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


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


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.


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).


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


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.





Minding User Desires: Updating the Universal Library Catalogue and Library Space Using Google Statistics for Data Mining



This paper examines the possibility of using google statistics to mine data for updating the library catalogue and design of the library as a diverse community space. This paper also examines the possibility of using library member-generated data to improve the library catalogue, collection, and space. This paper is expanded from Research Methods coursework at the Faculty of Information in 2015, is theoretical, and uses surveillance studies and cultural studies theory as frameworks.

To read the paper in pdf format click here: Rotem Anna Data Mining Project Proposal 2015

“This data mining research, if implemented, will help answer the questions: should (and can) Google search statistics be used to tailor the “universal” library catalog to better meet public library users’ search needs and desires, and if so, how will this process work? Current universal cataloging does not meet the diverse search desires and needs of library members. The universal catalogue assumes that people of diverse cultural and economic backgrounds classify, categorize, and experience the world similarly. The universal catalogue has also historically failed to consider the bias of the present. The present is always changing. We are always immersed in the bias and ideologies of the present—however, this is not considered in attempts at universal library cataloging. These systems are not easily adaptable, even though our categories of classification are always changing and have never been universal. This proposal is for a data mining research project that examines trends in Google user searches and correlates these statistics with trends in library member searches, in order to examine and potentially critique the effectiveness of universal library cataloging systems, such as DDC and LCC subject headings. This project does not aim to discredit the usefulness of an attempt at universal cataloging, but instead aims to assist those interested in librarianship to think critically about whom these information organization systems are now designed for.”

Understanding Sianne Ngai’s “The Cuteness of the Avant-Garde”


I am very much interested in the idea of “cuteness” within contemporary culture; how it can be played with by artists to provoke and question ideologies of femininity and masculinity and innocence and childhood, and how it can be understood as a social construct, which is why I was excited to come across Sianne Ngai’s essay as assigned coursework a few years back for a course on critical theory and pop music.

The following is a script of a presentation for a critical theory seminar course focusing on pop music. “The Cuteness of the Avant-Garde” is an essay included in Ngai’s book Our Aesthetic Categories: Zany, Cute, Interesting, which claims that the zany, cute, and interesting form a “triad”; as Benjamin Lytal observes in his review of Ngai’s book, this triad defines the way we live now: how we work is “the zany”, how we exchange information is “the interesting”, and how we consume is “the cute”.

Cute goals

I would like to focus on cute as a subversive category that can destabilize oppressive ideologies of gender and sexuality that are ingrained in its aesthetics, but I would also like to examine how cuteness perpetuates these ideologies. I will summarize a few key concepts from Ngai’s article, including: the aesthetic qualities of the cute object; the cute object’s role as a commodity; our potentially sadistic interaction with the cute object; and finally, cuteness as a subversive category.

Ngai references artists who subvert and expose the problematic aesthetics of cuteness to propose an answer to German sociologist, philosopher and musicologist Theodor Adorno’s difficult question: how is art made social by its means of nonsociality? Ngai observes that Adorno uses cute-specific themes to address this problem himself; these themes include (and this is from page 842): “art’s dialectical oscillation between powerlessness and cruelty; its anticommunicativeness or muteness; its ability to objectivize the subjective; and the notion of artistic expression as mutilation.” I will be incorporating these themes throughout the presentation as well, and hopefully at the end we will be able to draw some connections between contemporary pop music and Ngai’s concepts of how we interact with cuteness.

Qualities of the cute object

Ngai observes that cute objects represent an aestheticizing of powerlessness; she notes that cute objects are usually “soft, round, and deeply associated with the infantile and feminine” (814). While cute toys usually have faces, their facial features are simplified so much that they are barely there (such as hello kitty who has no mouth); their eyes might be eerily large (like The Powerpuff Girls), so they can mimic our gaze, but Ngai notes that any fuller personification would make them too equal to us, which would upset the power dynamic on which the cute aesthetic depends (814).

Ngai suggests that cuteness is associated with patriarchal ideas of beauty; she draws from Edmond Burke’s discussion of “the beauty of the female sex” (footnote on page 827); Burke describes objects that have the properties of smallness, softness, smoothness, and “nonangularity” or roundness in particular as beautiful; he also associates beauty with “the idea of weakness and imperfection” (827). Burke writes, “Women are very sensible of this; for which reason, they learn to lisp, to totter in their walk, to counterfeit weakness and even sickness. In all this, they are guided by nature. Beauty in distress is much the most affecting beauty” (827)—keep in mind, this is in the 18th century.  But if cuteness is an ideology of beauty and femininity that promotes docility and vulnerability, then commodification and marketing of this aesthetic might problematically perpetuate these essentialist ideals of femininity.

