Victorian Fairy Paintings

For the past few months, I have been researching fairy lore for an ongoing writing project. I recently came across an exhibition catalogue on Victorian fairy paintings, suitably titled Victorian Fairy Painting (1997, edited by Jane Martineau with contributing essays from curators and other experts).

I feel so lucky to have stumbled into this one at Balfour Books in Toronto while they were having a big sale.

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The drawing below was inspired by Richard Doyle’s The Fairy Tree, which I saw in the book and immediately thought it would be a good excuse to draw monsters.

Richard Doyle was brilliant at drawing little fairy folk figures in imaginative wondrous landscapes. Unfortunately, his depictions carry racist, nationalist, and orientalist attitudes of the time.

He was also the uncle of writer Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who later enthusiastically embraced spiritualism.

I love the dream paintings of self-taught artist John Anster Fitzgerald, included in the catalogue. His paintings below had several versions and were controversial because the earlier versions showed references to drug-induced hallucinations and darker themes.

So many fairy paintings from the Victorian period were heavily inspired by Shakespeare, ballet, and theatre – but my favourites are inspired by more traditional lore, spiritualism, and psychological themes 🖤

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doyle fairy tree 2Richard Doyle’s The Fairy Tree

fitz3The Artist’s Dream by John Anster Fitzgerald (1857)

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The Nightmare by John Anster Fitzgerald (c.1857-8)

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The Stuff that Dreams are Made of by John Anster Fitzgerald (1858)

Completely unrelated, as I was browsing the children’s section in the bookstore, I noticed that staff had subtly placed an unwelcome book in the children’s section. I found this offensive to children’s literature 😦

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Grotesque Dollhouse: A Close Reading of Julie Doucet’s My New York Diary

The following post is based on a course assignment from a few years ago that offered me the opportunity to closely read and trace a few pages from Julie Doucet’s My New York Diary, one of my favorite autobiographical comics. My New York Diary is also an early contemporary feminist classic of graphic autobiography. I read the second printing of the softcover published by Drawn and Quarterly in 2011.  The work chronicles Doucet’s six months living in New York, beginning as an idealistic 17-year-old artist after graduating from an all-girls’ school in Canada. Heartbreaking, hilarious, and often relatable complications ensue, including boyfriend woes, addiction battles, physical and mental health struggles, and grave disillusionment with the art world.

I miss studying comics.

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After rereading sections of Julie Doucet’s My New York Diary I became aware that Doucet’s graphic narrative reminded me of the voyeuristic act of peering into a dollhouse. Typically, each page in My New York Diary is made of three rows of panels that parallel the levels of a dollhouse, the characters are doll-like with disproportionate and “cute” physical features, and the layout of the page exposes an open wall for the audience to gaze inside the scene. However, unlike a child’s dollhouse Doucet’s dollhouse engages with the grotesque, including: garbage—although she somehow makes garbage look cute, dirty and cracked walls, insects that corrupt each room, leaking body fluids, and objects that move eerily between panels. Doucet’s characters, which look like beat-up dolls with black eyes and bruises, also contribute to the uncanny dollhouse aesthetic.  I felt unnerved reading many of Doucet’s brutally honest self-critical scenes. Maybe because they defamiliarize my childhood memories of playing with dollhouses while inventing more naïve, although perhaps not more strange, narratives.

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Kidkraft’s 18″ Dollhouse

Page five of Julie Doucet’s story “My New York Diary” introduces several themes that reveal Doucet’s immaturity as a younger artist, exposing her idealistic fantasy of love and the creative life of an artist in New York. The cartoon Doucet on this page is naïve and optimistic. She is a marionette-like figure not yet able to critique her boyfriend or her decisions; she embraces her boyfriend in the chaos of the apartment and exclaims, “Oh Chéri, we will be so happy.” The author might write this with heavy cynicism, but the character in the panel seems genuinely happy.  I chose to examine this page in contrast to page fifty-two because the character Julie changes drastically between these two pages, as does the story’s tone. Doucet’s character gains autonomy and the author finally speaks through her character instead of manipulating her like a puppeteer. On page five the cartoon Doucet is alienated from the narrator Doucet while on page fifty-two the narrator and the cartoon character merge and the character is self-aware (and aware of the audience).

In most panels on page five Doucet’s character smiles gleefully at her boyfriend’s messy apartment, and she stares entranced at her boyfriend. Both characters act ecstatic, excited about the space they believe will be conducive to creativity and romance. However, because the space is visually unstable, I read both characters’ optimism as unreliable. The space foreshadows conflict. Doucet’s uncanny dolls, such as the mouse with the superman cape, shift unsettlingly between panels and the walls and floors shift between panels as well.

Doucet draws her younger self and her boyfriend as oversized dolls with large heads and unblinking large manic eyes. They are also children playing dress up, acting out their roles among the toys and chaotic props of the world of the apartment. Doucet’s New York is a city of discarded objects where even garbage becomes “cute”, thrown like abandoned play toys into heaps along the sidewalks; the jagged edges of tin cans become more curved. Many of Doucet’s characters are overgrown children carelessly discarding their playthings and garbage, but they are also drawn to look like grotesque dolls and they are also often discarded. On page four of the same story the backwards-L-shaped bottom panel shows a cute girl wearing a backpack and polka dot dress. Her eyes appear to be hollow or gouged out and she looks lost and distressed and walks with her arms at her sides like an automaton. She looks like a discarded doll.

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In the top left corner of page five Doucet’s boyfriend twists his head around completely in an unnatural toy-like movement while walking up the stairway. Reading this gave me the impression that his character is fake or disingenuous. Doucet draws herself with spaghetti-like hair that fits into the chaotic, garbage-ridden aesthetic of the apartment and her New York. Doucet blends in and becomes lost in the scenery. The cans in the hallway, the ominous shadows, and dirt on the walls in the first panel foreshadow the messiness of the apartment and the instability of the relationship, exposing the younger Doucet’s idealistic fantasy of New York. Doucet and her boyfriend move erratically, almost jerkily, from panel to panel, like stop-motion animation figures. They hug in the second last panel on page five and suddenly in the last panel her boyfriend dramatically throws himself into a swing-dance-like move, his arm extended toward the refrigerator.

The subtly shifting toys and walls and the disorienting tilt of the floor create an atmosphere filled with anxiety and instability. The shifting unreliable objects offer a critique of consumerist culture as well—since the objects and possessions become threatening and unreliable.

I associate Doucet’s graphic narrative to the voyeuristic glimpse into an uncanny dollhouse, but I also think about how the process of paneling and drawing comics itself parallels the childhood act of playing with dolls by placing them in various positions and making them speak. Although this might play into the stereotype of the cartoonist as the social outcast alienated with their collectables and imagination, artists like Doucet can distort and manipulate the dollhouse and dolls and force them to work against problematic social norms. For example, Doucet defamiliarizes the social conventions and the “nuclear family” ideology attached to the original mass-produced plastic dollhouses.

The panoramic center panel on page five shows Doucet’s character smiling, standing next to the smiling mouse doll in a cape. The character Julie is encompassed in her boyfriend’s belongings and becomes another doll he has collected. This panel is the establishing shot for the world of the apartment where the character Julie will isolate herself from her new city. Doucet’s character is empowered by her creativity, but otherwise she is afraid to leave the apartment. The reader views the panel from the powerful perspective of the puppeteer while Doucet’s character is the puppet doomed to repeat Doucet’s behavior and experiences. However, on page fifty-two the character Julie meets the reader’s gaze, altering the power dynamics and uncanny feel of the earlier page.

Page fifty-two establishes Julie the character is more autonomous and self-reflective than in earlier stories. Doucet draws the title of page fifty-two, “My New York Diary”, studded with jewel-like decorations, alluding to the glitzy façade of theatre productions or glamorous fantasies of fame and fortune. Here Doucet might be making fun of her earlier fantasy of New York’s romance. The first page I looked at for this post begins in Spring, season of hope and rejuvenation, while the second page I chose takes place in the desolation of winter, wrought with isolation, hibernation, and somber self-reflection, befitting Julie’s disillusionment.

