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Photography and the Layering of Perspective in Graphic Memoir

By Nancy Pedri

Multimodality is particularly important for the study of comics narration since comics are complex multimodal narratives that tell stories by combining not only words and cartoon images, but also different semiotic modes—maps, paintings, charts, and photographs. In them, the co-presence and interplay of images and words gives rise to a complex storytelling practice that is “always characterized by a plurality of messages” (Hatfield 132). A highly malleable, rich narrative form, comics can propose virtually endless combinations of words and images to communicate a story to readers. From experiments with layout and design, to the choice of lettering, color, panel shape and size, to the incorporation of another visual mode, comics can and often do push the boundaries of multimodal storytelling. As Randy Duncan and Matthew Smith emphasize, the diversity in creative formats, genres, voices, and content encourages experimentation that often “inspires truly new forms” (91), including rich mixed presentational forms that integrate more than one verbal and visual mode.

Among the many different types of images reproduced in comics, photography stands out for the frequency with which it is used, especially in autobiographical, documentary, and other non-fiction comics. Since its inception in the 1880s, photography “offered to cartoonists an almost unlimited source of new models that could be stylized, deformed, or redirected in empirical and intuitive manners to represent action and movement” (Smolderen 120) but also different temporal frames and spatial realities, real and imagined (Pedri, “Thinking about Photography in Comics”). Almost immediately following the first experiments in photography available for public viewing, comics artists began to partake in the new visual culture, adopting and sharing new practices of visual representation to enrich their thematic and visual repertoires. Photography offered comics artists a new visual mode that could be transposed or transcribed into the cartoon drawn universe, or referenced within it. In this way, they joined “a wide and diverse group of writers of fiction [who] have made photography, photographs, and photographers important points of reference in their stories” (Horstkotte and Pedri 8).

As early as 1900, a short two-panel photo-comic entitled “Le premiere cigar” was printed in Album Noël, a collection of ninety-seven comic strips by different artists including J. B. Clark, F. M. Howarth, and Achille Lemot.1 Photo-comics, fumetti, or photo novels, where written text is superimposed over a series of sequential photographs, became popular in Italy and France in the 1940s and spread to Latin America in the 1960s and to North America in the 1970s. It should come as no surprise that this particular multimodal comics form has experienced a revival through digital media, including the recent web photo-comics by Derik Badman (2013), John ‘Brick’ Clark (2014), Ype Dreissen (2013), Lynn French and Joanna McKenzie (2007), and Seth Kushner (2006).

Advancements in technology have also rendered extremely popular the practice of faithfully reproducing photographic images alongside cartooning. Whereas the 1950s saw the mixing of cartooning and photography in single images, such as a 1950s Mad Magazine comics cover that collaged a photograph of rooftops and water towers with a gargoyle monster drawn by Basil Wolverton or Louis Magila’s racy collages featured in Humorama (and other Humarama group magazines) since its first 1957 issue, the 1990s marked a thrust in creative experimentation: the inclusion of photographic images in the sequential narrative of comics. To an exceptional degree, the past few decades have witnessed a surge in comics that faithfully reproduce photographs. Comics as diverse as Emmanuel Guibert, Didier Lefèvre, and Frédéric Lemercie’s Le Photographe (2003-2006), Cassandra Jean’s Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children (2013), Randall Kirby’s The Potentater and Spud Monkey in Criminal Accessories (2015), Bryan Talbot’s Alice in Sunderland (2007), and Jean Teulé’s Gens de France et d’ailleurs (2005) integrate photographs into the multimodal framework of comics to create innovative collaborations between different visual modes of signification.

Graphic memoir, in particular, often combines cartooning and photography to depict “the lives of real, not imagined, individuals” (Couser 15), as perceived by the individual who lived and (usually) narrates the experience. Photographs are arguably becoming a staple addition to the visual track of graphic memoir, a comics genre that Caren Kaplan calls an “out-law form of autobiography” (1992) and Gillian Whitlock, “autographics” (2006). In Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home (2006), Al Davison’s The Spiral Cage (2003), Art Spiegelman’s Maus (1986, 1991), and many other graphic memoirs, photographs are put to good narrative use in this genre that is bound up with ideas about the self, its individual and unique subjectivity, and its representation. Deemed to be an important narrative component by critical readers, photographs are theorized by many as playing a key role in persuading readers of the authenticity of a particular personal experience and, by extension, its narration. Critics often argue that graphic memoirists who use photographs in their works draw “on the mythical status of photography as a particularly authentic medium” (El Refaie 138).

