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.

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Why Grownups (and Everyone) Should Read YA and Children’s Literature

this one summer intro

Well, to begin with, YA literature consists of some of the most wonderful storytelling in the universe, and a true and decent YA writer does not talk down to children and writes for both children and adult audiences, knowing full well that adults are just overgrown children even more stubbornly set in their ways.

YA literature covers a diverse range of topics from the astute serious to the utmost ridiculous and fantastical. Fantasy books are not to be taken for granted though, as they along with Science Fiction can reveal more about humanity, our desires and fears, than other non-fiction books.

Some of the most truthful life narratives are YA stories, many of which expose the ridiculousness of the adult world and its rituals, such as the tales of Roald Dahl, in which adults do very silly things and are rightfully to blame for many woes and miseries in the world.

In good children’s literature, girls are every bit as capable as boys; they are just as intellectual and imaginative, just as likely to be explorers and learn about the rest of the world, or sometimes just as shy and anxious as boys. Girls are not just fragile and delicate creatures—they can be just as disgusting, vulgar, and wild as boys. Boys and girls can be friends. Homosexuality, bisexuality, and genderqueer characters exist. Boys and girls do not have to ascribe to gender binaries. For example, not all boys need to be interested in activities such as sports and games involving wizards. In good YA literature, not all protagonists are white, and not all non-white protagonists go through the exact same experiences.

Bad children’s literature assumes that it is not enough to be born a boy or a girl, but that a boy must adhere to certain social rules in order to be successful and normal, and the same goes for girls. Many narratives that follow this reasoning are likely rooted in the author’s nostalgia for their romanticized childhood or for the North American patriarchal family structure; this would appeal to an older adult reader who perhaps longs for an imagined wholesome childhood for themselves or their child, not to an actual child living in contemporary society.

Reading as a shy child made me feel a little less lonely and strange, and I really do believe that reading about other peoples’ experiences and views of the world (familiar or new), at any age, helps us connect to each other and deconstruct harmful binaries within society, allowing for more diverse ways of being.

Reading from a young age helped me create my own stories, and acknowledge certain parts of myself and difficult experiences I have had. As the mantra of every hardcore book reader goes, books have always felt like friends. I read a lot as a child and would spend hours in the tree house-like children’s section of McNally Robinson Booksellers, looking for a book as if we had to have some kind of a spiritual connection before I would take it home with me.

I may add to this post in the future, but this is as far as I will venture today. This post was made with so much love and reading memories tumbling back into my thoughts, that it is a bit embarrassing. I will have to stop myself from rambling on and on.

Here is a list of some of my favorite YA and children’s literature reads and a sentence or two on why I believe they should be read—but there is so much more amazing diverse YA stuff out there today than when I was a kid.

The Twits

  • The Twits by Roald Dahl; featuring a nasty older couple who are always trying to make each other and the local wildlife miserable, much to our amusement; a biting and somehow loving commentary on the institution of marriage, as well as a warning on the danger of letting your inner ugliness thrive.

 

The Phantom Tollbooth

  • The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster; a funny and punny adventure that should make anyone fall in love with the English language and reading, with lovely intuitive illustrations by Jules Feiffer; they are my favorite children’s book illustrations; shockingly, Feiffer wasn’t crazy about them.

 

Skim

  • Skim by Jillian and Mariko Tamaki; Gorgeous illustrations capturing a queer coming of age narrative, featuring Wiccan aesthetics, and themes such as unrequited love, depression; a realistic narrative about high school friendship. I am such a fan of their work, I cannot recommend them enough!

 

The Thirteen Clocks

  • The Thirteen Clocks by James Thurber; featuring alluring alliteration, illustrious illustrations, and a queer quest. This is extremely fun and challenging to read out loud.

 

This One Summer

  • This One Summer, also by the Tamaki cousins; also another book that has been challenged in schools and libraries for language and adult themes related to sexuality, gender, identity; these books consider the emotional intelligence of YA readers and combat cultural myths about a safe, sheltered and idealized childhood.

 

The Book of Lost Things

  • The Book of Lost Things by John Connolly; a chilling fantasy and horror narrative, best read around Halloween, which also deals with the subject of death, depression, and being kind to yourself.