On page fifty-two Julie speaks in split speech balloons that suggest a conflicted internal dialogue. The split speech balloons also reveal her ability to be self-critical and investigate her potentially conflicted feelings. She is now aware of an audience and has become disillusioned with her earlier fantasy of New York (page five). Page fifty-two lacks the imposition of narrative voiceover and finally Doucet the author merges with Julie and is able to speak through her. Although I could read the same page as Julie speaking with another character in the room, she is still more powerful and self-reflective than on page five where she hardly speaks. On page fifty-two the reader is less powerful because Julie is able to meet their gaze, even if she does not necessarily break the third wall. The character is no longer submerged in the naive fantasy of her new life in New York. The reader initially views Julie on page fifty-two from the perspective of a camera angled down from above, like from the vantage of a puppeteer, however the page ends with the reader meeting Julie’s gaze and her character is empowered.

The atmosphere on page fifty-two is less cluttered than page five and hints at Julie’s contentedness and clarity, but the walls and floors are still dirty and cracked and the shifting floors and walls are more noticeable without her boyfriend’s clutter, so the environment is still unstable. Julie’s shifting posture also contributes to the page’s visual tension. Initially her cartoon self sits in the proper posture of the Victorian fantasy of the sophisticated young woman— upright, elegant, with her hands crossed over her lap. However, as she talks about her ex-boyfriend’s latest immature escapades she becomes angry and slouches, her legs split apart in a grotesque “masculine” position.  Although she is no longer lost in the chaos of her boyfriend’s apartment she is still surrounded by objects and furniture that do not belong to her.  Only her cat, stripped of its facial features, becomes a reliable object. she is also more free to travel and move on because she carries few possessions.

On both pages the small gutters create more crowded-looking panels. One moment in the story jerks ungracefully into the next as each busy panel fragments the narrative and forces the reader to linger on the page. The cluttered panels and sliding landscapes offer an anxious and chaotic environment and a challenging reading experience. Each page contains almost too much to look at so that the pages disorient the reader like the lights and visual cues in a casino. In this way Doucet uses visual tension to recreate her physical and emotional experience of New York.

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My body responded to Doucet’s visual narration. Sometimes as I read I felt tense and nervous, but other times I genuinely laughed out loud. Doucet’s characters pop out of the black backgrounds with the erratic jumpiness of marionettes or the dolls that would come alive in a child’s nightmare of a dollhouse. Doucet’s characters are more object-like than any other graphic narrative I have read so far and I found it hard to be selective while tracing these two pages because it seems like the objects are just as important in Doucet’s visual narration as the people. After a few close readings of this work and after tracing the two pages discussed in this post (as part of the assignment), I believe that part of the power of Doucet’s artwork is her ability to disturb and provoke the reader through stories offering a voyeuristic glimpse into her uncanny dollhouse and the memories it explores. Doucet retells her stories through visual and visceral narration that recreates both physical and emotional experiences, allowing and forcing the reader to engage more intimately with the narrative.

Artists’ Books

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Artists’ Books

There are many conflicting opinions as to what an artists’ book should be. The term “artists’ books” first appeared around 1973 but books that could later be placed within this category began to appear in the 1960’s and 70’s along with social and political activism and the rise of conceptual art (p.13, Klima). Some artists produced books in an attempt to skirt the gallery/museum system to reach a larger number of people (p.25, Burkhart). They represented the “democratization of art object” and fine art commodity (p.47, Klima). In the beginning of the 1960’s, the editions, multiples, and publications of fluxus artists such as Marcel Duchamp can also be considered artists’ books, but they also have their origins in 20th century modernism, as well as the works of futurists, dadas, and surrealists, (p. 17, Bleus).

Artists’ books differ from the livre d’artiste of the 20th century, for example, books made by Picasso, Ernst, and Matisse, because they are not catalogues of an artist’s work, do not contain allusions to an artist’s other works, and the livre d’artiste that were popular in the 20th century also contained mostly original artwork. They are standalone narratives that play with the book form and history, for example the relationship between text and image.

Artists’ books tend to fall into one of two conceptual frameworks: first, books with unlimited multiple editions, rejecting finely crafted unique objects; these are “largely the production of commercial print and reproduction technology” (p.17, Klima). Within this framework, the artists’ book should make art and important ideas more accessible to a wider array of people, challenging limiting and capitalistic conventions of the traditional book. The second framework is that artists’ book should be a unique art object that provokes an emotional response and deeper engagement with the form. Artist’s might have creative control over small print runs, subverting historical norms of the book format and process of publishing.

The first conceptual framework might critique the artists’ book as a precious object only accessible to a limited number of people outside of the art world, and critique the ideology of the auratic quality of “authenticity” or rareness (p.66, Klima), and the latter might critique the machine-like emotionless quality of these mass-produced items, though it seems as though neither framework aims to be elitist. Artists’ books may be mass-produced political and cultural works, or handmade stories like zines which aim to be widely distributed and shared; zines are often donated with the knowledge that they will potentially be digitized and reproduced.

One example of an artists’ book is Out of the Sky: Remembering 911 by Werner Pfeiffer. Out of the Sky was produced in an edition of 52 copies in 2006 on the fifth anniversary of the attacks. Pfeiffer is a German-American artist, born in 1937. He spent his childhood in Nazi Germany, which exposed him to censorship and book burnings, and also the ability of books and writing “to spread hatred and perpetuate violence and genocide” (Mattoon). After immigrating to the United States in 1961, Pfeiffer pursued a career in design and art direction, and became an art professor at Pratt Institute and director of the Pratt Adlib Press in 1969. There are only 52 copies of Out of the Sky, and it seems to only be available in art galleries and libraries.

Once Out of the Sky is built, the tower made of woodcut illustrations looms above you at over 5-feet-tall (on a table); if you look at the illustrations closely you will see grotesque black and white compositions of bodies and limbs intertwined; the tower also includes newspaper script at the top with names of victims. The book is contained in a large grey box that looks almost like a tombstone, and along with the paper material for building the tower, there is a large book almost like a chapbook which contains instructions for assembly and a first person narrative that memorializes 911 as well as acts as a political response to the violence and demonization of those critical of US politics post-911; the text is presented in narrow columns centered on the page, similar to the columns of a newspaper article.

There was a strange tension in piecing this book together because it was meant to serve as a memorial, but at the same time, as you assemble the book, it feels like playing a reverse game of Jenga; it was also awkward to set up this piece in the library, since there were many other patrons around quietly researching. Pfeiffer states in his artists’ book Endangered Species, “Our personal daily ‘fix’ of electronic news/entertainment documents is an experience of facts without awareness of space, distance, or time.” After reading this, I could better understand how this book is meant to challenge the way we interact with books and other news sources, forcing a more memorable experience with the medium. Pfeiffer seems to be advocating for the importance of the materiality of the book, and the powerful sensory experience of interacting with the form and content of a book.

A second example of an artists’ book— that I think is incredibly charming and also combats the stigma that reduces artists’ books to inaccessible elitist art objects— is a children’s magazine and scrapbook from Matanzas, Cuba (east of Havana), a product of Ediciones Vigia (which translates to Watchtower editions, named after Matanza’s location in Plaza de la Vigía, Watchtower Square). Vigia is an independent publishing house founded in the 1970’s (during the repressive cultural period). At Vigia, books are created by artists who volunteer with the press, and these particular books were made in collaboration with children and published by Alfredo Zaldivar, a a Cuban poet who also co-founded the press. There are a maximum of 200 issues of each Vigia book published (3 issues a year), all handmade, so they include the same textual material but differ in artistic details. These particular issues are built around the subject of puppet theatres or marionettes, and one of the issues speaks about the children’s play “the Ibeyis and the Devil”, where two twins, the sons of the orishas (or minor gods) Chango and Oshun, overcome the Devil and restore peace in the countryside where they live by returning the joy and growth of the mountain.

