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Comics Forum Articles Among Hooded Utilitarian’s Best of 2013

For the second year running, articles published by Comics Forum are among the Best Online Comics Criticism as selected by The Hooded Utilitarian. The selected articles from 2013 are:

Between Supermen: Homosociality, Misogyny, and Triangular Desire in the Earliest Superman Stories by Eric Berlatsky

Narrative breakdown in The Long and Unlearned Life of Roland Gethers by Hannah Miodrag

‘Chercher dans le Noir’ – the gap as motif in Caboto by Lorenzo Mattotti and Jorge Zentner and The dissolution of the pictorial content in Hugo Pratt’s ‘Corto Maltese’ and Lorenzo Mattotti’s ‘Fires’ by Barbara Uhlig

Literary Impressionism and Chris Ware’s Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth (2000) by Paul Williams

Congratulations to our authors, and thanks to The Hooded Utilitarian for the mentions! Click here to see the full HU list of the Best Online Comics Criticism of 2013.


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Posted by on 2014/02/10 in Uncategorized


Comics and Performance: From ‘Chalk Talks’ to ‘Carousel’ by Damon Herd

In March 2013 I hosted the inaugural DeeCAP (Dundee Comics/Arts/ Performance) as part of Dundee Comics Expo. Since then two other DeeCAPs have taken place, one in June as part of the International Graphic Novel and International Bande Dessinée Conference in Glasgow and Dundee, and the other as a comics workshop earlier this month, with students at the University of Dundee.

Figure 1 - Damon Herd introduces DeeCAP at Dundee Contemporary Arts 30th March 2013

Figure 1 – Damon Herd introduces DeeCAP at Dundee Contemporary Arts 30th March 2013

DeeCAP was initially conceived as a way for an audience to experience comics in a very different environment from the usual solitary reading of strips in books or tablets. At a DeeCAP show visual imagery, which can include comics, art or illustrations are projected onto a screen behind the presenters as they read out and interact with the pictures (See Figure 1).

The first event was hosted in a cinema at Dundee Contemporary Arts and the presenters were David Robertson, Andrew Godfrey and Rossi Gifford and myself. We all performed work that had previously been published in print form. I presented my short strip The Origin of Ticking Boy (2011), complete with a tick-tock soundtrack played through the cinema’s PA system. David read three strips from his anthology Dump (2010) with his excellent deadpan delivery. Rossi Gifford enthusiastically performed her story from Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art and Design’s publication Anthology Three (2013). The strip, about a young woman, Tegan, and her robot protector Galeron was an everyday tale of domesticity, romance, science fiction and horror. Rossi ran around the auditorium, circling the audience to energetically re-enact the events in her story. The last performance of the evening was the most theatrical. Andrew Godfrey recreated an excerpt from his comic The CF Diaries (2012), which chronicles his experiences of living with cystic fibrosis. Partly a homage to Bob Flanagan, made famous in the documentary SICK (1997), Andrew’s performance involved costumes, sound effects, music, and an audience singalong making it a fitting finale to the evening.

Last month at the IGN & IBDS Conference I hosted another DeeCAP at Dundee University for the conference attendees. There were some returning presenters but my main intention this time was to highlight the performative aspects. I played a live soundtrack on electric guitar to accompany my strip There Will Be Distance. A new participant this time was Naomi Bridges, a student on the Comics Studies MLitt at the University of Dundee. Naomi performed an autobiographical strip about her experiences with music and ended her piece by encouraging the whole audience to hum a low drone while she sang a cappella folk songs over the top. It was a very different way to experience the medium of comics.

The third DeeCAP was different; it took the form of a two-hour workshop for visiting students from the USA. With little knowledge beforehand of what they would be asked to do, the students were split into two groups and asked to come up with a short comic based on their experiences of Scotland so far. Impressively, they were up to the task and produced two very interesting autobiographical comics about seemingly mundane incidents. One element that was particularly interesting about the performances was how each group performed the comic as an ensemble, each person acting out and narrating different characters in the story. The group dynamic produced very different presentations than the individual readings at previous DeeCAPs, something to be encouraged at future events.

