Scott McCloud’s articulation of the universality of cartoon imagery (‘when you enter the world of the cartoon—you see yourself’ ) has come under much scrutiny during the years since Understanding Comics first ushered the medium into the spotlight among academics. I am partial to this growing collection of perspectives that seeks to complicate the idea that comics naturally invite readers into their worlds. Gillian Whitlock, in her reading of Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, offers one such complication; ‘there can be no simple universality in the associations produced by cartooning across very different relationships’ (977), she writes. Even a cursory survey of the tools, topics, and stylistic and generic choices that cartoonists have employed in their work reveals that comics do not make us all one in our experiences; instead the form (as with any form) exhibits a proliferation of divergent approaches to life—some that pull us in with their imagery and others that seem determined to alienate. Additionally, universalizing claims tend to neglect the medium’s capacity to help readers “re-see” known events or experiences with new points-of-view. Of course, another problem with universalism is that what we understand as a universal worldview tends to be dictated by those who have the power and voice to control the world’s goings-on.
Yet, despite my skepticism of universalizing claims, there is a danger in simplifying or skirting the context in which McCloud made his statement. Indeed, McCloud’s notion of cartoon universality is born out of the fact that our identification with cartoon imagery manifests itself differently than it does in images with their own unique representational indices (photography, film, etc.). That is, McCloud understands comics in terms of how the cartooned image “works” distinctly from other forms of expression. I would like, then, to revisit this matter of how we see ourselves in comics imagery in order to keep the claims for universalism in play, even as we see the need to complicate or even undermine them. To approach the matter, this essay will veer anecdotal and personal, examining in a very limited and specific way how cartoon imagery might move readers to contemplate self, other, and the relations between the two. Despite the individuation of the example, hopefully what I write will have some resonance for others, whether we understand that possible response as a gesture toward universality or not.
If you are familiar with my creative work in comics, you might know that in 2001, my mother was diagnosed with colorectal cancer. Although the cancer went into remission after surgery and chemotherapy, it returned in metastatic form soon after and became very much a part of her life until her death in 2007. Her treatments determined her daily schedule; the taste in her mouth limited her appetite for certain foods; fatigue and fever dictated where she would spend her days—in bed, on the couch, in the garden, out shopping. My mother’s public, “presentable” self was one that worked to conceal the day-to-day decisions and dilemmas that her private self faced. While cancer has entered the popular imagination in more constructive and candid ways than when Susan Sontag drew attention to its ‘[c]onventions of concealment’ (7) thirty years ago, the personal narrative of cancer remains hazy or, as in the case of my mother, anxiously hidden. I remember how she would respond to seeing photographs of herself—images taken by my father at parties, restaurants, or during short trips—with embarrassment or feigned disbelief (‘Do I really look that tired?’), as if determined to keep her sick self separate from her performed self. The photographs seemed to tell her that the public body that she displayed, with its awkward wig and layers of makeup, was not doing its job of disguising her private identity. It did the job just fine, of course; close friends at her memorial service shared stories about how alive and active she was during her last few years while knowing full well the severity of her illness. As Erving Goffman has suggested, our selves are always performing; our performances are our realities. Still, I—like my mom before me—feel uncomfortable looking at the most recent photographs of her in ways that I never felt when we were face to face. There is something about the photographic image that is limiting—that binds us to the particular moment it captures. Standing in front of family and friends, my mother was alive, moving, changing; in the photographs, she is, to use the language of Roland Barthes, ‘condemned to the repertoire of [their] images’ (38).
During our last Thanksgiving together, I was confronted with an image of my mother that was in stark contrast to the photographs that captured her six years of life with cancer. The family had gathered around my cousin’s newly acquired Nintendo Wii to make “mii”s for ourselves to use in play. In constructing cartoon avatars—choosing from a selection of simple head shapes, eyes, noses, hair colors, hairstyles, body types, skin tones, and accessories—we all knew better than to recreate ourselves into anything other than we were; any attempt to give ourselves thicker hair (my balding dad), greater stature (my vertically-challenged cousin), or a smaller nose (my olfactory-enhanced self) would be rejoined with unrelenting mockery, making the initial “fault” seem all the worse. Thus, we made our selves extra bald, extra short, and extra nosey. As McCloud might put it, we were amplifying and simplifying. Of course, I was curious about the mii my mom would construct for herself. At that point, she had been living with cancer for about five years. Given the visible side effects of the treatment she was on at the time (including hair loss and facial discoloration), I (stupidly) wondered whether she would resurrect a self without disease. Indicting my naiveté, she gave her mii short and relatively tamed hair that resembled the coif of her wig rather than choose something akin to the unwieldy mane that she had pre-cancer. She also adorned her mii with large, Jackie O-styled sunglasses that covered much of the mii’s face. The outlandishly-sized glasses would have hidden the effects chemotherapy had on her face, but they also simply jibed with her distinct style; she would have purchased a real version of those glasses. The choices she made that afternoon brought together a private self and a public identity—conflicting but entwined. Among the countless photos of my mom collected in albums and shoeboxes (before cancer, after cancer, during remission, during treatment), not one offered the kind of self-representation that this cartoon version provided; the character was her “mii,” but it was also her “me.” My mother’s revision of her body into this sharply-angled and simplified figure allowed for a representation of self that, unlike those photographs that worked to limit and constrict her, was latent with life.