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Vigia publishes handmade books that combine art, movable parts, and literature, using repurposed material such as paper from the local butcher, yarn, sand, fabric, leaves, dried flowers and botanicals, and tin foil, and dyed with various techniques including the use of coffee. Vigia also fabricated a brownish stock paper called “bagasse” from sugarcane because of the lack of access to printing material; stenciling techniques were developed for imaging and lettering, and most everything is hand coloured. The children’s magazines I looked at are stapled and bound together with string, and made of waste paper, industrial residue, natural elements, and textile components (Osborne); they are mimeographed, hand-coloured, and signed by authors. When the press began they only had one old typewriter and an ancient mimeograph machine. Now better known authors such as Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Jorge Luis Borges have become involved with the press, and whereas the books used to sell for 1 dollar, now they sell for apx. 25 dollars.

They are available to purchase at their store and studio in Matanzas, and they are available to view in libraries and art galleries around the world. Vigia books also include ephemera, such as pockets filled with puzzle pieces, beaded necklaces, and tags (KC Studio). You can see flaws in the books, which is, I think, part of what makes them so beautiful and gives them the engaging and mysterious quality of intimate scrapbooks. These issues are all in Spanish, so it would require translation and more time with the material to better engage with the books, but I could still appreciate the artwork and the philosophy behind Vigia press. These books demonstrate how artists’ books can preserve cultural traditions, such as folklore and storytelling, as well as allow artists, no matter what their economic background, to share their stories and work as a community to create art.

Pat Allingham’s The Shrunken Head, at the Osborne Collection of Early Children’s Books

Despite the challenges of storage, display, the strain on budget, and having to accommodate additional demands regarding books that are donated, I would advocate for these works in special library collections. There is a market for them because they are interesting narratives and visually stunning to exhibit, which could bring researchers and diverse communities to libraries, and their metacommentary on the codex format is a wonderful part of a library’s special collection. Another benefit of having artists’ books in a library is that the art and narrative can be preserved and made securely available to readers; artists’ books can perhaps be digitized, and the metadata can be collected, so it may reach wider audiences over time, and that way local histories can also be collected and preserved.

Works Cited and Consulted

Allingham, Pat. The Shrunken Head. Stayner, Ont.: Allingham Mazaro, 1985. Print.

Behar, Ruth. “Works in Handmade Cuban Books.” Ruth Behar. 2015. Web. 21. Nov. 2016. http://www.ruthbehar.com/HandmadeBooks.htm

Bleus, Guy. Art Is Books. Hasselt [Belgium: Provinciale Centrale Openbare Bibliotheek, 1991. Print.

Burkhart, Anne. “Articulate Activism: Artists’ Books Take Issues.” Art Education, vol. 60, no. 1, 2007 25–32. http://www.jstor.org/stable/27696189.

Cornell University. “Werner Pfeiffer: Book-objects and Artist Books.” Cornell University Library Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections. 2010. Web. 20 Nov. 2016. http://rmc.library.cornell.edu/wernerpfeiffer/about.html

Kirsch, Elizabeth. “Ediciones Vigia: Handmade Cuban Books.” KC Studio. 1 Sept. 2016. Web. 23 Nov. 2016. “http://kcstudio.org/ediciones-vigia-handmade-cuban-books/

Klima, Stefan. Artists Books: A Critical Survey of the Literature. New York: Granary Books, 1998. Print.

Mattoon, Nancy. “The bombshell book art of Werner Pfeiffer.” Booktryst. 15 Nov. 2010. Web. 23 Nov. 2016. http://www.booktryst.com/2010/11/bombshell-book-art-of-werner-pfeiffer.html

Melhorn-Boe, Lise. What Are Little Girls/boys Made Of?Toronto: Transformer Press, 1989. Print.

Nochi, Kim. “Ediciones Vigía: An Introduction.” University of Missouri Museum of Art and Archaeology,11 Nov. 2014. Web. 24 Nov. 2016. http://vigia.missouri.edu/intro-essays/ediciones-intro.shtml

Pfeiffer, Werner. Out of the Sky: Remembering 911. Red Hook, NY: Pear Whistle Press, 2006. Print.

Pfeiffer, Werner, and Philip Roth. Werner Pfeiffer: Endangered Species. Ostfildern: Cantz, 1994. Print.

Zaldivar, Alfredo, eds. Barquitos del San Juan : la revista de los niños. Vigia: Matanzas, Cuba, 1985. Print.

Doll Hospital Journal

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Doll Hospital is an intersectional/queer/feminist literary mental health journal, founded by Bethany Rose Lamont in 2014, that often focuses on personal experiences of survival, told through art and literature. This is a super cute, well designed and important little book to own, carry with you, support, and recommend to friends and family.

From their website:

We are a doll hospital. We explore notions of growth, trauma, chronic illness and childhood, and identify how this lives in conversation with mental health. Constructs of white girlhood continue to exclude and alienate women of colour, particularly black women. This is unacceptable. We are interested in reclaiming these spaces, redefining innocence, and standing, unapologetically, in our trauma.

All 4 issues are available as digital copies, with issue two available as a hard copy as well. For more information and to purchase a copy:

http://www.dollhospitaljournal.com/about/the-journal/

Really, a lovely and much needed project.

Book Pile: Comics and Mental Health

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A selection of comics related to mental (and physical) health. These are honest, beautiful, and often brutal narratives.

Included in this assembly (with descriptions from publishers’ websites):

My Favorite Thing is Monsters by Emil Ferris (2017)

Set against the tumultuous political backdrop of late ’60s Chicago, My Favorite Thing Is Monsters is the fictional graphic diary of 10-year-old Karen Reyes, filled with B-movie horror and pulp monster magazines iconography. Karen Reyes tries to solve the murder of her enigmatic upstairs neighbor, Anka Silverberg, a holocaust survivor, while the interconnected stories of those around her unfold. When Karen’s investigation takes us back to Anka’s life in Nazi Germany, the reader discovers how the personal, the political, the past, and the present converge. Full-color illustrations throughout.Rendered in a kaleidoscopically and breathtakingly virtuosic visual style that combines panel sequences and montage, Emil Ferris’ draftsmanship echoes the drawing of Otto Dix, George Grosz, and Robert Crumb. My Favorite Thing Is Monsters is a revelatory work of striking originality and will undoubtedly be greeted as the debut graphic novel of the year. http://www.fantagraphics.com/myfavoritethingismonsters/

In-Between Days: a memoir about living with cancer by Teva Harrison (2016):

Teva Harrison was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer at the age of 37. In this brilliant and inspiring graphic memoir, she documents through comic illustration and short personal essays what it means to live with the disease. She confronts with heartbreaking honesty the crises of identity that cancer brings: a lifelong vegetarian, Teva agrees to use experimental drugs that have been tested on animals. She struggles to reconcile her long-term goals with an uncertain future, balancing the innate sadness of cancer with everyday acts of hope and wonder. She also examines those quiet moments of helplessness and loving with her husband, her family, and her friends, while they all adjust to the new normal.

Ultimately, In-Between Days is redemptive and uplifting, reminding each one of us of how beautiful life is, and what a gift. https://houseofanansi.com/products/in-between-days

Earthling by Aisha Franz (2014)

The German cartoonist Aisha Franz’s debut graphic novel details a day in the life of two sisters and their single mother. Set in a soulless suburb populated by block after block of identical row houses bordered by empty fields and an industrial no-man’s-land, Earthling explores the loneliness of everyday life as these women struggle to come to terms with what the world expects of them.

Earthling unveils a narrative rich with surrealist twists and turns, where the peas on the dinner plate and the ads on television can both literally and figuratively speak to the most private strife and deepest hopes in a person’s life. As the sisters begin to come to terms with their sexuality, they are confronted by harsh realities and a world that has few escape routes for young women.