 

The Graveyard Book

  • The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman; best read around Halloween, preferably out loud, and very simply put is about a boy raised in a graveyard, his deceased companions, and the mystery of his circumstances; bonus, illustrations by Dave McKean! Coraline by Neil Gaiman is also a fantastic read.

 

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  • Moomin comic strips by Tove Jansson (her adult literature is also quite wonderful, particularly The Summer Book); chronicles the misadventures of a family of hippo-like creatures and their various anthropomorphic friends and neighbors; beautifully drawn by Jansson and later her son. These stories are brimming with deceptively simple and cute-looking narratives about every day life and heartbreaks. The narratives are also philosophical in nature; somehow they are optimistic, yet they can also serve as wry social commentaries—but above all else they are so very sweet and charming.

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A wrinkle in time

  • A Wrinkle in Time series by Madeline L’Engle; one of my favorites from childhood; features a close-knit family of intellectuals and social misfits and an interdimensional rescue mission and adventure that begins several years after the father goes missing.

 

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  • The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-exupéry; Cartoonist Joan Sfar also adapted this into a lovely graphic novel. A nice parable about the silliness and seriousness of adults and the sweetness of the world.

 

Watership Down

  • Watership Down by Richard Adams, a heartbreaking and unputdownable read about a cast of rabbits and their culture and mythologies; it may serve as an allegory for so many issues, from wildlife habitat destruction to fascism—but above all else it is a beautifully written and engaging read.

 

The Last Unicorn

  • The Last Unicorn by Peter S Beagle; a most perfect fairy tale.

 

Halfworld

  • The Halfworld series by Hiromi Goto; with imperfect complex characters and darkly fantastical and frightening situations, I am in awe of Hiromi Goto’s imagination and talent. Bonus, illustrations by Jillian Tamaki 🙂

 

Tithe

Magic for beginners

  • Tithe by Holly Black was my favorite fantasy novel as a teenager; a love story with a strong imperfect protagonist and an unconventional premise, where the protagonist is the monster and all is not how it seems; also features queer characters. Black is clearly well-versed in fairy tale, folklore, and diverse cultural mythologies, and is a fantastic storyteller.  If you like Holly Black, you may also enjoy Kelly Link (her short story collections Pretty Monsters and Magic for Beginners are so much fun).

 

Charmed Life

  • Charmed Life, and well any book by the word sorceress Diana Wynne Jones.

 

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  • Francesca Lia Block; her work was a favorite when I was much younger, and really opened up the possibilities of reading for fun. Her descriptions of objects and possessions are captivating as she imbues them with unique mythologies and power like talismans. Her storytelling aesthetics are peculiar and addictive to say the least. Her narratives also often feature queer and unconventional characters.

 

Delphine

  • Richard Sala’s work is perfectly campy, and often features strong female protagonists in b movie scenarios (although his works can be haunting and linger in your mind, such as Delphine).

 

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A monster calls

  • A Monster Calls; deals with the theme of death in a beautiful and suitably spooky way, and is told alongside dark, whimsical, and affecting illustrations.

 

Awake and Dreaming

  • Awake and Dreaming by Kit Pearson; this was a book that haunted me when I first read it, and lives up to that feeling to this day; before this book, I would never have believed that a book could linger and resonate in that way. I loved the protagonist, and I felt thereafter that she was a part of me.

 

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Black Hole

Ghost World

  • Black Hole by Charles Burns and Ghost World by Daniel Clowes; these are essential reads for older teens, dealing with loneliness, the strangeness of aging, the awkwardness and frustrations of being a teenager, sex, the body, depression, anxiety, and so many other important topics.

 

The Wind in the Willows

  • The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame; a charming read with animal characters that lovingly embody the quirks of both adults and children.

 

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  • One Hundred Demons (and everything by Lynda Barry); her body of work is like a love song about the importance of playing, maintaining a sense of wonder and humour about the world, and making artwork. Barry uses girly scrapbook aesthetics to narrate difficult and traumatic experiences, and she draws and brings back the feeling of being a child better and more painfully than any other author or artist I have encountered.

