Reflection: Understanding Biographical Comics by Max Bledstein
For his final blog post as the Project GraphicBio Research Fellow 2016-17, Max Bledstein offers a reflection on graphic biographies and comics reading.
As I reflect on my time researching graphic biography and struggle to consider what, if any, commonalities can be found across the genre, I think about an exchange between two friends I was privy to several years ago. This was before I had any clue that I’d even go to grad school, let alone spend a significant portion of my time there reading and writing about biographical comics, yet the anecdote continues to stick with me and loom over my work.
At the time, I was a member of a reading group dedicated to discussing comics. Although the friends in question (neither of whom were regular comics readers) weren’t part of the group, my participation in it led to comics becoming a topic of conversation.
“I really, just, find comics boring,” said Friend #1 (a white man). “They don’t interest me.”
“That’s because they’re not for you,” said Friend #2 (a Latina woman). “They’re for women and people of colour. You’re a white guy.”
While both responses troubled me for different reasons, I held my tongue at the time, unsure of how to respond to either assertion (though, being the petty person I am, I grumbled about the conversation to other friends later on). The two statements undoubtedly came out of a lack of familiarity with comics, but they nonetheless help to illuminate parts of what I find so compelling about the form (and graphic biography in particular).
As for Friend #1’s statement, he followed it up by explaining that he was referring to the plethora of coming of age memoirs that have been a fundamental part of the alternative comics landscape for years. While I would take issue with the assertion that these comics can’t be distinguished from one another, his expression of exhaustion speaks to the gap that graphic biography has been filling: if comics is a medium conducive to people telling their own lives (as countless cartoonists have demonstrated), why can’t it be used just as much for telling the lives of others?
Furthermore, two of the graphic memoirs that have been embraced the most by readers and scholars alike (Art Spiegelman’s Maus and Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home) are as much about other people’s lives (the cartoonists’ fathers in both cases) as they are about the cartoonists themselves. As both of those comics (and countless others) show, even if the vast majority of scholarship on non-fiction comics has examined memoir, there’s plenty of room for scholarship to be done on how cartoonists tell others’ stories.
To Friend #2’s point, I’d take issue with the suggestion that art can’t be appreciated across racialized and gendered lines, but the subjects of some of my favourite graphic biographies speak to her point. I’m thinking specifically about three works: Chester Brown’s Louis Riel, Peter Bagge’s Woman Rebel: The Margaret Sanger Story, and Ho Che Anderson’s King. These comics narrate the lives of an influential Indigenous leader, a pioneering birth control activist, and an African-American civil rights martyr, respectively, and each does so using techniques only possible in the comics form. As a number of scholars have argued (including, in relation to King, Candida Rifkind), the works all feature novel approaches to depicting history, none of which can be separated from the form in which they appear. I’d suggest that these books demonstrate just a few of the ways that comics can depict the lives of marginalized people in a unique fashion.
Even in the stories of more conventional biographical subjects, cartoonists have proven comics to be a particularly adept medium for taking innovative approaches to narrating those subjects’ lives. In a paper I’m currently preparing to submit for publication (revised from a presentation I gave at the Calgary Comic and Entertainment Expo), I examine how Noah Van Sciver’s The Hypo, a 2012 graphic biography of Abraham Lincoln, deconstructs his legacy by showing him as an emotionally vulnerable young man rather than the magnanimous leader who continues to loom over American culture. My paper looks at how Van Sciver uses the visual language of comics to represent Lincoln’s suffering, thereby exemplifying how the tools of graphic biography can interrogate the legacy of well-established historical figures.
Thus, whether through novel views of well-trodden historical ground or the shedding of light on lesser-known subjects, graphic biography has provided readers with depictions of neglected (but vital) people and events. In retrospect, I’d offer any of the aforementioned graphic biographies, and many other extraordinary works of the genre, to either Friend #1 or Friend #2 as examples of the dynamic nature of comics art. As readers, artists, and scholars continue to explore the unique capacities of graphic biography, I look forward to hearing thoughtful and provocative questions and answers about the form’s contributions to biography, cartooning, and visual narrative.
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.