Drawn in deep gray pencil, the claustrophobia of Franz’s crosshatching and smudging matches the tone of the book perfectly. Earthling is an atmospheric and haunting account of the inevitability of losing the dream worlds of childhood. https://www.drawnandquarterly.com/earthling

Skim by Mariko Tamaki and Jillian Tamaki (2008, 2015 edition)                                       

Skim is Kimberly Keiko Cameron, a not-slim, would-be Wiccan goth stuck in a private girls’ school in Toronto. When a classmate’s boyfriend kills himself because he was rumoured to be gay, the school goes into mourning overdrive, each clique trying to find something to hold on to and something to believe in. It’s a weird time to fall in love, but that’s high school, and that’s what happens to Skim when she starts to meet in secret with her neo-hippie English teacher, Ms. Archer. But when Ms. Archer abruptly leaves, Skim struggles to cope with her confusion and isolation, armed with her trusty journal and a desire to shed old friendships while cautiously approaching new ones.

Depression, love, sexual identity, crushes, manipulative peers –teen life in all its dramatic complexities is explored in this touching, pitch-perfect, literary graphic masterpiece. Cousins Mariko and Jillian Tamaki collaborate brilliantly in this poignant glimpse into the heartache of being sixteen. https://houseofanansi.com/products/skim

Fish by Bianca Bagnarelli (2014)

In the quiet heat of the French Riviera, where the long days of blissful summer are tempered by the annual rabble of revellers and sun seekers whose arrival excites a new life into otherwise sleepy towns, a listless and sombre child seeks solace in his questions about death. It is the summer after Milo’s mother and father were involved in a fatal accident and his cousins are visiting at his Grandparents’ crowded house in the Cote D’Azur. Despite the warm, familial setting, Milo cannot escape the grim spectre of death that seems to loom everywhere, he is morbidly fascinated by its presence. He sees it wherever he looks, whatever he does, and the fragility of his own existence plagues his every thought. So, when a missing girl is found drowned on a public beach, Milo thinks that seeing her will finally lift the veil of the great unknown and provide him with answers to the questions that have overwhelmed him since the day he lost everything.

A striking and beautiful comic that explores the profound themes of adolescence and loss, while reminding us of our own mortality and just how delicately we are held together. http://nobrow.net/shop/fish-2/

Look Straight Ahead by Elaine M. Will (2013) (review by Weird Canada)

Between schoolyard bullies, schizophrenic visions, and dissatisfaction with his art, 17-year old Jeremy Knowles is experiencing a difficult adolescence. Structured as contemporary Künstlerroman, Elaine M. Will’s Look Straight Ahead documents Jeremy’s struggles with acute mental breakdown exacerbated by teen angst (or perhaps vice-versa) and his experience with art as therapy.

Will situates Look Straight Ahead firmly in the imagery and narrative of timeless adolescence: the story itself is centrally concerned with the process of growing up, and her characters bear uncanny resemblance to a similarly teen-minded classic. Other than the physical likeness, though, Will’s steers clear from anything so middle-American: drawn in black and white (except for a few bursts of colour in Jeremy’s hallucinations), Look Straight Ahead alternates between frigid asceticism and manic psychedelia as Jeremy navigates the vicissitudes of recovery.

The familiarity of Will’s characterization imbues Look Straight Ahead with a distinctly human verisimilitude. Despite the metaphysical scope of his hallucinations, Jeremy’s struggles never venture beyond the relatable and they suggest an autobiographical intimacy with their content – Will herself suffered a mental breakdown in 2002. And, just as Will created Look Straight Ahead in the decade after her illness, Jeremy’s ultimate recovery confirms the restorative power of art and the inextricable link between creative and personal growth. https://weirdcanada.com/tag/cuckoos-nest-press/

Sprawling Heart by Sab Meynert (2016) (review by Rob Clough )

2dcloud has never been afraid to publish books that don’t neatly fit into categories, and Meynert’s book is no exception. I believe it’s best described as an illustrated prayer and invocation for healing. The lush illustrations, including delicate pencil drawings, elaborate design work and vibrant use of color, give the eye something powerful to work with when paired against the relatively spare use of text. The prayer is about staying open, staying aware, looking for help and looking for connections. There’s a repeating visual motif of flowering amidst an open hand, representing perhaps that it’s important to understand how to be open to the things life can offer you, that one’s mental state is key to accepting or not accepting what life has to offer, in all of its incarnations. The comic is all about flow, fluidity and water’s paradox in being droplets and a wave all at once. That metaphor is used to explain our position relative to others: we are all water, whether we realize it or not, and we can either flow or resist–but the river will always keep moving. http://2dcloud.com/sprawling-heart

Ikebana by Yumi Sakugawa (2015)

Ignatz Award nominee Yumi Sakugawa (I Think I Am In Friend-Love With You) presents a powerful exploration of a piece of performance art. Cassie Hamasaki embodies a Japanese flower arrangement, and then, trailing her confused art class, she silently walks into the city, through a public utterly unaware of what she is doing. http://retrofit.storenvy.com/products/14025111-ikebana-by-yumi-sakugawa

Soft Float by Valentine Gallardo (2015)

“Valentine Gallardo’s Soft Float (Space Face Books) rests comfortably in the reader’s hand. The soft white cover holds Gallardo’s deep graphite black with conviction. Her style is built on this kind of contrast, white figures emerging out of fuzzy and indistinct darkness, shapes cohering out of gestures. The short pieces that make upSoft Float hang together by virtue of a shared preoccupation with the lives of young adults caught in the throes of awkward socializing. Everything is simultaneously lackadaisical and intense, just like every party.” –Read the full review from The AV Club. https://spacefacebooks.com/products/soft-float-by-valentine-gallardo

One Hundred Demons by Lynda Barry (2002)

Inspired by a 16th-century Zen monk’s painting of a hundred demons chasing each other across a long scroll, acclaimed cartoonist Lynda Barry confronts various demons from her life in seventeen full-colour vignettes. In Barry’s hand, demons are the life moments that haunt you, form you and stay with you: your worst boyfriend; kickball games on a warm summer night; watching your baby brother dance; the smell of various houses in the neighborhood you grew up in; or the day you realize your childhood is long behind you and you are officially a teenager.

As a cartoonist, Lynda Barry has the innate ability to zero in on the essence of truth, a magical quality that has made her book One! Hundred! Demons! an enduring classic of the early 21st century.  In the book’s intro, however, Barry throws the idea of truth out of the window by asking the reader to decide if fiction can have truth and if autobiography can have a fiction, a hybrid that Barry coins “autobiofictionalography.” As readers get to know Barry’s demons, they realize that the actual truth no longer matters because the universality of Barry’s comics, true or untrue, reigns supreme. https://www.drawnandquarterly.com/one-hundred-demons

Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi (2003)

In powerful black-and-white comic strip images, Satrapi tells the story of her life in Tehran from ages six to fourteen, years that saw the overthrow of the Shah’s regime, the triumph of the Islamic Revolution, and the devastating effects of war with Iraq. The intelligent and outspoken only child of committed Marxists and the great-granddaughter of one of Iran’s last emperors, Marjane bears witness to a childhood uniquely entwined with the history of her country.

Persepolis paints an unforgettable portrait of daily life in Iran and of the bewildering contradictions between home life and public life. Marjane’s child’s-eye view of dethroned emperors, state-sanctioned whippings, and heroes of the revolution allows us to learn as she does the history of this fascinating country and of her own extraordinary family. Intensely personal, profoundly political, and wholly original, Persepolis is at once a story of growing up and a reminder of the human cost of war and political repression. It shows how we carry on, with laughter and tears, in the face of absurdity. And, finally, it introduces us to an irresistible little girl with whom we cannot help but fall in love. http://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/160890/persepolis-by-marjane-satrapi/9780375714573/

Naming Monsters by Hanna Eaton (2013)

An adult Where the Wild Things Are, Naming Monsters is a warm, compelling graphic novel about a college student grappling with her emotions after losing her mother, but without knowing how to express them.

Fran is a keen amateur cryptozoologist – an expert in the study of animals that may not exist – and she can’t quite tell if the animals she meets are real or part of her imagination. But one thing is for sure: monsters are all around us.

The year is 1993, and we join Fran on a wild ride around London while she negotiates its real or imagined menageries. Tales of strange creatures that might-have-been introduce each stage of her journey.