The mythical referential status of photography informs most theoretical discussions about the stylistic particulars and expressive qualities of the drawn cartoon image. Several comics critics contrast the two types of pictures, adopting a binary thinking that opposes the photograph’s necessary “relationship to objective reality” to the cartoon image’s “relationship to the subjectivity of the artist” (Woo 175). They argue, however briefly, that unlike photographic images, what is shown in the cartoon image has been “transformed through somebody’s eye and hand” (Wolk 118). Ann Miller stops on the “fabricated nature” of the cartoon image by stating matter-of-factly, “representation in bande dessinée does not involve mechanical reproduction” (123). Similarly, Pascal Lefèvre devotes one sentence to the question to assert that “the particular nature of pictures in a comic” is that they are “strongly stylized” “[u]nlike in real life or in photographic images” (72). Ann Cvetkovich points out, “graphic narrative’s hand-crafted drawing distinguishes it from contemporary realist forms such as photography and film and reminds us that we are not gaining access to an unmediated form of vision” (114). Douglas Wolk confers that comics “don’t work” like “[f]ilm and photography [that] intrinsically claim to be accurate documents” (118).2

This type of binary thinking also informs the scarce examinations of photography in graphic memoir. Whereas Marianne Hirsch (25) claims that the photographs in Art Spiegelman’s Maus expose all images as fictional constructs, Roy Cook and Julia Watson argue that the realistically drawn photographs in Fun Home have an objective purport. Elisabeth El Refaie, in the only single-authored monograph devoted to graphic memoir to date, also claims that photographic images in graphic memoir serve as documentary evidence (158). There is ample evidence, however, that the use of photography in graphic memoir functions not only as evidence or proof, aide-memoires, or markers of the passage of time, but also as commentary or critical engagement with questions of self and its representation. The photographs reproduced in these self-narratives often have a narrative, story-based (and not a referential, reality-based) function that challenges and ultimately blurs boundaries separating the documentary and the aesthetic (Ernst; Pedri, “Cartooning Ex-Posing Photography”). Indeed, the use of photography in graphic memoir often results in a collapse of photographic objectivity (Pedri, “When Photographs Aren’t Quite Enough”); enforces the dependence of storytelling on personal interpretation, thus promoting cartooning’s ability to render reality more accurately than photography (Pedri, “Graphic Memoir” 136-145); and presents a challenge to the tenets of literary realism.

In what follows, I will examine the transposition of photographic images in three graphic memoirs not to consider their documentary status, but rather to ask how the comingling of photography and cartooning relates to questions of focalization. How does the incorporation of photographs in the visual track of Mendel’s Daughter by Martin Lemelman, One! Hundred! Demons! by Lynda Barry, and Mallko y papa by Gusti inform the representation of the subjective perception of self and experience? How does the faithful or stylized reproduction of photographic images and the change in mode it signals contribute to memoir’s enterprise of communicating the processes of understanding and creation that give meaning to a self and its personal experience?

Martin Lemelman faithfully reproduces several photographs in his Mendel’s Daughter (2006), a graphic memoir about his mother, Gusta, and her family’s experience in WWII Poland. The narrative voice is Gusta’s, accentuated through Polish American vernacular and transcribed from a 1989 videotape marked “Mother remembers” (5) by Martin, who serves as Gusta’s addressee. Lemelman, in turn, visually renders the story through pencil drawings and lettering; reproductions of photographs, printed material, and other material traces from the period, such as an embroidered wall hanging (29); and blank pages that announce the end of a narrative thread. Although Mendel’s Daughter falls into what Franz Stanzel calls reflector narratives, narratives that present the story through the consciousness (i.e., the subjective world) of a character that mediates or partakes in fictional events (152), it presents as an unusual example. Gusta is the experiencing I who perceives and judges events and people in her life. But, her perceptions and judgments are reflected by her narrating I as understood and transcribed not only by herself, but also by Martin, who is addressed as Mattaleh throughout the narrative, and Lemelman. This unique narrative situation complicates questions of perspective by layering Martin’s (and Lemelman’s) understanding of things on top of Gusta’s.

