Project GraphicBio

Dr. Candida Rifkind, University of Winnipeg

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

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

Jessica Fontaine, Research Assistant

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

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

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

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

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

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


Guest Post: Jessica Fontaine Reviews Barbara Stok’s Vincent

Jessica Fontaine is the Graduate Research Assistant for Project Graphic Bio. Over the next few months, she will be posting reviews of some of the books in the project.

Swirling Paints and Panels: A Review of Barbara Stok’s Vincent

   The cover of  Vincent  by Barbara Stok (SelfMadeHero, 2014)

   The cover of Vincent by Barbara Stok (SelfMadeHero, 2014)

Dutch comics artist Barbara Stok turns her attention to the life of Vincent Van Gogh in the 2014 graphic biography, Vincent. Stok has won the Stripschapprijs, the Netherlands’ highest comics award, for her collected works of mostly autobiographical comics.  Published as part of the Art Masters series, first in Dutch in 2012 and then in English in 2014 by Self Made Hero, Vincent explores the artist’s most prolific years spent in Arles, Saint-Rémy and Auvers-sur-Oise before his death in 1890.  To picture Van Gogh, Stok employs the public’s awareness of Van Gogh’s paintings and his posthumous celebrity.   She recreates many of his iconic works, including Sunflowers and Starry Night, as well as the infamous moment in which Van Gogh cuts off his own ear, all in her trademark style. 

Although her use of simple cartoonish figures and uncomplicated backgrounds stands in stark contrast to some of the more explicit aspects of Van Gogh’s life (sex, violence, and absinthe), her rich colour choices and pronounced outlines speak to Van Gogh’s work.  Stok's varied cartoons of Van Gogh’s images, which she uses as settings, abstract backgrounds, characters’ canvases, and icons, explore the ways in which the artist’s world, life, and psyche are often viewed through his artwork. 

Vincent, like many biographies, seeks to dive through the public image and provide an intimate look at the man behind the fame and legend.  Stok frames Van Gogh’s narrative within his close relationship to his brother, Theo, an art dealer, patron, and ultimately Van Gogh’s first fan.  Using the brothers’ letters to each other, Stok develops the comic’s personal dialogue and narration, and fleshes out an understanding of Van Gogh’s passions, aesthetic visions, and artistic philosophies.  

Van Gogh is a fervent idealist, whose obsessive dreams of shared studios and authentic art repel others, including his friend and fellow artist, Gaugin, who visits him in Arles.  Stok links Van Gogh’s isolating drive to both Van Gogh’s lack of success during his lifetime and to the enduring myth that he (and his art) was ahead of his time.   It is only Theo who consistently stands by Van Gogh, continually noting his brother’s burgeoning artistic genius, while fearing that Vincent’s drive will drive him mad.

Stok explores and critiques the pairing of genius and madness.  Just as Van Gogh’s legacy of saturated colours and tactile brush strokes inform the construction of Stok’s panels, so does the legend of his madness and suicide.  Swirls, streaks, and dots in the backgrounds of panels recall Van Gogh’s brush technique and link his creative choices to the mental illness he experienced.  These representative brush strokes transform from a few dots around Vincent’s head to filling entire panels during depictions of Van Gogh’s greatest emotional turmoil.  They parallel how anxieties over selling his paintings, paying back his brother, and the need to work swirl in his mind throughout the text. 

At the point where Van Gogh comes to cut off his own ear, these swirls replace his dot eyes, recalling modern depictions of the hypnotic.  Van Gogh is not in control of his own mind.  A following panel displays dots and blobs resembling both a painter’s palette and a bacteria culture, suggesting sickness infecting and overcoming Van Gogh’s art. Stok’s panels break apart at jagged angels, disrupting the narrative flow.  Her sequence challenges popular Van Gogh narratives of his mental illness as the root and inspiration of his genius, while acknowledging that mental anguish both coloured his world and interpretations of it.

The narrative takes a contemplative shift from this moment, which occurs just past half way through the comic.  As Van Gogh paints from the asylum in Saint-Rémy and then in Auvers-sur-Oise, his thoughts and paintings fall towards the fleeting nature of life and a person’s legacy.  Stok’s introduction of wheat fields, yellowed and ready for harvesting, signal the nearing of Van Gogh’s death.  Yet, Stok does not draw Van Gogh’s suicide.  The violent act of putting a gun to his chest is thoughtfully absent.  Instead he slips away while painting Wheatfields with Crows on the final pages of the comic, disappearing into Stok’s rendering of the same landscape until all that remains is the image. 

No sense is made here of Van Gogh’s suicide or mental illness.  However, it illustrates the complicated ways his iconic, obsessive, artistic “madness” is understood simultaneously as a catalyst and the ultimate obstruction to his talent.  This three-panel sequence attests that while Van Gogh, the brother and the man, disappears, the constructions (and reconstructions) of his art and his image as the artist survive. 

