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Terrors of the mirror and the mise en abyme of graphic novel autobiography.

Why are so many of the most critically acclaimed graphic novels autobiographical? Why do so many of these works contain scenes of mirroring or the trope of mise en abyme, in which the picture has within it an identical miniature picture? This essay probes the formal mechanics of autobiographical graphic novels to show how mirror scenes and their self-conscious play with pictorial identity forge autobiographical subjects. This essay, therefore, analyzes not simply the form of autobiographical graphic novels but their formal unconscious as well. Drawing on comics scholarship, autobiography studies, and psychoanalysis, it investigates Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis (2003) and James Kochalka's American Elf: The Collected Sketchbook Diaries (2004) to show that in frequency and function these mirror moments mark "failed encounters with the real."
  Civilization's first gesture is to hold up a mirror to the Object,
  but the Object is only seemingly reflected therein; in fact, it is
  the Object itself which is the mirror. (Baudrillard 1993, 172-73)

  the terror of the/mirror held up by one's own self up to one's broken
  nature-- ... IS THIS TRUE? The terrible wrestle/to convey the truth
  since there is always the temptati-/on/the seduction to allow the
  word to lead you on to something else to falsify or make it easier on
  yrself. (Brathwaite 1993, 151)

Why are there so many mirror moments in graphic novels? Lynda Barry's One Hundred Demons (2002), for example, opens with a mirror scene dramatizing the author-illustrator arriving at the premise of her memoir, an episodic kunstlerroman in the form of the comic book album or graphic novel. In one panel, we see her drawing herself in a self-portrait where in miniature she appears just as she does in the larger panel--drawing herself. The doubled self-portrait invokes the classic topos of mise en abyme, a reflection of a reflection. (1) On one hand, the doubled reflection seeks to assuage by confronting those anxieties of duplicitous self-consciousness that Kamau Brathwaite laments in the epigraph above; on the other hand, it enacts the same homology of reflective content and systems of reflection described by Jean Baudrillard. Both gestures affirm the sincerity of Barry's authorial address by raising questions of mediation and veracity as part of the obligatory "autobiographical pact," as theorist Philippe Lejeune calls it (1989), whereby autobiographers establish authority according to subjective, rather than verifiable, truths. In Barry's text the autobiographical pact culminates a two-part query. Sitting at her drawing table in the first panel, she wonders: "Is it autobiography if parts of it are not true?" (2002, 7). In the second panel, she binarizes the query: "Is it fiction if parts of it are?" (7). Here, her posture mirrors the finished drawing on the table and, as mentioned, pitches the scene into the infinite abyss of the mirrored mirror. Presumably, visual reference to the author's labor of creating the very text we read lends credibility to her subjective truths by hypostatizing them in the material commodity object (the finished memoir). We can be certain, moreover, that she will honestly illustrate her life, since as we hereby witness, she cannot stop herself from doing so, going so far as to draw even this metadiscursive pledge regarding the irresolvable nature of autobiographical authority, which perforates the opposition of fact and fiction. Indeed, hers is no ordinary authority, its expressions never entirely sincere. Everything in the work, from the author's cartoonish avatar of herself to the parade of demons along the margins, exudes a playful sense of scrapbookish kitsch. Eccentric, sprawling, and fantastical, the autobiography's drawing style threatens to obscure its truths, however accurate their fidelity to Barry's imaginative experience, under the sign of caricature and self-parody.

Tensions between the cartoonish and the cathartic reign in graphic novel memoir, as authorial anxiety regards itself in mirrors compulsively in numerous texts. Take, as another example, the climax of Harvey Pekar and Joyce Brabner's collaborative autobiography, Our Cancer Year (1994). In the devastating wake of chemotherapy, the atrophied protagonist ponders his role as the writer of the long-running autobiographical comic American Splendor (1976 to 1993). In a triptych on the last page of chapter nine (the text is not paginated), Harvey looks at himself wretchedly in a mirror. The middle panel shows him asking Joyce, "Tell me the truth, am I some guy who writes about himself in a comic book called American Splendor?" A circular inset within that panel, like a filmic iris shot, encloses Harvey's denuded and debilitated body as he continues, "Or am I just a character in that book?" Determining where the self as a construct within a public text ends and the pained and private realities of lived existence begin (again) is thus prerequisite to Pekar's overcoming of cancer. Once again, meta-pictorial commentary calls forth doubled reflections, since Harvey is not just the character of American Splendor at this moment of utterance, but that of Our Cancer Year as well. The effect of such metaleptical reflexivity drops all distinctions between psyche and soma, life and death, history and fiction, into the mise en abyme of graphic narrative.

As a final prefatory example, Gene Luen Yang's semi-autobiographical allegory of racial identity crisis and transformation, American Born Chinese (2006), includes a scene where a figure we've assumed to be an unsuspecting white teenage boy, Danny, discovers that he is the long lost relative of Chin-Kee, who is little more than a collection of racist Chinese stereotypes. Only near the end do we learn that white-bread Danny, who has been in a state of constant embarrassment over the antics of Chin-Kee, is really Jin Wang--a different character who had been struggling to accept his Asian difference. All is revealed when we witness how Jin awoke to see in a mirror that he had become Danny, the white ideal he so longed to embody. Simultaneous then to these dizzyingly abrupt visual shifts is the narrative's demand upon the viewer to shift the terms of verisimilitude retroactively. Only belated recognition unveils the graphic novel's ethnic hyperbole as internalized distortion, self-delusion projected in the form of optic truth in the mirror.

But why, other than conformity to iconographic convention, must these epiphanies invariably play out before the mirror? What do mirror scenes accomplish for autobiographical pictoriality? Posed in this way, the question assumes the reciprocity of form and content. Following David Carrier's insight that "the form of comics places very real constraints on its content" (2000, 5), this essay analyzes not simply the form of autobiographical graphic novels but their formal unconscious. Drawing on comics scholarship, autobiography studies, and psychoanalysis, I investigate the significance of mirror scenes of subject formation and fragmentation in Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis (2003) and James Kochalka's American Elf: The Collected Sketchbook Diaries (2004) to show that in frequency and function these mirror moments mark failed encounters with the real.

