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 panopticon— the 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.
I could go on about the importance of comics, including fantasy comics like Dame Darcy’s feminist Meatcake and Charles Burns’s Black Hole, and comics about mental illness; they are amazing and complex and were so important for me growing up; I would romanticize the outsider heroes and antiheroes in comics like Daniel Clowes’ Ghost World and David Boring, and Adrian Tomine’s Optic Nerve. I had many a romantic epiphany moment after reading comics; In high school, I attempted to transform myself into an outsider, hiding out in the art room at lunchtime, and frequently skipping school to rebelliously watch Murder She Wrote and the Antiques Road Show, or walk my dog to the railroad tracks in Winnipeg and read until sunset. Another vivid memory I have is of: accidentally ordering pornographic 1960’s underground sci fi commix off of ebay when I was fifteen, because a cartoonist I admired mentioned in an interview that the artwork was beautiful, and then having to hide them from my mom for years— but I had better stop the presentation here. Thank you!
Works Cited and Consulted
Barry, L. (2002). One hundred demons. Berkeley, Calif.: Distributed by Publishers Group West.
Barry, L., & Kawula, K. (2010). Picture this. Montréal, Quebec: Drawn & Quarterly.
Barry, L. (2008). What it is. Montréal, Quebec: Drawn & Quarterly.
Barry, L. (2014). Syllabus: notes from an accidental professor. Montreal, Drawn and Quarterly.
Bartel, J. (2004). From A to zine: Building a winning zine collection in your library. Chicago: American Library Association.
Bechdel, A. (2006). Fun home: A family tragicomic. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
Bunkers, S. L. & Huff, C. A. (1996). Inscribing the daily: Critical essays on women’s diaries. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press.
Doucet, J. (2006). My most secret desire. Montreal, Quebec: Drawn & Quarterly.
Doucet, J. (2004). My New York diary. Montreal, Quebec: Drawn & Quarterly.
Foucault, M. (1995). Discipline and punish: The birth of the prison. New York: Vintage Books.
Foucault, M. (1978). The history of sexuality. New York: Pantheon Books.
Johnson, A. (1997). The hidden writer: Diaries and the creative life. New York: Doubleday.
McCloud, S. (1994). Understanding comics: [the invisible art]. New York: HarperPerennial.
Obomsawin, D. (2014). On loving women. Montreal, Quebec: Drawn & Quarterly.
Raaberg, G. (1998). Beyond fragmentation: Collage as feminist strategy in the arts. Mosaic: A Journal for the Interdisciplinary Study of Literature, 31(3), 153-171. Retrieved from: http://search.proquest.com/docview/205369107?accountid=14771
Satrapi, M. (2007). The complete Persepolis. New York: Pantheon Books.