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“Making Serious Subjects Lighter”: Trauma in the Adolescent Autographic

By Michael L. Kersulov

During a summer enrichment class I taught for gifted high school students, seventeen students eagerly crowded into a classroom to read, discuss, and write comics.1 The goal of the course was for students to develop an understanding of both the language of graphic literature, as described in McCloud’s Understanding Comics, and the utility of visual literacy in the classroom, discussed in Frey and Fisher’s Teaching Visual Literacy: Using Comic Books, Graphic Novels, Anime, Cartoons, and More to Develop Comprehension and Thinking Skills. Students were asked throughout the course to create short comics that revealed moments of their lives they valued or they thought influenced their current identity. As the class unfolded, students investigated multiple strategies comics creators utilize to discuss social, political, and personal themes. One female student in particular, Leigh,2 felt comfortable enough with the medium to create autobiographical vignette comics about her experiences with parental strife, teen suicide, and her struggle with identity. Leigh was a quirky, academically gifted fifteen-year-old who was well versed in reading comics and drawing. Autographics, using Whitlock’s term, are comics that address autobiographic or memoir narratives. Leigh’s autographics speak of the stressful issues that trouble teenagers in contemporary classrooms and the writing opportunities they need to express the trauma they live. Additionally, Leigh’s work exemplifies ways young writers can establish voice within autographics and the themes and visual strategies used to communicate the daily lives of teenagers. Upon completion of her final comic in the class, Leigh commented, “I do like being able to tell kind of my story through comics, it makes serious subjects lighter.” Using comics to express trauma “lightened” the emotional distress of the writing process, according to Leigh. What about comics made telling her story “lighter” or more emotionally manageable?

This article does not aim to explain the female voice in autographics or how trauma specific to women is represented in comics, nor does it attempt to determine or claim any truth to the traumatic events Leigh represents in her works. Rather, it is an article that analyzes the strategies one teenager chose to depict traumatic events in her own comics. As I say this, I would like to nod to Lynda Barry’s One Hundred Demons and her framing of the trustworthiness of autographics: “Is it autobiography if parts of it are not true?” and “Is it fiction if parts of it are?” (7). Barry’s reference to autobiographical texts as “autobifictionalography” aptly side steps the question of trustworthiness and accepts the author’s narrative as he or she remembers it while still maintaining a critical eye. In the case of Leigh’s autographics, I look at what she wants the reader to know about her, her past, and the strategies she used within the medium to satisfy these goals. As such, I discuss the verbal and visual strategies3 Leigh employed in the creation of her autographics and how graphic literature can be a useful tool for adolescents to (re)present trauma in their lives.

Trauma in Autographics—The Visual and Verbal Counteracting Emotional Damage

A multitude of authors and artists have looked to present and explore events of trauma in comics—so much so that the theme of trauma has become a fixture in autobiographical comics.4 It is difficult to pinpoint the meaning of trauma as it varies from person to person; however, in this article, I refer to trauma as a state of anxiety, fear, or distress that results from exposure to traumatic or stressful events (American Psychiatric Association). In autobiography, trauma works in interesting ways as the author invites the reader to become a spectator, a voyeur, of the traumatic and personal events of the author’s past (Gilmore), and in autographics the reader literally assumes this role. Comics are also inherently well-suited for works of trauma; Terr explains that traumatic memory can be recalled with visual cues and that place is highly situated in emotional episodic memory. Traumatic memory thus can be fragmentary and more staccato than regular memory, so comics, with separate yet sequential images used to represent a fluid narrative, become a medium that accurately reflects the process of evoking and provoking traumatic memory. The value of using the graphic medium in narratives about trauma is evident when noting Caruth’s analysis that “to be traumatized is precisely to be possessed by an image or an event” (4-5). As such, autographics of trauma facilitate a uniqueness of literature that moves beyond a verbal-only or visual-only medium, allowing the reader to experience the image or event through a multimodal text. The author of the autographic can work through horrid events by asking the reader to relive them with her—a way of presenting the past while also constructing a new retelling of the event in a manner that hopefully counteracts any damage. Such autographic conventions are replicable by even the amateur author, as will be demonstrated in my analysis of Leigh’s work.