A similar layering of perspectives marks the many photographs scattered throughout the graphic memoir. The majority of the photographs reproduced in Mendel’s Daughter are portraits of Gusta’s family members. This comes as no surprise since individual identity is the object of representation and contemplation for graphic memoir and photographic portraiture alike. The two genres share a common interest: to present, discover, or invent an individual subject through representation. Both are intrinsically connected to questions of subjectivity and perspective, to the outward manifestation of a subjective vision of self.

Most of the photographs in Mendel’s Daughter are marked by age and accompanied by a statement of clarification written in the same hand and accented voice as the narrative text, which belongs to Gusta. The cartoon-lettered commentary—which is either written directly on the photograph, within its frame or overtop part of the image, or alongside it—identifies who is pictured by naming the person pictured and loosely dating the photograph by referencing the war. This process of identification, however, is a not a neutral one: almost all of the comments specify the relationship of the person photographed to our narrator, Gusta. Across the photographs and the writing on them, Gusta informs readers about her life and the people in it, but also betrays her emotional investment in what is pictured. From detailed explanations such as “My brother Isia’s Bar Mitzvah picture. Maybe two years before this story happened” (75) to short notes—”Two pictures from the Mother and Father about 1939″ (34)—Gusta’s commentary firmly places the photographs and the histories they can tell in relation to herself and to the personal history she wishes to relate. By indicating what she would like us to see in the image, what she would have us understand and take away from it, Gusta’s subjective commentary guides us to extend the photograph’s meaning beyond what is featured in its frame to consider how what is pictured on the photograph intersects with Gusta’s identity and subjectivity (the way she constructs her identity).

By accentuating the photographic subject’s relationship to herself and her story, Gusta positions herself within the photographic frame. She engages in an exchange whereby what is imaged impacts her notion of self and her notion of self impacts what is imaged. The photographs in Mendel’s Daughter do not so much anchor Gusta’s memories in a fixed, past moment, but rather initiate a dynamic process of understanding necessary for Gusta to come into being first to herself, then to Martin, and then in the mind of readers. Such a process exposes the photograph as an image that accommodates, indeed requires a narrative intervention to communicate meaning. It thus begins to dismantle the photographic image’s alleged documentary status, since it carries not one objective meaning, but as many subjective meanings as there are stories that are used to shape or impose meaning on what is portrayed. It follows that the photograph’s fictionality and not its highly-mythologized documentary representational status is foregrounded when transposed within the comics narrative universe in which it gains in meaning.

Throughout Mendel’s Daughter, a cartoon hand that readers understand as belonging to Gusta signals her subjective inflection and reinforces its necessary role in the shaping of her self, her story, and the photographic images she cherishes. It is a subjective mark on the page that further accentuates the centrality of our narrator’s subjectivity. Repeatedly drawn holding the photograph of someone who was dear to Gusta, the hand constantly reminds readers that the entire narration stands with Gusta, the focalizing character. At times, she is looking at the photograph, holding it in two hands in a way that aligns her line of sight with ours, the reader (37); at other times, she holds out the photograph, extending it away from herself to her interlocutor (Martin and the reader); and sometimes, her downturned hand hovers over a group of photographic images indicating that what she lays out for us to see is of central importance to her (199). As in Spiegelman’s Maus, the drawn hands engage in a “strong presentational gesture,” announcing “the interjection of a subjective mind that directs the graphic memoir’s visual (and verbal) telling, including that of the photographic image” (Pedri “Cartooning Ex-Posing Photography” 253). The drawn hand makes the photographic image stand apart as a hand-selected artifact, one that is made to carry meaning within the cartoon universe in which it has been placed. Like the comments scribbled overtop the photographs or in their margins, the hand suggests that Gusta is the creative agent who chose the photographs to aid in the communication of her personal experience to her son. In all three manifestations, the drawn hand offers the illusion of a private correspondence between Gusta and her listener / reader, drawing the listener/reader into the affective charge the photograph’s hold for Gusta.

Throughout Mendel’s Daughter, these hands also accentuate the importance for Gusta of the photograph’s materiality, of the photograph’s role as a material object that holds a physical presence, bears traces of handling and use, and that she can circulate. The insistent use of hands points beyond the photograph’s visual content to acknowledge it as a material actor not only indexically representing what is depicted but also playing a crucial role in the processes of self-understanding, self-representation, and self-construction that inform graphic memoir. As pictures of people Gusta knew, the photographs exist as material support for her story; as material objects in their own right, they yield information about the subjective processes put into place to make sense of Gusta’s self and her experience and by which the photographs in Mendel’s Daughter have been shaped.

