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Review of Autobiographical Comics

By Sean Rachel Mardell

Kunka, Andrew J. Autobiographical Comics. Bloomsbury Academic, 2017.

Comics with narratives that pull from familial and personal experience have appealed to a greater audience and group of academics since at least the publication of Art Spiegelman’s Maus: A Survivor’s Tale. It is increasingly the case that the likes of Spiegelman, Bechdel, Satrapi, or Thompson are included in the likes of Norton and Gale readers designed for lower-division literature courses. Likewise, it is often these works that are increasingly being read and discussed in Middle and High School classrooms. Even with self-confessed Comics scholars, there is a tendency to gravitate to the genre; Andrew J. Kunka rightly points out that, “Comics scholars have directed much of their critical attention at three key works: Art Spiegelman’s Maus (1986, 1991), Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis (2004, 2005), and Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home (2006)” (2). Such trends point to the likely eventuality of “Graphic Memoir” themed courses being offered more commonly at the university level. It is in this context of growing general interest with the genre that Kunka’s Autobiographical Comics emerges from.

Kunka’s Autobiographical Comics seeks to provide a basic introduction to the study, history, unofficial canon, and key ideas that populate discussion of what he terms autobiographical comics. Part of the Bloomsbury Comics Studies Series, Kunka’s text is one that is generally in-keeping with the stated goals of the series’ editor (Derek Parker Royal). Royal notes in the preface that “The current series […] reflects the need for more programmatic classroom textbooks devoted to the medium, studies that are not only accessible to general readers, but whose depth of knowledge will resonate with specialists in the field” (vii). Everything in Autobiographical Comics, from the organizational structure to the sentence-level wording choices, connects to the goal of providing a text that is accessible to students and general readers. Though at times Autobiographical Comics arguably does not always “resonate with specialists,” it is an exceptional resource for those seeking a relatively thorough introduction to the genre.

Divided into five rather self-explanatory sections, the organization is seemingly well-suited for those seeking a clear-cut sense of direction. The relative ease for novices is clear just in looking at the titles of these sections: “Introduction: What are Autobiographical Comics,” “The History of Autobiographical Comics,” “Critical Questions,” “Social and Cultural Impact,” and “Key Texts.” Beyond these general sections, Autobiographical Comics breaks it down further for the reader with clearly marked sub-sections that make the text particularly useful in a classroom; indeed, an instructor need only assign the “Trauma” sub-section from “Social and Cultural Impact” when working out the specific day-to-day reading assignments of a course calendar.

The first section of Kunka’s Autobiographical Comics is effectively (and literally titled) an introduction. It is neatly broken done into the sub-categories of “The centrality of autobiography,” “The study of autobiography,” “What is an autobiographical comic,” and “This book and how to use it.” What follows is exactly what a reader should expect from such sub-categories, with Kunka providing basic introductory information that explains and forms the basic framework of his text.

His discussion of the departures and problematics of strictly adhering to standard notions of autobiography (specifically citing Philip Lejeune’s On Autobiography) is especially notable. Kunka establishes, “Lejeune’s definition [of autobiography] is also problematic for comics from the outset because it’s meant to apply to prose narratives, which almost always have a single author […] however, comics is almost always a collaborative medium” (6). Kunka continues on to work in coordination with discussion of Jared Gardner’s Projections and Hilary Chute’s Disaster Drawn to effectively point at the tension between the form (comics) and the genre (autobiography). Though some of these conflicts in part arise from the existence of notably different sub-genres within Kunka’s larger termed genre of “Autobiographical Comics,” he does effectively break down the discontents that arise from reading comics via Lejeune’s rather limiting notion of what is and isn’t an autobiography.

The second section, “The History of Autobiographical Comics,” is frankly the strongest part of Kunka’s text. This is in large part because Kunka looks beyond the seminal work of Justin’s Green’s Binky Brown Meets the Holy Virgin Mary, instead initiating discussion with what he terms “proto-autobiographical comics.” He correctly asserts: “perhaps unsurprisingly, some of the earliest […] cases were instances of self-portraiture or even self-parody” (22). In this sub-section, Kunka walks readers through the self-insertion of creator’s in comics from Bud Fischer’s Mutt and Jeff (1919) to Stan Lee and Jack Kirby attempting to wedding crash in Fantastic Four (1965). He also briefly touches on autobiographical manga that predates underground comix.

