to questions of authorship and textual versions contained within the current copyright dispute over Anne Frank’s diary. In late 2015, the Anne Frank Fonds, which holds the copyright of the most commonly published version of the diary, announced their decision to add Otto Frank as an author of the text. The addition of Otto as author came on the eve of what would have been the diary’s entry into the public domain in many European nations. Generally, European copyright extends to 70 years after the author’s death. Anne, who contracted typhus in Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, died in 1945. Therefore, the copyright of The Diary of a Young Girl, would expire at the end of 2015. However, with Otto as a co-author of the text, the copyright continues until 2050, 70 years after Otto’s death.
The Fonds’ claim emerges from the different versions of the diary. In The Globe and Mail, Tu Thanh Ha quotes Anne Frank Fonds trustee Yves Kugelman explaining: “[Otto] merged them, he cut them and he changed them. So he created a new book.” However, French intellectual property attorney Agnès Tricoire finds this claim troublesome. In the New York Times, Tricoire argues, “If you follow their arguments, it means that they have lied for years about the fact that it was only written by Anne Frank.” Ha balances these perspectives, exploring the Fonds’ paradoxical description of the diary as Anne’s writing within Otto’s book.
As the graphic biography depicts, after receiving the journal (an autograph book) for her thirteenth birthday in June 1942, Anne began collecting her thoughts, observations and feelings in the diary. These writings constitute version A. However, upon realizing her desire to be a journalist, Anne embarked on a rewrite, creating version B. When the Gestapo raided the Franks’ secret annex in 1944, Miep Gies, an ally and friend, hid what remained of versions A and B. Otto, the only surviving member of the Frank family, compiled and edited these versions into the published edition of version C, the currently disputed version. A +/- B = C and the equation for economic control of Anne Frank’s diary for the Fonds.
Outside of the courts, public arguments around the authorship of the text focus mainly on the value of the ownership of Anne Frank’s diary. On January 1st 2016, the expiration date of the original copyright, University of Nantes scholar Olivier Ertzscheid published a Dutch version of the text. His actions resulted in a cease and desist letter from the Fonds. Upon the publication, Erztscheid wrote, “It belongs to everyone. And it is up to each of us to weigh its importance.” For Ertzscheid and other proponents of the public domain, the social value of the text and ideas of democratic availability outweigh the claims of authorship. Conversely, supporters of the Fonds copyright, such as Canadian poet John Degen, argue that the Fonds’ contributions to charitable causes and Holocaust education justify the continued ownership and publication control of the diary.
The Fonds tightly control Anne’s image, having vetoed various proposals including merchandise and a horror movie. Their continued copyright on the popular version, which has sold over 30 million copies, also effectively controls the work of those authorized to share Anne’s story. Leading up to the original copyright expiration, Anne Frank House, which operates independently from the Fonds, developed an elaborate web version of the diary for use in the public domain. As a result, this project has been abandoned, increasing tensions between the Fonds and Anne Frank House.
Not surprisingly, although Otto appears as a second protagonist in the Anne Frank House authorized graphic biography, Jacobson and Colón clearly identify the diary as Anne’s solo creation. Interestingly, the graphic biography reads best when focused on Anne’s voice and life. In these moments, the authors briefly capture Anne’s characteristic hope and insight, which has captivated audiences for decades.
For much of the text, Jacobson and Colón bog down Anne’s story in the historical details of the Nazi uprising and implementation of the genocidal final solution. Instead of demonstrating how the violence of Nazi policies and actions intruded on Anne’s life, text heavy panels, intent on education, disrupt readers’ empathetic connections with Anne. Likewise, the flat, pastel illustrations, which visually resemble informational pamphlets, fail to evoke the vibrancy of Anne’s descriptions within her diary. In the graphic biography, the editorial and narrative shaping by the authors appears on every page.
On May 12th and 13th academics, independent scholars, and comics enthusiasts converged on Toronto’s Downtown Marriot Hotel to quote Scott McCloud and discuss panels, gutters, and all things comics. The Canadian Society for the Study of Comics (CSSC) Conference, held annually in collaboration with the Toronto Comics Art Festival, invites conversations around the growing medium of comics. A wonderful side effect of attending the conference was the ensuing excitement of perusing the vast exhibition of independent comics artists and publishers at the book fair the next day.