Matters get slightly more complicated when faced with collections of photographs that belonged to Gusta, but that are not held or commented upon by her. In a rare instance, Martin’s voice interrupts Gusta’s narrative voice to inform readers that he and his brother found the collection of photographs reproduced on the page in their mother’s nightstand. Apart from a few scribbled names, most of the portrait’s subjects are left unnamed because Martin is not able to identify all of her friends; “They are unidentified friends” (46). Here, Martin, and not Gusta chose to use these photographs and relate them back to Gusta. But, through this intrusion, he indicates that his perspective also filters into the telling, overlapping and intersecting with Gusta’s. In a way that draws readers into the narrative, he performs the type of character identification and empathetic reading experience that photographic portraiture (Zamir 118) and graphic memoir (Versaci 38) aim to achieve.

In Mendel’s Daughter, photography and cartooning collaborate to propose a web of perspectives that situates the understanding of self in relation to others. Their coupling positions the experience readers are learning about firmly at the intersection of Gusta’s embodied subjectivity, that of the person portrayed, and that of the person listening to her tale. This layering of perspectives performed by the comingling of cartooning and photography is raised for explicit consideration with the presentation of the first photographic image in the book, reproduced right after the brief introductory explanation that Gusta died on Dec. 8th, 1996 and that several years later, she appeared to her sleeping son Martin. Gusta addresses him in his dream, exclaiming, “‘Oy, mein tayereh Mattaleh, my precious Martin,’ she said, ‘you now have 52 years’… ‘This is the same age from my father when he was murdered'” (4). A photograph of Martin’s grandfather that partially covers a drawn image of Martin’s face accompanies Gusta’s statement (Figure 1).

Figure 1: Mendel’s Daughter, p. 4.]

Martin peers out from behind the photograph, his eye, mouth, and ear visible to suggest that his and Gusta’s story transpires through, across, and beside the photograph, and that the photograph gains in meaning through, across, and beside their story. A large panel following the second part of the quoted text shows Gusta reflected in her tombstone beside her specification that “Sometimes your memories are not your own” (4). Notions of shared memories, history, and common remembrance, but also of being dispossessed of your memories are crucial for understanding the use of photographs and their relation to perspective in this graphic memoir.

On one level, the subjective presentation of perspective through photography and cartooning is rendered in a subjective style that is intimately tied to Lemelman, who is also a character in the book. He letters the entire book—narrative text boxes, photographic captions and commentary, and his narratorial intrusion signed M. L.—with a neat print handwriting font that suggests his wish to communicate his best, most faithful understanding of his mother and her story. Throughout Mendel’s Daughter, his lettering is light, simple, and characterized by somewhat extended characters betraying the personal, imperfect English of Gusta’s oral account, but also her careful attention to details and her (and Martin’s) emotional investment in the story. Gusta’s story and her place within it extends to the photographic images, as does Lemelman’s lettering and interpretative efforts.

On another level, subjectivity is tied to Gusta’s memory: she holds and shares important information about those photographed, information that she selects and filters according to her own interests. The drawn hands and heavily accented commentary, as well as the visible wear and tear of photographs in Mendel’s Daughter, betray the significant role of photography in Gusta’s memory practice. These material photo-objects help her structure the interfaces between herself, her personal history, the historical event she lived through, and those who listen/read her account. Gusta turns to them as material support for what she recounts, and through her reading of them firmly grounds them in the graphic memoir’s system of meaning.

On yet another level, the subjective presentation of subjectivity is intimately tied to the body of the person portrayed, through photography and cartooning. Almost every photograph is a careful composition of a person or a group of people who pose with the knowledge of being seen as they would like themselves to be seen and, by extension, remembered. However, each photographed self exists and gains meaning also alongside its drawn renditions. Paired with the photographic images, the drawn portraits speak not so much to the perspective of the person photographed, but once again to a subjective style intimately linked to Lemelman and to what Martin hears and imagines, sees and interprets, understands and values, through Gusta and the photographs she selects. This complex layering of perspective, which is subtly played out across photographic portraits and the cartoon renditions of the photographed subjects, presents the understanding of self and experience as embodied, shared, and relational.