A Classroom for Comics and Gifted Students

The study was conducted at a summer academy for gifted secondary students who came from a variety of towns and cities from the same Midwestern state. Students were encouraged to take courses that reached beyond their immediate interests. The academy is an annual educational institution that actively seeks academically minded students who are interested in extracurricular courses that are generally not provided at their local high schools. The academy is hosted on a university campus. While there, students stay in dorms, share their meals, and attend classes with one another. Student expenses are nominal, on a sliding scale, and were largely covered by external sources. Although students paid a monetary fee to attend, they did not receive course credit of any kind. Instead, the academy works to foster a mentality that academics, learning, and personal growth are rewards in themselves. The class met for 18 hours over three weeks. It is important to note that students were able to select courses at the academy; thus, they entered my course with a high level of interest in comics and comic culture. No homework, grades, or credit were given in the course.

In addition to providing challenging coursework for its students, the academy works with the students to address social difficulties they encounter that come with being academically gifted. It is common for educators in all schools to receive training to tend to the social obstacles that students face when confronted with poverty, poor academics, and even immigration, to name a few. However, many overlook the struggles of the academically gifted student, assuming that, since academically gifted students receive good grades and are usually courteous to authority figures, they already have the skills needed to be successful during and after their education, and that if they are not socially successful as teenagers, they will eventually find social, financial, and professional success. While academically gifted students recognize the value of their abilities toward school work and personal growth, many also feel bullied and socially outcast (Keer, Conlangelo, and Gaeth). Additionally, academically gifted students have been found to struggle with “perfectionism and over-achievement, depression, suicide, delinquency, developmental immaturity, and fear of success” as a result of their giftedness (Ford, Webb, and Sandidge 34). Thus, faculty at the academy are encouraged to create courses that provide academic enrichment that will stimulate and challenge their gifted students while also addressing the emotional struggles gifted adolescents encounter. The class I taught was a literature-based course that specifically analyzed comics and graphic novels with content that addressed narratives of personal, social, and political struggles. By having the students read and discuss autographics and then create their own, I intended to create a safe environment in the classroom that welcomed difficult and critical discussions while also providing opportunities for self-reflection in student writing.

The course was a mixture of comic analysis and comic creation. The class began with McCloud’s Understanding Comics, urging students to develop a lexicon to discuss comics while also gaining a critical eye as to what verbal and visual strategies authors and artists use to create their works. Students then read two complete autographics, Art Spiegelman’s Maus Vol. 1 and Gene Luen Yang’s American Born Chinese. Through guided and independent reading and class discussions, students identified conventions of the medium and strategies both Spiegelman and Yang utilized in their graphic novels. Students focused on themes in Maus and literary allusions in American Born Chinese in an attempt to recognize authenticity and reliability in the texts and deploy similar strategies in their own works. Between reading the three major works in the course (McCloud, Spiegelman, and Yang), students read short chapters from Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home, Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, and Harvey Pekar’s American Splendor. Three separate assignments, given in stages, asked students to create a comic depicting a memory. The first autographic, assigned upon our completion of Understanding Comics, asked students to depict a significant event in their life. After reading Maus, students were asked to create a second autographic that addressed a theme of the novel discussed in class, such as family conflict, guilt, survival, dominance, or racism. The third autographic, following American Born Chinese, challenged students to depict a memory while infusing a literary allusion of their choice. After creating each comic, students briefly wrote about the purpose of their autographic, reflecting on their verbal and visual choices and on their writing process.

While I anticipated that some students who signed up for the class would already be interested in comics and might also have some early training in art and drawing skills, I was not prepared for the level of comfort some students had with sharing sensitive and highly emotional moments of their lives. Leigh, in particular, recalled dark memories while creating her comics, retelling events of teenage suicide, a fight with a parent that resulted in Leigh’s moving out of the house, and meeting her estranged father for the first time. Leigh had accepted the assignment of creating a comic about a moment in her life that influenced her identity and chose to display sensitive events that went beyond any expectation I originally had. While reading the autographics that Leigh created during the class, I immediately realized that this fifteen-year-old girl demonstrated in her comics the same level of struggle and need for understanding of the trauma she had experienced as the authors of the assigned class texts. Unlike the majority of her classmates, Leigh’s autographics displayed a great deal of personal exposure as she rendered herself vulnerable to scrutiny and judgment from her reader. The represented traumatic moments of Leigh’s life were narrated through three particular strategies she employed that I categorize as: Drawing a Journey to Discovery, Hiding to Emphasize Voice, and Places and Artifacts as “Entry Points” to Memory. The next section discusses the framework used to facilitate student-created autographics in the classroom.