The iconic authors of these texts, as well as those of Maus (1986), Epileptic (2005), Blankets (2003), Fun Home (2006), and so many other autobiographical graphic novels, perform identity visually in the third person. They do so with two important implications. First, the form creatively invites and depends upon the reader's ability to playfully detach image from text. Divorced from overtly first-person gestures in textual captions, I-cons remain visual objects of consumption for readers, thereby affirming the generic applicability of what Linda Hutcheon ascribes specifically to Maus (1986), that "it always reminds us of the lack of transparency of both its verbal and visual media. Its consistent reflexivity, pointing to the utter non-objectivity of the historian or biographer" (1997, 306). Second, and related to the first: while these I-cons are the visual equivalent of the narrated "I" of written autobiography, they are always on view, being viewed rather than merely revealing the view. Flipping through the pages of some of the most celebrated autobiographical graphic novels provides ample evidence for the ubiquitous materiality of the I-con as an actor of narration--those first-person captions that often create a retrospective temporality by making comments from an assumed present about the visualized past. The I-icon thus achieves greater complexity when tethered to writing, signifying beyond the spatio-temporality of illustration.

Yet, however much authors partake of the various effects of captions (verbal-visual integration, disruption, irony), the fact that their protagonists are visual fictions or caricatures sustains unique tensions of authorial identity. (2) When autobiographical protagonists operate as comic images, they raise unsettling questions, according to Ann Miller and Murray Pratt, "about the possibility of 'being' both in comics and in life, of simultaneously occupying ontologies with such divergent 'rules"' (2004, unpaginated). The trope of the mirror underscores these ontological boundary crossings, for as Mieke Bal contends, "[t]he mirror is ... an icon, an allegory, and a mise en abyme of this invisible boundary, in which culture touches nature" (1999, 228). (3) Whether simplified to emote childhood innocence or exaggerated as a grotesque, the Master-Signifier of identity in the comics reifies the psycho-social coordinates of the imaginary and the symbolic and puts mimetic pressure on the real to show itself in the process. As Frederic Jameson reminds, none of these psychoanalytical terms can be understood independently of the other; however, for the sake of preliminary classification, the symbolic generally associates with "the dimension of language and the function of speech" while "the Imaginary is understood as the place of the insertion of my unique individuality" (1977, 350). The third category of Lacanian subject formation, the real, "is the most problematical of the three--since it can never be experienced immediately, but only by way of the mediation of the other two" (349). With these distinctions in mind, the I-con seems to function as the mask of the imaginary. It merges with captions and other conventions of sequential art and storytelling to produce an identity that may be legible within the prevailing symbolic order. However, in fixating on the mirror stage process by which the imaginary submits to the urgencies of symbolization, autobiographical graphic novels--or "autographies"--testify to the ways in which the unfinished business of identity is grounded in a terror of the real. (4)

The interpretive dilemmas arising from this unfinished business have less to do with self-integrity or point of view than with catoptrics--that Lacanian dynamic of mirrored selves and subjectivation which has come to be a foundation for thinking identity in self-other or subject-object relationality, but which has produced surprisingly few illuminations for scholarly commentary on comics. (5) Neither space nor scope permits a detailed account of Lacan's famously slippery thesis; however, later discussions of the terror of the mirror in autobiographical graphic novels make it necessary that we revisit key points in "The Minor Stage Formative of the Function of the I" (1977).

According to Lacan, the developing child sees in the mirror a fantastically integrated object-version of the self that exists, on the other side of the mirror, in a subjective state open to all the fragmentation, disunity, and resistance to synthesis that we may associate with the chaos of lived reality. Anything we can communicate as identity, then, becomes a function of this dialectic between the specular image of an integrated self available only in the mirror and the asymptotic desire, forever aspired to yet forever ungrasped, to embody a totalizing ideal of iconic self-coherence. This desire for the mirror self and its teleology of an inevitably divided subject maps onto a constellation of Oedipal prohibitions and drives: castration anxiety, repression of the loss of identification with the mother, the scopic drive that situates subjects within the gaze of the other, and the accession into the symbolic order that simultaneously inaugurates these repressions. (6) Two points are important to stress about Lacan's model: first, that such a phenomenology of selfhood, as a negotiation between the ideal self of image and the one that sees and desires to be that image, is also an initiation into the symbolic of language; and second, that this initiation is likewise an entry into ordered time--a temporality of narrativized existence revealed as historical consciousness. A "temporal dialectic" (1977, 4) results from the self in the mirror seeming to occupy an ideal future that therefore bears the trace of prior self-disunity. And, as we know, that temporal squeeze play of selves at the threshold of mirror and mind conditions the subject as a fictive text, an ideal motivated by and productive of a deferral. To dream the self as the ideal is perforce to suffer the dissolution of both; the net trade-off being a real that must remain at a distance, and, as we shall see, graphic memoir adroitly represents this real, as perhaps no other medium can, within the buffering, the gaps, and the terrors of its own distancing effects.

The Gutter is the Mirror: Persepolis and the Deictic "This"

Marjane Satrapi's two-volume autobiography Persepolis (2003) wastes no time initiating formative ruptures between the I-con and those whom the young Iranian Marji is called upon to represent. Like the autobiographical pact of Lynda Barry's One Hundred Demons, Satrapi's opening panels (Figure 1) both secure and dissolve the referential status of her I-con. Indeed, Satrapi's autobiographical persona, Marji, incarnates individualism, suspended in a state of exception in her own panel, aligning her, at least spatially, more with post-9/11 Westerners than those Iranian girls of the other panel, whom she not only resembles but visually replicates. In the process, the medium is shown to be a narrational strategy well suited to articulate the liminal conditions of transculturality, according to Rocio Davis, as Marji speaks from the position of the not-yet-transculturated adult in a comics form "that has not yet achieved mainstream acceptance" (2005, 266). Echoing Lacan's mirror stage, Marji, and every other Iranian girl, is nearly the mirror image of every other. But whereas small facial differences hint at the individuality of the girls in the group, the larger chasm of the gutter amplifies Marji's difference, in defiance of prima fade evidence, to the level of ontology. Rather than interpret the plot and themes of Satrapi's graphic novel in their totality, I want to linger over the intricacies of this first set of panels to interpret the text in the microcosmic genesis of its word-image relationships and self-regarding Iconicity, which forms across gutters of otherness.