Photographs in graphic memoir are often much more stylized than those faithfully reproduced in Lemelman’s graphic memoir. Oftentimes, they are reworked through cartooning, undergoing a remediation process by which “comics refashion photographs, break them into a story and try to improve on them” (Mikkonen 82). In these instances, the filtering of the photograph image through cartooning draws attention to the workings of focalization: subjective interpretative practices and unique vision guide the remediation process. In One! Hundred! Demons!, a collection of seventeen tightly interconnected short “autobiofictionalography” stories about adolescence, family, love, and self-identity, Lynda Barry reproduces several photographic images that have been altered through cartooning. Each story is introduced with a two-page collage title page comprised of verbal text and visual images, and decorated with origami animals, cloth flowers, cut-out pictures (from magazines, coloring books, and previous sketches), newspaper scripts, material trim, and other scrapbooking materials. Every story closes with a blank colored two-page spread on which a feature of the introductory page is reworked in the bottom right-hand corner through a similar scrapbooking process that adds material, but also narrative layers to the image while obfuscating parts of it.

The book opens with a two-panel page portraying the author-protagonist sitting at her desk drawing the very page we are reading. As she does so she contemplates whether her work is “autobiography if parts of it are not true [or if it is] fiction if parts of it are?” (7). The introductory nod towards mediation—towards the altering of storyworld details—is paralleled visually in the treatment of the photographic portraits reproduced on the “surrealist collage” (Chute 292) cover pages of five short stories: “Common Scents” (50-51), “Resilience” (62-63), “Magic” (98-99), “The Visitor” (110-121) and “Lost and Found” (206-207). In all five instances, the photographic portraits have been adjusted or tampered with; either words or other framing marks are scrawled over and around the portrait, common scrapbooking materials are pasted overtop it, or particular facial features are accentuated and colored in a caricature fashion. The layered additions and modifications to personal photographic portraits, whereby scrapbooking techniques are used to alter and reformulate the original photographic artifacts “by glazing, embossing, sewing, punching, tearing, cutting, and/or distressing them” (Tamas 87-88), signal a subjective adjustment to the photographic images. In other words, they signal the work of focalization.

Because each photograph in One! Hundred! Demons! is a portrait in which Lynda, our protagonist, figures and because each one is placed within a narrative that announces itself as an autobiography, the remediation of photographs indicates the narrator-protagonist’s personal understanding and construction of self. Rendered in the same style as that used throughout the graphic memoir, the touch-ups and alterations demarcate Lynda’s subjective experience with visual representations of herself, making visible her way of seeing, but also thinking and feeling her self, as embodied in material photographic images of self. Like the stories they accompany, in which Lynda struggles towards a greater degree of self-knowledge—”Who knows which moments make us who we are?” (36), “When did I become a teenager?” (64), “If I had these things, would I have been a girlish girl too?” (185)—the remediated photographs, with their assemblage of material and marks, their scratched over surfaces and colored features, betray a quest to come into knowledge of self (Figure 2).

Figure 2: One! Hundred! Demons!, p. 62

Additions to and subtractions from what was originally pictured mirror the protagonist’s adding and subtracting to that which is not known about or communicated in portrayals of her self. Starting from a conventional photographic portrait, which pictures self as it is or should be ideally seen in accordance with social norms, our narrator-protagonist challenges the image’s pretense to accuracy and truth by covering over falsities as she remembers details about herself, and touching up or framing certain features to suggest parallel configurations of self or an ambiguity towards self. The end product carries both hidden and not-so-hidden meanings, effacements of and additions to the original photograph that are clearly marked by the protagonist’s subjective perspective. The marking of her subjective perspective, however, does not erase the original perspective (consciously or unconsciously enacted or imposed). Instead, through alterations, additions, and effacements, Lynda adds her understanding of self, however tentatively, to those of others featured in the original, untouched image. The layered texture of scrapbooked photographs in One! Hundred! Demons! thus underscores the workings of focalization by multiplying, but also fracturing subjective visions of Lynda’s self.