Benefiting Classrooms with Student-Created Comics—Building Skills with Autographics

With the presence of comics in all levels of education becoming more pronounced and acceptable, it is crucial that educators and scholars look critically at both which material is being taught and for what purposes. It is not enough to simply read comics such as Maus or Persepolis (two of the predominant graphic novels found in school libraries and on college syllabi) in the classroom. Not only is it important for students to be exposed to graphic literature, but they must also be prompted to experiment with the medium itself. Educational standards from a variety of sources, such as The Common Core Standards and the National Council of Teachers of English, call for graphic literature in the classroom, as “Graphic and visual messages influence contemporary society powerfully, and students need to learn how the elements of visual language communicate ideas and shape thought and action” (NCTE 20). The benefits of students studying comics goes beyond using them to assist struggling readers, for they also “provid[e] opportunities for the expansion of students’ linguistic intelligence [and] allow students to explore and expand their visual-spatial intelligence” (Morrison, Bryan, and Chilcoat 759; Gardner). Recently there has been an emergence of texts for educators about comics in the classroom (Bitz; Bakis; & Monnin, to name a few), arguing for different strategies for teaching comics. These texts provide useful information for teachers to develop and enact lessons framed around comics, but educators and researchers alike need more in-depth critical analysis of student-created comics in the classroom to understand student writing, meaning making processes, and voice through visual and verbal writing strategies. Comics in the classroom cannot be taught one-dimensionally, merely to improve reading skill. Students need to be taught the benefits of graphic literacy in their writing—how to use both visual and verbal elements in their formal and informal writing. Unfortunately, it is common for students to feel that their own artistic and graphic organizational skills are far too limited to even attempt creating a comic; this may be a result of students’ initial, and perhaps only, exposure to comics and comic book culture through popular feature films of superheroes and fantastical adventures filled with intense action and elaborate special effects. The grandiosity of visuals and the breadth of action in the films, serving as an expectation for their comics, intimidates students, leaving them feeling ill-equipped to tackle artistic tasks. With this in mind, biographical and autobiographical comics, which focus on realistic actions and are often drawn less-than-perfectly, should be used in classrooms for reading and analysis and as materials to model how students can demonstrate the value and power of visual literacy in their own writing.

The process of autographics, of creating a self-image or avatar visually and textually on the page, is a culmination of social practices authors piece together not only from past experiences or exposure to other autographic works as reference, but also with interaction authors have with the perceived and actual audiences that read their work. In this sociocultural perspective, meaning and identity is not constructed solely in the mind but through social engagements that stretch across cultural and historical contexts (Dunsmore and Fischer; Lewis, Enciso, and Moje; Li). As such, the autographic self-image is constructed through a layered process in which the author consults (1.) her past experiences or imagined image of the self due to social experiences with (2.) the physical image presented on the page and, most influential, (3.) the author’s plans for the reader to view the author’s self-image (Kersulov). The multimodal nature of graphic literature allows such layering of the self-image construction to move beyond any similar process that exists for traditional image-less autobiographies, as the verbal and visual elements of the text invoke synesthetic responses. However, for autographic authors to harness the multimodality of the text, they must understand the meaning of images, visual literacy, and semiotics, which are socially and culturally constructed (Coiro, Knobel, Lankshear, and Leu; Hull and Schultz).