While DeeCAP was a new event in Dundee it is not a new idea. I was inspired by reading about Robert Sikoryaks’s Carousel performance evenings of ‘Cartoon Slide Shows and Other Projected Pictures’ in New York (See Figure 2). Sikoryak likens his event to a radio show with sound effects and music, which is combined with visual imagery. The co-mingling of words and pictures in comics is further mixed with sound and performance. Sikoryak has been hosting these ‘slide show readings by cartoonists and performers’ since 1997 and there are over 100 performers listed on the Carousel website including Gabrielle Bell, Peter Kuper, Dean Haspiel, Miriam Katin, Sam Henderson and Kate Beaton. Henderson has compared the shows to ‘stand-up comedy without the need to memorize material, or even stand up’ and notes how the opportunity to test material in front of an audience can be helpful in working out nuance and pacing (2012).

Figure 2 - Flyer advertising a Carousel show on April 10th 2013

Figure 2 – Flyer advertising a Carousel show on April 10th 2013

The idea of performing alongside images did not originate with Sikoryak either, although he is the most prolific contemporary promoter of the form. In the first decade of the twentieth century Winsor McCay began working in vaudeville to supplement his income as a newspaper cartoonist on strips such as Little Nemo in Slumberland. McCay, and other cartoonists such as Bud Fisher, were working as ‘lightning sketchers’ at ‘Chalk Talks’, a popular Victorian parlour entertainment that had ‘made the transition to the vaudeville stage in the late nineteenth century’ (Canemaker 2005). At Chalk Talks the performer would sketch quickly on a blackboard while telling a story, gradually adjusting the image as the tale progressed (See Figure 3).

Film will load fully before playing. For more on this film, including download options, click here.

McCay would later introduce animated films into his performances, the most famous being Gertie the Dinosaur (1914). McCay interacted with the dinosaur on stage, introducing Gertie to the audience who watched the animation behind him. Gertie left her cave slowly and walked towards them. She munched on a tree, fought with a mammoth and then ate an apple that McCay threw to her. In McCay’s hands the apple was a large cardboard prop that he slipped behind the screen a split-second before it appeared on film flying into Gertie’s mouth. The performance ended with McCay appearing to walk into the screen and climb on Gertie’s back as she walked off screen. By this time McCay’s act had become more of an interaction between performance and animation rather than comics but his comics work and animation continued to influence each other.

Figure 3 – A Winsor McCay Chalk Talk depicted by the staff artist for the Toledo Blade March 27th 1907

Figure 3 – A Winsor McCay Chalk Talk depicted by the staff artist for the Toledo Blade March 27th 1907

Contemporary comics creators embracing performance have included Alan Moore, who in 1995 staged a spoken word performance called The Birth Caul (A Shamanism of Childhood), which had music by David J and Tim Perkins. This was one of several collaborations between Moore and these musicians, which Moore intended to be ‘one off performances that would be preserved as a CD’ (Moore 2008). Unlike McCay’s performances or those featured in Carousel, The Birth Caul was not intended to have a visual element. The later comic book version by Eddie Campell was, according to Moore, an adaptation or ‘mix’ of the original piece, a reworking of ‘performance art into a more narrative medium’ (2008).

Like McCay and Moore, Ben Katchor, also a contributor to Carousel, initially did not use comics in his performances. In 1995 Katchor produced ‘radio cartoons’ of his strip Juilus Knipl, Real Estate Photographer for NPR. However Katchor has gone on to more fully embrace comics as performance with what he calls ‘Pictographic ballad operas’. Since 2004 he has collaborated with musician Mark Mulcahy on a series of contemporary music-theater productions that harken back to the ballad operas of 18th century England as well as the vaudeville tradition of McCay. The shows mix popular musical forms with visual projections. In these performances Mulcahy sings Katchor’s words as he plays his own music while behind them Katchor’s drawing are projected. Their 2009 commission A Checkroom Romance brings to mind the soundtrack to the Daniel Clowes comic Like a Velvet Glove cast in Iron by Victor Banana (cartoonist Tim Hensley) with its slightly jokey jazz and easy listening inflected tunes. It would be interesting to see Hensley’s soundtrack as a performance alongside Clowes’ images as it adds another creepy layer to the already sinister happenings in the book.

