Comics and the Visualization of Memory
In Rebcca Solnit’s Wanderlust, the act of walking is considered not only in its literal sense, but also as an act of imagination and memory: “There is a very practical sense in which to trace even an imaginary route is to trace the spirit or thought of what passed there before. At its most casual, this retracing allows unsought memories of events to return as one encounters the sites of those events” (page 76). Encounters with places in the world, whether traversed materially, or through the mind and imagination, prompts remembering, bidden or unbidden.
Geneviève Castrée shows this idea of memory as a form of travel, of a walk to and through different places, in constructing her story of childhood in Susceptible.
(Drawn & Quarterly; US: Feb 2013)
Wanderlust: A History of Walking
(Penguin; US: Jun 2001)
As Castrée’s protagonist, Goglu, who is at least nominally autobiographical, recounts her childhood, she frequently does so with reference to particular locations more than through a straight sequencing of events. This is seen first in her chapter titles, which often reference particular locations, “Victoria I”, “House Fire II”, “Montréal”, or imply specific contexts of both time and space, such as “A Friday Night” or “An Accident”.
Even where a chapter is not clearly marked in relationship to a place, Castrée’s art emphasizes contextual or sensory qualities of memory, such as the fabric pattern on a sofa, the shape of a chair, or the cut of someone’s hair, which function to place an event or episode in Goglu’s life. Even where white space is predominant, the effect is to draw attention to details from a particular scene, concentrating the narrative space of the text on a particular feeling or relationship rather than a “full” recollection of where and when.
This spatialization of memory results in a flow of time that is uneven, picking up on Solnit’s observation about walking, in the world or in one’s mind, bringing “unsought” recollections to the fore as well as those that one is trying to recall. Time skips and jumps in Susceptible as Goglu tells her story. She is here and now she is there, and in between, hours may have past or days or months or even years. At particular points, having seemingly charted a linear chronology, Castrée will have Goglu pull her timeline back to connect events from different ages, such as her relationships with adult authority figures (pages 52-53).
This lack of linearity does not mean a lack of structure. To return to Wanderlust, Solnit further develops her connections between walking, memory and space, writing:
Memory, like the mind and time, is unimaginable without physical dimensions; to imagine it as a physical place is to make it into a landscape in which its contents are located, and what has location can be approached. That is to say, if memory is imagined as a real space - a place, theater, library - the the act of remembering is imagined as a real act, that is as a physical act: as walking (page 77).
Buildings are made up of lines, but not ones that must be followed in a particular order. Most buildings, Solnit’s ‘real spaces’, even have multiple points of entry.
Goglu’s fragmentary “walk” through childhood has this sense of entry and exit from a series of rooms holding different memories that may or may not be directly connected or related to the prior room of memories. Comics is an ideal medium for showing memory, time and mind, as having “physical dimensions”, dimensions which can be explicitly defined by the spaces of the page and the panel.
Some of Goglu’s memories are expansive, filling a page, while others are broken into a contained series of discrete moments. Castrée’s differential use of the space of the text conveys different intensities of memory and emotion, sometimes moving the reader quickly through the moments of an episode, and at others inviting the reader to pause and be in a single, extended moment with Goglu.
Solnit notes that seeing remembering as a form of walking through space is related to how we often see our lives: “If life itself, the passage of time allotted to us, is described as a journey, it’s most often imagined as a journey on foot, a pilgrim’s progress across the landscape of personal history” (page 73). Susceptible opens with a visualization of this metaphor.
Castrée draws Goglu walking from infancy to young adulthood, which is where the telling of her story both begins and ends, in a landscape of white space save for a rhizomatic plant that seems to be growing both inside and outside of her at the same time. Goglu is written to reflect on where her character comes from, wondering if, “it is possible for a sadness to be passed from one generation to the other…” or, if, “it is just my core that is rotten ...” As her walk between ages progresses, she is increasingly encumbered or held down by the spreading plant life, showing how she feels about her “landscape of personal history” regardless of origin.
By the end, Goglu has given up on this question of origins, or at least on the idea that one is grounded by either heritage or what might feel like one’s own nature. While floating out of and above her shoes, Goglu declares, “I’m eighteen. I have all my teeth. I can do whatever I want.” Castrée concludes Goglu’s story of childhood with her realization, that while she, and we, may walk through the spaces of her, or our, past, we can also imagine new spaces for our futures.