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the absolutely true diary of a part time indian

  • The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie; a hilarious and harrowing coming of age story told through comic narration and diary entries by sensitive 14-year-old Indiginous artist “Junior” (Arnold Spirit Jr.) who lives on a reservation in the United States and begins to attend an all-white public high school off-reservation. This book has been challenged for language, frank discussion of sex, homosexuality, mental illness, and the occurence of death; these are things that exist in the world and children sometimes have to deal with. This is a beautiful and ultimately optomistic read and I suggest you go find yourself a copy right now.

 

Mermaid in Chelsea Creek

  • A Mermaid in Chelsea Creek by Michelle Tea; a dark fantasy featuring flawed and deeply realistic teenagers and adults.

 

Anna and Froga

  • Anna and Froga by Anouk Ricard; features a deeply flawed and lovable cast of friends, and chronicles their misadventures; you may experience the similar immersive bewitchment of childhood Saturday morning cartoons (at least I did). These comics bring me joy.

 

And a few picture books that I am quite enamored with:

Norbert Nipkin

  • Norbert Nipkin by Robert McConnell; a beautifully illustrated narrative built of poignant rhymes that (without preaching) teaches us to be open minded about people who seem different than ourselves and feel empathy; it is an optimistic book about the possibilities of friendship that can allow us to shape the world in positive ways.

 

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Tomi Ungerer 1

  • Moon Man by Tomi Ungerer; much of Ungerer’s work is quite subversive and contains some very dark humor and visual gags, so before sharing his work with your young acquaintances maybe have a look through—although in my experience children will often of their own volition put down a book if they are not quite ready for it. Ungerer’s children’s books were banned in North America until fairly recently when they were republished by Phaidon, as Ungerer notoriously also has a large body of adult erotic artwork and books ;). His dark visual gags include decapitated body parts in a Where’s Waldo-like mob vignette, a hobo with a bloody toe in his rucksack, and so much more that waits gleefully to be discovered.

 

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  • Duck, Death and the Tulip by Wolf Erlbruch; another book that deals with mortality very well is Cry, Heart, but Never Break; in both books, Death, a subject that is seldom talked about in everyday life, is personified, naturalized, and made less frightening.

cry heart but never break

 

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jane the fox and me 1

  • Jane, the Fox, and Me by Isabelle Arsenault; a large format graphic narrative for all ages about the difficulty of making friends, being kind to yourself, and fitting in.

 

 

The Lion and the bird

  • The Lion and the Bird by Marianne Dubuc; a story about an unconventional and cozy friendship, was published by Enchanted Lion Books, and it is very hard to go wrong with books published by this small independent publishing house based in Brooklyn; Ghosts by Marc Boutavant is another clever beauty:

 

Ghosts

 

 

Alice in wonderland 3

Alice in wonderland 2

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  • Alice in Wonderland by English mathematician Charles Lutwidge Dodgson under the pseudonym Lewis Carroll; with so many different versions of illustrations to accompany the original text, it is hard to choose a favorite; lately Ralph Steadman’s illustrations have been a treasure to me, a birthday gift to myself this year. The classic version is also beautiful.

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Elsa and the Night

  • Elsa and the Night by Jons Mellgren; an unconventional narrative featuring a very strange friendship, that can also be understood as a story about agoraphobia, social anxiety, loneliness, and depression.

 

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  • Jelly Belly, Alligator Pie, and Garbage Delight by Dennis Lee, illustrated by Juan Wijngaard and Frank Newfeld (the last 2); fantastic Canadian children’s literature that kids will delight in! The poems and artwork are grotesque, whimsical, sometimes frightening, and a whole lot of fun.

 

The Giving Tree

  • The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein; about a boy and a tree and how the expectations of the world sometimes get in the way of friendships, our relationship with nature, and our understanding of ourselves; Silverstein’s poetry books are also a delight, such as Where the Sidewalk Ends; similar to Ungerer, he has illustrated erotic and more mature themed picture books for adults, which I discovered with glee and embarrassment at my grandparents’ apartment when I was a child.

 

I would love some recommendations! Especially regarding diverse narratives, queer narratives, and unconventional fantasy narratives.