Leigh: Harnessing the Visual and Verbal to Depict Herself

At first glance, Leigh seemed to be a typical upbeat fifteen-year-old. Generally quiet in class, it would usually take someone else to start a conversation for her to chime in. But it was evident that she took an interest in comics; she would later reveal, “I [Leigh] have already read a lot of memoir comics before this class like ABC [Yang’s American Born Chinese] and the New Orleans flood one [Josh Neufeld’s A.D.: New Orleans After the Deluge].” On several occasions, I saw her among a crowd sketching in the notebook she frequently carried. Leigh was an attentive listener in class, taking notes on conversations and mini-lectures while working on her art when she could find the time. This is not to say that Leigh was a loner. In fact, she participated in extra-curricular events hosted throughout the day (such as films and pick-up games of Frisbee) and engaged in discussions in and out of the classroom. One of the first assignments I gave the students was to write a list of adjectives that described them and objects that they believed represented them in some way. As I asked them to make the list of words, I made sure that I did not tell them that they would use it to help them draw an avatar of themselves. However, Leigh chose not to make the list of words, and instead she began drawing herself as if she knew the next step of the assignment. It was obvious that Leigh valued visual communication and recognized that images can portray a complexity of meaning, just as words do. In her avatar drawing, Leigh presented herself as upbeat (Figure 1). Leigh surrounded her avatar with objects that represented her interests and hobbies. She drew a movie clapper board, a copy of Haruki Murakami’s novel 1Q84, and a bicycle. Leigh presented herself as interested in popular culture, film, reading, and physical activity. Her avatar’s appearance was friendly, waving a welcoming arm to an audience. It is to her physical body, though, that she dedicated the majority of her attention. She chose a realistic representation, even showing typical clothes she wore and the hair style she sported in class. She also included a Mona Lisa-type smile that hints at the welcoming composure she establishes with the waving hand. Perhaps she ran out of time in class or maybe she was not confident with the intricacies of drawing a hand, but her waving arm is not complete. The lightly sketched hand lies in multiple places, giving it an illusion of motion. But its incompleteness creates an eerie phantom of a hello, which makes Leigh’s avatar seems as if it is still holding back a full-fledged embrace of the viewer. Some care was taken in the construction of Leigh’s avatar, as her process of sketching, planning, and filling in details is obvious. This process speaks of her interest in drawing but also of the contemplative nature that she demonstrated in her later works.

Figure 1: Leigh’s created avatar.

Drawing the Journey to Discovery

Each of Leigh’s autographics begins with poignant definitions of the topic and mood. In her first comic (Figure 2) the work opens with a view from Leigh’s perspective as she lies in bed, toes poking out from the end of the blanket, with an opened laptop queued to watch the film Girl, Interrupted, an adaptation of Susanna Kaysen’s 1993 memoir of the same name that recounts her eighteen-month stay at a mental institution for a suspected suicide attempt. The rest of her room is blackened out in heavy shading, pulling the reader’s eye to the movie that launches her quest for information about suicide. Leigh positions the reader to see the scene through her eyes. The reader is thus prompted to engage the scene through Leigh’s perspective, (re)living the scene as she experienced it. The next panel follows with a description of a conversation she has with her mother in which her mother reveals having a “similar experience [as depicted in the movie].” Her mother continues, “It was extremely common for kids to try to kill themselves.” The third panel focuses on a friend who Leigh remembers tried to kill herself. The panel displays a disturbing image of a darkened hallway of the hospital her friend stayed at for a month. Here Leigh notes that the extended stay at the hospital led her friend to fail her classes in school. The last panel is an image of Leigh facing the reader and reflecting on her friend being sexually abused and that Leigh never knew. The comic ends with its title: “Suicide Watch.”

Figure 2: Leigh’s first comic.

The juxtaposition between the first two panels of Leigh’s first comic, the shift from the laptop movie to the conversation in the car, positions the comic as a journey in discovery that transcends multiple events, places, and occasions. First, Leigh is prompted by an individual experience; she then seeks connections to the initial event, later attaching a memory of her best friend trying to kill herself. Her hobby of watching films, which she notes visually with the movie clapper in her avatar, is the catalyst for her investigation into suicide. Finally, it is while driving in the car with her mother that the topic is unleashed into reality, as she learns that her mother “had a similar experience.” Through the reader’s assumption that her mother’s similar experience is with suicide, combined with her mother’s statement that “it was extremely common for kids to try to kill themselves,” Leigh’s persona becomes vulnerable. While one might rationalize that Leigh’s mother was acting as if she were trying to console Leigh by letting her know that she is not alone if she has thoughts of suicide, Leigh’s mother almost gives Leigh permission to contemplate suicide—that it is “common” to do so. As she transitions to the third panel, Leigh seems to reach for other connections of suicide in her life, showcasing her friend in the comic. Although she maintains her friend’s anonymity, Leigh still depicts her friend’s face with realistic details. The realistic image echoes the seriousness of the comic. Again, the reader has the impression that we are seeing the friend through Leigh’s eyes, and although suffering, the friend smiles and brandishes beams of light with an almost halo effect. In the fourth panel, Leigh takes the reader with her to the ominous hospital hallway and its never-ending, darkened path of doors, suggesting just as many patients behind the doors. Here Leigh produces an image that calls upon themes of imprisonment and a detachment from life itself as the hospital image carries no action, people, or any sign of life. It stands only as an empty, shadowed corridor of closed doors, presumably for trapped patients.