The first two panels of Persepolis dramatize a conflict between individuality and universality that recurs throughout the narrative. (7) The first one situates the young author-protagonist in a particular time and place--Iran in 1980--a moment when the cultural and political revolution of fundamentalism makes the veil a compulsory article of female dress. The second panel then contextualizes the author in relation to her peers, but does so in a way that emphasizes her struggle to achieve independence amidst the overwhelming iconic tide of conformity and mass replication. Together these panels form a chiasmus, each one inverting qualities of the other in balanced opposition. But before sounding the depths of that mirror's abyss, we would do well to observe the way both panels subtly recreate within them the same overt relation created between them--that is, to quote Thierry Groensteen, we should submit to the first panel's "power to hail the reader, momentarily frustrating the 'passion to read' that drives the images so as always to be in the lead" (2007, 26).

The relationship between the deictic words ("this,""I,""me") of the first panel and the image given therein is coordinative. The words demand, albeit implicitly, that we accept the accompanying icon of the veiled girl as continuous with the captionary voice of enunciation. In relation to the image of Marji in the first panel, "This is me" may be understood, moreover, as giving rise to two domains, each complexly multilayered with each layer of the one in isomorphic relation to its antithesis in the other: object and subject, vision and voice, Maji and Marjane, I-con and caption, enunciated and enunciatory, past and present, childhood and adulthood, Iran and (in light of the original French edition) the West. Even though words and image conjoin to found that heteronomous property of the comics Linda Hutcheon dubs "a fictive heterocosm, a complete visual and verbal universe" (1997, 301), they simultaneously bring this universe into being along the axis mundi of an essential division.

Yet, as we know, comics absorb gaps and make divisions quintessential to their expression. The words of the first panel of Persepolis animate the image as if to say: "this girl you see in the panel is not just a fair likeness of the girl I was at 10 in 1980, but this illustration is the Me of enunciation, then and now." Such a paraphrase asserts that the author function (which I'll define as both the writer Marjane Satrapi and the I-con of little Marji in panel one) is an unequivocally seamless identity that coheres over time. In this way, the author function that spans decades assumes visibility in the I-conic shape of the little girl, who in later panels speaks to us (in speech balloons) from the enunciating space of the present. Implicitly, adolescence is the iconic language of timeless authorial identity; the young girl in Persepolis is Satrapi's archetypical storyteller.

Because of the complications of its word-picture relationship, autobiographical graphic novels lay claim to an author-function that is utterly, yet never merely, the represented protagonist. As Davis contends, given the "constitutive intersections in these modes of inscription, we must approach contemporary graphic autobiographies as increasingly sophisticated forms of inscribing the past" (2005, 269). After all, an exclusively verbal autobiographical narrative could include passages where the author writes, "I was 10 in 1980" or even "this is me in 1980"--but the picture Satrapi provides turns the referent that the word "this" summons into an object and thus intensifies the semblance of enunciatory transparency through the facticity of visual presence. As Marc Singer (2008) has argued, the classical rhetorical figure of hypostasis (the personification of concepts) supports visuality's claims for semantic dominance in comics--a point Will Eisner has made as well: "body posture and gesture occupy a position of primacy over text" (2003, 103). (8)

One reason to belabor the verbal deixis of the first panel is the shift in meaning for the "this" we get in the second panel illustrating the class photo. While the pronominal "this" of the first panel equates to the author, that of the next panel refers more to the representation (this is a class photo) than the represented (this is my class). Whereas the first is associated with self-pottraiture, singular identity, and a one-to-one correspondence between the icon and that which the icon symbolizes, the second is associated with the dislocatory, de-individuating force of the collective that obliterates the author through referential elision: "I'm sitting on the far left so you don't see me." But there are two spaces that answer to this location of being "far left" and in both we do see her: one is the left margin of the second panel where, indeed, we see the cut-off portion of Marji's left arm and right hand. If we do not at first notice Marji in elision doubling as the margin of the group photo, the eyes of Golnaz, the fully visible girl on the left, lead us here. Or perhaps Golnaz too can see as we do across the gutter where Marji's presence in the group is fully recoverable, though discontinuous with the space the others occupy in the second panel. Jumping over the gutter, in effect, making it disappear, we see Marji intact and visually-analogous with her classmates. Now that the comic has trained us first to accept and then defy the demands of its words, the classmates seem to embody not different, specifically named girls of a class photo, but versions of Marji--like swatches of the cartoonist's palette, a study in both comics seriation and the expressivity of the eyes in spite of constraints on gesture and dress.

The gutter therefore sutures in at least two ways at once. On one level it bears out Thierry Groensteen's argument that comic images, through their "coexistence, through their diegetic connections, and their panoptic display" (2007, 9), create an "iconic solidiarity" (19) that is foundational to the medium and makes adjoining panels "predisposed to speak to each other" (35). (9) On another level, Satrapi's initial gutter sutures the very cut inscribed by the second panel. More than suggesting Marji's inclusion in the group, it materializes that inclusion. This type of hypostasis--taking shape across the gap rather than imaginatively within it comes closest to supporting Marc Singer's claim (to which I shall return) that comics "have proven effective at embodying the real through hypostasis, the somatization of abstract concepts and desires into human figures" (2008, 275).

