Visual authentication strategies in autobiographical comics by Elisabeth El Refaie

30 Nov

In 2009 the young French artist Judith Forest published her graphic memoir, 1h25. Using the format of a drawn diary, Judith chronicled her troubled relationship with her parents, her battle against addiction, and her meetings with various well-known personalities in the comics scene. The author gave several media interviews and had a high profile on social networking sites. But then rumours began to surface that Judith Forest did not, in fact, exist. Several of the people mentioned in the book claimed never to have met the woman, and her artistic style was seen to be remarkably similar to that of one of her publishers. These suspicions were apparently confirmed by Forest’s (2010) second book, Momon (‘Masquerade’), which recounts Judith’s response to the success of 1h25 and the controversies it sparked. As more and more doubts about the authenticity of the first book are raised, the autobiographical narrator starts to question her own existence. What if the rumours were true?, Judith asks herself: ‘And what if “sincerity” was nothing more than a sales strategy? And what if autobiography was the whore of literary genres? And what if I had been written in just three days? (p. 96, my translation). The book thus strongly implies what the editors finally admitted at the Angoulême comics festival in 2011: Judith Forest is, indeed, an entirely fictional character, who was played in media interviews by an actress (Brethes 2011).

Fake memoirs have, of course, appeared in other media as well; examples include the bogus literary persona of JT LeRoy and the blog that seemed to be written by a young gay woman in Damascus, but which was actually the creation of the American peace activist Tom MacMaster. Each of these cases raises distinctive questions about the notion of autobiographic authenticity, which relate to their particular socio-political context and their specific form. Since autobiographical comics tell and show events from someone’s life, the issue of authenticity in this medium applies not only to the verbal narration but also to both the content and the style of the visual representations (cf. Beaty 2009; Hatfield 2005). The aim of this article is to identify some of the visual strategies that graphic memoirists may use in order to ‘perform’ authenticity, including the physical resemblance between the author and the narrator/protagonist, the use of a particular style of drawing, and the inclusion of various forms of visual documentation.[1]

My understanding of autobiographical authenticity as a kind of performance draws on Goffman’s (1969[1959]) theory that, whenever we are in the presence of others, we adopt particular strategic roles in order to evoke the desired responses from our audience. According to Goffman, authenticity is not so much about choosing a role which readily accords with our one, true, innermost self; rather, it lies in the choice of the most appropriate roles for the different types of social interaction in which we engage, and in our ability to perform these roles convincingly and with the expected standards of dexterity and coherence. Goffman identifies two different kinds of expressiveness: expressions ‘given’, and expressions ‘given off’. The former involves communication in the traditional, narrow sense of verbal language, whereas the latter involves non-verbal actions such as body language, facial expression, quality of voice, which are perceived by others to be less directly under the actors’ control and which are thus treated as symptomatic of their ‘true’ interests, motives, and identity. In fact, skilled social actors are able to manipulate these non-verbal expressions as well, but most people are less conscious of their effect.

In this article, I will argue that graphic memoirists may be regarded as presenting themselves to their readers in a mediated form of social interaction. Instead of judging an author’s sincerity from his or her spoken words and actions, readers will be looking for signs of the authentic or inauthentic in the text (and sometimes the ‘paratext’ [Genette 1997] as well). I will suggest that visual authentication strategies in comics are likely to be considered as signs ‘given off’ rather than ‘given’ explicitly. Therefore, they are often seen as more reliable cues to authenticity than some of the more overt verbal claims to authenticity, which tend to be treated with scepticism and may sometimes even alert readers to the possibility of deceit or insincerity (Gubrium and Holstein 2009: 125).

Authentication through physical resemblance

Lejeune (1989) famously proposed a straightforward textual criterion by which authors signal that they are prepared to uphold the ‘autobiographical pact’, namely the fact that the author, the narrator, and the protagonist share the same name. In the case of a visual medium such as comics, the authenticity of a work is also judged on the basis of the degree to which the drawings resemble the actual, real-life people they are supposed to represent. Indeed, the visual performance of the autobiographical pact may even be a more important signal of authenticity than its verbal equivalent. Discussing her meeting with Swiss comic book creator Frederik Peeters, for instance, journalist Elizabeth Day (2008) is delighted because she is able to recognize him immediately from the portraits of his autobiographical alter ego, Fred, in his graphic memoir Blue Pills (2008): ‘The same solid angles, slightly hunched shoulders and skewed, quiet smile. The only difference is that he wears spectacles in the drawings and contact lenses in person; rather charmingly, he apologizes for this when we meet.’