In only four panels Leigh has maneuvered through multiple events with multiple people and places, traveling in a car and to the hospital. With each new panel she gathers more information on suicide and its effects on the people in her life. And as she pieces together all these moments, Leigh’s final panel reveals motives for her friend’s suicide attempt: “She told me later that it was because her cousin had sexually done stuff with her.” Leigh’s image looks directly at the reader in this final panel and the severity of the situation radiates from her. The piece thus far has been a narration through a collection of memories, but then she abandons memory and positions herself in the present, addressing the reader in a moment of confession. Leigh’s work stands as her testimony of suicide contemplation. Her character’s final line, “And I never knew …” refers to her not knowing about her friend’s experience with sexual abuse. Rather, the last line, “And I never knew …” speaks of Leigh’s understanding of suicide and other teens like her. Leigh discovers the depth in which the people in her life have suffered, but she also discovers that her private thoughts are common, if not acceptable. In five panels Leigh has journeyed from watching a movie in bed, to learning suicidal thoughts are common, to empathizing with her friend, to exposing her own thoughts on suicide. Leigh wrote about this piece: “I could have talked about my [mom’s] experience or even mine but I guess I wanted to create this specific mood.” “Suicide Watch” calls attention to the need for a “watch” over Leigh as she recognizes the dangers and vulnerabilities she must face as a teenage girl.

Leigh’s first comic stands as an introduction in autographic writing in which she explored the medium and herself through the depiction of connected memories. And while Leigh seemed to take great leaps of trust by exposing sensitive elements of her life and her private thoughts of suicide, it was in her next comic that she pinpointed renditions of specific traumatic events she has experienced.

Hiding to Emphasize Voice

Even though Leigh is artistically talented, she does not rely solely on image to communicate her ideas. The verbal elements of her autographics are as diverse and complicated as her images. Leigh’s second comic begins with an image of a swirling vortex that pulls the reader into the page as she narrates, “In 8th grade I went through a depression” (Figure 3). Leigh introduces her reader to her topics with words, but it is the visual element early in each of the texts that emphasizes her conflict. Transitioning into the second panel, Leigh connects the chaos of the vortex image to the emotional state she endured at home—finding it difficult to get out of bed in the second panel and the arguments she experienced in the third panel. While battling depression, Leigh writes about running away from home, hiding in her backyard shed, and eventually staying with an aunt because of arguments with her mother. The safety Leigh finds while hiding in the shed is coupled with her meek voice, “I can’t live here anymore.” However, the panel is disrupted as she transitions to the fourth panel. Leigh’s mother breaks into the comic with a lashing voice presented in a jagged speech balloon and all capital letters: “WHY ARENT YOU GOOD ENOUGH.” Here Leigh works to accurately depict the realism of the jarring event and the fear she experienced. The next panel responds to her mother’s question with only, “I’m Sorry.” The thick letters in Leigh’s response take up the whole panel, and the background of abstract lines and slight shading establishes the comment as both an intense scream and silence, as it is without a speech bubble. As the comic continues, the reader is shown the closet in which Leigh hid, visually narrating her desire for calm and escape from her mother. While the reader views the closet, Leigh’s image disappears completely from the work, and she increases the amount of words to communicate her experience.

Figure 3: Leigh’s second comic.