(Image at the beginning of the post is from This One Summer by Jillian and Mariko Tamaki)

Presentation for UBC student conference Many Worlds to Walk In: Exploring Diversity in Children’s Literature, Librarianship and Education, May 2016

One Hundred Demons Girlness

Project description: I presented a paper focused on issues of surveillance, identity, and power in graphic autobiographies, diary narratives, and zines, specifically for YA readers, including a discussion on the importance of incorporating these materials in library collections, as well as alternative cataloguing and display practices for zines. Below is a script of my presentation. PowerPoint can be accessed here: Drawing Identity PowerPoint

As a child I frequented the public library; later, as a teenager, I made autobiographical zines from sketchbook diaries, and read copious amounts of comics, sometimes as a means of surviving high school, but I only occasionally visited the library—I am hoping throughout this presentation to present both: a view of women’s autobiographical comics from a surveillance studies perspective, connecting them to diary narratives, as well as highlight the importance of graphic autobiographies and zines for public library collections, especially for reaching the teen demographic that may be absent in the library and making the library into even more of a community owned space. Women’s graphic life narratives are rooted in diary writing and draw from different archives to map out identity, expose the fragility of these archives, and visually show “authenticity” to provoke empathetic readerships—or just provoke. These narratives open up spaces of visibility for marginalized communities through embracing the aesthetics of DIY craft and zine culture and other art movements wherein anyone can produce narratives and participate. These stories can be grotesque and shocking, and subvert ideologies of femininity that are attached to the girly aesthetics rooted in zines, scrapbooking, and the diary; these narratives show that identity is a process, not a thing or an essence. Autobiographical comics and diaries narrate from a point beyond what is seen, revealing intimate desires and experiences from the back region space of self and social surveillance, that are then propelled into the front region of surveillance through publication and mass-production. Although many of these narratives may not be appropriate for younger YA readers, they depict familiar experiences for teenagers, especially themes relating to: identity, gender, sexuality, mental health, and loneliness.

Caricatures

Graphic autobiographers, like diary writers, have the power to critique their subjects, for example by reducing them to caricatures with exaggerated personality traits; however, because graphic autobiographers anticipate public distribution of their narratives, they can protect the identities of those they write about by obscuring names and details—although this only works to a certain extent, as these subjects are already exposed through their relation to the autobiographer in real life. Diary writers can also obscure personal details in their texts; for example, as Suzanne L. Bunkers suggests, they can employ “strategies like repetition, deletion, and encoding to shape what is—and is not—said” (1996, p. 5). The coded language of graphic autobiography is often more playful and reader-friendly than the coded language of a diary that aims to conceal; however, memories or biases can obscure truths or conceal difficult traumatic experiences. Graphic autobiographers demonstrate an awareness of this by asking many questions in their narratives and visually reconstructing artifacts and archives. Alison Bechdel draws her life-sized hands on several pages holding artifacts that are recreated through her experiences. Bechdel uses family photographs for Fun Home as clues to a deeper truth that will connect her to her father who was gay and closeted, and (she speculates) eventually committed suicide; Fun Home is also a coming out narrative for Bechdel. Like diaries, graphic autobiographies are made of layers of narration and “what is excluded is as important as what is included” (Bunkers, 1996, p. 1). These gaps in the narrative also hint at power relations between gender, class, and race at the time of the author’s documentation of their experience, and might suggest censorship, including self-censorship. Foucault argues that the panopticonthe feeling of being watched even if we are not, governed by social and institutional surveillance— still infiltrates private spaces like the diary, that “surveillance is permanent in effects, even if it is discontinuous in its action” (1995, p. 201). However, like diaries, graphic autobiographies are empowering because they allow writers to look back on their entries in order to better understand their experiences, even if these experiences have been influenced by social or institutional surveillance and censorship.