For more on Van Gogh:

This animated TedEd by Natalya St. Clair explains "The Unexpected Math Behind Van Gogh's "Starry Night"

A recent pop culture portrayal of Van Gogh appears in the UK tv series, Doctor Who (S5Ep10 "Vincent and the Doctor"). In an emotional scene, the Doctor and Amy take Van Gogh to an art gallery in 2010 to see the success of his paintings.

      A page from  Vincent  (click on image for link to SelfMadeHero)

      A page from Vincent (click on image for link to SelfMadeHero)


What is a Graphic Biography?

Put most simply, graphic biographies are books that tell the story of another person's (or people's) life in the form of comics. But, as so often in a scholarly project, each of these key terms needs some explaining.

Graphic biographies are books: This project focuses on print graphic biographies produced from within the North American and European alternative comics scenes. So, comics about real people's lives in the form of pamphlets, serials, or web pages are related but not what we're looking at. Comics scholarship often distinguishes between mass market, mainstream, or “superhero” comics and more literary, independent, and “alternative” comics. This divide helps in studying generic, narrative, and visual connections and confluences, as well as divergent conditions of production, distribution, and reception. That said, a full study of print graphic biography (web comics are another topic entirely for future study) must recognize both sides of the mainstream/alternative divide if it hopes to understand the aesthetics, politics, and themes at work in these books.

For this project, we start with the understanding that many innovative graphic biographies borrow and adapt elements of mainstream comics, such as the myth of the superhero to tell the life of a great person. However, their independent production and the auteur culture of alternative comics opens up possibilities for experimenting with both the life narrative and visual representation in ways that mediate popular culture and avant-garde aesthetics.

Graphic biographies tell the story of another person's life: they are distinct from memoir because the cartoonist is different from the protagonist. There are many wonderful graphic memoirs, from Art Spiegelman's Maus to Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis and Alison Bechdel's Fun Home, that have received quite a lot of scholarly attention. And, part of this project will be looking at how telling their own story requires a cartoonist or writer to also tell the stories of others (hence the frequent use of a backslash between auto/biography: every story of the self is always also a story of others because our lives are relational).

However, in the first instance this project is looking at comic books that are clearly about a real person who is different from the cartoonist. By taking this as our focus, we can ask a related but different set of aesthetic and ethical questions from the ones critics are asking of graphic memoir. For instance, whereas a graphic memoirist must devise a caricature of herself that fits with both her internal psychological view of how she looks and the external world's view of her  (Charles Hatfield writes about this very well in his book, Alternative Comics: An Emerging Literature), a graphic biographer must develop a caricature of her subject that is recognizable to readers but true to her own artistic style.

Also, a graphic biographer contends with a different set of ethical problems from the graphic memoirist, including how to portray competing versions of the same event already depicted in print or on screen. This is especially pressing when the subject's legacy matters to a particular community and continues to uphold a tradition of political organizing or artistic innovation. Sometimes, the graphic biographer is drawing the life narrative of a revered individual whose private life contains unsavoury details. Which truths of the person's life will the cartoonist choose to represent? How will they draw the subject in ways that either revere or deflate their public image?

Finally, biography in its traditional prose forms has usually focused on a single individual. This is true of many graphic biographies, but not all. Some, like Fallout, about nuclear scientist Robert Oppenheimer, place their subject in a group or community fundamental to their individual life narratives -- in his case the other scientists of The Manhattan Project. Others emphasize the individual's formation by their family, or make a whole family the subject of a group biography. The Carter Family by Young and Lasky is a good example of this approach. Still others foreground, and even fold into their graphic biography, the very problem of having to isolate an individual life narrative from a historical collective. Anderson's graphic biography of [Martin Luther] King grapples with this problem in its very visualization of the great man as part of a political movement.

Graphic biographies are life narratives in the form of comics. Many others have debated the definition of comics, and arguments continue over what count as the earliest comics. For instance, do early 20th century experiments in 'wordless' novels count as forerunners of today's alternative comics? Is any combination of words + pictures in a sequence a comic?

This project listens to these debates and takes them into account. Ultimately, we have a fairly generous definition of what is a comic because some of the graphic biographies we are studying include whole sections of pictures without words, and vice versa. And some might fall better under the definition of a picture book than a comic because they eschew panel borders and the usual comics grid. At the very least, to be considered in this project the books must be verbal-visual life narratives that depend upon the reader's performance of closure between individual panels (even if the panels are only implied) to produce meaning.

We use the terms "comic book" and "graphic biography" interchangeably here, aware that some purists would parse the difference much more precisely than we do. We do avoid the term "graphic novel," even though some of the books are marketed under that term, because we want to highlight the organizing principle of the genre of biography, and the field of life writing more generally, and avoid any perception that just because we are dealing with comics they must be fictional.

We'll leave it there for now, but watch for future blog posts on: a brief history of graphic biography: what makes graphic biography different from prose biography (apart from the obvious); and why we should be thinking about graphic biography in relation to the film biopic.