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Review of Comics and the Body: Drawing, Reading, and Vulnerability

By Gareth Brookes

Szép, Eszter. Comics and the Body: Drawing, Reading, and Vulnerability. The Ohio State University Press, 2020. 

At the outset of Comics and the Body, Eszter Szép describes the moment that led her to embark on this ambitious, provocative, and ground-breaking book. The setting is the bath, and Szép is reading Miriam Katin’s Letting it Go whilst wincing at the uncomfortable autobiographical drawings through which Katin depicts old age. Szép’s visceral reaction to these images leads her to ponder the relationship between the body of the artist, the body of the reader, and the shared vulnerability of all things with bodies that age, become ill, and die. The book’s opening bathtub setting, where the body is present, prostrate and vulnerable, enveloped by the material element of water, is an apt one since much of the discussion in Comics and the Body revolves around awareness of the body and our embodied experience of contact with material elements.

In the introduction, Szép sets the scene upon which to present her ideas; a lengthy survey takes up the first fifty pages of the book and establishes a theoretical framework in which most of what follows can be discussed. Szép casts a wide theoretical net, attempting to use the embodiment theories of Shaun Gallagher to connect the drawing theory of Simon Grennan and Jared Gardner with the feminist thinking of Judith Butler and Rosalin Diprose. Szép convincingly reframes the relationship between drawing subject and reader, moving the emphasis away from a psychological mechanism of identification and towards an inter-constitutive relationship wherein both parties share embodied involvement, mediated through the surface of the page. Such a surface is conceptualized as a site of embodied trace, a nodal meeting point between bodies, where marks are understood through empathy arising from shared vulnerability. 

Such ideas could be seen as a revision of those of Philippe Marion, who argued in his famous and much-disputed essay Traces en cases that marks should be understood in terms of a coincidence of the gaze of the comics’ reader and the creative movement of the artist; this results in a point of identification Marion called graphiation. Szép seeks to replace this psychological identification with embodied concepts, including vulnerability, proposing an intersubjective relationship between “drawer” and reader that involves a number of forms of empathic experience. It’s important to note that for feminist thinkers such as Butler and Diprose, and resultingly Szép, vulnerability does not suggest a powerless body but is simply the essential common experience of all embodied beings. 

This is convincing, but I find myself objecting to many of Szép’s arguments in the first chapter entitled “The Authentic Line.” In this chapter Szép focuses on the role of the drawn line in the inter-constitutive relationship she has proposed. To do this, she utilizes the pedagogical approaches of Lynda Barry to discuss ways in which a line can be rendered “more authentic” and open to expressing vulnerability. These include letting go of judgemental self-observation, achieving different states of attention, and giving up intention in order to let the line “do what it wants.” While these ideas certainly have pedagogical value, terms like “aliveness” and “authenticity” suggest a privileging of a certain type of drawing since they imply other types of lines are not “alive” or “authentic.”

Despite appealing to my taste for spontaneous, embodied and performative drawing, I found this formulation problematic. In practice a great deal of control and premeditation is required in the drawing of comics, even though this appears not to be the case in some alternative comics that employ a deliberately “rough” aesthetic. The kind of letting go Szép proposes as a way of generating “authentic” drawings may not be conducive to drawing consistently recognizable characters in recognizable places across the space of many pages and panels, for example.

This chapter may have benefited from a broader discussion of what is meant by “authenticity.” Art historians such as Hal Foster have written extensively (Foster 1983) on the meaning of this thorny term and its connections to an expressionist ideal which conflates feeling with formlessness and seeks to oppose nature and culture. Foster’s objection that formlessness is in fact both a “form” and a “formula” is not considered here. Instead, what Szép describes as authentic drawing in this chapter represents the results of an undoing of what Grennan calls “self-observation” (Grennan): the process of an individual observing themselves drawing and making judgments and adjustments against socially received conventions of value. Szép proposes a deconstruction of the stylistic habits resulting from this to achieve a certain aesthetic, which is supposedly better at communicating in an embodied way. The question of authenticity has been approached more convincingly and with more skepticism by Elisabeth El Refaie in her work on the “performance of authenticity” (2012), which provides us with a useful counterpoint in analyzing Szép’s claims.