Aesthetics

Intrinsic to the very aesthetics of graphic autobiography (and comics) is the artist’s act of filtering the world into their specific drawing style or adopted aesthetics. This is already a manipulation of reality but can reveal how the artist has experienced the world; at least for myself, I understand the story and writer through how I interpret and viscerally react to the artwork. Characters are sometimes presented as anthropomorphized animals, creating a deadpan and often lighthearted humor; a few examples of these narratives include: Diane Obomsawin’s semi-autobiographical comic On Loving Women that narrates the experience of falling in love, coming out, and exploring sexual identity, Cece Bell’s whimsical YA memoir about growing up with hearing impairment that becomes super hearing impairment in El Deafo, and Art Spiegelman’s auto/biography about his fraught relationship with his father and his father’s experience as a holocaust survivor. These aesthetics might soften the seriousness of a situation so that the reader does not feel immediately overwhelmed by the story—or the artist might defamiliarize cute imagery or make childish imagery disturbing through traumatic narratives; in this way these narratives can also debunk cultural myths about safe, naïve, and precious childhood (such as in Lynda Barry’s work, which I will talk about later). In Maus (Mouse), anthropomorphized animals (notably Jews as mice and Cats as Germans) depict the horrors of the Holocaust. These books also often narrate historical events in an engaging and whimsical way, and can provoke YA readers to further explore the genre and themes within the narrative, and even create comics or zines themselves, which I will later talk about.

Subjectivity

Graphic autobiographers can show a self-conscious awareness about the subjectivity of truth in their narratives by drawing attention to the way they alter certain realities, exploring creative impulses and trying to visually depict a different sort of truth. Lynda Barry often draws her alter ego as a monkey wearing a scarf and red lipstick, and even questions the authenticity of her own narrative when she writes, “Is it autobiography if parts of it are not true?” in the introduction to One Hundred Demons! (2002). Barry incorporates aesthetics of “domesticity” often depreciated in mainstream consumerist culture; her work uses aesthetics from the “femmage” art movement spearheaded by Miriam Schapiro in the 1970’s that repurposed domestic materials to make women’s experiences visible through art. Graphic autobiographies reflect the authors’ diverse backgrounds and life experiences. In fig. 8 from Persepolis, Marjan Satrapi depicts events which may or may not have occurred, but nevertheless reflect her personal experience as a woman growing up in Iran; her narrative is free from colour, and her panels are often reminiscent of patterns in Persian tapestry.

Diaries

Like diaries, graphic autobiographies become most powerful when they are made into public documents, then, as Suzanne Bunkers notes, they are able to “transcend the realm of family legacies and historical records where truly private diaries live” and become artworks, or more credible autonomous narratives (1996, p.35). However diaries were consigned to the private sphere until only very recently. Few women in Britain or America wrote in diaries before the 18th century, since they did not have the social approval, education, or economic means. Mid-19th century the diary was popularized with the production of affordable pocket diaries, but it was not until around 1864 that diaries specifically became a rite of passage for young girls into womanhood (Johnson, 1997, p.41). Then the diary then became devalued as a container for women’s silly romantic overemotional narratives or entertaining erotic fantasies. The 19th century did not forbid the discussion or recognition of sex, but rather, as Meeshell Foucault writes, it “put into operation an entire machinery for producing “true” discourses concerning it ” (1978, p.69). So, perhaps more scandalous diaries were acceptable reading material because they were “confessional”, bound to the home sphere where sexuality was delegated; in this they served as spaces for queer possibility, exempt from social censorship in a society that, as Foucault notes, “set out to formulate the uniform truth of sex” (Foucault, 1978, p. 69). It was not until the 1980’s that diaries were considered expressions of women’s autobiography; and only towards the end of the 20th century did women’s diaries even begin to be accepted into the literary canon (Bunkers, 1996, p.5- p.10). Diaries, like graphic autobiographies, enter more diverse experiences into the historical archive, empower marginalized readerships, and draw out empathy from readers who might not otherwise be able to connect with those who are deemed “others”. However, graphic autobiographies differ from the diary because the graphic autobiographer definitely anticipates that their work will be seen and hopes that communities of readerships blossom within the genre.

Subversion

Female graphic autobiographers might use the “grotesque” to subvert patriarchal gender roles that promote female submissiveness, docility, and sweetness, categories that impose ideas of self onto women and force women to apply self-censorship and make themselves visible only as objects. Julie Doucet’s My New York Diary is brimming with grotesque femininity, showing the abject loss of control of the body and bodily functions; with chaotic tense lines Doucet details her epilepsy, miscarriage, and menstrual blood. Fig. 13. is an example of Doucet’s chaotically detailed environments that invoke instability and anxiety through shifting household objects and backgrounds. In My New York Diary Doucet’s panels capturing domestic environments come together to manifest a grotesque dollhouse; the front walls of the house are cut off for the reader to voyeuristically gaze inside; her characters’ heads are much too large for their bodies, so they look like Bobblehead dolls. In My Most Secret Desire Doucet depicts a dream wherein she wakes up from an operation and discovers that she has physically become male. (“If I was a man” and “Regret: a dream by Julie Doucet”) She does not shy away from exposing the imperfect body or questioning gender identity.