In Billy, You and Me, Nicola Streeten’s (2011) graphic memoir about grieving for her two-year-old son, who died suddenly following heart surgery, there is a black and white portrait photograph of the author on the dust jacket of the book, which means that readers are able to compare her self-representations with her photographic image. Despite her simple drawing style, Streeten’s self-portraits bear an obvious resemblance to the woman in the photograph.

Fig 1 – © Nicola Streeten from Billy, Me & You (Myriad Editions, 2011), p. 69.

As this example shows, many comics artists’ self-portraits are deliberately ironic and self-deprecatory, with some comics creators even reverting to overt caricature. Such cartoon drawings can, after all, sometimes reflect the authentic self more successfully than a photograph or a highly realistic portrait ever could: ‘Those who need a truth deeper than similarity (‘he is himself’ rather than ‘he is like himself’) will need to avoid the illusoriness, the blinding, which likeness produces, and approach their prey through the “unlike like”’ (Scott 1999: 236). Streeten’s self-representations, for instance, are able to convey effectively her character traits and shifting states and emotions as she gradually discovers ways of coping with the reality of Billy’s death.

Authentication through visual style

Performed authenticity in comics is a matter not only of visual content, but also of stylistic features, which offer ‘a constant visual reminder of the hand of the illustration artist, much more so than the writer’s traces’ (Carney 2008: 195). Although the visual style of comics is, at least to some extent, under the control of the artist, it is likely to be considered by many readers as a sign ‘given off’ involuntarily rather than one that is chosen entirely consciously and deliberately.

Graphic memoirists often use a style of drawing that quite openly diverges from the styles commonly associated with conventional comic books. In this way, they can indicate their clear intention to tell a different, and, by implication, more genuine and truthful, kind of story. Witek (1989) suggests that non-fictional comics genres are typically cued by a realistic, quasi-photographic style. However, the visual style of graphic memoirists often draws its power less from its iconic resemblance to reality than from the indexical clues it seems to offer about the artist’s genuine characteristics and intentions. As Carney (2008: 196) rightly observes, many ‘alternative’ comics artists ‘infuse their work with a sense of the handmade and personal that deliberately evokes the “subartistic” and “amateurish” as a means of endowing an aura of the authentic and personal to the image and to the narrative voice of the comic.’ In the case of Streeten’s book, for instance, the simple, apparently child-like drawings can be said to suggest the artlessness associated with spontaneity. This impression is reinforced by the fact that many of the pages are drawn on the lined paper of an old diary (see figure 1). In reality, Streeten’s style is, of course, anything but child-like and spontaneous. With many years of experience as an artist and illustrator, Streeten spent several years working to create this intense and thoughtful story about the process of grieving and how it is shaped by social norms, conventions and taboos surrounding death.2

Another good example of ‘deliberate artlessness’ is Lynda Barry’s semi-autobiographical One! Hundred! Demons! (2002). Most of the full-colour pages in the book consist of just two square panels with vivid, quirky drawings and text boxes containing the narrative commentary, handwritten in large capital letters. Each of the chapters is introduced with a double-page collage, made up of scraps of printed or handwritten texts, drawings, photographs, pieces of fabric, buttons, and other objects relating to the topics discussed in the following pages. The opening and concluding pages of the book are painted on lined yellow legal paper. By purposely calling attention to its hand-crafted, artisanal quality and embracing the low cultural status of the mass-produced comics medium (cf. Chute 2010: 113), Barry can be said to be performing a playful and down-to-earth kind of authenticity.

Other graphic memoirists use a drawing style that gives the impression of being free and impulsive, thus allowing them to suggest that they are acting as relatively neutral channels of their own authentic thoughts and feelings. Peeters explained that he drew the story of his relationship with an HIV positive woman directly in ink and consciously did not go back and correct his work: ‘This was something I wanted to do to let go of the thoughts in my head’ (Day 2008). Similarly, Linthout’s (2009) autobiographical comic about a man trying to come to terms with his son’s suicide uses intentionally unpolished pencil drawings, in which all the original sketch lines are still clearly visible beneath the darker outlines of the final drawings. This suggests a grasp of reality that is terribly vulnerable and constantly threatening to dissolve completely, and yet the story feels truthful in terms of the emotional realities it conveys.

