On Life in Graphic Detail

Autobiographical Comics
Andrew J. Kunka
Bloomsbury Academic
Nov 2017

If your knowledge of the contemporary comics scene comes primarily from movie adaptations, you could be forgiven for thinking it’s pretty much all superheroes, all the time. If you read comics and graphic novels, on the other hand, you likely already know that any and all subjects can and have been treated in what cartoonist Will Eisner referred to as “sequential art”—the use of words and pictures to tell stories. Autobiography is a common subject for comics and graphic novels today, and many of the graphic works that have achieved recognition in the literary world are at least partly autobiographical in nature. Examples include Art Spiegelman’s Maus (the first graphic novel to win a Pulitzer Prize), Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis (a New York Times “Notable Book” and winner of an Alex Award from the American Library Association), and Alison Bechdel’s Fun HomeFun Home (winner of a Stonewall Book Award from the American Library Association). Autobiographical comics have also made it to the big screen, including Persepolis (Vincent Paronnaud and Marjane Satrapim 2007) (winner of a Cannes Jury Prize) and Diary of a Teenage Girl (Marielle Heller, 2015) the latter based on Phoebe Glockner’s graphic novel of the same name, although their viewership pales beside the likes of The Dark Knight (Christopher Nolan, 2008) and Wonder Woman (Patty Jenkins, 2017).

Comics and graphics novels have also become the subject of serious academic study, with a resulting increase in scholarly articles and books devoted to their history and analysis. Andrew J. Kunka’s Autobiographical Comics draws on the now-substantial professional literature devoted to, as the title promises, comics based on the creator’s life and experiences. Kunka offers a useful overview of the subject, with an inclusive approach that includes everything from “proto-autobiographical comics” (such as Winsor McCay’s inclusion of a cartoonist character in his early strips) to the latest web comics, and scrupulously cites his sources, making it easy to locate relevant literature on any of the topics he discusses.

Kunka begins with three chapters offering a broad overview of different aspects of autobiographical comics. In the first, he poses the question “What are autobiographical comics?” In the second, he offers an historical overview of the field, and in the third discusses questions such as whether it is always correct to assume that in an autobiographical narrative the author, narrator, and protagonist of the story are the same person (short answer: it’s complicated). The fourth chapter discusses common themes in autobiographical comics, including trauma, adolescence, gender and sexuality, and race and ethnicity, as well as topics such as censorship and self-publishing. The final chapter, which may be the first to which many readers turn, offers a more in-depth look at specific creators and their work, including Kenji Nakazawa’s Barefoot Gen, Art Spiegelman’s Maus and In the Shadow of No Towers, Phoebe Gloeckner’s A Child’s Life and The Diary of a Teenage Girl, Craig Thompson’s Blankets, Lynda Barry’s One Hundred Demons, and Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home.

Autobiographical Comics is the second volume in the Bloomsbury Comics Studies series, which aims to bridge the gap between strictly academic studies written for specialists (one might say “insiders”) in the field and popular books that may delight comics fans but leave academics wishing for more substance. Autobiographical Comics achieves this goal, offering insightful and specific analysis that can be comprehended without requiring total immersion in the latest and trendiest academic jargon.

Kunka’s prose is not particularly stylish—instead, he strives for (and usually achieves) clarity and smooth incorporation of information from a wide variety of sources. In a discussion of the representation of trauma in autobiographical comics, for instance, in a page and a half of text he names 13 graphical works dealing with trauma and incorporates the views of four different scholars before offering his own analysis, concluding that “the fragmented visual nature of the comics medium as a series of individual panels linked by gutters suits the representation of traumatic experience well. [Comics creator Phoebe] Gloeckner’ work is likely the example par excellence for the uncompromising visual depiction of traumatic experience, but [critic Byrn] Køhlert’s argument here also explains the pervasiveness of traumatic narratives in autobiographical comics.”

One obvious market for this volume is students, particularly university students taking classes in comics and the graphic novel or who have an independent interest in the subject, and the professors and teachers whose research and/or teaching interests include comics. Another is the general comics reader who wants to learn more about the field, and a third is the general reader who really liked Maus or Fun Home (to take two obvious examples) and wants to know what else is out there.

Certainly not every reader will enjoy every section of this book equally, and what one person chooses to skip over may be someone else’s favorite chapter. Case in point: an early discussion on what counts as an autobiographical comic may leave some general readers rolling their eyes while proving absolutely fascinating to academics used to pondering such questions and an essential resource to students tasked with writing a paper on the subject. Still, even the most non-academic of readers may find something of interest in these more esoteric discussions, if only in terms of discovering new authors and comics they would like to explore.

In addition to the chapters written by Kunka, a professor of English at the University of South Carolina, Sumter, Autobiographical Comics includes several appendices which allow creators to speak for themselves. These include excerpts from a 2012 panel discussion featuring Phoebe Gloeckner, Justine Green, Aline Kominsky-Crumb, and Carol Tyler, moderated by Deborah Nelson; excerpts from a 2015 interview with Jennifer Hayden, conducted by Derek Parker Royal; and excerpts from comics by David Chelsea and Ryan Claytor that touch on various issues relevant to autobiographical comics. This volume also includes a glossary (if you’ve ever wondered what is meant by terms like “autobifictionalography” or “ocularization”, this is the place to find the answer), a bibliography, and an index.

RATING 7 / 10