Reviews: March 2014

28 Mar

Elisabeth El Refaie, Autobiographical Comics: Life Writing in Pictures, Jackson, University Press of Mississippi, 2012, 273pp, ISBN: 978-1-61703-613-2, $55

Reviewed by Louisa Parker

An overview of North American and European life writing in comics form, Autobiographical Comics: Life Writing in Pictures covers 85 works from Europe and the US and engages with a range of interdisciplinary academic fields. Clearly written in an accessible style this is an informative text of use to comics scholars generally. The breadth of comics work and theory covered means that depth is inevitably relinquished and some readers may find this unsatisfying, however El Refaie herself acknowledges the lack of detail and includes copious notes, bibliographies, references and a helpful index for those who wish to study the content in more depth.

The comprehensive bibliography serves as a stimulating resource in itself, with sources from social science, cultural studies, linguistics, narratology, philosophy, psychoanalysis and of course comics studies. This interdisciplinarity is, as stated in the introduction, in part a response to the tendency towards English Literature in North American comics scholarship. El Refaie refers to a range of theory from sources including Brecht, Barthes, Bakhtin, Bal, Berger, Butler, Bergson, Sontag, Mulvey and C.S. Pierce as well as the established comics scholars like Witek, Carrier, Sabin, Hatfield and Chute. This eclecticism helps El Refaie show the scope of comics scholarship and its relevance to interdisciplinary academic realms.

The explicitly stated purpose of the book is to investigate the phenomenon of autobiographical comics and to discern general patterns and trends. El Refaie restricts her research to comics in book format and so web comics and zines are omitted from this process. While all the chapters are theoretically informed, the focus is on the nature of life writing in comics, presenting the reader with examples and analysis which the author employs to identify formal and stylistic properties she perceives as common to the comics. There are five chapters organized around themes of marginality, embodiment, temporality, authenticity and readership, each chapter containing a consideration of a number of graphic works and drawing from a range of theory. The illustrations are chosen well but should be around twice the size that they have been reproduced in the book; many of them are too small to enjoy or too small to read easily, which is frustrating for the reader.

There is enough variety in the graphic works included in the book for this reviewer to make new discoveries (that will shortly fill my bookshelves) however many of the comics El Refaie analyses are the usual suspects. This is probably unavoidable when mining such a fledgling field, but it would be interesting to see the difference made to the text if for example self published zines and web-comics had been included, especially as this is an area in which women and other under represented groups are publishing more. I’m thinking particularly of ‘perzines’, personal stories in zine form, which predate the new trend for women’s life writing in comics by a couple of decades. This is no disadvantage to the book however, as a line must be drawn in the research somewhere.

Autobiographical Comics will be useful to many scholars and students and as a sourcebook and speculative exploration of a number of theoretical points it is a valuable contribution to the field. For El Refaie, the nature of life writing has shifted due to the recent surge in autobiographical comics, as have audiences for this type of work establishing an area worthy of serious analysis. This thought provoking, useful, wide ranging book, from a UK based academic is perhaps a little overdue, but it is very welcome, a sight for sore eyes as they say.

Autobiographical Comics is published by the University of Mississippi, a North American press which has made a major contribution to the body of work in comics scholarship, but was conceived by a European scholar during research supported by Cardiff University.

ISSUE #ONE CCA Glasgow 17th March 2014

Reviewed by Damon Herd

Over 150 people involved in comics converged on the Centre for Contemporary Arts (CCA) in Glasgow on Monday 17th March for an event where most of the audience were unsure of what was actually going to happen. The listing on the CCA’s website for ISSUE #ONE gave a little information but many people were left in the dark by the enigmatic announcement.

On the night the attending comics creators, retailers, reviewers, bloggers, publishers, fans, and academics only knew for certain that the event had been organised by the Scottish Independent Comic Book Alliance (SICBA), Black Hearted Press, and the Stirling Maxwell Centre. As it turned out the panel included Dr Laurence Grove, Director of the Stirling Maxwell centre, as well as other academics Dr Chris Murray, Senior Lecturer and head of the MLitt in Comic Studies, University of Dundee and Phillip Vaughan, Course Director, Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art. Publishers were represented by Sha Nazir, Art Director & Publisher, Black Hearted Press Ltd (Nazir is also a founder of SICBA) and Maria Welch, Publisher (Children’s Entertainment), DC Thomson Ltd. The panel was completed by Jenny Niven, Portfolio Manager for Literature, Publishing and Languages, Creative Scotland and Peter Watson of Forbidden Planet International, Glasgow.