In Satrapi's opening, the device of the gutter reminds us that the spatial-temporal zones designated within the borders of the two panels may be worlds apart despite the resemblance of the girls and other indicators of continuity such as the dark, table-like space upon which the girls' hands uniformly rest. (10) The similarity of pose, dress, size, and contrast might invite us to see the panel-to-panel relationship presented here as one of moment-to-moment--the transition Scott McCloud (1994) says requires the least amount of closure, that nearly automatic process by which a reader is either able or unable to visualize narrative synthesis across the gutter, discerning their relation and thus closing the gap between them. (11) At first glance, no great effort of closure is needed to make the first two panels relate. They cohere explicitly. However, representation in the group seems to entail for Marji a certain invisibility, one that is either tolerable or perhaps all the more painful because she is so visibly similar to other members of the group. In this way, Satrapi's autobiographical I-con, or "avatar" for Gillian Whitlock (2006, 971), identifies the pre-adolescent veiled girl as fully human, as Whitlock insightfully suggests, precisely because of the illustration's profanation of the veil as a symbol of Islamic fundamentalism: "This pursuit of sacrilege defines the space of Satrapi's cartoons and marks the potential of comics to open up new and troubled spaces of representation" (976).

In complement to Whitlock's notion of sacrilege is narratologist Gerard Genette's concept of transgression in his explanation of metalepsis. (12) According to Genette, narrative metalepses are transgressions that
  by the intensity of their effects, demonstrate the importance of the
  boundary they tax their ingenuity to overstep, in defiance of
  verisimilitude--a boundary that is precisely the narrating (or the
  performance) itself: a shifting but sacred frontier between two
  worlds, the world which one tells, the world of which one tells.
  (Genette 1980, 236)

The repetition of the word "this" as well as the peculiar mirror of the gutter separating and yet simultaneously suturing the first two panels of Persepolis call attention to metaleptic transgressions thematized throughout: difference despite mirror-like reflection, identicality despite individuality. Marji remains isolated from her classmates, even though Satrapi clearly suggests her own indistinguishability from them. The words help to fortify this distinction even while being contradicted by the visual display of the girls' interchangeability. But the visual has detractors in comics, too, apart from periodic antagonisms with words. The stark chiaroscuro of Satrapi's minimalistic drawings are always on hand to reinforce those qualities of ambivalence and disruption for which so many critics praise comics--their "utter non-objectivity" (Hutcheon 1997, 306); "their refusal, or inability, to instantaneously and unproblematically offer a face to the readers" (Miller and Pratt, 2004); their way of allowing readers "to recognize the norms that govern which lives will be regarded as human and the frames through which discourse and visual representation proceed" (Whitlock 2006, 976); in short, the universally acclaimed manner by which a comic's pictoriality disrupts verbal reference such that "the very pictoriality of the ... comic is significantly disrupted as well" (Huyssen 2003, 134).

Ultimately, the gutter that separates the first two panels of Persepolis is a complex mirror in the vein of the mise en abyme. The avatar, or mask, of Marji reflects the individual Satrapi nostalgically re-members herself to be as well as the gendered collective, which that individuality both sees and refuses to see itself reflected in. In Alternative Comics (2005) Charles Hatfield explains how self-caricature precedes the creation of the autobiographical self as an object, arguing that the resulting mask is only partly estranging since it yields greater image-control over the authorial self (2005, 114-15). Similarly, Rocio Davis notes the way the third-person perspective gives rise to a metacritical consciousness in Persepolis, claiming that Satrapi has "fuller control of her subject - herself - as her life writing act involves actual, though stylized, self-portraiture" (2005, 271). (13) Consequently, the avatar, I-con, or mask "mirrors an internalized abstract self-concept--a self-consciousness prerequisite to personal narrative" (Hatfield 2005, 117). In other words, it mediates ideologically-loaded impressions originating from an external social order, turning them into an individual code of self-display and psychological misadventure without which neither autobiographical acts nor pacts are possible. What these analyses suggest is precisely that which Frederic Jameson avers in Freud, that "the ego in the traditional sense--character, personality, identity, sense of self--is shown to be an object for consciousness, part of the latter's 'contents,' rather than a constitutive and structuring element of it" (1977, 343).

A similar theory of identity is postulated in the first two panels of Persepolis. My effort to unravel this conjuncture of theme and form in Persepolis proves the reversibility of David Carrier's dictum that "to interpret a comic we need to identify the ways in which it reflects the fantasies of the public" (2000,7). Of course, in Carrier's analysis, public fantasy is an anterior formation relative to the textual forms that reflect it. As both concept and construct, the fantasy embedded and produced in the comic structure of Persepolis attempts to overcome the split of the subject and as a result equally turns on the terror of that rupture's untraversability.

The Imaginary Is the Real in James Kochalka's The Sketchbook Diaries

It is with great curiosity that we notice the sheer number of graphic autobiographies haunted by similarly de-centering (de-subjectivating) returns to that rupture, the real. But why do so many graphic autobiographers interrupt their narratives of self-coherence with another self, a different or competing I-con, that is at once alien to the narrative yet crucial to its verisimilitude? It is as if in such mirror moments an array of patterns and styles are delivered up to the reader as a kind of palette key to the stylistic structure of the work, as seen in Persepolis, even though the narrative proper clings to only one or two degrees from this palette for the sake of visual legibility and consistency.

James Kochalka's American Elf: The Sketchbook Diaries (2004)--a comic diary of an angsty comic artist who appears as an elf--deliberately veils the author-protagonist's psychic terror of the real through stylized distortions. The book grows out of a countercultural mode of comics autobiography that Hatfield and others locate in the late 1980s and '90s and characterize as being inspired by the humdrum, seedy realism of Harvey Pekar's American Splendor, in which the colorful superheroics of mainstream comics are exchanged for the idiosyncrasies of quotidian antiheroes amidst a vividly sordid, neurotically abject society. According to Hatfield, "these scarifying confessional comics" emphasize "tragedy, farce, and picaresque" (2005, 111).