Fran’s adventure, often with her best friend Alex in tow, is a psychogeography of London and its suburbs – a picaresque graphic novel in which the grief of losing her mother is punctuated by encounters with her semi-estranged dad, her out-of-touch East London Nana, a selfish boyfriend, and the odd black dog or two.

Hannah Eaton shows in sensitive pencils and beautiful penmanship what happens when your emotions become personified by monsters, and how you can learn to live with them. http://www.myriadeditions.com/books/naming-monsters/

Ojitos Borrosos by Ines Estrada (2012)

“A collection of short comics I made during 2006-2012. It was nominated in 2012 for the Ignatz awards “Best Artist” and “Best Collection”. Most of these comics were originally self published as zines, and others appeared in publications like VICE, Kuš!, Smoke Signal and Fett Magazine.”

Self published (Mexico, 2016) in an offset edition of 1000 copies, 160 pp. http://inechi.com/ojitosborrosos.html

Becoming Unbecoming by Una (2016)

A devastating personal account of gender violence told in graphic-novel form, set against the backdrop of the 1970s Yorkshire Ripper man-hunt.

It’s 1977 and Una is twelve. A serial murderer is at large in West Yorkshire and the police are struggling to solve the case – despite spending more than two million man-hours hunting the killer and interviewing the man himself no less than nine times.

As this national news story unfolds around her, Una finds herself on the receiving end of a series of violent acts for which she feels she is to blame.

Through image and text Becoming Unbecoming explores what it means to grow up in a culture where male violence goes unpunished and unquestioned. With the benefit of hindsight Una explores her experience, wonders if anything has really changed and challenges a global culture that demands that the victims of violence pay its cost. http://www.myriadeditions.com/books/becomingunbecoming/

The Next Day by John Porcellino, Paul Peterson, and Jason Gilmore (2011)

“Constructed from intimate interviews with survivors of near-fatal suicide attempts,” The Next Day takes us into the minds of four individuals who attempted suicide and lived to tell the tale, and asks the question, “What if they had waited just one more day?”  Certainly, the decision of the authors to bring in John Porcellino to illustrate this work was the single most important one they made, as only Porcellino’s minimal, understated line could work here; anyone else’s work would have risked pushing the material into the maudlin realm.  Obviously, this is not a book for everyone, but it’s good that it’s now out there for anyone.  Delve deeper into this book by reading” –The Comics Journal review.

Repost from an earlier section of my autobiographical comics guide:

Graphic Autobiographies on Physical and Mental Illness, Including Trauma and Grief

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Below are links to a selection of graphic autobiographies about physical and mental illness that you will find at the University of Toronto Libraries, alphabetical by author’s last name.

B, D. (2006). Epileptic. New York: Pantheon Books.

Barry, L. (2002). One hundred demons. Berkeley, Calif.: Distributed by Publishers Group West. (Trauma; sexual abuse)

Bell, C., Lasky, D., & Amulet Books,. (2014). El Deafo. (Hearing impairment)

Brabner, J., Pekar, H., & Stack, F. (1994). Our cancer year. Philadelphia, PA: Running Press.

Cunningham, D. (2011). Psychiatric tales: Eleven graphic stories about mental illness. New York: Bloomsbury.

Davidson, A. (2003). The Spiral Cage: diary of an astral gypsy. Los Angeles: CA. (Severe spina bifida)

Dunlap-Shohl, P. (2015). My degeneration: a journey through Parkinson’s. University Park, Pennsylvania: The Pennsylvania State University Press.

Engelberg, M. (2006). Cancer made me a shallower person: A memoir in comics. New York: Harper.

Farmer, J. (2014). Special exits: A graphic memoir. (Aging; adult children with older parents; family relationships)

Fies, B. (2008). Mom’s cancer.

Forney, Ellen. (2012). Marbles: mania, depression, Michelangelo, and me: a graphic memoir. New York: Gothem Books.

Freedman, M. (2014). Relatively indolent but relentless: a cancer treatment journal. New york: Seven Stories Press.

Green, K. (2013). Lighter than my shadow. (Eating disorders)

Hart, T. Lightning, R., & Corman, L. (2016). Rosalie Lightning. New York: St. Martin’s Press. (Grieving)

Hayden, J. (2015). The story of my tits. (Breast neoplasms; breast cancer; mastectomy)

Leavitt, S. (2010). Tangles: A story about Alzheimer’s, my mother, and me. Calgary: Freehand Books.

Nakazawa, K. (1990). Barefoot Gen: The day after : a cartoon story of Hiroshima. Penguin.

Nilsen, A. (2012). Don’t go where I can’t follow. Montreal: Drawn & Quarterly. (Partner’s battle with cancer)

Porcellino, J. (2014). The hospital suite. (Anxiety; illness)

Potts, P. (2010). Good eggs: a memoir. New York, NY: Harper. (Infertility; pregnancy)

Marchetto, M. A. (2006). Cancer vixen: a true story. New York: Pantheon Books

Satrapi, M. (2003). Persepolis. (Depression; trauma)

Small, D. (2009). Stitches: A memoir. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart. (Trauma; abuse; anxiety; depression)

Streeten, N. (2011). Billy, me, & you: a memoir of grief and recovery. Brighten, England: Myriad Editions.

Tristram, M. (2014). Probably nothing: a diary of not-your-average nine months. London: Viking. (Cancer and pregnancy)

Will, E.M. (2013). Look straight ahead: a graphic novel. Saskatchewan: Cuckoo’s Nest Press. (Anxiety; depression; mental health)

(2013)The Storyteller’s eye: Comics about illness & caregiving, science & medicine, by students in the biomedical communications graduate program, University of Toronto.  Compiled by Shelley L. Wall. Toronto: BMC.

Woollcott, T. (2009). Mirror mind. Toronto, Ont: T. Woollcott. (Dyslexia)

Links to webcomics, tumblrs, zines, and blogs with graphic autobiographical work on mental and physical illness

http://hyperboleandahalf.blogspot.ca/2011/10/adventures-in-depression.html

http://depressioncomix.tumblr.com/

I Do Not Have an Eating Disorder by Khale McHurst

http://better-drawn.tumblr.com/

https://www.facebook.com/pg/Im-Crazy-64283709927/photos/  (only available on Facebook, I believe)

http://www.publicinsightnetwork.org/2013/06/21/invisible-injury-beyond-ptsd-illustrated-story/

Jason Bradshaw:

http://boredompays.blogspot.ca/

http://jasonrbradshaw.tumblr.com/

Jenn Woodall (anxiety):

http://jwoodall.tumblr.com/

https://gumroad.com/jenn_woodall#

Sarafin; “mad pride” (experience being in the psychiatric system): http://asylumsquad.ca

Sylvia Reuter:

http://sylvies-swamp.tumblr.com/

http://www.sylviereuter.de/#_=_

 

Please let me know if you have any recommendations!

 

 

 

Hero and Villain: The Construction of Autobiographical Slave Narrative in Kyle Baker’s Nat Turner

NatTurner1

The following writing is adapted from a seminar presentation for a course on graphic life narratives at the University of Winnipeg.

Background

Nat Turner was an African American slave who led a violent revolt on several plantations in Southampton County, Virginia in late August 21-22, 1831. These revolts resulted in the murder of approximately 57 white people, including many women and children, by African American slaves and free men. White militias and civilian mobs also attacked African Americans in the area, killing approximately 110 people— many who had nothing to do with the revolt. The state eventually arrested and executed 55 African Americans accused of participating in the rebellion. 20 slaves received the death penalty, and many other were murdered by white people. Although Turner hid for ten weeks, he was eventually found, tried, and convicted to death on November 5th, 1831. His hanging took place on November 11th, 1831.  During the days leading to his death, Thomas Ruffin Gray worked with Turner to record a confessional narrative, later published in a pamphlet and distributed to the public. This narrative, published as The Confessions of Nat Turner, portrays Turner as a religious fanatic, which may have served to placate white fears of repeat incidents by other slaves. Gray often interjects in Turner’s narrative, with leading questions and statements. Kyle Baker is suspicious of the accuracy of this dictated narrative.