The two hour symposium took the form of six questions pitched to the panel in a ‘Question Time’ style format, with time for audience questions after each topic had been discussed, and then a more in depth discussion at the end. The questions looked at themes of collaboration and mutual benefit in the industry, comics and education, the relationship between publishers (including small press) and retailers, digital comics, funding, and finished with a discussion on whether Scotland should have a National Comics Academy and Gallery.

Much of the discussion related around many positives in comics; Grove, Murray and Vaughan all noted that it had not been problematic at all to introduce comics courses into their respective educational establishments. Indeed, as a comics PhD student in Dundee myself I have noticed no resistance, and in fact benefit from the departments and courses that they have established. There was some discussion about comics and schools and how it seemed easier to get comics teaching into primary schools than secondary. In a discussion I had afterwards with a high school English teacher (who teaches comics) we debated whether high schools would take the lead from universities, and offer a Higher in comics if it lead to an undergraduate course in comics.

Both Nazir and Welch emphasized the importance of individual branding when promoting your work and Vaughan explained that a good press release makes a huge difference. Nazir also noted how advances in printing technology mean that no work should look unprofessional. The topic of funding was raised and Niven pointed out that Creative Scotland are very open to comics creators submitting a proposal and that changes to their funding procedures should now make this easier. I did feel that the focus of the discussions was ‘breaking into the industry’ and didn’t necessarily take into account the fanzine/small press scene who often make comics just for the sake of making comics.

Once you have created your comics what is the next step? When asked about getting small press comics into shops Watson asked creators to come and talk to them as Forbidden Planet were very happy to push home grown talent, with tourists being a particular market for them. A woman in the audience raised a point about a bad experience she had in FP where both staff and other customers had been far from welcoming. Watson could only apologise profusely and suggest that she speak to him or the managers in the shop but seemed slightly baffled that this could have happened. Other panelists noted that the increasing number of female creators and attendance of women at conventions was helping to improve situations such as these. The audience for ISSUE #ONE was approximately a 50:50 gender split although it was noted that the panel of seven (counting the host Gareth K. Vile) contained only two women.

The whole evening seemed to be building towards the question of whether Scotland should have a National Academy of Comics and whether Glasgow should become the new Angoulême. There seemed to be a slight bias towards Glasgow due to the organisers earmarking the nearby McLellan galleries as a potential venue for an Academy. However, the panel were keen to emphasise the strong ties between the comics scenes of Glasgow and Dundee; in fact the next ISSUE #ONE event is planned for Dundee. There seemed to be a general consensus that an Academy in Scotland was a good idea but less enthusiasm for an Angoulême in Scotland perhaps because this is something the Lakes International Comic Art Festival is working towards and Cumbria is right next door.

Overall the reaction to the symposium was very positive and there were some animated discussions in the bar afterwards. While an Academy may be a distant prospect at the moment it is exciting to see that projects such as these are being discussed. This first ISSUE #ONE symposium was positively reviewed in The Herald, a national newspaper in Scotland, so hopefully the second event will move on from just ‘preaching to the converted’ and involve the wider society in the debates. If Scotland is to have a National Academy then there will need to be work from inside and outside the comics community. I look forward to continuing the conversation at the second ISSUE #ONE.

The event was liveblogged by the organisers and you can see details here.

Louisa Parker is a PhD Candidate at Loughborough University. She is an artist and comics creator making work relating to lived experience and story telling and using a variety of visual forms including drawing, performance, installation, sound work, artists books and comics. She has been included in exhibitions and festivals in the UK, US and Singapore. Her self-published graphic narratives based on lived experience have covered themes such as nursing, disability, psychosis, and violence against women. Her first novel length comics work will be published in 2015.


Damon Herd is a researcher and artist, currently working towards a PhD in Fine Art at Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art and Design, University of Dundee. His research area is life narratives told in the comics medium, with a particular interest in the games authors play with truth. He has recently presented papers at The International Graphic Novel & International Bande Dessinée Society Conference in Glasgow and Comics & The Multimodal World Conference in Vancouver. He has been published in Studies in Comics, and on The Comics Grid, and is a contributor to the comics blog Graphixia.


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Posted by on 2014/03/28 in Reviews


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