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

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

I miss studying comics.

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

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Kidkraft’s 18″ Dollhouse

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Doll Hospital Journal

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

From their website:

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

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

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

Really, a lovely and much needed project.

Book Pile: Comics and Mental Health

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

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

My Favorite Thing is Monsters by Emil Ferris (2017)

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

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

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

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

Earthling by Aisha Franz (2014)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fish by Bianca Bagnarelli (2014)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ikebana by Yumi Sakugawa (2015)

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

Soft Float by Valentine Gallardo (2015)

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

One Hundred Demons by Lynda Barry (2002)

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

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

Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi (2003)

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

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

Naming Monsters by Hanna Eaton (2013)

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

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

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

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

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

Ojitos Borrosos by Ines Estrada (2012)

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

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

Becoming Unbecoming by Una (2016)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Repost from an earlier section of my autobiographical comics guide:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fies, B. (2008). Mom’s cancer.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

http://depressioncomix.tumblr.com/

I Do Not Have an Eating Disorder by Khale McHurst

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

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

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

Jason Bradshaw:

http://boredompays.blogspot.ca/

http://jasonrbradshaw.tumblr.com/

Jenn Woodall (anxiety):

http://jwoodall.tumblr.com/

https://gumroad.com/jenn_woodall#

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

Sylvia Reuter:

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

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

 

Please let me know if you have any recommendations!

 

 

 

On Collecting Books, and How Objects Haunt Us and Piece Us Together

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I have been a collector for a very long time, taking pleasure in the way objects are arranged around me in the various rooms of houses and apartments where I have lived. When I was a child I would intricately arrange objects along the shelves and ledges of my bedroom and curate new arrangements every few weeks as if I worked in a museum—the Bonnebell diamond lip glosses, Claire’s accessories, Sailor Moon cards, seashells, Madeleine L’Engle and Kit Pearson novels, post cards, Aqua CDs, and other assorted items were specimens of utmost importance.

A home is not a home, I believe, without a few book piles waiting to be read, or curated to remind you of certain things such as memories, or people you have met, or important characters that teach you something about the world and yourself. My old apartments were likely fire hazards, with their combination of book piles, oil lamps, candles, and for a few years my roommate’s chubby unpredictable demon-possessed cuddly bitey helplessly mollycoddled cat named Spaz.

Books remind me of where I have been and where I would like to go, and memories surrounding the moment of discovering the book.

I wonder if digital culture can ever offer something like the second hand book’s trace of human presence— ephemera like grocery lists, old photographs, and post cards? Is there an E-book or MP3 equivalent to the second hand? There are hidden codes online that signify human action, tracing the development of web pages and activity, but you really have to dig to decode those stories; you have to become a detective. Those little clones of  information, like the MP3 or E-book, may take their first breath at our fingertips and then be deleted forever.

Sometimes it seems as though we are hoarders of information in the digital age. With virtual collections, we can forget what we own. We can consume and collect far more than we can meaningfully interact with, and since we forget what we have, we gather more—and more is always shoved in our faces. This is in part thanks to ads that are sometimes creepily tailored to our online activities, and sometimes our activities that are not online. We are bombarded with news stories every few seconds, or information rather than news, so much so that it is difficult for many people to distinguish fact from fiction, sense from nonsense.

Walter Benjamin wrote about how in the pre Internet era we already had more information and culture than one individual could digest, but it was not within a clicks reach; quantity smothers quality sometimes (agrees the collector), and yet the abundance and globalization of information means greater accessibility, and inadequate access to information is a huge barrier for wellness, education—and online communities of people can combat loneliness, or the feeling of isolation, or the feeling of being a freak (because the Internet has shown us that we are all freaky)—but then communities of like-minded people are sometimes prejudiced, or  spread hate, or bully, and so on. There is so much good about the Internet, and there is so much bad, and I can go on and on and become very anxious and hide beneath my covers, or I can take a deep breath and return to a comforting topic, like my book collection.

In pursuit of books while traveling, I stroll used bookstores. In Toronto if you are lucky enough to live downtown and be able to walk everywhere you can come across books gently placed on sidewalks in front of old character houses downtown; sometimes just in time to rescue them before it rains. Otherwise, I spend far too long looking at books at BMV (where you can disappear) and Ten Editions (one of those mythological used bookstores with ladders that slide across the shelves and piles of ephemera everywhere like in an eclectic relative’s ancient attic, that will likely close and disappear sadly any day now).

Most people do not come across books in this wandering way anymore; instead book purchasing has turned into a finger click on an Amazon page or other website; there are virtual cities you can only wander by staring at the screen. What will happen to those poor overlooked and abandoned creatures if the book becomes obsolete? I wonder what will happen to us? Maybe I am being a bit hyperbolic—but there is something special about the book as a physical artifact and the way we can interact with it and see hints of other peoples’ lives and the provenance of the object. And it feels so nice in our hands.

Digital collections are easier for me to forget; it is easier for me to accrue more and more online or digitally without meaningfully engaging with the information; because of this, everything attached to an online media, even the experience of reading an ebook or searching for and listening to music files, feels less significant, and I feel like I am somehow less.

