'Tales Worked in Blood and Bone': Words and Images as Scalpel and Suture in Graphic Narratives

By Jon Saklofske

Acadia University

There is a lingering irony in the proliferation of academic interest in and acceptance of graphic narratives as “serious” story spaces since Art Spiegelman refigured the Holocaust as an illustrated beast fable. The translation of...

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There is a lingering irony in the proliferation of academic interest in and acceptance of graphic narratives as “serious” story spaces since Art Spiegelman refigured the Holocaust as an illustrated beast fable. The translation of historical trauma into a storyboard and people into personified animals has been perceived as a radical and refreshing move – yet the distancing function of this multiply-mediating medium has been eclipsed by its novelty as a vehicle for historical confrontation and remediation. The extent of Spiegelman’s innovation is that he uses the accessible and familiar form of the comic book, which appeals to a wide-ranging readership, to deliver a focused interrogation of historical circumstances (that are difficult to comprehend) from a personal perspective that is neither completely abstract nor partial. However “raw” such a juxtaposition and re-presentation seems, though, Spiegelman’s tragic comic is not all that innovative in its combination of pre-existing literary narrative customs and formal comic book conventions. Many other creative efforts, such as playful illuminations in the margins of medieval manuscripts, religious emblems, the work of William Blake, and the political cartoons of James Gilray, among others, have imaginatively combined the sister arts of poetry/words and painting/images for “serious” narrative purposes well before Spiegelman’s Maus. While Maus is certainly a significant point in the history of graphic narrative representation, especially given its role as a catalyst for increased academic attention to this form, little overall attention has been given to the mediating functions of this and other examples of composite art in relation to their re-presented human subjects (an issue that Maus certainly foregrounds). “Wordsworth,” an unconventional and lesser-known graphic “short story” involving a creative collaboration between writer Neil Gaiman and artist Dave McKean, highlights the functional ability of words and images to simultaneously inform and deform the human body and the human being through self-reflexive elements of form and content. The ethical significance of this function is crucial in a market dominated by historical and autobiographical graphic narratives such as Epileptic, by David B., Persepolis 1 & 2, by Marjane Satrape, Joe Sacco’s Palestine and Chester Brown’s biography of Louis Riel. The particular meeting and mingling of the sister arts in “Wordsworth” offers a grotesque caution regarding the performative capability of multiply mediated representations. Its fictional status allows its creators to experimentally illustrate the effects of representative multiplicity in graphic narratives and interrogate the functional effects of the sister arts on the human condition without disfiguring or harming a historical subject.

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Original publication: “‘Tales Worked in Blood and Bone’: Words and Images as Scalpel and Suture in Graphic Narratives.” ImageTexT 4.1 (2008). Web.