Chapter 2 “Cartoon Bodies and Transformative Lines” moves the conversation inward to consider the relationship between the autobiographical artist and the drawing of their bodies. This chapter is more convincing and its arguments seem more firmly grounded in the work done in the introduction. Szép explores ways in which vulnerability, a key component in her empathic, inter-constitutive model of engagement, can be generated through a process of pictorial embodiment. Through a discussion of Ken Dahl’s Monsters, (an account of the author’s experience of carrying a sexually transmitted virus) and the writing of Margrit Shildrick, Szép explores bodily and cultural forms of monstrosity as expressed through the repetitive drawing of the body as a performance which visualizes and transforms the limits of embodied subjectivity. The drawing of the body is framed by Szép as an iteration and reiteration of the morphic limits of inside and outside, explored through the boundary of the skin the embodied border which Dahl’s condition affects. Szép considers drawing to be a way of blurring distinctions of normative bodies, of visualizing and enacting the vulnerable and the monstrous. This opens fascinating possibilities in rethinking the relationship between artist and avatar as well as representations of the body in comics in general, which are culturally accustomed to morphological playfulness, often contributing to the othering of non-normative bodies.

The next chapter “Style and Engagement” moves the discussion of drawing’s affects away from the artist and toward the reader, arguing through an examination of heavily crosshatched panels in Joe Sacco’s The Fixer that an abundance of embodied marks built into a haptically charged surface can affect the temporal experience of reading a comic. Szép discusses Rosalyn Diprose’s concept of “dwelling” and uses it to argue that certain collections of marks invite the reader to “dwell with” both the characters in the story world and the author of the drawn trace. In this formulation, certain locations on the surface of a page become active sites of “dwelling,” and the page surface becomes an index of both place and process. Dwelling offers a model of connection between the bodies of artist and reader that is defined by empathic separation. All this builds into the foundation of Szép’s drawing theory suggesting an inter-constitutive way of understanding human trace that allows for both reader and drawer to “dwell with” one another on the haptic surface of a comic and affords each an active role.

This is an extremely novel but none the less convincing description of reading a comic. Haptically-charged, highly-graphiated surfaces in comics do indeed offer an invitation into spaces, often in the background of the main activity. Through reflection on my own embodied responses to drawing when reading such comics, whether it be the lurid plasma backgrounds of Kirby’s late 60’s Fantastic Four artwork, or the highly rendered representations of nature in Mizuki’s Onward Towards Our Noble Deaths, I find support for Szép’s argument. 

Such appeals to the embodied experience of the reader continue in the next chapter “Reading and the Body” in which Szép describes her visceral responses to the work of Miriam Katin. Reading We are on Our Own Szép describes a reluctance to touch a page of heavily rendered black pencil work in case she gets her fingers dirty, or destroys the surface of the art, again defining the relationship between the reader’s body and artist’s body as one mediated by the touching point of the paper’s surface. Later Szép describes the difficulty of turning a page of Letting it Go depicting a naked elderly woman covered in feces. Szép becomes aware of her body and her fingers’ capacity to touch or disrupt the scene that is being played out. Jill Bennet, writing about the “squirm” response to images in horror films, argues that we, lacking the ability to touch either the surface of the cinematic projection or the subjects depicted, squirm to feel our own body. She describes this as “a moment of regrouping” where we feel the image and at the same time maintain distance from it. This recoil allows us to incorporate the images impact while maintaining our own subjectivity (Bennett). I find this embodied response to reading a comic, particularly when activated by the embodied performance of the page turn relatable to my experience of reading comics. Junji Ito’s horror manga springs immediately to mind. 

Such consideration of the relationship between bodies mediated by the surface opens up the possibility of a discussion of the materiality of comics practice that has been overlooked in comic studies; many comics scholars often treat “the line” as if its material composition were self-evident. This oversight is particularly conspicuous at a time when the practice of comics drawing is expanding into digital processes and exploring an array of approaches more commonly associated with fine art, particularly in graphic novels.