Self-Surveillance

Graphic autobiographers often look to their diaries to expose what they had previously concealed, and in doing so can confront difficult memories. In her narrative Fun Home, Bechdel returns to her childhood diary; she notes, “My simple, declarative sentences, began to strike me as hubristic at best, utter lies at worst” (2006, p.140). In her diary she began drawing a “circumflex” over names and pronouns (that meant “maybe”), and again retrospectively notes, “it became a sort of amulet, warding off evil from my subject (Bechdel, 2006,p.141-p.142). Bechdel hints at the unreliability of archives for articulating certain truths, especially without critical examination, when she discusses her childhood diary’s simplification of complex emotional narratives (Bechdel, 2006, p. 143). Self-surveillance, through the archive of the diary, photographs, and letters, is a vital part of graphic autobiography; the writer can map out their truths through deconstructing archives that chronicle their experiences. The autobiographer can even look back at family archives long before they were born to create a narrative of self; they expose the socio-cultural influence on self-identity, uncovering and documenting the ways in which their identities have been constructed and influenced by forces outside of their control.

Zines

Women’s graphic life narratives are also rooted in zine culture and self-publication, and zines have their origins in print activism, politically motivated leaflets and pamphlets that were self-published in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and later the Suffragette printing press (1900 Golding press, pamphlets);  Zines also have roots in: “fanzines” which have been around hundreds of years, for example science fiction fan zines in the 1930’s, and also Dada and avant garde art pamphlets, and beat poet chapbooks; Zines now especially seem to draw from the DIY aesthetics of the feminist punk movement (such as Riot grrrl in the 1990’s)(which started in Washington, and spread to the greater Pacific Northwest; including bands like bakini kill… headed by Kathleen Hanna);—and the list goes on (Bartel, 2004, p. 5-9). Zines are a subversive genre because they are uncensored, and often not reviewed, unlike mainstream publications. The content of zines, especially perzines with personal narratives, or political zines, can be subversive and potentially offend some readers, but as zine librarian Julie Bartel suggests, they absolutely accord with the American Library Association’s Library Bill of Rights, in the policy that states, “books and other library resources should be provided for the interest, information, and enlightenment for all people of the community the library serves”; and also in the statement, “libraries should provide materials and information providing all points of view on current and historical issues” (Bartel, 2004, p. 27). As a genre, zines also provoke participation; as Bartel suggests, creating a zine “implies a longing for that ‘I’m not the only one’ moment where people connect and realize they share some of the same experiences and emotions” (2004, p. 20). Many zinesters are also believers in DIY lifestyle practices, including making and teaching others how to make (Bartel, 2004, p. 21).

Libraries

Librarians from any background can build zine collections from scratch based on local zinesters’ diverse interest, and the DIY aesthetics of zines lends itself to DIY library display possibilities, creative and inexpensive solutions such as: milk crates, wood boxes, even shoeboxes, standard magazine boxes, or spinning racks (Bartel, 2004, p. 73-74). Every few weeks the learning zone librarian at OCAD (Ontario College of Art and Design) chooses a new theme for the zines displayed on top of the shelf and on the wall (now self-care). While visiting the Vancouver public Library yesterday, I noticed the zines are also organized into subcategories and displayed in an inviting way with the covers facing outwards. If zines are organized and displayed well, then they can reveal the strength and complexity of the collection. Zines hardly compete with the library’s complete materials budget, and require modest funding, aside from resources needed to organize and display the collections, and staff for programming. Zine donation, and the ideology of participation and teaching innate in the genre, is kismet for public libraries that are struggling to stay relevant and stretch their materials budget.