Kochalka's iconic abstraction of the human and the comic's quartered panel structure become narrational strategies that intervene upon the diary form. Vaguely rodent-like in appearance and reminiscent of Matt Groening's "Life in Hell" comics, Kochalka's American Elf literally sees itself transformed into a simplified cartoon with horizontally elongated ears, extruding upper mandibles punctuated with protruding buckteeth, and two dots, mere commas, for eyes (Figure 2). As both autobiographer and self-portraitist, Kochalka has claimed during interviews a special symbolic status for his illustration style: "It's not just that it's an elf, but the specific way the elf looks. Also, the relationship between the way the various characters look, it's all symbolic" (Garcia 2008). The last part of this statement is especially intriguing, for as we may notice in this typical set of panels, Kochalka's I-con acquires the symbolic potential to convey an impossible relation to itself, narcissistically multiplied in the panel structure's spatial fantasy of an enclosed self-referentiality (suggesting that the significance of the elf is partly its lexical proximity to the word "self"). The narrative urgency in graphic memoir to make the autobiographer visible as a self in relation to itself risks not only the narcissistic valorization of the author, but also the devaluation of other characters.


Although the human typified in the I-con is generally animalized, female nudes in Kochalka's egocentric, existentialist musings are unsurprisingly available for erotic revelations. "I love drawing comics about her," he muses of his wife in one entry, and despite expressing admiration for her "cute little smile," the comic artist, aware of his own irony, loves nothing more than pulling her shirt up over her face and drawing a panel of her breasts (Figure 3). The wife's face is only shown asleep in this set of four panels, oblivious to the nakedness the protagonist enjoys revealing to us and simultaneously taking from her. And why not? According to the comic's vicious logic, this nakedness is not really hers. The artist is merely taking back and giving to us what already belongs to him--the very comic he says he loves to draw about her. Authorial presence vocalized through captions contrasts the woman's reduction to pure image. While Kochalka's I-con retains this link to the symbolic order, the wife's expulsion from the symbolic is only heightened by her represented slumber.


Aside from the elf's expostulations of love, the image serves as alibi against the charge of misogynistic violation. The first two panels may not be his view of her at all, but the products of that view avant la lettre, pictures of pictures all along. In another interview, Kochalka inadvertently certifies one of Paul de Man's reasons for refusing to sunder autobiography from fiction when he admits that his actions in life are "governed by the technical demands of self-portraiture" (1979, 920) and that he alters his behavior with his wife in order to set the stage for its narrativization later: "There have been occasions where I've said things to people, just to get reactions from them, so I could draw a strip about it. I've done that to my wife before. It's kind of a mean trick" (Heater 2007).Yet, the possibility of this scene recording not merely a "mean trick" but an abuse remains, so long as the narrative refuses to envision a prior consent. Other interviews, in fact, suggest a prior discord regarding his representation of the wife: "There's certain things that she doesn't really like me to draw, like sex stuff, so I try to limit the amount of sex stuff I draw or how graphic it is. But I don't leave it out entirely" (Mautner 2007).

By analyzing this scene I do not intend to defuse its potential to aggrieve. Rather, I want to track the way a strategy of traumatic flicker invests the visual sign with an affective semiotic charge. We see this occur here when, according to the ponderous literalism of the scene, the tautological drawing of the protagonist drawing (another mise en abyme) becomes a violation only if the reader-viewer opens up an affective relation to what is, on one level, merely an empty visual sign. That images cannot remain so empty in comics drives Kochalka's prickling irony and reveals his aesthetic to be "haunted by the spectre of representation," which Miller and Pratt (2004) describe as the fear that "[t]he barrier between dream and reality may not be so permeable, and a gap between signifier and signified, enunciator and subject may still open up." With its reference to the unconscious as a site for violations in the imaginary, this scene informs a later one of the I-con before the mirror of the real.

The twin extremes of violation and veneration in the wife-drawings find disquieting resonance in Kochalka's metacritical view of his own representation in the text. In an entry dated January 25, 1999, Kochalka's protagonist comments on the cartoon's distance from the real. "I draw myself like this," the caption in one panel announces, presenting the elf; "not like this," says the following caption, presenting an image of a more human-looking face. The character flees to "watch more television" in the fourth panel (Figure 4). If symbolic exposures of unconscious female flesh provide warped rapture, the exposed face of the artist one step closer to the real exacerbates fear.


Profoundly self-alienated, Kolchaka's elf here epitomizes a ubiquitous preoccupation in graphic autobiography with the problematics of form and identity or of identity as form. The scene draws attention to and yet belies its own creation of a scale of abstraction implied by two styles of representation that collapse into one another, despite being set up as a binary--like this and not like this. But the "not like this" is as much a caricature as the "like this." Nor can the supposed index of the real or, at the very least, the supposedly more real, escape the cartoonish system of representational distance established in The Sketchbook Diaries. Rather, the denied real remains just another marker of distortion and has the ironic effect, no doubt intended, of reinforcing Kochalka's arch visual style as a type of psychological verisimilitude, a world of elf-faced people somehow more true than human (as evidenced in the third panel) and more cozening than TV (as evidenced in the fourth).

Self-consciously poking fun at the identity crisis its form naturalizes, the comic here records a paroxysm of characterization that supports M. Thomas Inge's injunction that "[r]ealism is incompatible with comic art, whose virtues reside in the distinctive and inimitable drawing styles and points of view of the individual comic artists" (1990, 14).

To be sure, there is a game afoot with verisimilitude in all this prosoponic play. (14) We are never meant, so this moment implies, to see Kochalka's elf I-con as anything more than reality's substitute, just one mask chosen among many. Nevertheless, the encounter between the chosen mask and that of a real returned posits at least two implications about authorial subjectivity in American Elf. The first, as already mentioned, is that the I-con of Kochalka the elf is the mask (or prosopon) of Kochalka the author. The second is that the chosen drawing style, which confronts and then denies the scabrous truths of the real (whatever these may be), does more than simply resist the conventions of traditional literary realism; it encompasses an ontology that lies between self-exposure and escape, between realism and spectatorial passivity. It is in this latter implication where an operational standard for graphic novel autobiography becomes clear. In this mirror scene the form announces itself to be a calibration of the real, a domain of symbolic resistance to its own psychic pressures, where trauma is reconfigured to be essential to the production and reception of the medium.