Plus, there is something nice about showing off your collections and aesthetic choices to a friend, like wearing a funny cute bright outfit that speaks about who you are in a way that can be difficult to articulate otherwise. How will people know who I am—this is is a fear I sometimes have—when I can’t show off the objects I covet? Facebook and blogs enable us to curate our lives with online photo albums and display pages of our likes and interests, but I am always skeptical of the sincerity of this information. Objects can act as mirrors, that reflect how we desire to be seen; objects help us organize our world into a more manageable size, allow us to feel control over our environment; they are good luck, they are placebos, and they are talismans.

Collections also leave us wanting more—they are never complete. They give us something special to live for, including the communities, stories, and mythologies surrounding our objects. Most collectors have a constant craving for that missing piece, or if their collection is miraculously complete, they move on to the next one.

Collecting is also a history lesson, a way to connect the past to the present and in doing so find significance and meaning in objects and in life. Our archives shape our future, who we are, and one collection leads to an offshoot collection, and together they map out our identities and experiences. Books visibly and physically are filled with more history and weight than digital collections. Objects in our collections speak to each other and tell a story of their period, region, craftsmanship, and owners. Collections make me feel so small in this way, like staring up at the night sky filled with thousands of other planets and stars—because objects are ours for such a brief period of time and then they move on to a new fate.

Objects are a disguise, another layer of performance we shroud ourselves in like a cozy protective blanket; we are ephemeral, not the objects. To me ghosts are little notes and drawings in books calling out; they are stories we create and encounter that spark our imagination and haunt us so that we think about the past.

However, there is something liberating in traveling, with only a novella or two, or without any of my objects, and feeling free to be anyone and let people guess about who I am; and of course, we are more than our objects, and objects sometimes give us a false sense of security, purpose, or power, and we often fall into the trap of consumerism, capitalism, hermit tendencies (I am guilty of this too often), and so on—but I love the feeling of being a collector and the moment of discovery, and I would not give this up for anything. My collection of books also offers me the security, or illusion, of remembering who I am, a defense against forgetfulness and the vanishing of important memories. Books offer a reliable future and adventures; I can’t possibly die soon, because I have entirely too much to read.

There is also something powerful about creating objects that have some sort of permanence in the world, like clay dolls or drawings, even if they end up in your neighbor’s garbage or in a box in the back of your great aunt’s closet—maybe they will mean something to someone, maybe they will provoke a mystery or fill some void of longing in someone’s life. I enjoyed the feeling of looking like a mad scientist when I frantically made clay dolls several years ago; my roommate would come home from work to walk in the kitchen and see cookie sheets filled with fresh clay body parts, or Styrofoam blocks with metal interiors of legs and arms sticking up—and I felt like a character in a book.

DSC_1288

Leonora Carrington’s The Hearing Trumpet, several Lynda Barry books, Diane Arbus’s An Aperture Monograph, and Pablo Holmberg’S Eden are current talismans in my living room within view to remind me: to be happy with my lot (there is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in as Leonard Cohen sang), to not be afraid of ageing (because I get to be blunt and not have to worry about being sweet and looking pretty and young), to be kind to myself and confront my demons and flaws, to try to be sympathetic and embrace the absurdity that is life, and to maintain a childlike sense of playfulness.

Postscript

Here are my favorites from vintage picture books in my collection. I have not been able to let go of these yet to give to my niece:

A Special Trick by Mercer Mayer (1976); a Ten Editions find

special trick 1

special trick 2

special trick 3

Hag Head by Susan Musgrave and Carol Evans (1989); a Ten Editions find

hag head 1

hag head 2

The GhostEye Tree by Bill Martin, John Archambault, Ted Rand (1988); a Ten Editions find that I remember vividly from childhood

the ghost eye tree

Anna and the Echo-Catcher by Adam John Munthe and Elizabeth Falconer (1981); I purchased at Sellers & Newel in Toronto

anna and the echo catcher 1

anna and the echo catcher 2

The Old Lady Who Ate People: Frightening Stories by Francisco Hinojosa and Leonel Macie (1984); a Ten Editions find

the old lady who ate people

Pink Lemonade by Henrietta Ten Harmsel (1992); this whimsical and vibrant beauty was a Ten Editions find

pink lemonade

Garbage Delight (1977)/Alligator Pie (1974); I’ve had these since childhood

garbage delight

alligator pie

Outside Over There by Maurice Sendak (1989); Red River Books

Outside_Over_There_(Maurice_Sendak_book)_cover

outside over there 2

The Magic Circus by Wayne Anderson (1979); found at Red River Books in Winnipeg. I’ve seen so many instances of the artwork torn out of this book and sold online as individual prints.

magic circus 1

magic circus 2

magic circus 3

The Mouse and His Child is a picture novel by Russell Hoban first published in 1967, which I purchased at Balfour Books in Toronto; the animated film, based on the book, is terrifying and beautiful

the mouse and his child 1

The Night the City Sang by Peter Desbarats (1977); I do not celebrate Christmas, but it’s gorgeous!

the night the city sang, use this one

Nicholas Knock and Other People by Dennis Lee (1976); this one I found on a sidewalk in Toronto down my street!

nicholas knock and other people

The Thief and the Blue Rose by Ursula Schaeffler (1967); this was given to me by a friend

thief and the blue rose 1

thief and the blue rose 2

On Cat Mountain by Fracoise Richard (1994); I found this one at BMV in Toronto and was immediately drawn to the textured collage-like illustrations

On Cat Mountain

*Most of the books I found at Ten Editions were between $3-$5. Also, I did not take these photos, but if there is a demand to see more of the artwork, I can take a few photos and post them!