Presentation

Despite the collaborative nature of Gray’s original Confessions, the narrative can still be understood as a slave narrative. Since we have been looking at the genre of auto/biography, both within and outside of comics, for this presentation I am going to look at how slave narratives might fit into this genre; in particular, how Kyle Baker’s Nat Turner and the original Confessions act as auto/biographical texts.

Kyle Baker manipulates the confessional text to produce a work that forces the reader to view Turner’s rebellion as a product of slavery, positioning Baker as a hero advocate for literacy, and as a traditional (and untraditional) superhero. I will also discuss how Turner, as portrayed by Baker, embodies a comic book hero, juxtaposing him to contemporary comic superheroes such as Superman.

After I read the full Nat Turner confession published in 1831, I noticed that Baker’s narrative does not include the introduction by the clerk Edmond I Lee (of the district court of Columbia) and the voice of Thomas Gray, who recorded Turner’s confession and often interrupts his voice to ask questions (though he appears at the end of Baker’s narrative). Towards the end of the original publication Turner’s voice blends into Gray’s voice and it is difficult, at first, to understand that Gray’s voice has replaced Turner’s in the narration.

Baker eliminates some of the context of Turner’s narration (as a document produced for court), and in doing so empowers Turner; he attempts to tell Turner’s story as if it is an authentic autobiography of a slave, grounded in the present of the past. Even though we are aware the text is a confession in retrospect, I was still surprised to realize that the narration is outside of the “present” of the story’s action; it is instead told by a man in shackles in a cell (page 188).

Nat-Turner2

The visual narrative, full of movement, and emotion, that practically pulsates, is not the movement of action, but the action and vibrancy of storytelling. The narration is also Turner’s voice speaking from the past, and Baker brings his voice back to life.

Baker took a text, that originally might have functioned as a political tool to vilify Turner and provoke racist attitudes, and he makes this text about so much more than Turner’s horrific actions.

T.R Gray, the witness to Turner’s confession, writes in his introduction, “Public curiosity has been on the stretch to understand the origin and progress of this dreadful conspiracy, and the motives which influence its diabolical actors…This ‘great Bandit’ was taken by a single individual, in a cave near the residence of his late owner…Never did a band of savages do their work of death more unsparingly…It was …the offspring of gloomy fanaticism… many a mother as she presses her infant darling to her bosom, will shudder at the recollection of Nat Turner, and his band of ferocious miscreants”.

Gray sets Turner up as a cowardly villain, and refuses to acknowledge or blame any other social forces. Any literate white reader, who was presented with or purchased Turner’s confession, could have refused to see the broader context of the rebellion: that slavery as an institution was the cause of the turmoil— that the rebellion was the outcome of a greater problem.

16_comic_5; Nat Turner

The title page of the document produced for court (and reprinted on page 10 of Baker’s narrative) looks like a romanticized Wanted poster for an outlaw in the American imagination of the Wild West. It looks like an entertainment poster designed to rile up an audience for a performance rather than a transcript of a criminal confession. I think Baker plays with this motif on page 15, recreating the movement of horses in old Western films. This page is blurry but more realistic in style than the other drawings, and pixelated to suggest more contemporary experiences of film and technology.

Baker begins the narrative with Turner’s mother’s firsthand experience of slavery as she is taken from her home in Africa, branded and thrown on a slave ship. Baker presents Turner’s mother as a witness in the scene of the child being thrown off the slave ship (47-54), and soon the reader learns that Turner, as a child, retold this narrative many times.

young-nat-narrating2 p57

Turner, in the original confession, tells this story to other children to differentiate himself and set himself up as a prophet. However, because it is Turner’s mother who has experienced these events in Baker’s visual narration, the drawings suggest that this narrative has been passed down orally to Turner, likely through his mother, or something he has overheard; consequently, Turner becomes less of a mystical prophet, and more of a flawed man coping with trauma. Perhaps Baker has combined the two narratives (of the prophetic son and his mother’s experiences) so that Turner’s story can seem more real, and not just a fantastical tale. Readers of this story cannot overlook his trauma, his destroyed family life, and his struggle for mental health. Baker does not want readers to reduce Turner to a crazed religious fanatic.

Gray discredits Turner’s narrative in the original publication when he writes, “It has been said that he was ignorant and cowardly, and that his object was to rob for the purpose of obtaining money to make his escape. He is a complete fanatic or plays his part admirably” (181).

In Baker’s narrative, unlike the publication of the autobiography, Turner is allowed to justify his position. He is given the last word in the narrative of his story. Baker takes a question posed by Gray midway through the original publication and places it at the end of his graphic narrative when Gray asks, “Do you not find yourself mistaken now,” and Turner answers, “Was not Christ crucified?” (189).

There is something theatrical about the way the narrative voice in Confessions, presumed to be Turner, is elated to be able to tell his story; he narrates as though he is preaching a mystical sermon. We now know that this narrative could only have been used to implicate Turner in court, so there is something disturbing and sinister about the recorder’s “sympathetic” ear. Additionally, the original publication sandwiches his confession between the biased narratives of two white men.

Baker is also guilty of editing the original confessional narrative; this is evident when he excludes certain passages from Turner’s confession. For example, in one excluded passage, Turner confides that he lived since 1830 with Mr. Joseph Travis, who was a “kind master”, and had no cause to complain about his treatment of him (173). Perhaps, for Baker, this works against Turner’s position as a hero, or Baker was suspicious of the accuracy of this statement; it encourages the myth of the contented slave, and attributes his rebellion to his mental instability or villainous traits.

However, Baker distorts the original narrative in order to present Turner as more human than monster. His visual imagery that depicts Turner as monstrous or with superhero-like strength defamiliarizes the racialized language of the original publication which presents him as a crazed monster.

Baker does not produce the grotesque imagery to glorify violence, but instead reproduces the violent literary and cultural imagination that is already grotesque.

16_comic_15 Nat Turner

How Baker’s text rejects the sentimentality of 19th century slave narratives

19th century slave narratives were intended to provoke “white sympathy” and were not published as solely first-person narratives; the “truth” had to be vouched for by white literate men. Consequently, these narratives did not tell the whole truth (Francis 4 of 15).

Baker rejects sentimentality of 19th century slave narratives that, as Conseula Francis suggests, were intended to pull on the heartstrings of white readers, without causing them to feel too bad or question their superior positions (122). Baker does not present Turner as a likable man. His Nat Turner does not regret his actions.

Turner’s original narrative also rejects this sentimentality, but it was likely published to affirm his position as a maniacal monster, so it did not have to be sentimental. His “autobiography” is a jailhouse confession that likely caters to a white audience’s prejudiced desires and demands.

Helen Thomas writes about autobiographical slave narratives, “These ‘confessional’ testimonies existed both as unrestrained, personal utterances and as highly self-conscious literary performances…consciously aimed at public consumption and intrinsically shaped by editorial intervention”(177). This is reflected in the way Gray’s questions often interrupt Turner’s narrative, leading him to tell his story in a particular way.

Thomas also writes, “these narratives were variously edited, dictated or composed ‘by’ former slaves who had found their way to freedom in conjunction with Christian philanthropists or abolitionist ghostwriters” (Thomas 177). John Bayliss notes that slaves who were encouraged by a feeling of hope after slavery and by the commitment of the Abolitionists, felt a strong pressure to embellish their narrative, “or let it be embellished” for them” (10). These narrators might have felt pressured to align their narratives with religious beliefs and dominant culture’s ideologies, or else to demonstrate some sort of otherness desired by those who are not “other”.

Thomas discusses religion as spiritual and cultural liberation, the creation of a newly formed self, able to break free of the “shackles of past”, to break free from the father/master power dynamic (178). However, religion was also a way for white slave owners to control slaves, religious spiritual liberation an illusion or placebo for surviving cruelty. Religion plays an important role in Baker’s narrative because it helped Turner learn to read, write, and tell stories. Turner stood out because of his storytelling talents, and others listened to him as he preached his visions, as demonstrated on pages 102-105 when he clutches the bible and preaches passionately to a group of men.

