Lately I have been thinking a lot about the word “intersectionality” and how it has been used. It seems like, for better or worse, a term that is only gaining in popularity in the popular consciousness. The term was first used by Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw in 1989 to describe the experiences of black women. Later, sociologist Patricia Hill Collins built upon Crenshaw’s work by reintroducing intersectionality in her discussion of black feminism. The relative newness of this activism and scholarship might make it seem that intersectionality is dealing with issues that have never been tackled before. However this assumption would be wrong. Though Crenshaw was the first to coin the term, she is not the first to describe the intersection of multiple identities. Sojourner Truth’s “Ain’t I a Woman?” speech spoke of her multifaceted identities, her experiences as a woman, a mother, a black person, and a former slave.
Currently their is growing mainstream and scholarly attention on autobiographical comics written by women of color. Cartoonists like Whit Taylor, Lynda Barry, and MariNaomi have centered their work on autobiography, frequently engaging with issues of gender, race, and identity. These comics are often thought of as embodying a new, intersectional aesthetic. While these cartoonists are creating work from their unique subject position, I argue that that women of color autobiographical cartoonists have had a much longer legacy than the existing scholarship indicates. Similar to how Sojourner Truth’s speech anticipated the intersectional feminist work of later scholars, these historical antecedents of contemporary graphic memoir were also interested in depicting the complex, interwoven aspects of identity as experienced by women of color.
Many comics scholars consider the genre of autobiographical comics as beginning with the underground comics (or “comix”) movement of the 1960s and 1970s. These comics championed subversive topics and embraced countercultural narratives. Justin Green’s Binky Brown Meets the Holy Virgin Mary (1972) is widely considered the first long form graphic memory. Binky Brown chronicled the creator’s neuroses, specifically his struggles with obsessive-complusive disorder. However, examples of autobiographical or semi autobiographical comics existed prior to the underground comics movement. One of the earliest examples of autobiographical comics were the early 20th century newspaper strips of Fay King, who frequently drew herself as a character within her comics. Several significant examples of autobiographical comics were created by women of color. African American newspaper cartoonist Jackie Ormes created several comic strips, the earliest debuting in 1937, with female protagonists that were at least partially based on her own life experiences and engaged in critiques of social issues such as racism and pollution. Also missing from most discussions of autobiographical comics is the first autobiographical comic written by an Asian American, Miné Okubo’s Citizen 13660 (1946) which chronicled her experiences in Japanese American internment camps during World War II. Therefore, autobiographical comics created by women of color have always been invested in the political and interested in engaging with traumatic narratives.
While much has been written on the impact of underground comics, it is still difficult to find analysis on individual issues, particularly on specific examples of the female subject and trauma. Another issue is of erasure. While Lynda Barry’s comics explore her Filipino identity, most scholarship on these works does not focus on issues of race and identity. Similarly (and frustratingly) mixed-race Latina underground cartoonist Roberta Gregory is not usually discussed as being a cartoonists of color. As I continue to research the work of autobiographical cartoonists it is important to keep these things in mind.
When I was still in elementary school I once overheard my mother on the phone
describing the type of books I liked to read as, “the ones with words in them”. While she was joking, I also knew that she was proud. Every Sunday we would head to the library with our “library bag” a large, reinforced canvas tote bag. The rules were simple, I could check out any book I wanted. My mother did not believe that their was any danger in exposing me to books or ideas that might not be considered appropriate. Sure this could lead to strange conversations or awkward questions, but it also fostered an independence and intellectual curiosity that I will forever be grateful for.
Occasionally we would go to a larger branch of the library that was connected to
a local college. This library had a significant amount of comics. Besides newspaper
strips, the first comics I read were the Archie digest comics available for purchase at the grocery store. While I grew up reading and enjoying comics, it wasn’t until I began taking adult cartooning classes at the Sequential Arts Workshop in Gainesville, Florida that I began to appreciate minicomics or other self-published comics. While I still read mainstream comics, most of my comics collecting is now focused on independent small press and self-published works.
In the past, comics have been dismissed as children’s literature or a lesser art form not deemed worthy of serious study. This has changed with comics studies slowly gaining legitimacy. Comic studies are an interdisciplinary field of study, integrating theory from diverse areas such as art history, cultural studies, and media studies. As a medium, the visual language of comics invites multiple ways of reading and interpreting.
Collecting independent comics and minicomics has become my passion. Mini comics are inexpensive and thoroughly invested in DIY culture. I am particularly interested in autobiographical work made by women of color. Women cartoonists and cartoonists of color have long been marginalized and overlooked in comics scholarship. My dissertation project, Graphic Intimacies: Identity, Humor, and Trauma in Autobiographical Comics by Women of Color, examines texts by women of color. The autobiographical cartoonist uses the medium of comics to create work that centers on their own lived experiences. In addition to tackling intimate subject matter they are labored over and extremely time-consuming to create. Paradoxically, autobiographical comics represent liminal spaces while being thoroughly invested in handmade materiality. Though confessional autobiography in general and autobiographical comics in particular can occupy a tenuous, illegitimate feminized space, this designation puts them in a unique position to embody a particular kind of feminist aesthetic. Collecting these comics has been incredibly rewarding as it has given me insight into the material concerns of the culture and allowed me to establish relationships with many comic creators.