The cartoon marks on the portrait photographs come to suggest that the original picture, the one that supposedly captured the real, does not suffice to record the narrator’s subjective understanding of self. Left untouched, uncommented, and unaltered, the photographs do not, cannot capture her fractured self, her “ability to exist in pieces [that] some adults call resilience” (70). They thus need to be tampered with if a sense of self that is more in sync with Lynda Barry’s unique, personal understanding of self is to be communicated. Remediation may very well join other visual practices whereby comic artists “infuse their work with a sense of the handmade and personal that deliberately evokes the ‘subartistic’ and ‘amateurish’ as a means of endowing an aura of the authentic and personal to the image and to the narrative voice of the comic” (Carney 196). However, the mixing of scrapbooking practices, cartooning, and photography also highlights the indispensable role of interpretation in the understanding and presentation of self. It accentuates the importance of subjective truth (the truth that lies with personal perspective), and not historical truth (truth that requires dates, facts, and research), to graphic memoir.3

However, the overtly mediated quality of the representations of self present as incomplete, as if willing (and wanting) to accommodate another round of modifications. The invitation to continue crafting the portrait suggests a grasp of self that is terribly vulnerable and constantly under threat of dissolving into other configurations. The process of reworking images of self is performed within the book through the repetition, with slight alterations, of several of the photographic portraits reproduced on the two-page collage title pages. Throughout One! Hundred! Demons! photographs are returned to and repeatedly reworked, with each round of scrapbooking and cartooning layering a new perspective onto the original image that, like the resulting multimodal portrait, is full of lapses of knowledge. Like the stories they accompany, the altered photographic portraits cannot bridge the divide separating the narrator-protagonist’s inner and outer selves. Instead, they perform a simultaneous hiding and showing, engaging in an interplay of not knowing and knowing that articulates Barry’s uncertain sense of self.

In Barry’s One! Hundred! Demons!, the altered photographs announce the subject’s open involvement in the preservation, organization, and designing of self and experience. They draw notice to the fundamental role of subjective perspective in the processes of creation and communication of a meaningful self, and thus echo the subject-based quality of Barry’s scrapbook-like graphic memoir of which they are a fundamental part. As with the stories, the photographs are expressive of the subject’s unique understanding of self and the events and representations that inform it; ultimately, readers experience the subjective filtering of self and its representation.

Cartoon altered photographs are an essential narrative component of Mallko y papá, Argentinian comic artist Gusti’s 2014 graphic memoir about raising a child with Down Syndrome. The book opens with a snapshot of a newborn dressed in a baby blue sweater and a white bonnet staring at the photographer, mouth slightly ajar and eyes open but droopy. A blue scribbled marker line, which resembles other randomly-placed blue and yellow marker scribbles that adorn the page, is drawn across the photograph’s bottom, spilling over its border onto the page. The name “Gusti” is written in red above the image; a text expressing our narrator Gusti’s desire to love a child unconditionally is written in capital letters with black ink below it. Six pages later, and just before a dramatic two-page spread comprised of bold letters “No lo acepté” (I didn’t accept him),4 Gusti admits that unlike a drawing, which can be retouched, improved upon according to one’s taste, or rendered perfect with photoshop, a son cannot be altered even if he is incredibly different than what his father could ever have imagined.

At first, Gusti’s introductory admission that a son cannot be altered seems at odds with the many photographs of Mallko that are included in Mallko y papá. Most of them have been drawn over, cut out, or pasted onto drawn bodies; placed into drawn cars or around drawn castles; or traced over with crayons, paint, ink, or other drawing implements. Only two photographs have not been overtly tampered with: a large two-page photograph of Gusti peering out from two holes cut out of a painted mask of a brown hairy creature that he holds up to his face and a one-page photograph of Mallko, his head leaning on his shoulder while he concentrates on drawing with a red marker. The many other photographs of Mallko reproduced throughout the book, all tampered with through different cartooning strategies, seem to manifest an adjustment to who Mallko is. Replacing parts of his body with a drawn version of it, touching up his face with rouge, or inventing the backdrop to present Mallko in a different experience seem to suggest a reconfiguration of Mallko.

In actuality, they express Gusti’s dissatisfaction with photographs of Mallko and, at the same time, stage his attempt to understand and make readers understand his son and the way he perceives his world and his place in it. As the book unfolds, it becomes apparent that the addition of cartooning to photographic portraits functions to address, critique, and ultimately overturn ill-conceived understandings and representations of children with Down Syndrome who, like Mallko, are often cast into a category that effaces their individuality.

Gusti tampers with photography through techniques of framing, collage, and erasure, putting into play a remediation process that allows him to foreground Mallko’s uniqueness through his own intimate, fatherly perspective. For instance, to address the common misconception that all children with Down Syndrome have the same bowl cut haircut—an understanding Gusti’s mother asserts—Gusti introduces a photograph of Mallko with afro hair followed by a composition of a series of sixteen identical snapshots of his son in a 4 x 4 panel page layout (Figure 3).