Graphic Affect and the Beal

Kochalka's mirror presents self-discontinuity as a structural homology. More significantly, it is also staged as a slip of the tongue--or in this case, of the illustration pen. We are thus invited to laugh at this moment however we interpret its meaning. Among the many roles the human in the mirror performs in the text, it also operates as a "punctum"--Barthes's term in Camera Lucida (1981) for that wounding detail encountered during the subjective perusal of a photograph. (15) Like puncta which simultaneously puncture photographic objectivity as they sew the text to viewer desire and dread, as so much needle and thread, the dramatized revelations in this quartered unit of narrative weave anxieties of form and content into the very fabric of the reading experience. What surrounds this comic panel with an aura of trauma is not simply a matter of its rejection of the presumed verities of the seen, but its ironic repudiation of seeing altogether.

That repudiation is ironic because it is so explicitly denied by the form in which it is expressed: not just the comic form but also Kochalka's irreverent, often absurdist humor. Turning on sight gags of visual resemblance, the dark humor of Sketchbook orchestrates approximations of likeness with aesthetic purpose, no doubt fueled by the comic form's penchant for juxtaposition and the author's appetite for aggressive deflation and existential parody. So, if we parse the semiotic materials of this scene what we get is a moment of unmasking manque, a faux unveiling staged as such in which the iconic subject we've been invited to read as that triumvirate entity Lejeune associates with the autobiographical pact--author-narrator-protagonist--turns out to be more persona than person, figuration rather than figure.

Of course, we are not betrayed in this revelation: how could we have taken such grotesquerie for something akin to the author? And yet, just such a betrayal is what the moment engenders, or seems to want to engender, if not in the reader then in the protagonist, because the authorial voice of the captions--a presence not necessarily attached to every pictorial reference to the protagonist--juxtaposes one figure against another, identifying more with the grotesque than the real. Here is where the betrayal enters as a misrecognition itself misrecognized as identification. We have been to this point identifying authorial presence with a deliberately distorted embodiment, but it is only at this point that we are forced to note that this distortion is one choice among many other distortions, that the real presence of the author is not among the options, and that the distortion with which we have identified (if, for the moment, we concede to a non-oppositional reading of the text) has likewise been the distortion with which the author himself most identifies. If such a pact has been drawn with the text and its purported agent in disguise, we are hereby disabused momentarily of our pact, seeing as we must the author seeming to see himself--not as he wants to be seen in elf-face, but in the more disturbing anthropomorphia of white masculinity.

Beyond the crisis of self-representation and self-spectacle, the contractual rupture of the reader-viewer with the I-con forbids the uninterrupted reading pleasure of authorial consistency. But there are other pleasures than consistency. Indeed, the surge of autobiographical comics of trauma narratives and stories of survivorship attests to this other kind of desire, strangely wedded to the form of the comic, which resists authorial continuity in favor of a semiotics of selfhood grounded in caricature and the grotesque.

To elaborate on this other kind of desire, let us return to the punning of scene, seen, and seeing, this time adopting a few helpful lenses from psychoanalysis. In the strange discomfiture of seeing the self drawn more realistically, as others may see him, Kochalka's hero corroborates one of the negative reactions Jacques Lacan ascribes to the gaze. In The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-Analysis (1978) Lacan characterizes the disparity between the eye (subjective, mono-perspectival visual apperception) and the gaze (the outward projection of a symbolic order within which the subject is both caught and constituted) as productive of a traumatic de-centering similar to the experience Kochalka documents here.

According to Lacan, this disparity between the eye and the gaze engenders so enormous a realization of lack that it results in a plaguing sense of shame, betrayal, and threat scarcely able to be symbolized in language. The effect, therefore, is often thought of in Lacanian criticism as a "split" between the eye and the gaze, from Sheridan's translation of Lacan's phrasing, a primordial schizia. I agree with translator Judith Filc's preference for the term "schizia" over split because of the way the subject's "failed encounter with the Real" results in the same kind of schizoid reactions Kochalka so vividly demonstrates. In Filc's translation of Roberto Harari's explanation of Lacan, "the cut of the subject, introduced prior to any mention of the eye or the gaze ... becomes evident through the ... failed encounter of the subject with the Real, where ... the former is dumbfounded, perplexed, disconcerted, that is, in a state of schizia" (2004, 106). Working backwards then, from the affective result of the comic to its cause, we might note that what Kochalka, like so many other autobiographical comic commentators, is able to record in this moment through the commingling of words and pictures is precisely that "failed encounter with the Real" constitutive of identity, wherein two of reality's most nearly ubiquitous masks collide: the imaginary and the symbolic.

To plot these categories onto Kochalka's scene, we might follow Don Ault's classification of comic structure in Lacanian terms:
  The comic page most directly invokes Lacan's "imaginary" order
  through its pictorial dimension (its visual images); the "symbolic"
  order through its linguistic dimensions (its letters, words, and
  syntax); and the 'real' through the interruptions or cuts in the
  body-spaces of the page which leave blank spaces between the panels.
  (Ault 2000, 124; qtd. in Singer 2008, 283)

If the imaginary corresponds to the function of the gaze as a field of deceptive veiling, masking the symbolic structures that underlie it, then it follows that the first panel belongs to the imaginary. The second panel obtrudes upon the imaginary, revealing the symbolic field of Kochalka's more realistic imago normally hidden by the veiling effects of the fantasy imago. In other words, this second image belongs to the symbolic. But as these terms are never quite so singularly ascribable to representational phenomena as Ault's schematization would suggest, our reading must not stop there; nor can we ignore the demanding presence of that other dimension of existence, the real, which resists symbolization--even when that symbology is articulated through absences. As McCloud's discussion of closure indicates (1994, see note 11), gutters of interpanel whitespace are transformed by comic readers into routine syntagms and, as such, are anything but disruptive to the grammar of the comics.