In fact, in all of her comics Leigh limits the number of panels in which she depicts herself physically, only drawing herself once in each piece. The majority of her panels are of places and objects from her past, without the presence of people. Her comics display empty hallways, closets, and beaches even though in each of these scenes she comments that she visited them. Her works are driven heavily by verbal narration, using words to provide details of the events and actions, rather than visually displaying them. It is the sudden appearance of her physical self at the end of her first and third comics that directs the reader’s attention to the verbal elements of the text in those panels even more. The last panel of her first comic focuses on her face, directly addressing the audience as she recalls her best friend’s suicide attempt. And it is not until the end of her third comic (discussed further in the next section) that Leigh draws herself in the work—the moment she eventually meets her father (Figure 4). The ends of both of these comics nod to a popular strategy of the author facing the audience while speaking to emphasize the importance of her words, which the class discussed while reading Persepolis. And Leigh captured the utility of the tactic, using it as a way to draw attention to the represented trauma she faced as she divulged reflective personal commentary on the events. In both examples, she refocuses the attention of the reader away from the narrated events, away from the hospital and the beach, and onto her commentary. Leigh and her reflection on the events become the purpose of the texts, rather than the events themselves. She does not allow the traumatic events to construct her character in the comic. Rather, it is her own voice that defines her.

Places and Artifacts as “Entry Points” into Memory

In her third comic, Leigh begins by depicting a plane flying through the sky accompanied by the text, “When I was 9 my dad flew me out to California to meet him” (Figure 4). Again, Leigh is absent from the scene, instead showing the vehicle of transportation. The second panel highlights artifacts from the trip, the airplane tickets. The tactic of displaying artifacts in autographics, a device to which Leigh was exposed in Spiegelman’s Maus, establishes a sense of verisimilitude and authenticity in the work while pinpointing the significance of the object itself. Here Leigh surrounds the airline tickets with words of anxiety and fear that she no doubt thought while flying to meet her father: “What if I like him. What if he’s a jerk. Scared. Frightened.” These words and phrases rotate around the airline tickets, creating a vortex of despair similar to the one she used to open her second comic. However, in her third comic, the vortex of words becomes a dizzy representation of her thoughts and fears. The panel’s narration, “I flew in a plane with a[n] aunt I barely knew,” infuses the airline tickets as an artifact of weight in the narrative. The airline tickets represent the actual tickets she used to board the plane, but they also stand as the beginning of a traumatic event she is representing. The topic of meeting her father for the first time when she was nine years old contrasts with the seemingly weightless airplane among the clouds and sun, and as the elements related to transportation repeat in the panels, Leigh not only recalls her travels, but she brings the reader with her during her journey. These opening sequences bluntly establish the topic and mood of the works while fluidly transitioning into the connecting events. Leigh disregards preparing her reader for the harshness of her topic; instead she thrusts the reader into the setting that marks the beginning of her story, building context through text.

Figure 4: Leigh’s third comic.

The third panel completes the flight and transports the reader to a beach along the boardwalk in California. Among the waves of the ocean, the heat radiating from the sun, and the city buildings lining street in the distance, sits a sandcastle and its accompanying bucket and sand shovel. The scene has all the components of life and activity—the buildings, road, sandcastle. But no one is there. The narration reads: “I spent a week with my aunt and cousin playing on the beach and going to the zoo.” Where are this aunt and cousin and, better yet, where is Leigh? Instead of depicting the actions that may have led to her traumatic experiences, Leigh relies on places to present the narrative visually. Terr notes that “we remember terrible events with a marked spatial sense” (199). As Leigh draws the places of her memory without the people in the panel, she re-experiences the moment through this “spatial sense.” Chute explains this tactic in autographics, recalling places as way to promote the movement of the narrative: “It both evokes and provokes memory: placing themselves in space, authors may forcefully convey the shifting layers of memory and create a peculiar entry point for representing experience” (114). Thus far in her third comic, Leigh is searching for an “entry point” in her narrative. The struggle of finding a place in her narrative to begin talking about and displaying her father is evident. Just as it is common for individuals to work up to an “entry point” when speaking of a traumatic event, Leigh finds her opening after she establishes control over the actions she remembers. It is then that she is able to reveal the climatic meeting with her father.