Although Kunka notes: “none of the examples from the early 1900s to the 1960s rose to the level of influence that would firmly entrench the genre in the medium” (32), the sub-section is none-the-less a valuable inclusion in the text that provides a solid historical bedrock for “The History of Autobiographical Comics.” The section charts the history from the Austin underground comix creators to the contemporary mainstreaming of autobiographical comics with the likes of Raina Telgemeier’s commercial success and the critical success of the musical adaptation of Fun Home being cited as indications that “such works have limitless opportunities to reach new and wider audiences as past associations or stigmas for comics fade away” (57).

The third section of Autobiographical Comics shifts the focus to what Kunka finds to be common sites of discussion in “Critical Questions.” Yet, the focus of all of these key questions all seemingly connect to the problem of authenticity and truthfulness in autobiographical comics. This is not to denigrate such discussion, as it is often the first thing to pop up in any kind of discussion surrounding media and non-fiction that asserts some level of truthfulness. However, this section is a tad light when it comes to meeting Royal’s series-wide goal of providing work that “resonate with specialists” (vii). For a section entitled “Critical Questions,” there is a lack of extended discussion of a number of key ideas that seemingly pop-up when engaging with autobiographical comics; such a section should probably touch on questions tying into: the power and politics of autobiographical comics that are essentially testimonials/testimonios, the concept of generational trauma, commercial success deriving from sharing one’s painful past, or the assumptions of memoir and autobiographical writing to be lazy and uncreative forms.

The fourth section, “Social and Cultural Impact,” interestingly launches a discussion of some of the elements that are omitted from “Critical Questions.” Yet, there is little engagement with these ideas as critical sites of discussion. Instead these ideas are checked off like keywords with the focus being on defining and contextualizing. Despite this, the section is quite effective at discussing key themes, sub-genres, and examples with short discussion of the likes of Hart’s Rosalie Lightning, GB Tran’s Vietnamerica, or McCloud’s “Infinite Canvas.” The relative effectiveness of this section noted, it does seem like the content of this section may have been better served – from an organizational standpoint – being split between and expanded on in the third and fifth sections of Autobiographical Comics.

The final section, “Key Texts,” is notably well-suited for an undergraduate syllabus. Broken down into four-to eight-paged sub-sections based on key creators or texts (e.g. “Robert Crumb and Aline Kominsky-Crumb,” “Lynda Barry’s One Hundred Demons,” or “Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home”), this section could easily be organized in a syllabus to have each particular sub-section be read in tandem with the key text in question. Indeed, the content of these sub-sections is certainly ideal for providing a strong critical and analytical foundation for individuals engaging with these texts for the first time. That said, these sub-sections often avoid more controversial ideas that many of these works are tied into.

From the outset, Kunka is fairly explicit in his goal of providing a text that shows the great generic depth and richness of autobiographical comics. It is a goal he reiterates throughout the text, even noting in the “Teaching autobiographical comics” subsection that, “one of my goals with this book is to provide readers with a wide variety of examples […] so that readers, students, teachers, and scholars can see for themselves the richness and variety that the genre of autobiographical comics offers” (80). When it comes to offering such a wide variety of examples, he is ultimately quite successful.

While Kunka is able to effectively showcase the sheer broad field of sub-genres and texts that encompass the genre of autobiographical comics, the text does have its limitations. Returning to Royal’s preface, the Bloomsbury Comics Studies Series is described as an answer to a supposed problem. Royal states, “While there is no shortage of scholarly studies devoted to comics and graphic novels, most assume a specialized audience with an often-rarefied rhetoric. While such texts may advance the scholarly discourse, they nonetheless run the risk of alienating students” (vii). It is in this framework – a framework that sees critique and scholarship as sometimes alienating to readers – that Autobiographical Comics limitations begin to make sense. Earlier stated concerns with the “Critical Questions” and “Social and Cultural Impact” sections are seemingly contextualized by such a framework; extended discussion on questions beyond the limits of authenticity could certainly be read as alienating to more conservative-minded students. Likewise, the “Key Texts” section of the text is made up of sub-sections that feel quite safe in their analysis and discussion, a feeling all the more surprising as these are texts that have historically invited lively and heated critical discussion.

However, these limitations do not by any means make Autobiographical Comics a sub-par work. Andrew J. Kunka’s text renders its subject matter a great service in providing an exceptional overview and introduction to the world of autobiographical comics. This is a text that ultimately delivers on its goal of being more accessible than much of the work being produced on comics. It is especially well-suited for inclusion in the undergraduate classroom. Though there are gaps where the controversial is noticeably absent, Autobiographical Comics is undoubtedly uniquely effective at giving readers an understanding of the wide depth and richness of the autobiographical comics genre.

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