Authentication through documentation

Unlike most of the more conventional comics genres, autobiographical comics creators frequently include photographic images and other forms of documentary evidence in their work, either in their original form or in a graphic rendering. The ubiquity of such artefacts in graphic memoirs suggests that they must have a key role to play in persuading readers of the authenticity of a particular work. Again, it seems that many readers are willing to accept such visual authentication strategies as signs of truthfulness ‘given off’ rather than ‘given’ explicitly, since they draw on the intimate link between seeing and believing that is so deeply rooted in our cultural consciousness.

The photograph, in particular, has always been popularly perceived as a singularly objective and reliable medium, with the putative capacity to transcribe reality in the manner of ‘something directly stenciled off the real, like a footprint or a death mask’ (Sontag 2005[1977]: 120). Despite decades of discussions surrounding the problematic relationship between photographs and the ‘truth,’ an inherent belief in the photograph’s direct connection to reality seems to persist. Haverty Rugg (1997: 13) suggests that photography is like autobiography, in that both ‘participate in a system of signs that we have learned to read – at one level – as highly indeterminate and unreliable. Below that level of doubt rests, in some persons, the desire to accept the image or the text as a readable reference to a (once-)living person.’ If anything, the current anxieties surrounding the development of digital photography and the increased awareness of the enhanced possibilities of manipulation appear to have led to an even greater longing for the truly authentic image.

Some graphic memoirists include photographs of themselves and/or family members right at the beginning or the end of the book, while in others they are integrated into the text. In many of these cases, the inclusion of photographs acts as a straightforward ‘sign that we are reading autobiography’ (Adams 2000: 20), in the sense that it seems to ‘insist on something material, the embodied subject, the unification (to recall the autobiographical pact) of author, name, and body’ (Haverty Rugg 1997: 13). But often photographs in graphic memoirs fulfil a more complex role. In Billy, Me & You, for instance, Nicola Streeten includes several of the photographs her partner took after Billy’s death to remind them of the details of their daily life with him, including his toys scattered on the floor and his top lying on the back of the sofa (pp. 18-21). One whole page (p. 72) is given over to a labelled photograph of a pile of objects, including Nicola’s successful pregnancy test, Billy’s favourite bib, the death certificate, and Nicola’s journals, which the couple had compiled into an ‘archive’ and which ‘later became prompts for the telling of our story’ (p. 71). At another point in the story (pp. 86, 88), the artist’s drawings of herself and her partner are overlaid on a collage of photos of London streetscapes, which provide the desolate backdrop to their aimless walks around the hospital while their little boy undergoes surgery, and which also anchor the story firmly in a particular time and place.

Catherine Doherty’s comic book about her search for her birth mother, Can of Worms (2000), and Alison Bechdel’s account of her complicated relationship with her father, Fun Home (2006), both contain extracts from a range of photographs and textual artefacts, which are reinterpreted through the artists’ hand, while carefully preserving the visual appearance of the original documents. Unlike photography, cartooning does not generally claim to offer a direct, mimetic representation of the world but rather an interpretation of events as they are experienced by the artist, with aspects that are often deliberately exaggerated, adapted, or invented. By filtering documentary evidence through their own unique vision, these artists thus draw attention to their own interpretative practices. In Goffman’s (1969 [1959]) terms, they allow readers access to the ‘backstage’ regions of their performance, leading them behind the curtains and showing them all the props, costumes, and masks – or, in other words, the formal and narrative techniques – that were used in the construction of a particular work. Paradoxically, this kind of performance may strike the reader as more rather than less authentic, because it suggests that the graphic memoirist has nothing to hide and is willing to be completely open and honest.


In this article, I have argued that graphic memoirists use a range of visual authentication strategies that are specific to this medium. They allow comics creators to perform their life stories in ways that are likely to strike readers as particularly sincere, because these visual signs appear to be ‘given off’ naturally and spontaneously rather than ‘given’ with deliberate intent, even though they are actually often anything but ‘natural’ and spontaneous.