I have been struggling with my own feelings of inertia. I feel like everyone I know is moving, learning, and growing. I had a few major problems that severely impacted my progress on my dissertation. Unfortunately I had to make a significant change with my dissertation committee. I am lucky that I have a great advisor and have had a lot of other support. I made the right choice and I am proud of myself for getting out of an untenable place. However, this has set me back in a few ways.
It was an incredibly stressful situation. This process has caused me to lose self-confidence. It also took a lot of time. Time I can't get back. It took me awhile to realize how angry I was about this.
I am incredibly grateful that my current committee is in place but I still feel like I am struggling to put myself together. Imposter syndrome? Maybe. It's hard to say. I know I put a lot of pressure on myself.
I was talking to a friend about exactly what I want out of my dissertation. We identified three components: quality writing, creation of new knowledge, and depth of mastery. Each of these components. has some overlap but I separated them out because I see them as goals I want to achieve. I view quality writing as writing precisely and with a bit of style. A lot of dissertations I have looked at are so dry that they are lifeless. Creation of new knowledge means not just regurgitating existing scholarship. I think it also means being a bit daring. Depth of mastery means demonstrating that I can engage with my primary sources and the existing scholarship.
So, where does that leave me? Writing is actually going fairly well. I am in the middle of the third chapter of my dissertation and I know I have to start writing a bit faster to get done. However, being mindful of these components might make it a bit easier to keep everything in perspective. I hope!
I have been doing a lot of thinking on how comics, especially autobiographical comics theorize the body. Some of it makes me think of how I relate to my own body, my mind, my work, and how these things can and should work together. As far as my own body - well that has been challenging. I recently lost some weight and have had to adjust to being smaller. A lot of my clothes are too big. I'm pretty broke so that is a little frustrating, especially when I have to teach. It has left me a little stressed out.
I really enjoy teaching. This semester has been a challenge though. I like my class but I feel like I haven't really clicked in yet. This class is on average very quiet too.
The Fragmentary Comic Body
In my dissertation, I have been playing around with this idea of a fragmentary comic body. Lacan has this idea of the fragmentary body. It's closely related to his ideas on the mirror stage, where a person is able to see a unified body in the mirror and recognize its totality. A ton of people have written about this. Basically, an external image of the body produces a psychic response that gives rise to the mental representation of the self. A baby looks into a mirror and grasps the connection between the image and its own existence. Lacan also believed that people were haunted by the contrary image of the fragmented body. This haunting manifests as as concerns about losing pieces or parts of the body. This could result in dreaming about missing teeth or mutilated body parts.
So, what does this have to do with autobiographical comics? Well, the body in comics is conceptualized in several ways. I think that the process of creating multiple self-portraits lends itself to conceptualizing the self as having many possible identities. In Autobiographical Comics: Life Writing in Pictures (2012), Elisabeth El Refaie writes about what she refers to as pictorial embodiment, or the "process of engaging with one’s own identity through multiple self-portraits’’ (51). Plus, many of the repeated bodies are not shown whole due to the framing of the panels. The representation is cut off, missing, or fragmented. I don't think it goes as far as presenting a schizophrenic identity or of someone who has a dissociative identity disorder. Though now I am curious to do some digging and see if a cartoonist has tried this.
Related to the fragmentary comic body is my interest in representations of speech in comics and how that relates to theories of embodiment. Last week I attended a talk given by Dr. Shermaine Jones titled, “'I Can't Breathe': 'Affective Asphyxia' in Claudia Rankine's Citizen: An American Lyric.” Dr. Jones describes affective asphyxia as describing "the ways that Black emotional expression is heavily policed, producing a sense of emotional suffocation whether self imposed or externally inflicted." The discussion on the sigh, breathing, and how it relates to embodiment made me think about how speech bubbles can function in comics. I am not sure what I am doing with that exactly but I am sure I can find something that speaks to how speech and language take physical form in comics.
I have been organizing my life into weekly schedules for a few weeks now. It has been helpful in finding chunks of time to write. Each day is divided up into half hour increments. The spots labelled "POM" are writing sessions.
I use the Pomodoro Technique for my writing. A lot has been written about this technique. I find it really helps when I start to get anxious about writing. I try to just focus on only one thing at a time. That really helps.
I have also set a goal of 500 words per day, recognizing my own challenges as a writer. I have never been a writer that has struggled to edit down, most of the time it is hard for me to reach a certain word count. Setting a higher word count per day is encouraging me to be more descriptive. Plus I know I am ruthless in my cutting towards the end.
I hope to have a draft of the third chapter of my dissertation by the end of this month. It's going to be extremely rough. I have some conceptual ideas that I know are pretty out there.
This week's writing goals:
I keep a journal about my life, my writing progress, and other scholarly endeavors. I tend to write in it when I am stuck on my dissertation. I thought I might try to start posting some of these thoughts on this blog. All of this is stream of consciousness stuff so it will be sort of scattered.