Although contemporary autobiographers might feel pressure to provide documentation or proof of the authenticity of their narrative, the slave autobiographer’s “proof” of authenticity consisted of a white man’s trusted voice. These trusted voices could easily romanticize African narrators. For example, Vernon Loggins writes about an African man whom he interviews, “One feels in his pages his mysticism, his unquestioning acceptance of the strange, his genius for adapting himself, his almost uncanny common-sense insight into the character of those around him” (Bayliss 16); the man interviewed is presented as a naïve and more carefree and adventurous than the interviewer; he unquestioningly accepts the strange.`

Baker presents Turner as a hero because of his uniqueness through his ability to narrate, write and share history, and his religious and spiritual beliefs allow him to see himself as someone more special than a slave. He is not a hero for his violent actions or mystical prophesies; he is a hero for his ability to communicate and tell his story and the story of many others.

Notes on the superhero and examination of Baker’s Turner as hero and superhero

16_comic_3

The Nietzschean conception of the “superhero” is someone who becomes a hero by superseding the hero who inspired him or her” (Mclaughlin 113). Maybe, in thinking about this trope of the hero, we can understand Baker’s depiction of Turner’s religious fanaticism as a way that Turner copes with being disappointed or abandoned by God, his hero, who took away his wife and children. Turner becomes god-like, takes on the role of a prophet, and creates a spiritual purpose for himself, bigger than family and kinship.

The superhero can also be understood as a response to modernity, reflecting the desires of the artist, writer, or conceptualizer, or the subconscious desire and fears of society at the time the hero was created. Jeff Mclaughlin describes modernity as “an ongoing process involving the restructuring of humanity’s relationship to nature, society, and the self…Enabled by the rise of industrial culture, and the movement of goods, people, and information…this process destabilizes pre-modern social systems, with their ties to place, religion, and local culture. In doing so modern forces threaten to atomize communities and individuals, reducing human thought and action to quantifiable and manipulable objects harnessed to engines of production and profit” (85)

Jerry Siegel, one of the creators of Superman, and also the child of Jewish immigrants trying to fit into American society, acknowledged that Superman “grew out of his personal feelings about life” and from the need or desire to imagine someone “who would help the folks at the bottom” (90). Mclaughlin writes, “Superman, and the hundreds of superheroes that come after him, can be seen as affirming the primacy of a besieged humanity by transcending these sources of modernity” (84). This is evident in the way Superman outruns trains and automobiles, fights political and urban corruption, and triumphs over instruments of warfare (84)

So, how does Turner compare to Superman?

Well, if comic heroes can be understood as “affirming the primacy of a besieged humanity by transcending these sources of modernity” (Mclaughlin 85), then maybe Turner is a hero, in the way he challenges the conventions of slavery by learning to read, and rejects the religious fantasies of the dominant culture; instead, he creates his own religious mythology. Slave plantations can be understood as the predecessors to the dehumanizing industrial factories and dehumanization of workers for capital gains, reinforcing a problematic class system. Turner, who reads despite the laws opposing slaves reading, then functions as a hero by rejecting the laws of the class system.

Also, Turner succumbs to a sort of nihilism; Mclaughlin’s describes nihilism as an

“all or nothing mentality of the kind of person who would become a hero…a natural fallback for someone who would problematically assume since our values are not absolute, they must be relative, rendering reality ultimately meaningless” (Mclaughlin 116). Turner’s position as hero/prophet, clears him of his past, his attachments, and his human moral obligations. Mclaughlin also describes nihilism as the natural complement of a scientific worldview, “a thoroughly objectified and thereby disenchanted world…intrinsically value free and so ultimately meaningless…which nuclear annihilation threatens to realize” (108).  Alan Moore’s The Watchmen is an example of several superheroes who succumb to nihilism; these superheroes have allowed themselves to fade into obscurity, or they desire to blow up New York City, to start a new and more united society.

Michael Chaney points out that it would be difficult to miss overtures to the world of superhero comics in Baker’s introduction because, as Baker notes on page 6, the story makes “the perfect subject for a comic book” through its action and suspense and the hero possessing “superhuman abilities” (281). Chaney also suggests that Baker’s depiction of Turner presents a revisionist history of a kind of Black Incredible Hulk; on page 107 when Turner chops wood, his body is unnaturally strong, muscles accentuated, and the white boy chasing a chicken at the bottom of the panel appears to be the same size as his hand. Turner also looks especially hulk-like on pages 172 and 173.

However, the main way that Baker presents Turner as a hero is through his ability to read and write. Baker suggests that if Turner could do it, there is no excuse for contemporary readers not to read and write and share their stories. Baker reveals this attitude when he writes in the introduction, “In the tradition of my hero Nat Turner…I went out and found books about being a publisher” (7).

Chaney points out that Turner seems to acquire literacy automatically and mythically, such as on page 86 when Turner explains, “with the most perfect ease, so much so, that I have no recollection whatever of learning the alphabet” (283). In this way, literacy becomes a superpower as well. Baker uses his self-publication as a sort of authentic “credibility”, in the spirit of Nat Turner who privileged literacy and unrestrained self-expression.

Many visual cues also suggest, to contemporary readers, that Turner and other members of the rebellion are heroic figures because they are drawn in a similar style as Frank Miller’s heroes (Francis point this out on 113); on pages 171 and 178 Baker recreates the grotesque, bloody shadows of Frank Miller’s Sin City. Baker also conceives of black slaves as physically more powerful than white colonizers, when he asks in the introduction, “How does a weaker minority dominate a physically superior majority?” (7).

If the narrative were in bright cheerful colour, it would defamiliarize the comic book and superhero genre through the nihilistic hero who is perhaps also a super villain, destroying the binary of good and evil. Then again, maybe superheroes are always a small step away from becoming super villains, which is part of their allure. Maybe superheroes are monsters, like villains, except they adhere to human codes of morality and strict unflinching “good” principles.

Baker’s narrative does not glorify the black slave’s violent revenge on the white slave owners. His comic style works to capture movement and action with minimal words, and the over-exaggerated expressions allow the relief of humor; he can capture emotions with minimal words. The gestures of the cartoons articulate the deeper significance of Turner’s confession, shoving in the readers’ faces what the original white spectators and consumers of Turner’s narrative refused to acknowledge: the violent and grotesque nature of slavery made Turner violent and grotesque.

Baker also presents Turner as a Christ-like figure. On page 186, after he is hung, he is surrounded by a halo of sunlight through the trees, like he is being beamed up to heaven, or is a saintly figure. However, Turner is also a crazed superhero. Baker depicts his religious fanaticism, although he eliminates parts of Turner’s confession that expose his mental instability. In the eliminated section, he sees “leaves in the woods with hieroglyphic characters, and numbers, with the forms of different men in different attitudes, portrayed in blood, and representing the figures he had seen before in the heavens”; The Holy Ghost reveals himself, the blood of Christ returns as dew, and the great day of judgment is at hand (172). However, as I mentioned earlier, Baker sets up Turner’s rebellion as something much more complex than a tragedy caused by religious delusions.

On page 195 white slave owners’ and spectators’ faces change from gleeful and blood thirsty to awe-struck, humbled, and confused while watching Turner being hanged. Baker alludes to a revelation where the white audience (and maybe readers) are able to see Turner as a tragic figure, a product of the cruel environment of slave plantations and colonialism. He is depicted as a Christ-like figure as his face becoming peaceful on page 194 and 197. Perhaps the spectators feel they have become the monsters, or they realize that their behavior has been just as grotesque and fiendish.

These historical figures are confined to the text, never looking out at the reader in a familiar way that does not disturb and provoke the reader (11, 30, 38, 113). The reader is restricted to the present; we can use contemporary understandings of the superhero and violence in comics as a framework to read Baker’s narrative. However, the narrative also seems to be playing out mystically for the reader directly from the past— and in a way that could have been understood by illiterate slaves from the past.

The politics of violence and racialized language in Nat Turner

As Baker notes on page 36, the white slavers took the African slaves and shaved and branded them, chained them, and forced them onto a slave ships with poor conditions that caused many deaths. Slaves were treated like animals and commodities, their bodies stripped of power and autonomy.