I don’t mean to diminish the value of the photographs we have (or anyone’s photos of loved ones); nor do I want to overdetermine the impact of what was designed solely for play. Still, in piecing together that cartoonish mii, my mom was able to share some of the dilemmas and realities she faced regarding her illness in ways that I still don’t see in the photographs. The photos we have of my mom serve as a kind of evidence—a testament to her life, actions, appearance. They provide my family and me with a meaningful record and, standing alone as they do in frames on the mantel or the wall, we look to them to see how she was, when she was; they rouse us to remember what she wore, what she did, how she smiled. But the confines of the lens determine that remembrance. Indeed, not only do the photos limit (or “secure,” for a less pejorative connotation) my mom to the repertoire of their images, but they provide the perspective of someone outside looking in—a snapshotter who shares the space of the experience, but is not apparent in how that experience is represented on film. Furthermore, any stranger looking at the photos of my mom would have little idea about the role my dad played as caregiver; his perspective as photographer becomes misunderstood or even commandeered by that of the observing stranger.
Of course, a similar statement could be directed toward the cartooned mii. Anyone not there that Thanksgiving afternoon would have little sense of the particular context that subscribes meaning to it for me. But perhaps that is part of the cartoon’s power (and, with the inclusion of select words, the power of comics narrative). A few years after her death, during a talk I gave at my University, I presented a reproduction of that same cartoon mii together with my mom’s story. My audience—largely students who were well-versed in Wii dynamics themselves—directed expressions of identification and sympathy toward that mii much moreso than toward the photograph of my mom that I had also showed to them; while the photographic image produced varying degrees of emotion, in that manifestation, my mom remained uncomfortably remote and unfamiliar to them. While McCloud’s theories on the universalization that comics imagery offers are simplistic, as “unreal” or cartoonish as the mii was, it allowed my mom to see herself and, years later, allowed others access to her.
In creating a mii that Thanksgiving afternoon, my mom was able to tap into the vocabulary of comics in a way that encouraged sympathy and community on her own terms. I’m almost certain that she would roll her eyes at me if she knew the weight that I had placed on her simply shaped self-display—not because she would disagree with my assessment, but because my mom tried, when she could, to avoid intellectualizing the heavy stuff (or the light, depending on how you look at it). But on most occasions when we would roll our eyes at each other over some subject that the other had put a great deal of store in (isn’t that the way it is with mothers and daughters?), there were many instances outside of the bounds of our relationship that testified to the values each of us defended. In this case, the sympathy generated by my mom’s mii has its parallel in the comic representations of illness, and cancer in particular, that have become thematic mainstays in all manifestations of the comics medium (a catalog of which is constantly updated by Ian Williams and MK Czerwiec on graphicmedicine.org). If my mom’s mii could help me to reflect on the personal dilemmas she faced while living with cancer, I believe that comics and their cartoon imagery in general might offer larger-scale insight into the dilemmas we face when confronted with a number of issues that need universal acknowledgment, if not universal empathy.
Barthes, Roland (1994): Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes, Berkeley.
Goffman, Erving (1959): The Presentation of the Self in Everyday Life, New York.
McCloud, Scott (1994): Understanding Comics, New York.
Sontag, Susan (1978): Illness as Metaphor, Toronto.
Whitlock, Gillian (Winter 2006): “Autographics: The Seeing Eye of Comics” in Modern Fiction Studies 52.4 (965-79).
Mita Mahato is Associate Professor of English at the University of Puget Sound where she teaches courses in Visual Studies and Cultural/Literary Theory. Her scholarly work traces the relationship between narrative and illness, examining contemporary and hybridized media in particular (hypermedia, comics, photo-essays). She is also a collage and comics artist. Her work in comics often using collage and cut-outs in order to draw attention to the material quality of the form and the people and situations she takes as her subjects. To learn more about her larger creative work-in-progress, please visit theseframesarehidingplaces.com.