Questioning What I See: Representation and Style in Graphic Biographies by Jess Fontaine
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.