Elevate Difference

Graphic Women: Life Narrative and Contemporary Comics

My taste in female-authored comics is pretty obvious—Colleen Doran (A Distant Soil), Wendy Pini (Elfquest), Donna Barr (Stinz, Desert Peach—and I am also a fan of women embedded in the production line comics (such as artist Lily Renee Phillips). But I have never been much drawn to the rather sordid memoirs of the overtly feminist artists covered in the book I am reviewing today (Aline Kominsky-Crumb, Phoebe Gloeckner, Lynda Barry, Marjane Satrapi, Alison Bechdel).

My first impression of Graphic Women was not overwhelmingly positive; it is written in the convoluted, polysyllabic jargon that is the academic version of purple prose. And it did not help that, to my eye, author Hillary L. Chute simplifies some things that are complicated and complicates some things that are simple. For example, she frequently attributes the different levels of critical such of husband (Crumb) and wife (Kominsky-Crumb) to sexism. While there is no doubt that sexism plays a role, it is a complex one in which commercial appropriateness and the development of associated skills are involved—not just the crass biases of critics. Meanwhile the blocking of Gloeckner's work from spaces like public libraries has less to do with its complex and uncomfortable themes than the depiction of erect penises which has always been a problem whether the context is high art or Playgirl magazine.

There is good and proportional use of excepts from the works being discussed, embroidering upon their composition, meaning and context. It seems to me that Chute varies in how much she illuminates the various author-artists. For example, she is revealing in discussing Kominsky-Crumb, and settles into a more plainspoken, and almost journalistic, tone in the chapter on Marjane Satrapi. I think the best balance is struck in the final chapter on Alison Bechdel, where the complexity of Chute's language and of the subject are best married together.

But there seems to be a very persistent self-involved strain, such as when Alison Bechdel asserts that cartooning is "inherently autobiographical"—when the format as a whole clearly leans more towards the fantastical. Overall, it seems to me that the non-literary graphic novel and comic communities aware of, and while not embracing, certainly respect the literary and memoir aspects of the format. However, it seems that the reverse is not true. The bold fantasies mainstream of comics is almost completely absent from considerations of the context for the author-artists in this volume and their intricate and neurotic disclosures.

Overall, after reading Graphic Women, I did find the work of these female comic artists rather more appealing when "taken from behind" in terms of motivation, biography, and wider social context than when I had taken them at face value. I was convinced, for example, for the first time that Kominsky-Crumb's naive style is a fully deliberate choice—albeit, one I still find off-putting. And I did use my limited funds to buy a copy of Kominsky-Crumb's graphic memoir and of Persepolis.

On the whole I would say Graphic Women is dense, informative, and useful in understanding a rather isolated but important strand of graphic novel development, but this book embodies rather than explains its peculiar and irritating pretensions.

Cross-posted at The Cliterature

Written by: Emily Veinglory, August 13th 2010