After the panel about the beach, she finally reaches the location where she meets her father, presumably a restaurant of some kind (it is difficult to make out the image). The image of the chairs and table at the restaurant is overwhelming as the chairs seem never-ending. This is a sharp contrast with the lofty airplane and sunny beach. It is here in the empty seats and table that she confronts the moment of trauma, “On a [T]hursday I finally met my dad for the first time.” The next panel is the first time in the comic that the reader sees Leigh—a quivering eyeball that takes up the entire panel, narrated with, “It was frightening.” As the panel focusses directly on her eyeball, the reader stares into Leigh’s eye as she is staring at her father for the first time. Leigh finds her “entry point” by exposing her physical fear and allowing the reader to gaze upon her. This exposure is a dramatic shift from the previous frames and her previous comics. Leigh is no longer hidden or simply a narrator retelling a memory. Nor is she an image represented cohesively with her environment as in her second comic, lying in bed. Leigh is finally on display—alone with her estranged father, frightened, confused, and vulnerable. After the airplane and traveling, after playing at the beach and visiting the zoo, Leigh’s “entry point” into her own narrative, an “entry point” of comfort with memory, is an exposure of the self riddled with fear. The eye welcomes the reader into the narrative as an onlooker of the moment she finally meets her father, but also as an observer of Leigh’s emotional experience.

The final panel of her third comic is of Leigh facing her father. Throughout her works Leigh has hidden herself from the view of the reader, hiding from thoughts of suicide, hiding from her mother and family expectations, and even hiding from remembering her placement in traumatic memories. However, at the end of her third comic she utilizes the same method to hide her father, showing only the back of his head to the reader. The reader is then positioned behind her father, looking directly at Leigh’s reaction to when her father tells her, “[Leigh] I am your father.” Leigh’s image on the page in this pivotal moment in the comic is a combination of fear and anxiety as her eyebrows shift up and her mouth slants, reporting, “It was cold and awkward.” Later Leigh writes about the scene, explaining, “I used a Star Wars allusion to show my detachment to my father. Also kind of the shock that this man was my dad and trying to make up excuses and have me take sides with him.” While drawing the panel, Leigh was calling on Luke Skywalker’s fear and eventual disgust of learning that the villainous Darth Vader is his father (Empire). Elements of the panel corroborate the Star Wars allusion. Her father’s hidden face becomes like Darth Vader’s black, full-faced helmet, and her father’s voice booms with the tenor of a deep baritone. Unfortunately, Leigh neglects to mention Star Wars in the actual comic, instead narrating the panel with, “It was cold and awkward and he tried to give me advice even though he wasn’t there for my life.” The Luke Skywalker/Darth Vader analogies are lost on the reader and the scene positions Leigh as helpless. Her father’s image towers over her; Leigh’s facial expression displays feelings of detachment, awkwardness, and shock as she is depicted with raised eyebrows, slanted mouth, and shifting shoulders.

The last panel of the comic moves completely away from the visual elements of the text, leaving Leigh and her father in the restaurant, and focuses on only her dialogue. Leigh ends her comic with: “I’ve never been sure how to feel about him.” Leigh’s memory thus lingers without resolution, and her traveling to California and meeting her father becomes a lasting impression of confusion and anxiety on the reader. The only true actions in the comic are her father trying to give her advice and his statement, “[Leigh] I am your father.” It is Leigh’s feeling that her father was not present in her life, that he did not act in some way with her, which resonates throughout the comic. The traveling, the artifacts, and the empty places serve as Leigh’s process of remembering this emotionally charged moment of her life that ultimately still confounds her, perhaps still searching for an entry point into fleshing out how she is to feel about her father.