To consider how the panel of the "realistic" face operates as the Lacanian Real, we must first recall Lacan's notion of the gaze. In Lacan's formulation of the scopic drive (1978), the subject desires the voyeuristic omniscience to see all. But since no individual can transcend a located perspective, this desire for the gaze that transcends embodied acts of looking forever evades the subject and exists outside of individuals in the field of the other. What is important in all of this is that the gaze encompasses not merely an externalized mastery of scopic totalization but also the failure of it. The gaze of the big other, that field imagined almost as a divine plane of surveillance within which we are caught by an all-seeing mastery, is never complete. It too lacks.(16) And it is for this reason, according to Lacan's interpretation of Hans Holbein's painting The Ambassadors (1533), that the symbolic frequently serves to disrupt desire for scopic mastery. Just as the skull in Holbein's painting gives order to the visual field even though it is also alien to it, so too does the realistic face of Kochalka cede a necessary severance from an imaginary predicated so forcefully by the consistency of the elf-face imago. The realistic face is more than simply an unveiling agent of the symbolic that shatters the normative consistency of fantasy in the imaginary. It also configures an objet a, which, according to Lacan, "in the field of the visible is the gaze" (1978, 105).

The implications of this designation are illuminating in the context of Kochalka's work, since as objet a the normative face masks even as it marks a point of overlap in the visual field and the domain of unconscious desire, where the subject literally transforms into an object in order to look back upon the subject and thereby dissolve the latter's pretense to scopic mastery. The fantasy elf-face at this moment cannot presume scopic autonomy. It is no longer the sole presence viewing its world from the self-constituting perspective as a sovereign subject. It has been seen by its other. And in this reciprocal regard its dependence upon the imaginary is revealed. Through the gap in fantasy identification that this misrecognition carves out there surges a destabilizing aftershock with fascinating implications for the comic protagonist as well as for the reader. That which readers must take as the subject of enunciation has become an exile to itself because of the intrusion of this other, whose sudden reference unhinges, and can only unhinge, if it is suggested to be the proper imago, a rightful representative of the self exiled from the imaginary field of representation before the tale has begun. As a result, the addressees of the tale, the reader-viewers, must renegotiate the terms of our spectatorship accordingly. Whatever has been our desire to accept this Icon as the proper imago of the author likewise turns on us with a force that is similarly de-centering and self-alienating. Like Slavoj Ziiek's gloss on Marxian notions of bourgeoise epistemology and illusion, comic figures and readers practice "fetishistic inversion"--a false orientation to knowledge when parsing the domains of representation in a comic: "What they overlook, what they misrecognize, is not the reality but the illusion which is structuring their reality, their real social activity" (1989, 32).

Conclusion: Picture Memento Mori

The diary form enacts the structure of the unconscious in the way that it begins and ends cyclically as an open system. Each day represents one entry, but ingeniously Kochalka represents that day as a multipart hiatus in the opening and closing of the system. This movement resembles the unconscious of psychoanalysis in that repetition has been graphed or modeled to move in the same way, not as a reproduction but as an act followed by a gap which in turn makes possible another act. In between the cause and effect lies the hiatus; and just as the four panels of a single day encompass the strange effects of narration, so too does the signifier trample over being, in the quiet hum of existence beyond representation. American EY's scene of schizia exemplifies such a model of the unconscious.

But why must there be an iconic ground of the authorial within the visual domain of the work at all? Couldn't authorial consciousness be implied rather than presented? Why must the body--from whose perspective events are understood and toward whom events happen--be shown at all? What gets conventionally reinscribed, for no aesthetic reason other than adherence to convention, is a self-consciousness that must be embodied, objectified into a visual impression before it can be effective as a means of disembodied expression. This naive resurrection of the author replays many of the tautological impasses ascribed to autobiography, which replicates the formal conventions of fiction in order to generate the textual ambience of a documentary historical record. As the author is recapitulated in picture, a collapse of antinomies ensues, producing an imbrication of figure and ground, author-narrator and setting, story and storyteller. The mirror is the medium of that imbrication, as well as a harbinger of its termination, a pictorial memento, if you will, of subjective death.

Mirror scenes offer a revelation about subjects, how we come to be a subject in relation to other subjects, ourselves, and the tools by which we measure such relations. Because the mirror stage dramatizes the subject's discordance between an integrated perception of self and a fragmented one, an imbalance of selfhood structures the imaginary "Most frequently" according to Jameson, "this imbalance would seem to take the form of a degradation of the Symbolic to an Imaginary level" (1977, 351). This is no less the case in Kochalka's narrative, which functions as all autobiographies must as an attempt "of the subject to reintegrate his or her alienated image" (Jameson 1977, 353). And here is where Jameson's intervention becomes crucial for our purposes. In describing the imaginary as a visual playground of bodies without subjects, without point-of-view, he comes very close to limning the unconscious of the graphic novel form as it is usually rendered:
  A description of the Imaginary will therefore on the one hand require
  us to come to terms with a uniquely determinate configuration of
  space--one not yet organized around the individuation of my own
  personal body, or differentiated hierarchically according to the
  perspectives of my own central point of view--yet which nonetheless
  swarms with bodies and forms intuited in a different way, whose
  fundamental property is, it would seem, to be visible without their
  visibility being the result of the act of any particular observer, to
  be, as it were, already-seen, to carry their specularity upon
  themselves like a color they wear or the texture of their surface.
  (Jameson '1977, 355)

Graphic novels conjure the imaginary as surely as the latter term connotes "the experience of the image--and of the imago--and we are meant to retain [the term's] spatial and visual connotations" (Jameson 1977, 351). This scene amounts to a repression of symbol formation at the very moment of acknowledging the symbolic. It is the coming of a true alienation in a symbolic, jokingly hinted at, but also repressed, that the moment descries.

And amidst all of these games of prosoponic peek-a-boo, the predominance of the mirror in graphic memoir mourns the death of the author as much as the death of reference. As with the "real" face of Kochalka's hero, the genre expurgates its dead (reference, the real, mimetic verisimilitude) from symbolic circulation in a manner reminiscent of Roland Barthes's comments about seeing himself in a photograph that doubles his own sense of subjectivity: "when I discover myself in the product of this operation, what I see is that I have become Total-Image, which is to say, Death in person" (1981, 14). Even so, autobiographical graphic novels tantalize by so boldly manifesting that troubling relation of personhood and presence. If, according to de Man, prosopopoeia (the giving of a face to something) is the central "trope of autobiography, by which one's name ... is made as intelligible and memorable as a face" (1979, 76), that trope is vigorously literalized in graphic novel autobiography. But the mask of graphic novel autobiography conforms to the ambiguities of the masquerade, its function of secular revelry and sacerdotal ritual. Rather than reveal the face of the author, it hides that referent, either to murderously satirize reference altogether or to mourn its loss. No matter the intention, the effect is to presume the true face of authorship in absentia--a textual exile by psychic necessity for author-artists and reader-viewers alike.