Figure 3: Mallko y papa

The photographs are labeled with consecutive numbers framed in a white square and positioned in the picture’s top right-hand corner to demarcate the panel border. Each one is coloured over to portray Mallko with different hairstyles, different hair colors, and even a beard. By reproducing the same photographic image and submitting it to alterations that rely heavily on cartooning and the language of comics, Gusti engages in a dynamic interplay between photography and cartooning to reference, but also complicate and ultimately dismantle stereotypical and prejudiced understandings of children with Down Syndrome. Through the cartoon tampering of these photographic portraits, Gusti exposes the mythological status of both the stereotypical understandings and the truth claims of photographic portraiture. He does so to accentuate Mallko’s unique subjectivity, and by extension the individual, distinguishing uniqueness of every person with Down Syndrome.

To further grasp Mallko’s uniqueness, Gusti often incorporates the boy’s own expressions of self into the narrative. A similar photographic series is introduced five pages later; an introductory photograph of Mallko standing in profile gives way to a full-page composition of 3 X 5 photographs of Mallko taken from different angles and pictured with many different expressions as he engages in a variety of activities (Figure 4).

Figure 4: Mallko y papa

Green and blue marker scribbles adorn most of the photographs, accentuating Mallko’s personal engagement with this photographic presentation of his self. Here, the child’s subjective engagement with his self and its representation joins his father’s, who chose what photographs to include in the telling and how to present them to readers. The co-existence of their interpretative processes is further suggested through a brief comparison of the two page layouts. The repetition of a singular photographic image is replaced in this second composition with several different images; an ordered panel arrangement is abandoned for a more lax positioning of panels; regularly sized images give way to a series of slightly differently sized photographs; and the overall neat appearance of the first series is replaced with one that is marked up with marker scribbles that are difficult to decipher. Unlike the first portrait composition, the second one is laid out in a way that speaks to Gusti’s concerted effort to include Mallko’s understanding of self alongside his own fatherly perspective.

The layering of their perspectives and the inter-relational model of subjectivity that results from it are announced from the start of Mallko y papá with the book’s endpapers that are a collage of children’s drawings of faces. The first half of the two-page spread presents fifteen pre-schematic drawings of faces and the second, a twenty-seven picture series of more developed, schematic drawings of faces. Whereas the first half resembles the advanced scribbled aesthetics that accompany Mallko’s drawings in the chapter entitled “Su Universo” [“His Universe”], the drawings in the second section share traits with the communal pictures made by Mallko and Gusti when by “dibujamos juntos, entremos en un universe nuestro” [drawing together, we enter our (shared) universe]. By placing Mallko’s faces alongside those marked by the perspectives of both father and son in a comics devoted to a father’s attempt to understand the awesome, unique difference of his son, visions meld and perspectives build into a complex web of subjectivities and interpretations.

Contrary to what David Carrier suggests, the comingling of photography and cartooning may very well mark a change in the visual technology of comics (113). It surely introduces a new, popular storytelling technique adopted by many graphic memoirists who blend cartooning and photography to communicate a sense of self through the layering of perspectives. By placing layers and layers of interpretation onto an original visual, thus obfuscating certain features while adding others to the image, the alteration of photography through cartooning presents the type of adding and discarding, highlighting and deleting narrative practices needed to communicate self. The hybrid, multimodal portraits that result from this blending, with their rich melding of mixed visual media, draw attention to the sustained creation and management, interpretation and representation, apprehension and reflection of self at the heart of graphic memoir. My contribution forces into consideration how their mixing accounts for a self that is not only “truly plural in its origins and subsequent formation” (Eakin 43), but also allusive and ultimately always in the making because it is born of crossing, overlapping, complementary, and competing perspectives.


[1] See Andy’s Early Comics Archive.

[2] See also Nyberg 117-118; Postema 488.

[3] Ben Yagoda posits subjective truth as a feature that distinguishes memoir from autobiography (3).

[4] All translations from Spanish are mine.

Works Cited

Badman, Derik A. MadInkBeard No.5. Private Publisher, 2013, Accessed 2 March 2017.

Barry, Lynda. One! Hundred! Demons! Sasquatch, 2002.

Bechdel, Alison. Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic. Houghton Mifflin, 2006.

Carney, Sean. “The Ear of the Eye, or, Do Drawings Make Sounds?” English Language Notes, vol. 46, no. 2, 2008, pp. 193-209.

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