Against getting it right: autobiographical comics

A little while ago, Sophia Foster-Dimino started a conversation on Twitter by asking, “People who hate autobio comics: why do you hate autobio comics?”  In the conversation that followed (aggregated and annotated by Sophia here), a number of people shared their thoughts; about how they felt about reading and making autobio comics; about the stage readers or artists are at in their life when they first encounter them or try and make them; how the genre acts as an entry point for many artists, who end up making other forms of art afterwards; how the genre can lead to artistic and personal stigmatisation; the dominance of the white male gaze; how different voices can be silenced by choosing to work in the genre, and how others are empowered to speak via it; and how difficult it is to do ‘well’.

Here are a few tweets that stuck out for me:

“i think a lot of hate for autobio is directed at women and young creators who make autobio tbh…”
“…like, when a guy does it, it’s deep and introspective and blah blah blah, but when a woman makes an autobio comic it’s shallow”

“too many tedious misunderstood sensitive self-absorbed privileged males seem to be making them.”

“I don’t hate autobio comics but I hate a certain voice in autobio comics…mainly consensus, shallow and incurious ideas of mundanity as realism”

“I think the complexity of doing them well is betrayed by the ease of finding the subject matter”

“art is kind of self indulgent? But who cares? Someone is communicating something. Let them do it.”

I think these tweets spoke to four themes that I felt were important for me to think about:

  • My voice
  • What I say with it
  • How I say it
  • What I like to hear in other peoples’ voices

OR

  • My ability to speak – who empowers and disempowers whom to make stuff
  • The responsibility of my voice – how I might share my story but not silence others while I’m doing it
  • My attempts to speak – how I learn to develop my voice and make the art I want to, or at least get on the journey of making that art
  • My taste – what I like to see in other people’s work, as a consequence of the above, and lots of other stuff besides, and why

As someone making zines and comics that are almost without exception autobiographical in nature, I worry about this stuff a lot. For instance, here are some things I’ve been wondering:

I deeply believe we should feel empowered to make sense of the world we live in, and who we are in it, through creative pursuits; but do we automatically deserve an audience just because we’re choosing to do that?Do we have a right to be heard just because we decided to speak?

Does my speaking (as a white, straight cis male) stop other people from speaking, or being heard? Certainly, as the Twitter conversation attests, many makers have direct experience of criticism of their work based on their gender, ethnicity, sexuality, background, status and so on. Do I unwittingly take part in this? If I do, isn’t the way I talk IN my comics that does it, or the way I talk ABOUT my comics? Or is it both?

Should I be saying anything? Do I even have anything to say?

What about my style? How do you find your own voice in a medium so defined by the tightrope it walks between the profound and the redundant? If it doesn’t connect with people, are we more compelled to become critical of its failure to connect with us than other genres because of its intimate contents?

Does a lack of connection with my audience imply a failure of artist, or a failure of form?

Am I any good?
Am I doing it right?

I realise there’s no real way of satisfactorily answering these questions as they relate to long-standing debates about art and voice and the world and people. But one thing this did lead me to think a little more about was this idea of doing something ‘right’. And, well, I remembered, well, there’s no right way of doing anything.

In fact the more I thought about the more I felt like the idea of ‘getting it right’ gets used to police ‘authenticity of expression’ (have you said it properly?) as well as ‘authenticity of experience’ (why should we listen to you?).

In the comics world, I think that there’s also a particular kind of ‘getting it right’ related to a kind of formalism that sometimes we’re judged on; if I can tell you whether or not you’ve done a comic ‘properly’ I can be the gatekeeper who values (or devalues) your work, assess ‘right’ to a voice, and the legitimacy of your story.

My approach to zines and drawings comes from a rejection of that kind of thinking. Personally, I don’t think the breadth of what is possible in art about oneself should be hampered by the sometimes narrow and often contradictory ‘rules’ of a bounded medium. We should be able to make stuff that expresses ourselves, where the trappings of a medium are our servants, not the other way around.