Comics performances have also recently turned up in unexpected areas. At the Narrative Future for Health Care Conference in June 2013 David Small was a keynote speaker. He started his presentation by playing a film of a passage from his autobiographical comic book Stitches (2009). The film played still images from the book along with an audio track of Small reading the text mixed with the music of Morton Feldman. Small talked later about the importance of Feldman’s music to him when making Stitches. Screened in the dark in a large auditorium and on a big screen with a good quality sound system, it was an absorbing and powerful way to experience Small’s work. On a lighter note, Paul Gravett’s keynote speech at the 2013 Graphic Medicine conference can be seen on the Graphic Medicine website. It is worth catching as in the middle of his speech Gravett does a very entertaining read through of the 1950s strip ‘Calling Nurse Abbott!’ from Girl comic, complete with different voices for each character.

There are potentially endless ways for comics to interact with performance. In Bart Beaty’s current research project Comics Off The Page, he is investigating ‘comics artists who are bringing comics into conversation with other art forms like dance, musical performance, painting, sculpture, and architecture’ (2012b). At the Comics & The Multimodal World Conference in Vancouver in June 2013 Beaty used his keynote speech to elaborate on the many ways that artists are stretching the boundaries of comics. Some artists have drawn live on stage alongside a band playing music adapting their drawing to the music. Others, such as Jerome Mulot and Florent Ruppert create site specific comics, and have used the audience as an interactive performance art element in the production of strips.

The act of performance does change the way in which we experience comics, and it also raises the question of whether we can still call them comics. The main difference between watching such a presentation and reading a comic is the loss of control of the narrative for the reader. They also cannot choose not to have sound effects, unless they bring earplugs. In this way, the experience has parallels with reading digital comics that have music or effects in them. At DeeCAP most presenters chose to show their strips one panel at a time, much like the ‘guided view’ in digital comics apps such as Comixology. This allows the audience time to soak up the information in each panel, an effect helped by the vastly increased size of the panels on the cinema screen. Crucially though, this stops the audience seeing other panels at the same time, causing the design of the page to become irrelevant. For the second DeeCAP event I created a new strip specifically to be performed and so considered it from the start as panel by panel rather than page by page. The audience can still influence the experience however. Like Sam Henderson, David Robertson noted on his blog that during the first DeeCAP he was able to ‘linger on any [images] that were getting a good laugh, or had some chicken fat I thought might be picked up by the audience’ (2013).

In his essay ‘Defining Comics?’ (2007) Aaron Meskin argues against essentialist definitions of comics and discusses the way that comics can be defined by ‘typical features’. For example, comics typically have panels but they are not a necessary feature. Meskin then discusses a move away from the comics ‘definitional project’ and suggests that ‘perhaps something is a comic just in case it is/was nonpassingly intended for regard-as-comic’ (2007: 376). This is a move towards defining comics along social rather than functional lines in a similar way to that proposed by Bart Beaty in Comics Versus Art (2012). Building on the theories of Pierre Bourdieu and George Dickie, Beaty proposes that ‘comics can be defined as objects recognized by the comics world as comics’ (2012b: 37). The comics performances presented in DeeCAP or Carousel retain many of Meskin’s ‘typical features’, such as panels or speech balloons so they can still be considered comics by that definition. However, they are also created by and for those in, what Beaty has termed, the ‘comics art world’ and so can also be considered as comics in a cultural sense.