Cuteness is tied to the physical appearance of humans and objects, but Ngai notes that cuteness problematically “also becomes identified with a ’twittering’ use or style of language, marked as feminine or culturally and nationally ‘other’” (815). So, cuteness can be a harmful aesthetic perpetuating stereotypes of the imagined inferior “other”.

Kawaii culture in Japan, which Ngai references in her article, exemplifies this aesthetic of cuteness; along with the popularization of dejected or helpless toy objects or cartoons, women in kawaii perform a role of docility and innocence involving high pitched squealing and mimicking young girls by wearing school girl outfits. Marilyn Ivy writes that “the origins of kawaii had to do with pity or empathy for a small or helpless creature—archetypically, a child or infant…the notion of the cute is entirely wrapped up in the relationship to the child figure as the epitome of vulnerability and helplessness” (8). This aesthetic is also exemplified by the Lolita subculture in Japan.

Theresa Winge writes that Lolitas or Lolis “are young women and men who dress as anachronistic visual representations of Victorian-era dolls, covered from head to toe in lace, ruffles, and bows” (47).  In Western culture “Lolita” is often associated with Vladimir Nabokov’s 1955 novel wherein an adolescent girl is pressured to have a sexual relationship with her middle-aged stepfather; and in Japanese culture, “Lolita complex” refers more generally to older men who are attracted to young girls (Winge 47). The Lolita subculture emerged from the kawai (cute) craze that began in the 1970’s with Japanese youth adopting kawaii handwriting style incorporating cute aesthetics such as hearts, faces, and stars (Winge 47). By the 1980’s, the Lolita subculture adopted cute aesthetics such as stuffed animals, and children’s accessories. For those who participate in the Lolita subculture, the style is not meant to be sexual, but instead rebels against the norms of dominant Japanese culture, yet the subculture is critiqued for being naïve, especially for playing into the “Lolita complex” I mentioned before, placing its participants as the focus of sexual attention. But why is it that a fashion subculture is blamed for being naive, when the association of sexuality or “Lolita complex” is a social construction and only within the purview of those who look at it and judge the subculture from the outside?  Can we draw a parallel between this and women survivors of sexual assault who are often critiqued and blamed for the assault because they dressed “slutty”?

The fetishization of innocence has often been utilized by female pop artists (and their creative and management teams), for example Brittany Spears’s school girl uniform in the “Baby One More Time” video. I was in elementary school at the time this video came out and shortly thereafter adopted certain cute fashion items such as the school girl skirt and braids and fuzzy hair elastics, but I remember they made me feel powerful. However, in this way pop artists perhaps also enable the fetishistic gaze, encouraging girls to be the object of that gaze. Pop artists are nonthreatening because they are untouchable and cannot touch us, yet whoever is watching can misconstrue, fetishize, or fantasize about the artist’s performance. This fetishization of innocence and cuteness is also evident in the celebrity industry which capitalizes on our obsession with the corruption of innocence— evidenced, for example, in minute-by-minute media coverage of young female pop stars and actors.

Next, I will discuss the cute object as a commodity in consumer culture, providing some historical context to the “cute” aesthetic, and then I will talk about consumers’ potentially sadistic attraction to cute objects.

Cuteness and consumer culture

Ngai argues that cuteness is the dominant aesthetic of consumer culture; she associates cuteness with other aesthetic categories, such as quaint, wacky, quirky, and cool, popularized by post-war consumer culture. In America, it resulted from the industrialization of modernist aesthetics, which sought to develop a new commodity aesthetic; the fields of design and advertising were rapidly expanding and this new aesthetic alluded to a reconciliation of mass culture and high art (from page 812)— so bringing art into everyday life.

Commodity cuteness was therefore an aesthetic concept developed by the culture industry. Ngai notes that it was first aligned with products designed for children, but that it was not until after the first world war that “cute toys” began appearing in mass quantity (toys that displayed helplessness and vulnerability). The manufactured plush toys differed from earlier toys such as the breakable mechanical dolls of the late 19th century that Ngai explains reflected a male-dominated business economy obsessed with technology (an example of this doll can be seen on page 18). The plush toy revealed a new attitude towards children that surfaced in 20th century psychology: that children could now be aggressive and their toys would have to survive this aggression (page 817); children were no longer imagined as little adults or pure moral subhuman creatures.