Turner, conversely, imposes this objectification on the white plantation owners; they are just identical bodies made of flesh and blood. Within this nihilistic view, they are all equally nothing, neither good or evil. If Turner chose to show mercy to one white person, then he could not rationalize any of the murders, so, as demonstrated on page 135, Turner beheads the little boy, and on page 121 he approves the killing of a baby.

Biopower, in Foucauldian terms, refers to sovereign exercise of the power to determine who may live and who must die. It separates and divides people into categories and subcategories, establishing biological boundaries between Some and Others. Foucault calls it racism. Racism, for Foucault, is the condition for the acceptability of putting to death (On Achille Mbembe’s ‘Necropolitics’ 17). This term might be applied to slave narratives, as the slave was not considered to be human by owners, like Baker’s illustrations suggest (178). Slaves were considered disposable, their bodies othered as objects and possessions. Slaves were treated like unfeeling shadows, or pushed into the racial symbolism of the shadow. Baker’s images of Turner in the sunlight resist this racialized literary language, which I will discuss a bit more soon.

Achille Mbembe suggests “The colonial state derives its claim of sovereignty from its own cultural mythology. The narrative of its own divine right to exist. This gives rise to the domain of sovereignty being derived from both a myth of truth and exclusivity, visiting terror and violence on those who are Other…exercised through the creation of “zones of death, where mass destruction, and living death become the dominant logics” (7). Terror and death then operate to create and assert power. Maybe the slave ships don’t quite exemplify the idea of the necropolitical because the slaves’ lives are valued as merchandise, but Turner, through his rebellion, mirrors the actions of the colonial state; not because he wants power over others, but because he is powerless and imagines himself as part of a spiritual sovereignty. He, like the colonial state, creates his own mythology, a mythology born out of religious fanaticism and mental health instability.

So, to bring this back to the superhero, Mbembe writes that, “Technologies of destruction have become more tactile, more anatomical and sensorial, in a context in which the choice is between life and death” (7). Necropower involves weapons, as Mbembe writes, “in the interest of maximum destruction of persons and the creating of death-worlds…social existence in which vast populations are subjected to conditions of life conferring upon them the status of living dead”(8).

The superhero then acts against the sovereignty that exercises the necropolitics, for the living dead who cannot act for themselves. Superman can overcome modern warfare technologies; he is, for example, faster than a speeding bullet. However, Nat Turner is only flesh and blood, and the only way he can stand up for the living dead is to create destruction, to kill the “other” that would kill him first and that would take his wife his children (page 98,99); or, through sharing his story, which carries with it the stories of many other slaves.

16_comic_8 Nat Turner

More on racialized language and the graphic narrative

On the first page inset of the book, the reader, who is presumably the black child from the end of the narrative, is invisible in the shadows, but he becomes illuminated through reading. He might represent Turner’s heroic qualities, such as disobeying the law which dictates that slaves should not be able to read. Although he has to hide in the shadows in order to read, he still reads, and he learns, and because of this he forces others to see him and listen.

Although the audience at the time of the original Confessions publication might have overlooked how Turner’s actions were related to the trauma of slavery, Baker makes sure contemporary audiences are aware of Turner’s heroic qualities and are able to understand his murders as a direct consequence of the institution of slavery (but not justify them).

Toni Morrison in Playing in the Dark writes about “assumptions made by literary historians and critics circulated as ‘knowledge’ that holds that traditional, canonical American literature is free of, uninformed, and unshaped by the four-hundred-year-old presence of, first, Africans and then African-Americans in the United States. It assumed that this presence—which shaped the body politic, the constitution, and the entire history of the culture—has had no significance place or consequence in the origin and development of that culture’s literature”(5)

She continues, “These speculations have led me to wonder whether the major and championed characteristics of our national literature—individualism, masculinity, social engagement versus historical isolation; acute and ambiguous moral problematics; the thematics of innocence couple with an obsession with figurations of death and hell—are not in fact responses to a dark, abiding, signing Africanist presence” (5). To illustrate this, she writes about “othering” tropes of darkness, sexuality, and desire in Ernest Hemingway or in his cast of black men (12).

With this argument in mind, slave narratives should not be rejected from the genre of autobiography; they are influenced by racialized language and the white presence, however they reflect racist dynamics of the past that we can now look at critically. White narratives are shaped by white writers defining themselves by the “otherness” that they are not, and so too are black narrative shaped by the racist imaginations of the time. Baker adopts and distorts some of this racialized language through his black and white visual narrative, playing with light and shadows.

Morrison writes, “Black slavery enriched the country’s creative possibilities. For in that construction of blackness and enslavement could be found not only the not-free but also, with the dramatic polarity created by skin color, the projection of the not-me. The result was a playground for the imagination. What rose up out of collective needs to allay internal fears and to rationalize external exploitation was an American Africanism—a fabricated brew of darkness, otherness, alarm, and desire that is uniquely American”(38).

Baker plays with this construction of darkness or “otherness” in his drawings; he exposes the white fantasy of the black slave through the grotesque shadowy qualities of his superhero version of Nat Turner.

scene-of-speaking-corpse 3 p46

The speech bubble coming from the corpse thrown off the slave ship on page 46 defamilarizes readers with how words are used in comics. In comics, sure the dead can come back and speak, but this speech bubble does more than disturb the verisimilitude of the narration: someone else is speaking through the corpse so that the corpse can become more than a shadow being swallowed in the ocean. This speech bubble represents a collection of diverse identities lost in collective history. The reader can see the corpse’s face, their age— that they are a person. Baker also presents Turner as more than a dark racialized shadow in history; in Baker’s narrative Turner is flawed, but he also had a family, he was a child, and he had a mother who loved him.

Also, since Baker does not establish temporality (a time frame through voiceover, panel, frames, and so on) in the narration, there is little to distinguish the slaves from each other or their parents; they are shadows blending into each other, becoming a collective history, a shared identity, and it is unclear sometimes who is the child or father. On page 76 and 77 Baker shows Turner’s flashback to when his own father ran away, but it is confusing because there is no narrative or visual device to signify a change in temporality; the little boy could just as easily be Turner’s son, and the man in bed could be the adult Turner instead of his father—at least that was my impression.

Thomas writes that “memory” for the romantics was egocentric and solitary, but for the slaves such acts of memory bore witness to a shared cultural past, and “this enabled the slave narrator to write his/her life as a unified expression of an entire cultural and historical destiny, premised on an individual, collective and political liberty (the chosen one) and infused with the power to interpret and mediate with the spiritual world” (178). Turner’s words make him into an outsider and tear him apart from the cast of shadows; he is unique through his ability to communicate. For Baker, his most important heroic quality is that he makes himself be heard; he forces white slave owners to see flesh, blood, and people who feel anger and passion, where before they would only allow themselves to see faceless nameless shadows.

Archive with more detailed information on the aftermath of the rebellion, impact, and primary source material: http://www.natturnerproject.org/

Works Cited

Baker, Kyle. Nat Turner. New York: Abrams, 2008. Print.

Bayliss, John F. Black Slave Narratives. New York: Macmillan, 1970. Print.

Folkenflik, Robert. The Culture of Autobiography: Constructions of Self-Representation. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1993. Print.

Francis, Conseula. “Drawing the Unspeakable” Comics and the U.S. South.Ed. Brannon Costello, and Ojana J. Whitted. Univ. Press of Mississippi, 2012. 113-137. Print.

McLaughlin, Jeff. Comics As Philosophy. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2005. Print.

Michael A. Chaney. “Slave Memory Without Words in Kyle Baker’s Nat Turner.”Callaloo 36.2 (2013): 279-297. Project MUSE. Web. 24 Feb. 2014. <http://muse.jhu.edu/&gt;.

Morrison, Toni. Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1992. Print.

“On Achille Mbembe’s ‘Necropolitics’ (2003).” Biopolitics, Race, and Gender. Web. 25 Feb. 2014.

Thomas, Helen. Romanticism and Slave Narratives: Transatlantic Testimonies. Cambridge [England: Cambridge University Press, 2000. Print.