Drawing Women's Lives

Reprinted by permission of the authors. Copyright © 2012 by Hillary L. Chute, Tahneer Oksman, Robyn R. Warhol, Stacey Weber-Fève

Part 2. Detailed description of session

The goal of "Drawing Women's Lives" is to explore what the hybrid word-and-image form of comics brings to the narration of women's lives. The idea for this session is based on two important shifts: first, the introduction in the early 1970s of autobiographical work in the form of comics, and second, the twenty-first century's remarkable outpouring of comics texts about women's lives, which has changed the comics field decisively from one known as largely for and about men to one known as for and about the narration of many different sorts of life stories and histories. While there is a large, important body of critical work on women's autobiography (e.g., Stanton 1987; Benstock 1988; Smith and Watson 1992, 1998, 2002; Brodzki and Schenck 1998; Gilmore 1994, 2001; Miller 2002) there is comparably little about the specific questions and problems raised by narrating women's lives in the written and drawn form of comics.

Cartoonist Justin Green published what is widely considered the seminal autobiographical comics work, Binky Brown Meets the Holy Virgin Mary, in 1972; Aline Kominsky-Crumb, also in 1972, published the first female-authored autobiographical comics narrative in the premier issue of Wimmen's Comix. Yet even within the underground comics scene of the late 1960s and 1970s in which these two cartoonists were anchored, women's work remained fairly marginal, and remained so even as life narrative in comics form gained substantial and attentive audiences, as with Art Spiegelman's terrain-shifting Maus (1986; 1991) and In the Shadow of No Towers (2004), or Joe Sacco's Palestine (2001). In a 2004 cover story in the New York Times, Charles McGrath wrote, "The graphic novel is a man's world, by and large." Today, just six years later, this statement wouldn't be permissible. The two biggest graphic narratives of the past decade are, arguably, Iranian Marjane Satrapi's international bestseller Persepolis (translated now into over 25 languages including its English-language publication in 2003), and Alison Bechdel's Fun Home, which was voted Time magazine's number-one book of the year in 2006. Both of these texts, rooted in very different experiences of growing up female, earned enormous public acclaim, and are widely taught at the undergraduate and graduate level in many different sorts of humanities departments. Their success has come to stand in for the contemporary success of the graphic narrative form in general.

This panel, then, seeks to examine how this form has so effectively opened up a space for narrating women's lives. What does it mean to narrate a life by both writing and drawing it? What does the visual-and specifically the handwritten visual--add to autobiography? Responding to Sidonie Smith's Presidential Theme statement in which she names a "diversity of genres and media," including graphic memoirs, as relevant to how our field narrates lives, "Drawing Women's Lives" attempts to explain the power of women's graphic memoirs through, respectively, the lens of staging ethnic identity; narrative theory; and transnational politics. Each paper makes a broad, if provisional, claim about how comics work formally and aesthetically, while at the same time looking closely at the mechanics of individual texts by key authors in this growing field.

Tahneer Oksman will begin by examining an aspect of Aline Kominsky-Crumb that until now has only been addressed cursorily: the cartoonist's substantial, explicit engagement, both on the verbal and visual level, with presenting and complicating a Jewish ethnic identity. While three books have recently been published on Jewish identity and comics, including a university press book, The Jewish Graphic Novel (Rutgers, 2008), scant attention has been paid to the Kominsky-Crumb's work, perhaps because of its messy stylization and sexual explicitness. In the work of this autobiographical comics pioneer, the question of Jewish identity is always related to the author's identity as a woman; it is as a woman, Oksman argues, that she can claim a Jewish identity, but also stand as a Jew outside of the Jewish community. Kominsky-Crumb visually presents herself as a proliferation of differently marked selves, a visual register of shifting dis/identifications.

Making perhaps the boldest claims about comics form, and using Alison Bechdel's Fun Home as an example, Robyn Warhol-Down's paper suggests a model for describing the narrative transaction in graphic memoir--what she calls "autography." Warhol-Down's paper, which I speculate will become an important touchstone for thinking through the possibilities of comics form, maps out the differences between the narrative transaction of prose narrative and the narrative transaction of graphic memoir; she argues that the distinctions between author, implied author, and narrator in prose narrative work "twofold" in graphic narrative. Warhol-Down proposes the figure of the "embedded looker," the virtual embodiment of the visual point of view, which she notes has not yet been discussed in film theory or in extant comics scholarship. The gendering of the embedded looker, she suggests, can shape an actual viewer's response to the representation of a woman's life experiences.

Also engaged in with comics form, and relating it specifically to national positionality, Stacey Weber-Fève examines one of Marjane Satrapi's important but understudied books, Embroideries (first published as Broderies in France), which is about an intergenerational conversation between a group of women in one living room one day in Tehran. She offers a reading of the unique form of the book--in which the pages are unbordered, and unfolding moments are unframed, unlike most comics texts--that suggests the political implications of the book's visual-verbal construction. The arrangement of words and images on the page, Weber-Fève argues, offers new ways of seeing and performing gender and "femininity" in which age and aging become both a means to "otherize" another and recognize oneself across and within national boundaries.

In probing what comics lends to the narration of women's lives, all three papers share a commitment to unpacking comics form and demonstrating its imbrication with the political suggestions made by the texts. They engage with claims about the kinds of spaces and registers that comics encourages and engenders, while also demonstrating the operation of particular works. Across the papers, we see how the visual in comics is as freighted with meaning as is the textual: the importance of serial selves imagined visually, frames that embed a looker in the space of the story, word-image arrangements that call our attention to the trope of graphic aging and boundaries both personal and global.