Conclusion: Reconstructing Traumatic Memory as Constructing Identity

The narratives of the comics provide a space of reflection for Leigh to present her reconstructed memories of trauma which all add depth for her (and the reader) to understand ways she is constructing her identity. While not juxtaposed with other panels, the avatar she originally creates works to construct her identity through her physical depiction and by the objects surrounding her. A sense of closure does manifest between her image and that of the objects as Leigh calls on the reader’s interpretation of the objects to assign an identity to her avatar. However, without a fuller narrative, her avatar fails to capture her identity. In contrast, as Leigh creates the three autographics, she not only depicts the artifacts and places of her life, but also narrates that she wants the audience to perceive the manner in which she remembers the traumatic events she experienced. It is the reconstruction of these events and the strategies she employs that reveal Leigh’s process of constructing an identity through these represented traumatic events. And the trauma she wants the reader to believe she has endured, is (re)presented in multiple fashions. She uses heavy shading to invoke a mood of darkness throughout her works while artfully choosing precise words to lead the reader through otherwise disjointed panel transitions. While recounting emotionally charged memories, Leigh’s panels focus more on static images and locations devoid of action and use narration as a way to pinpoint and rationalize her thoughts. Leigh commented, “I have had multiple friends try to kill themselves and I just wanted to make other people think about it. I constantly ponder death and suicide in young people[‘]s lives and I want other people who have gone through similar experience relate to me.” Her reflection begins with trying to reach out to others who could learn from her experiences, but then refocuses the purpose back onto herself. An additional purpose for creating the autographics emerges as she explains that her experiences have constructed who she is. In her third comic, after meeting her father, the last panel stands alone with only one sentence, stating, “I’ve never been sure how to feel about him.” The sentence becomes the image of the panel, an entity that stands as the purpose of her final comic in the class—determining how, or who, she is while working on the autographic. When asked to reflect on her final comic about meeting her father and the benefits, if any, of using the graphic medium, Leigh wrote, “I didn’t have to show my Dad and was able to draw in dialogue […] I do think I didn’t add as much due to it being a comic but I was able to add more feeling than I would have been able to with just writing.” Here Leigh emphasizes that relating trauma in a comic allowed her to focus on her voice and her dialogue, to be in control of presenting difficult memories, to explore her thoughts and reactions to traumatic moments within a safe medium, and ultimately to construct herself on the page. Furthermore, Leigh undergoes a process of making sense of the difficult events of her past, a process of making meaning of her memories but also making meaning of who she has decided she is now as a result.

Leigh’s autographics speak of her struggles with her parents and her experiences with suicide with her friends and within her own thoughts—all traumatic events that would complicate anyone’s identity construction, let alone a teenager’s. But she does so with a purpose in mind. Leigh reflects on her second comic: “The purpose was to have the audience be able to relate my experience to others and help us connect kinda through comics.” By choosing to display these moments of her life in class, Leigh seems to be looking for an audience onto which she can release her emotional distress. Thus, Leigh seeks help by working to relate her experiences and connect with her audience. While revealing such trauma verbally to the class might have been too difficult for her, she was able to find a venue and a voice through her autographics. The strategies she employed, while creating her comics, drawing a journey to discovery, hiding her physical image to emphasize her voice, and displaying places and artifacts as entry points to memory, “lightened” the serious subjects and generated an atmosphere of comfort in which Leigh could reveal her insecurities in hope of coming to terms with her past. Ragusa points out the therapeutic nature of writing about traumatic events and that such writing can promote effective coping (Lumley and Provenzano) and positive emotional responses and behavior (Donnelly and Murray). But this study highlights that creating comics can provide young writers with opportunities for using both visual and verbal strategies to evoke traumatic memory in a manner they feel is safe and productive. Depicting memory in comics empowers traumatized writers to choose the method they recreate situations in which they originally did not have control. Choosing how they depict the scene, characters, action, dialogue, etc. mimics not only how they remember the event but also how they choose to counteract it.

I end with a final thought that Leigh wrote at the close of the course, reflecting on the benefits of creating autographics as whole: “I actually liked making memoir comics […] because it allowed me to get stuff off my chest in a[n] informal way and not say things out loud.” Here she implies that at some point during the course she did not believe she would enjoy creating comics about her memories, or perhaps it would not be helpful to her. But through the process of reading autographics and creating her own, Leigh develops a powerful skill in which she is able to harness both visual and textual writing strategies that manifested in providing a voice for what she perceived as unspeakable events. This phenomenon in writing exemplifies the need for more pedagogical approaches with student-created comics in order to uncover and celebrate the strength that is found in autographics.


[1] Terms such as comics, comic books, graphic novels, and graphic literature are used interchangeably to refer to the same medium.

[2] Pseudonym.

[3] This article will refer to “visual” elements of texts as the drawn images that are not intended to be representations of letters or words. “Verbal” elements of the text refer to letters and words.

[4] While comics and graphic novels may seem to be steeped in a tradition of male writers and artists, women authors such as Alison Bechdel, Marjane Satrapi, and Lynda Barry champion the industry with their award-winning works. However, they certainly are not the only women in the field, nor the only ones celebrated. The rise of women authors and characters in comics has been noted with recent scholarship, as well, with Hillary Chute’s Graphic Women: Life Narrative & Contemporary Comics and Jennifer K. Stuller’s Ink-stained Amazons and Cinematic Warriors. Both analyze women authors and representations of women in comics, searching for the strength and construction of the female voice, especially in autographics. As a result, a common element of women’s autographics is the representation of trauma.

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