It is time for some honesty. This week has been a struggle. I have been sick, tired, and generally running on empty. Writing is a struggle when things are like this.
However, I still find value in this. Maybe it is a sign of progress?
My class has turned in some great work. I am trying to motivate myself to scan and share some of them. I think it would be great material for a teaching portfolio. Mostly I am just proud of them. They are creative. I am most frustrated about how much time they waste by not turning in assignments on time. It makes me have a headache. It is disappointing. I wish I could do something more to get them to realize that it is a dumb/foolish/time wasting thing to do. Ugh.
Well, my timer went off so I have to get started on my work.
I do not usually make New Year's resolutions. However, I love the feeling of a new year. I love the possibility of change, renewal, and new challenges. It's a great feeling.
A new school year gives me a similar feeling. Even fresh school supplies get me psyched.
I used to be a religious reader of Goals! by Brian Tracy. It's funny, Tracy is a super corporate, capitalist dude, totally not someone I would expect to look up to. However, Goals! helped me focus and think about what I really want to achieve. Reading Goals! helped me with grad school applications and basically changed my entire life. It's a simple book with clear directions. Tracy asks you to create an inventory of yourself- your strengths, your weaknesses, and your desires. Then you have to clearly delineate your goals, writing them down and figuring out the next steps. While I am not quite done refining my goals I have found it helpful to write them out somewhere semi-publicly.
My Goals for 2017-2018
Finish the dissertation - This is the big one. I am going to finish the majority of my writing this academic year. My plan is to defend next fall. To achieve this I have a lot of smaller goals and tasks to complete. I have started breaking those down into smaller pieces:
Maintain regular writing schedule - Super key for me. In the past I have had a lot of trouble getting started. I basically have to force myself to write. Using Pomodoro Technique has been helpful.
Make weekly goals - Some times I have page minimums for the week, other times it is sections that I need fleshed out.
Check in regularly with advisor - This is sort of a no brainer. I need the accountability.
Submit to journals - I submitted to two journals this summer. Initially I was afraid it would take time away from my writing. Now I have seen that it actually helps my dissertation.
Read - I read to learn how to write better. I need to make sure I am keeping up with some of the publications in my field, even if it is just 15 minutes a day.
I have a bunch of more personal goals that I will probably explore in another post. School starts Thursday. Let's do this!
I just thought I would signal boost this call for proposals as it sounds like it is going to be a great conference. The keynote speakers are Howard Cruse and Alison Bechdel! How amazing is that?
Here is more information taken directly from the website:
Queers & Comics brings LGBTQ cartoonists, comics writers, and artists together with scholars and fans in order to document the history and significance of queer comics. This conference spotlights the veterans of LGBTQ cartooning in North America and internationally, with forums for working artists to share their knowledge and to discuss how to navigate the comics industry. In lieu of traditional academic panels, roundtable discussions will foster lively and diverse dialogues about how queer comics reflect and critique queer culture. Queer comics publishers, editors, independent scholars, educators, and journalists are also encouraged to attend.
Presented by CLAGS: The Center for LGBTQ Studies
Location: The Graduate Center, City University of New York, 365 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY
Date: May 7-8, 2015
All proposals are due by November 15.
Even though I have plans for a longer piece on comics and academia for my debut column with Digital America, I thought I would write a quick blog post about this year's Small Press Expo (SPX). SPX is a comics festival for independent comics and is held once a year in Bethesda, Maryland. Bethesda is only about a two-hour drive from Richmond so it is pretty easy for me to make my way over. My comics family from the Sequential Artists Workshop (SAW) in Gainesville had to drive for twelve hours. They are hardcore. In fact, the level of dedication my SAW friends have to comics is one of the reasons I look forward to attending SPX. Everyone should check out SAW and all of the fantastic work that they do.
SPX is pretty well known for being a friendly and welcoming event. Everyone I met was so nice; it was a little overwhelming. Meeting the great Lynda Barry was definitely an amazing experience. I plan on devoting one chapter of my dissertation to Barry's One Hundred Demons so just being in the same room with her was a big deal.
I also got to meet a bunch of people that I follow through social media. It was great to see their smiling faces and confirm that they are actual human beings. Creating things like comics or most kinds of writing are often very solitary pursuits; it was really satisfying to be around so many people that understood that.
I do regret that I did not sit in as many panel discussions as I could have. On Saturday I attended the SAW comics drawing workshop which was taught by Josh Bayer and Sally Cantrino. Even though I have now known Sally for a couple of years, this was the first time I have had the opportunity to see her teach. Sally and Josh are both great at educating and engaging an audience. On Sunday I attended the "Making Art for the Internet" panel. This panel had cartoonists Sam Alden, Emily Carroll, Blaise Larmee, and Rebecca Mock engaged in conversation on creating work intended for online platforms. I am really glad I attended this panel. Sam Alden is one of my favorite cartoonists and I loved the work of the other panelists as well.
Overall, it was a great trip and I am really glad I went. SAW friends, I miss you already! I can't wait until next year.