I think about Sophie Yanow’s In Situ, these pencil drawings that aren’t a detailed inventory of experience, but evoke a feeling of ‘having experienced’ that is as cryptic as it is reassuring; you feeling compelled to learn more, while somehow comforted that you know *you have felt the same*.

I also thought about Warren Craghead’s drawings – the ones where he goes on walks, or draws while driving – those are autobiographical comics to me. Every line and scribble tells you about a lived experience on the page. Sure they don’t give you the ‘I went here, I did that’ information but that’s not the kind of lived experience it wants to share. It’s the very visceral stuff of seeing and recording life.

This is work that for me borrows from a  medium, but puts the messiness of life at its core.

This quote I just found from Connor Willumsen also seems apt here to describe how I feel about this kind of work:

“I guess where like… the work shows a confidence in the reader to navigate complex information, but is also inviting. Like it’s an overlapping collage of pictures but there is trust that everyone knows how to use their eyes, so chill out. Not so reliant on comic symbolism and technical convention that supposedly makes things more readable. A natural readability rather than a learned one, the same way dense foliage is naturally readable.”

I don’t know the exact context of this quote, but I feel as though I can relate to this, particularly the notion that ‘comics symbolism’ supposedly makes things more readable.

If anything, I think the over determination of ‘comics symbolism’ is a way to govern voices working in comics/words/pictures.  I think the twitter conversation really reveals how we all struggle with this stuff. Sophia herself notes she started this conversation because:

“I was having a pointless internal struggle between a. the desire to do autobio comics b. the perception that many people think autobio comics are shallow, pointless, irritating, a waste of time for audience and author, etc”. 

Or, perhaps: “I wanted to speak, but wasn’t sure I should”.

Well I think we should.

I think frames can be gatekeepers and I think word balloons keep gates, unless you’re careful about how you use them. But perhaps more importantly, I think we should be careful about how we expect others to use them, too. I think we could be sensitive of our expectations of one another, and what we do when we enact those expectations.

For instance, I think there is a space for criticism, peer conversation, honest debates and big bust ups. But I also think there’s a difference between a conversation about the different ways we can share our experience, our motivations  for doing so, and and how we might be more effective in making art or in taking our own positionality into account, and a voice that denies you a voice according to some flimsy attempt to police a comics canon. That sort of dominant voice of ‘doing it right’ isn’t just policing taste, it’s policing voices

Happily, I feel this conversation falls into the camp of constructive debate. In particular, for those of us in positions of power or with dominant voices, I feel this conversation has reminded me what it means to be sensitive to that privilege. Which isn’t about self-censorship, or not speaking – I do have a voice  – but about trying hard not to be part of processes that perpetuate inequality, particularly through arbitrary artistic judgments.

So I guess I’m saying I hope we can make work that is diverse and varied and supports different voices; be careful of how the trappings of ‘getting it right’ as framed in comics formalism can be used (usually accidentally) to silence those voices; and maintain a conversation about how to move forward – even if that conversation is unsettling or difficult or whatever.

Right now, I’m a bit burned out by making two rather personal zines in as many months. They’ve documented events – in a fairly straightforward way – from my life that have been by turns difficult and joyous, but very recent, which is unusual for me because I tend to write and draw about events quite a while after they’ve happened. I’ve been worried the work is ‘no good’. I’ve been worried about whether I should be making the work in the first place. I’m pretty sure that’ll pass, once I get stuck into my next project (which I’m already thinking about) because self-doubt or at least self-reflection seems to be a fairly standard part of making art.

But I’ve come to be reminded that thinking about autobiographical comics as a distinct genre is a red herring. As people have pointed out, fiction is full of personal experience, too; it’s just codified in a different way. ‘Autobiographical comics’ is a polysemic phrase: it has loads of meanings and possible interpretations that exist all at once, none more right than the other.

Thinking about this all has inspired me to redouble my efforts to make honest work and experiment much harder, to learn more about myself from doing so, and to be as open and self-critical and encouraging to others to make as I can, and to make space to listen to those voices as well. I don’t know exactly how I’ll do that, but then, art, like life, is a process of learning.