I attended four excellent panels over the course of the conference, exploring everything from superheroes to those squiggles used to denote swearing. Thanks to Peter Schwenger, I now know they’re called grawlixes. The following are a few highlights from the conference.
The “Comics and Disability” panel brought together the most diverse (in themes and discussions) collection of papers of those panels I attended. Evi Tampold and Carol Nash tied together medical treatment and comics in their account and development of The Hallway Closet. The Hallway Closet, a graphic memoir Tampold wrote, describes the ways in which her mother, Nash, treated her ADHD during her childhood. Emily Wilson’s “Mad Artistry in Ink: Navigating Narrative of Mental Illness and Creativity in Ellen Forney’s Marbles and Barbara Stok’s Vincent” astutely paired a memoir and biography and closely read the ways the authors use self-portraits and references to works of art to challenge ideas of madness and mental illness. Finally, Lauranne Poharec’s insightful paper examined the superhero trope within Cece Bell’s El Deafo in connection to disability and Donna Haraway’s “Cyborg Manifesto”.
The “On Modal Reach” panel, referred to as the table with the most gray hair by moderator Paul Malone, delved into the aesthetics, relationships between images and texts, and the challenges and potentials of adaptations with the comics medium. The University of Winnipeg’s Brandon Christopher, although contributing little to the gray hair, raised questions of genre, function, and deviation in the multiverses of Shakespeare adaptations with his paper “Crisis on Infinite Elsinores: Kill Shakespeare and the Quantum Potentialities of Adaptation.”
I had the pleasure of presenting with Jean Braithwaite and Kalervo Sinervo and Natalie Walschots on the final panel of the conference, which was entitled “The Narrative Burden.” Sinervo and Walscots’ timely paper, “LYING: Narrative (Un)Reliability and Believing Victims in Vaughn and Staples Saga” explored the ways in which Vaughn and Staples encourage readers to believe the testimonies oftrauma victims by refusing to make readers witnesses to the actual traumatic events. Similarly, examining Chris Ware’s Building Stories, Braithwaite drew our attention to the importance of those characters often thought of as secondary and reminded us of the value and humanity of all people. My paper, “Hello, I’m Johnny Cash”: Visualizing Cash’s Songs and Legend in Reinhard Kleist’s Johnny Cash: I See A Darkness”, sought to demonstrate the ways Kleist illustrates an auditory form to simultaneously reveal the connective qualities of music and relationality of Johnny Cash’s identity. As a new comics scholar, the conference was a welcoming and motivating introduction to the dynamic and expansive field of comics studies.
And then there was the book fair.
Three floors of the Toronto Reference Library housed the exhibition, which also sprawled out into satellite locations this year. It took multiple laps to truly gain a sense of the full variety of styles and genres depicted within the collection of comics. Lisa Hanawalt and Jillian Tamaki signed and cartooned books at the Drawn & Quarterly table while I was there. At the same time, dozens of lesser known artists and publishers introduced their great works to eager comics fans. Next time, I’ll bring a bigger book bag.
One of the graphic bios central to this project is Frank M. Young and David Lasky's The Carter Family: Don't Forget This Song (2012). This family graphic biography focuses on Alvin Pleasant (A.P.) Carter, his wife Sara, and her cousin, Maybelle (later “Mother Carter”). Together, as The Carter Family, they recorded modernized versions of traditional Appalachian folk songs, such as “Can the Circle be Unbroken?” and “Keep On the Sunny Side,” that have become standards in the North American folk songbook.
I am interested in how The Carter Family represents the sonic culture of folk music by embracing and even transforming popular visual cultures of the US South. It plays with some Southern myths in its narrative of the family’s public and private lives, but also in its stylistic pastiche of earlier American serial comics, which of course developed along a similar timeline to American country music as two new forms of mass culture in the early twentieth century.
Today, the Carter Family name is often attached to Johnny Cash, whose marriage to June Carter forms the epilogue to the graphic biography of the older generation. So, it seems fitting that David Lasky drew a short comic for KEXP radio about Johnny Cash to celebrate the 2nd Annual International Cash Day on February 26, 2016, which would have been The Man in Black's 84th birthday. You can get to this short comic, titled "Cash '68," at the Carter Family Blog.
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):
“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)
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.
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 (firstname.lastname@example.org) 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.