In my view the deception involved in the presentation of 1h25 as an autobiographical work depended to a large extent upon the close resemblance between the drawings of Judith Forest and the young actress who played her in real life. Even those readers who may have missed the relevant media broadcasts were still able to see the likeness for themselves, because the second book, Mormon, included a still of the actress taken from a program broadcast by the prestigious Arte television channel (p. 56). The relatively simple, sketchy drawing style used in both books also functioned as an effective visual authentication strategy, by indexing the informality and candidness of spur-of-the-moment diary entries. Finally, both 1h25 and Momon contained a range of visual artefacts, including photographs, scanned pictures of newspaper articles, and screen shots of emails and messages posted on Facebook, which appeared to provide further objective evidence and tangible links to the real world. The creators of these fake autobiographies were thus able to exploit the fact that visual authentication strategies are sometimes more likely to be taken ‘at face value’ by readers than explicit verbal claims to authenticity.


Adams, T.D. (2000) Light Writing and Life Writing: Photography in Autobiography. Chapter Hill and London: University of North Carolina Press.

Barry, Lynda (2002) One! Hundred! Demons! Sasquatch Books.

Beaty, B. (2009) Autobiography as authenticity. In Heer, Jeet and Worcester, Kent (eds.) A Comics Studies Reader. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi: 226-235.

Bechdel, A. (2006) Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic. London: Jonathan Cape.

Brethes, R. (2011) Canular belge à Angoulême. Le 29 January. Available at: (accessed 18.11.2012).

Carney, S. (2008) The ear of the eye, or, do drawings make sounds? English Language Notes 46(2): 193-209.

Chute, H. (2010) Graphic Women: Life Narrative and Contemporary Comics. New York and Chichester, West Sussex: Columbia University Press.

Day, E. (2008) Frame by frame: how to make a cartoon drama out of a crisis. The Observer, 23.3.2008. Available at: (accessed 20.11.2012).

Doherty, C. (2000) Can of Worms. Seattle, WA: Fantagraphics Books.

Forest, J. (2009) 1h25. Brussels: La Cinquième Couche.

Forest, J. (2010) Momon. Brussels: La Cinquième Couche.

Genette, G. (1997) Paratexts: Thresholds of Interpretation. Translation Jane E. Lewin. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Goffman, E. (1969 [1959]) The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin.

Gubrium, J.F. and Holstein, J.A. (2009) The everyday work and auspices of authenticity. In Vannini, P. and Williams, P.J. (eds.) Authenticity in Culture, Self, and Society. Farnham, Surrey and Burlington, VT: Ashgate: 122-138.

Hatfield, C. (2005) Alternative Comics: An Emerging Literature. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi.

Haverty Rugg, L. (1997) Picturing Ourselves: Photography and Autobiography. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press.

Lejeune, P. (1989) On Autobiography. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Linthout, W. (2009) Years of the Elephant. Wisbech: Fanfare Ponent Mon.

Peeters, F. (2008) Blue Pills: A Positive Love Story. London: Jonathan Cape.

Scott, C. (1999) The Spoken Image: Photography & Language. London: Reaktion Books.

Streeten, N. (2011) Billy, Me & You. Brighton: Myriad Editions, p. 69.

Sontag, Susan (2005[1977]) On Photography. New York: RosettaBooks, electronic edition.

Walker, T. (2011) A funny way to deal with death. The Independent, 6.12.2011. Available at: (accessed 17.11.2012).

Witek, J. (1989) Comic Books as History: The Narrative Art of Jack Jackson, Art Spiegelman, and Harvey Pekar. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi.

Elisabeth (Lisa) El Refaie is a Senior Lecturer at the Centre for Language and Communication Research, Cardiff University. The focus of her research is on new literacies and visual/multimodal forms of metaphor, narrative, and humour. She is the author of Autobiographical Comics: Life Writing in Pictures (2012), and her articles have appeared in several edited volumes and in journals such as Visual Communication, Visual Studies, Journal of Graphic Novels and Comics, and Studies in Comics.

[1] – A more detailed exploration of these ideas can be found in El Refaie, E. (2012) Autobiographical Comics: Life Writing in Pictures. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi.

[2] – Billy, Me & You was ‘highly commended’ in the 2012 British Medical Association Medical Books Awards.

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Posted by on 2012/11/30 in Uncategorized


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