This current wealth of comics and performance events show that the art form of comics continues to mutate and evolve. Choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui presented his latest work TeZuKa at Sadler’s Wells in London in 2011. A dance production based on the life and work of Osamu Tezuka, this multi-media event used Tezuka’s illustrations projected alongside the work of video artists, calligraphers, musicians and dancers. There are also other simpler forms of comics and performance that hark back to the Chalk Talks of vaudeville. Searching the phrase ‘Draw My Life’ on YouTube brings up a whole host of short videos uploaded by individuals telling the story of their lives while drawing it out on white boards like Victorian ‘lightning sketchers’. They continually edit and erase the drawings as the talk progresses, modern technology bringing an experience from the days of vaudeville into everybody’s home. At this moment there is also a boom in comics performance events, as well as Carousel and DeeCAP there are several other events in Portland, Oregon alone, including The Projects and the Comic Artist Nights at the Portland Opera. Along with comics performances such as Mulot and Ruppert these will hopefully lead to even more exciting and interesting ways to experience the comics medium.


Beaty, B. (2012a), Comics versus Art. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Beaty, B. (2012b), ‘Comics versus Art: Interview with Bart Beaty’ [online];, accessed 1st August 2013.

Canemaker, J. (2005), Winsor McCay: His Life and Art revised and expanded edition. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc.

Moore, A. (2008), Alex Fitch interviews Alan Moore [online], accessed Tuesday 23rd July 2013.

Henderson, S. (2012), Comics Aren’t Just For Eyes Anymore [online], accessed 23rd July 2013.

Meskin, A. (2007), ‘Defining Comics?’ In The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism (65:4) pp. 369- 379

Robertson, D. (2013), How To Read A Comic Aloud To An Audience [online],, accessed 1st August 2013.

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.

[EDITOR’S NOTE: This article was updated on the 26th of August 2013 in response to comments (see below), and to incorporate additional relevant links.]


Posted by on 2013/08/21 in Uncategorized


Image [&] Narrative #10: Depicting Boredom: On Gestures and Facial Expressions by Greice Schneider

In previous installments, I’ve been tackling the subject of boredom and everyday life in contemporary comics, how it plays a role in the creative process, and how it is experienced in the act of reading. It is time now to address how it can be manifested on the level of content. In this post, I will quickly outline a few possibilities on the use of facial expressions and gestures [1], so central in the dramatic development of the actions in graphic narratives, since it is not possible to rely on motion or vocal intonations.[2] But how to address graphic representation of body movements when boredom is so often associated with lack of movements, constancy and stillness?

Boredom, as a state of apathy, indifference, lack of emotion could be conveyed precisely by an absence of movement. Such a state of physical inertia is very usual in the work of Daniel Clowes, an author who devotes considerable attention to the visage, as seen, for example, in the very first page of David Boring (2000), in which the protagonist’s undisturbed facial expression is highlighted by horizontal features, such as flat eyebrows, eyes partially covered by eyelids and mouth only slightly downturned. This affectless bored expression is placed just next to the title, linking his surname to his expression, in a double panel spread that highlights his face against a dark nocturnal urban landscape.

The whole vocabulary of body movements follows the same logic. Unlike the tension of the “pregnant moment” (and an implied before and after), boredom is better conveyed by the sameness of an “ever present”, suggested, for example, by a relaxed steady posture, shoulders down, body tilting forward, hands supporting head (as an attempt to avoid falling sleep), something found in a number of covers: the fake The Wonder Book of Boredom (suggestively labeled vol. IV – Collecting Sand), by English cartoonist Glen Baxter, featuring a boy holding his head with both hands, glancing at grains on the table; Dominique Goblet’s autobiographical Faire semblant c’est mentir (2007), in a similar pose, legs crossed, holding a glass; or Arne Bellstorf’s American inspired tale of suburban melancholy Acht, Neun, Zehn (2005) , in which the teenage protagonist’s boredom is visually represented through the refusal to charge the face with any kind of affection and the choice of conveying his body as an arch – an almost continuous piece that bends down.