The avante-garde poets that Ngai references, such as Gertrude Stein and her work Tender Buttons, utilized the commodity aesthetic of cuteness to respond to their own restricted agency in a commodified society and to reflect on how their work was perhaps “too easily fetishized” (838). But I will discuss more about art and subversive cuteness a bit later. Ngai argues that commercial cuteness depends on pliability and softness; the cute object  “invites physical touching” and the object must “withstand the violence its very passivity seems to solicit” (830).

Sadistic tendencies

Ngai uses Japanese cartoons, art, and toys to demonstrate that cute things are susceptible to being abused and disfigured. She notes that the cute objects in Stein’s Tender Buttons are presented as “easily churned and cherished” (41), and she cites several other examples. For example, San-X, a more “edgy” version of Sanrio— which is a Japanese company that sells cute toy products, most famously Hello Kitty— featured a slightly burnt and dejected looking bread bun named Kogepan, which at the time of Ngai’s article, was their most popular figure (820). Ngai writes, “the smaller and less formally articulated or more bloblike the object, the cuter it becomes—in part because smallness and blobbishness suggest greater malleability and thus a greater capacity for being handled” (815).

Ngai draws the connection between cuteness and ugly or aggressive feelings, as well as tender or maternal ones. On page 816, she notes that the cute object’s passivity and vulnerability is “often intended to excite a consumer’s sadistic desires for mastery and control as much as his or her desire to cuddle”. She points to Winnie the Poo whose cuteness is tied to his clumsiness and helplessness, such as when his snout is stuck in the hive. We might be attracted to cute objects because they are non-threatening and invite us to be superior or transpose our comfortable ideologies upon them, but maybe contemporary society is also fascinated with a cuteness that alludes to something more sinister than cuteness— an uncanny extreme mimicry of cuteness that rejects cute as innocent, and by extension, women as simple; cuteness becomes subversive and women are diverse and complex.

So given all the problematic associations with the aesthetic of cuteness, how can cute be subversive? How does cuteness rebel against patriarchal ideologies of gender and sexuality? Next, I will discuss how cuteness can be utilized as an empowering, challenging, and threatening aesthetic.

Cute as subversive

Ngai argues that both avant-garde works and “cute” objects as modern concepts embody a powerlessness, but that this powerlessness can expose the violence of domination; the cute object might arguably be the most objectified of objects, but its extreme objectification is key to its potential resistance.

Theresa Winge draws from Sigmund Freud’s account of the uncanny and its unpleasant affects in the domain of art. Freud argued it could not be included in the classical domains of the beautiful or sublime and suggested that the uncanny emerges etymologically from its exact opposite: from the intimate, homely, and the private, through a process of what he calls slippage, where “the most homelike and friendly affect turns into its ugly opposite: which is the weird, the eerie and not homie” (Winge 15).

Artists such as Yoshitomo Nara utilize the uncanny to subvert how we interact with or think about cuteness. Nara, who Ngai frequently references, reproduces many conventions of cuteness in his paintings of evil children; they have big heads, are round, soft, squishy, and wide-eyed, but their version of cute has been altered and deformed by the artist: they provoke pathos which changes the interaction of the viewer with the object. The artwork rejects the cuteness imposed upon them and makes the viewer aware of their imposition (15); the children glare out of the artwork, judging the viewer for their judgment. Marilyn Ivy observes that Nara’s work reveals the “child” as an internal formation and as an external object in mass culture and commodity life (8). Ngai observes that Nara’s children are frequently maimed and wounded or distressed (such as in figure 3, page 821) with the phrase “black eye, fat lips, and opened wound”. Through his aggressive exaggerations of kawaii aesthetics, Nara critiques consumer society’s blind acceptance and commodification of these aesthetics.

Many artists use techniques of defamiliarization to force viewers or readers to reexamine familiar themes and ideas; when an object that is reliably cute becomes threatening, uncanny, or perversely appealing, we might question why this is so disturbing to us, and what ideologies are challenged by that object.

When cute objects or cartoons become too detailed or too human they might venture into the uncanny valley and provoke disturbing introspection, also calling into the question the supposedly non-threatening aesthetics of cuteness in the first place, which might begin to look suspicious and concealing.

Cute can be unintentionally empowering for the subject as well; Ngai explains that cute objects such as babies and puppies “often have a deverbalizing effect on the subjects who impose cuteness upon them”, and  “in soliciting a response along the lines of a murmur or coo, the cute object shows its ability to infantilize the language of its infantilizer”(827). The cute object provokes the gazing subject to react, revealing their vulnerability and susceptibility to cuteness.