The final chapter “Embodied Interaction” deals with the body of the reader in their handling of (or struggling with) a book. Szép discusses Joe Sacco’s fold-out book The Great War, which by presenting itself as a continuous diorama beyond the scale that the body of the reader is easily able to manipulate, suggests a subject matter that is beyond the individual’s ability to apprehend. Also discussed is Lighter than My Shadow by Katie Green, in which the body of Katie (the autobiographical avatar), who is in the process of recovering from an eating disorder, is conflated with the body of the book. Green uses haptic surfaces to re-enforce the book’s material objecthood, and the boundaries between body and book become blurred when Katie attempts suicide and the surface of the book is torn and disintegrates. This extends the idea of the inter-constitutive relationship between artist and reader’s body. If surface is the tactile meeting point between these vulnerable bodies, then the presentation of these surfaces, their weight, feel and form is important to our understanding. This touches on another area of comics studies which considers comics’ materiality. Two excellent recent books address this topic for the reader interested in delving further into what Szép analyzes: Comics and the Senses by Ian Hague and Between Pen and Pixel by Aaron Kashtan. Szép’s work adds to this discussion in a way that is broad enough to encompass artist’s books and other page-based forms in future studies.

Comics and the Body rounds off with a short comic drawn by Szép in which she summarises her ideas. This is more than a playful gesture on Szép’s part. In four pages of drawing, she produces a condensed account of her themes and sources and introduces her own autobiographical avatar. Szép is able to apply the vulnerability of her body conveyed through drawing in a way that supports her arguments. This approach achieves more than simply providing helpful infographic shorthand. Szép uses drawing style as a method of citation, attempting to inhabit the drawing style of Kahlo and Barry and replicate the avatars of Green and Sacco. Szep’s creative approach indicates the intersubjective complexity active in the embodied drawing of comics and suggests a role for comics as practice in exploring these issues.

Figure 1. Eszter Szép - Comics and the Body, Ohio State University Press, 2020
Figure 1. Eszter Szép – Comics and the Body, Ohio State University Press, 2020

This is an appropriate ending for such a rich and generous book. Comics and the Body achieves a great deal in addressing some of the gaps left in comics theory by the prevailing methodologies of deconstructionist and linguistic analysis. It appeals to the embodied experience of reader and artist, employing them in a discursive role. The structure of the book completes a movement between drawing body and reading body, describing the relationship as an inter-constitutive and empathic sharing of embodied actions. It is a formulation that takes into account how comics happen and what they do, indicating a way forward for comics theory that is attentive to our embodied responses. One of the great strengths of Comics and the Body is an openness to the writing that makes it as vulnerable as its subject matter; the book’s ambiguities and provocations feel like invitations to contribute, rather than weaknesses. While I had objections to some of Szép’s ideas concerning authenticity, her arguments made me reflect on the experience of my own body in the process of reading and drawing in a way quite unlike any other writing on comics. This is suggestive of a new avenue of discourse that uses attentiveness to the body as a tool for argument. I suspect that the act of closing Comics and the Body is an important starting point and that its implications will be felt and enacted through embodied reading and drawing, as well as by those that try to understand the relationship between such bodies, for a long time to come.

Works Cited

Bennett, Jill. Empathic Vision: Affect, Trauma, and Contemporary Art. Stanford University Press, 2005.

El Refaie, Elisabeth. Autobiographical Comics: Life Writing in Pictures. University Press of Mississippi, 2012.

Foster, Hal. “The Expressive Fallacy.” Art in America, vol. 71, no. 1, 1983.

Grennan, Simon. A Theory of Narrative Drawing: Simon Grennan. Palgrave Macmillan, 2017.

Hague, Ian. Comics and the Senses: A Multisensory Approach to Comics and Graphic Novels. Routledge, 2018.

Kashtan, Aaron. Between Pen and Pixel: Comics, Materiality, and the Book of the Future. The Ohio State University Press, 2018.

Mizuki, Shigeru, and Jocelyne Allen. Onward towards Our Noble Deaths. 1st softcover ed, Drawn & Quarterly, 2011.

Posted in Volume 14, Issue 1