On the opposite extreme of absence of movement, boredom and impatience can also be conveyed by relentless movement, in the form of repetitive actions as the body resists boredom, like tapping the foot or fingers. Linhart describes a form of these small repeating and intermittent gestures as a means of defense against boredom in the assembly line, as life “kicks and resists”:

The organism resists. The muscles resist. The nerves resist. Something in the body and in the head, braces itself against repetition and nothingness. Life shows itself in more rapid movements, an arm lowered at the wrong time, a slower step, a second’s irregularity, an awkward gesture, getting ahead, slipping back, tactics at the station.

(Linhart 1981, p.17).

The representation of these rhythmic gestures poses a challenge for the fixed image, but there are a couple of recurring solutions to avoid ambiguity. The first and more economical approach is to convey multiple repetitive movements in the same panel, with the help of lines and/or “sounds”. Faire semblant c’est mentir (2007) makes use of onomatopoeia (tic tic…) to signal the repetitive insistence of young Dominique playing with scissors. This rhythmic effect is also taken into consideration when drawing the words. The same repetitive pattern appears in a sequence from Acme Novelty Library #17 (2006), in which an art teacher Chris Ware (appearing here as a character), after spending some time doodling to kill time, starts tapping his pencil over the table, yawning and supporting his head with his hand.

Another facial sign of boredom and indifference can be found in the direction of the gaze. While a look directed to a specific element (even if outside the panel) indicates interest, curiosity, attunement to the external world, a wandering look suspends the curiosity about what happens in the surroundings, shifting the attention to the inner life of the character (or absence of it). This use of unfocused eyes is very frequent in the work of Adrian Tomine. In his New York Sketches (2005); the author portrays people in public urban environments (like the subway), paying close attention to their distracted attitudes during the journey – the situation of waiting in a confined space often leading to a state of impatience. The woman on the left, for example, seems lost in thought, staring at nowhere specific. On additional side notes, Tomine acknowledges repetitive movements, revealing both character’s state of restlessness: she was “unable to sit still for more than a few minutes”, and “his mouth moved as if he was chewing”.

Of course the examples described above show only a few possibilities on how characters can perform boredom, but they already reveal the ambiguity and interesting dynamics that define it, oscillating between states of complete stillness and relentless movement.


Baetens, Jan. “La Main Parlante.” Image [&] Narrative. Issue 9 (2004):

Bellstorf, Arne. Acht, Neun, Zehn. Reprodukt, 2005. Print.

Bremond, Claude. “Pour Un Gestuaire Des Bandes Dessinées.” Langages 3.10 (1968): 94–100.

Clowes, Daniel. David Boring. New York: Pantheon Books, 2000. Print.

Goblet, Dominique. Faire Semblant C’est Mentir. Paris: L’Association, 2007. Print.

Linhart, Robert. The Assembly Line. University of Massachusetts Press, 1981. Print.

Tan, Ed. S. “The Telling Face in Comic Strip and Graphic Novel.” The Graphic Novel (2001): 212. Print.

Tomine, Adrian. Adrian Tomine: New York Sketches 2004. Buenaventura Press, 2005. Print.

Ware, Chris. Acme Novelty Library #17. ACME Novelty Library, 2006. Print.

Greice Schneider recently finished a PhD on boredom and everyday life in contemporary graphic narratives at K.U. Leuven, in Belgium. She is a founding member and a member of the editorial board of The Comics Grid. She is on the editorial board of Image [&] Narrative.

Click here to read previous instalments of the Image [&] Narrative column.

[1] – For more on gestures and comics see (Baetens 2004) (Bremond 1968) (Tan 2001).

[2] – Such an approach should avoid the temptation to universalize by identifying a constant repertory of facial expressions and gestures recognizable across the world. Although it is difficult to support the idea that a determined combination of positions can directly correspond to a specific emotion, no matter what context, it is reasonable to assume that a shared vocabulary of gestures and facial expressions often plays an important role in graphic storytelling.

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Posted by on 2013/02/18 in Uncategorized


Visual authentication strategies in autobiographical comics by Elisabeth El Refaie

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.


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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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