Extreme depictions of cuteness might provoke the uncanny and expose the innate strangeness of an aesthetic that can promote and sell vulnerability and innocence. Ngai writes that the “unpleasantly blistered ‘monster’ appearing in Tender Buttons, as well as in Murakami’s DOB series, might less encode a fantasy of art’s ability to inflict payback on the society that imposes minorness upon it… than a more modest way of imagining art’s capacity for offering some resistance to its rhythmic recuperation by becoming something slightly less easy to consume—or something that if indeed consumed might result in ‘heavy choking’ ” (TB, 45; 834).

So, returning to the kawaii aesthetic and the Lolita subculture of Japan, Winge writes that in the 1980s in Japan, the term “Lolita” gained new associations within fashion subcultures, as resistance to trends that dominated Japanese culture. This subculture might also work to expose Western stereotypes of Eastern culture and femininity such as orientalism, which fetishizes and makes eastern culture exotic. The Lolita subculture also redefines taboo signifiers within contemporary culture. Kawaii was also formed in part from nostalgic fantasies of a previous and more simple era, an imagined Eastern and Western past; these characteristics are imposed on contemporary life, such as decorative aesthetics related to childhood, innocence, leisure, and luxury (59). If this is the case, do these aesthetics represent resistance to contemporary realities? catharsis? placation, denial, or escapism?  Perhaps, it depends on whoever is judging the subculture, based on their experiences and bias.

The Lolita subculture might also take on characteristics of camp, which Susan Sontag describes as love of the unnatural, artifice and exaggeration (Notes on Camp). Camp sees the world as aesthetic phenomenon, not in relation to beauty but artifice and outrageous artifice; although perhaps the naivety of the Lolita subculture situates it within the category of pure camp instead of deliberate camp; it is a glorification of character, instant character, with no development, an aesthetic experience of the world, favoring irony over tragedy; it is playful and pastiche. The Lolita subculture also draws attention to the performative nature of gender through its extreme depiction of femininity and girliness.

I think it is worth noting that although Ngai emphasizes the power of art to utilize or embrace cute aesthetics in order to critique the paradigm of these aesthetics, she also observes that “the project of autonomous art begins to resemble a masochistic one: an incessant, guilt-ridden meditation on its own social impotence” (844); she notes that Adorno repeatedly describes artworks as both the “wounds of society” and “mute” (844).

When a person takes on a cute persona or adopts cute aesthetics, they may do so knowing that their cuteness will provoke a certain response in someone, be it affection, a sense of dominance, or a disarming affect—and this can be a powerful tool. Cuteness can be a layer of artifice that signals to someone else what we desire to communicate; it can enable us to appear how we want to appear; it is a conversation about who we are that we do not need to speak out loud. Cute things, such as dejected objects or simple cartoon characters, are presumed to lack interiority—but people are complex; in this way cuteness, at least as an aesthetic adopted by people, is perhaps innately subversive and effectively challenges the way we understand each other and ourselves.

Video notes

Bjork’s “I miss you” utilizes the cute aesthetic in order to be more grotesque than a more detailed “human-like” aesthetic would allow; we would turn away from these disturbing images if they were too realistic, and in this way we are forced to confront them. We are hypnotized. Bjork defamiliarizes the genre of children’s cartoons or shows, exposing violence and realities normally banished from these utopian worlds built of romantic ideologies such as true love and a safe pure adolescence filled with magic. She does not ignore sexual themes; she and her cartoon friends dance in condoms on her chest. While her cartoon adopts cute aesthetics, she is able to be violent and imperfect. She is violently disfigured; at one point her head is pulled off, which exemplifies Ngai’s concept of the cute object’s invitation for abuse.


Ivy, Marilyn. “The Art of Cute Little Things: Nara Yoshitomo’s Parapolitics.” Mechademia 5.1 (2010): 3–29. Print.

Lytal, Benjamin. “Zany, Cute, Interesting: What the Words We Use Say About Us.” The Daily Beast. 23 Oct. 2012. Web. 4 Mar. 2013.

Ngai, Sianne. “The Cuteness of the Avant‐Garde.” Critical Inquiry 31.4 (2005): 811–847. CrossRef. Web. 2 Mar. 2013.

Sontag, Susan. “Notes on ‘Camp’.” Byliner. Web. 2 Mar. 2013.

Winge, Theresa. “Undressing and Dressing Loli: A Search for the Identity of the Japanese Lolita.”Mechademia 3.1 (2008): 47–63. Project MUSE. Web. 7 Mar. 2013.






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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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).


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.

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