Graphic autobiographies, like zines, also build diverse communities of readerships and makers, however they do so through publication and mainstream distribution. Lynda Barry privileges the reader/writer camaraderie through incorporating DIY tutorials into her now mainstream comics. In One Hundred Demons! Barry includes colouring templates, craft-making instructions, art supply tips, and even paper dolls, compelling readers to participate in the form, create, play, and produce their own narratives (2002, p.17-18, p. 37, p. 46-47, p.176-179); at the end of her book What It Is, Barry offers the reader painting tips, and even shares where she purchases her art supplies (2008). In their very nature, graphic autobiographies (and comics) rely on a collaborative process between reader and writer. As comic theorist Scott McCloud points out, comics are “a medium where the audience is a willing and conscious collaborator and closure is the agent of change, time, and motion” (Understanding Comics 65); the reader must participate in creating meaning from complex layered narration.

In contemporary society and historically, graphic life narratives as well as diaries overcome systems of oppression by breaking the cycles of “prohibition”, making queer or marginalized narratives visible, and subverting the logic of censorship that: prevents narratives from being said, affirms such narratives are not permitted, and denies such narratives exist, thus destabilizing what Foucault describes as the “uniformity of the apparatus” (Foucault, 1978, p. 81- 84). While diaries are assumed to be spontaneous “confessions”, graphic life narratives privilege stylistic revision and introspection; both are subversive archives that challenge hegemonic historical narratives and subvert norms of surveillance by allowing women, teens, children, and anyone, to document, record, and reflect on their own experiences and identities in the world around them; when published or incorporated into public institutions, they make different ways of being visible and possible.

Post rant         

I could go on about the importance of comics, including fantasy comics like Dame Darcy’s feminist Meatcake and Charles Burns’s Black Hole, and comics about mental illness; they are amazing and complex and were so important for me growing up; I would romanticize the outsider heroes and antiheroes in comics like Daniel Clowes’ Ghost World and David Boring, and Adrian Tomine’s Optic Nerve. I had many a romantic epiphany moment after reading comics; In high school, I attempted to transform myself into an outsider, hiding out in the art room at lunchtime, and frequently skipping school to rebelliously watch Murder She Wrote and the Antiques Road Show, or walk my dog to the railroad tracks in Winnipeg and read until sunset. Another vivid memory I have is of: accidentally ordering pornographic 1960’s underground sci fi commix off of ebay when I was fifteen, because a cartoonist I admired mentioned in an interview that the artwork was beautiful, and then having to hide them from my mom for years— but I had better stop the presentation here. Thank you!

 

Works Cited and Consulted

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

Barry, L., & Kawula, K. (2010). Picture this. Montréal, Quebec: Drawn & Quarterly.

Barry, L. (2008). What it is. Montréal, Quebec: Drawn & Quarterly.

Barry, L. (2014). Syllabus: notes from an accidental professor. Montreal, Drawn and Quarterly.

Bartel, J. (2004). From A to zine: Building a winning zine collection in your library. Chicago: American    Library Association.

Bechdel, A. (2006). Fun home: A family tragicomic. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Bunkers, S. L. & Huff, C. A. (1996). Inscribing the daily: Critical essays on women’s diaries. Amherst:   University of Massachusetts Press.

Doucet, J. (2006). My most secret desire. Montreal, Quebec: Drawn & Quarterly.

Doucet, J. (2004). My New York diary. Montreal, Quebec: Drawn & Quarterly.

Foucault, M. (1995). Discipline and punish: The birth of the prison. New York: Vintage Books.

Foucault, M. (1978). The history of sexuality. New York: Pantheon Books.

Johnson, A. (1997). The hidden writer: Diaries and the creative life. New York: Doubleday.

McCloud, S. (1994). Understanding comics: [the invisible art]. New York: HarperPerennial.

Obomsawin, D. (2014). On loving women. Montreal, Quebec: Drawn & Quarterly.

Raaberg, G. (1998). Beyond fragmentation: Collage as feminist strategy in the arts. Mosaic: A Journal for the Interdisciplinary Study of Literature, 31(3), 153-171. Retrieved from: http://search.proquest.com/docview/205369107?accountid=14771

Satrapi, M. (2007). The complete Persepolis. New York: Pantheon Books.