I would like to thank George Edmondson and Barbara Will for their inspiration during the writing of this essay as well as the Dartmouth Class of 1962 Fellowship for generously supporting its completion. I am also grateful for the tireless efforts of my research assistant Tien-Tien Jong. Permission to include images from American Eff* The Sketchbook Diaries has been provided by Top Shelf Productions.

(1) Mise en abyme, French for "put into the abyss," is the miniature replication of the whole within some portion of it, a device that therefore reveals the constructedness of mediation (visual or textual). Cliched uses of it include the picture of someone holding a picture depicting the same scene ad infinitum.

(2) My use of the term "caricature" draws on the general distinction that "[c]aricature is not the same as cartoon. Caricature is the image, cartoon the space where figures brush up against other figures engaged in social situations" (Banta 2003, 52). For definitive studies of image-word relationships in comics, see McCloud (1994) and Carrier (2000, 61-74).

(3) See also Lucien Dallenbach (1989) who explores the many ways in which the mirror trope signals the literary or artistic self-consciousness of the work.

(4) I adopt the term "autography" for autobiographical novels from recent scholars of autobiography, such as Gillian Whitlock (2006), who employ it to stress the self-written and self-illustrated nature of pictorial life narratives. Alternate terms include "autobiographix," used by comic artist Mary Fleener, and "autobiocomics" or "autobioBD"--the latter an abbreviation of Bandes Desinee, the French term for comics.

(5) Notable exceptions include the essays cited here by Don Ault (2000), Ann Miller and Murray Pratt (2004), and Marc Singer (2008).

(6) See Gallop (1983).

(7) For a related study of identity and mirrors in Persepolis, which employs an Althusserian model of subject formation based on interpellation and ideology, see Babak Elahi (2008).

(8) Thierry Groensteen also argues for the primacy of the image as "essential to the production of meaning that is made though it" (2007, 8). From this position, he disagrees with those who "suppose that comics are essentially the site of a confrontation between the verbal and the iconic ... [as] a theoretical counter-truth that leads to an impasse" (8). To accept one system (in this case, the visual) as being able to have prominence over another, when the two are clearly in relation, is to reject any non-hierarchical conceptualization of their interaction and thus has less to do with comics semiology than it does a politics of alterity (at best) and hegemonic advocacy (at worst).

(9) Groensteen (2007) uses the proliferation of autobiographical comics in America to argue for the centrality of considering the form a language unto itself, but in the process, suggests that this is so because just about anyone can begin to make meaning using the form, not just artists, but autobiographers. He thus undermines the aesthetic value of autobiographical comics while elevating the form: "the proliferation of autobiographical comics is a remarkable phenomenon of recent years, stemming from America, where the works of Robert Crumb, Art Spiegelman, and Harvey Pekar, notably, have opened the door. This plasticity of comics, which allows them to put in place messages of every order and narrations other than the fictional, demonstrates that before being an art, comics are well and truly a language" (Groensteen 2007,19).

(10) Satrapi charges parts of the iconic body with particular meanings throughout Persepolis, but these meanings also enfold iconic relations and oppositions. For example, the uniformity of the girls' hands at rest, their arms entwined close to the body, is obviously symbolic of social proscription; less obvious, however, is the way that later panels of Marji's self-aggrandizing authorial address inevitably show her with one finger upraised, making the upraised finger--like the eye that pierces through the veil--a metonym for voice in contrapuntal relation to this early scene of the restrained agency of the hand.

(11) McCloud defines closure as "the phenomenon of observing the parts but perceiving the whole" (1994, 63). Although indebted to his groundbreaking analysis of the process, I am less optimistic than his statement would suggest that a transhistorical "whole" is always universally perceived.

(12) For an analysis of metalepsis in Spiegelman's Maus, see McGlothlin (2003, 182).

(13) Davis's claim about Satrapi's control being intensified because her "life writing act involves actual, though stylized, self-portraiture" (2005, 271) hinges on a debatable, albeit implicit, distinction between actual and stylized self-portraiture. Is a stylized self-portrait less actual? What would a non-stylized self-portrait look like? Davis goes on to refer to two particular panels in. Persepolis in which the self as portrait is most manifest, where "the child literally finds herself caught between the religious and the secular worlds; between tradition and technology" (2005, 272). The first occurs in the opening chapter, where the ten-year-old Maiji admits, "I really didn't know what to think about the veil" (Satrapi 2003, 6), standing in a panel that splits her in half: one half showing a black background with gears, a ruler, and a hammer; the other, a white background with Persian adornments. The second self-portrait is of a veiled fourteen-year-old Marji wearing a denim jacket with Michael Jackson buttons (131). Like most readers, I too find these panels to be explicit acts of self-portraiture; however, I also see them as models for similar engagements performed throughout the text, where every panel that includes the author-narrator becomes the occasion for self-portraiture, actual because stylized.

(14) Prosopon, Greek for "face," is the mask produced by hypostasis.

(15) Barthes defines the punctum as detail in a photograph "which rises from the scene, shoots out of it like an arrow, and pierces me" (1981, 56).

(16) Obsessional behavior may illustrate this lack of the Other. According to Slavoj 'iiek, the act of hiding inconsistencies in the symbolic order transfixes obsessional subjects, who "must be active all the time so that [such inconsistency] does not come to light that 'the Other does not exist"' (1992, 35).

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Michael A. Chaney is an associate professor of English at Dartmouth College. He is the author of Fugitive Vision: Slave Image and Black Identity in Antebellum Narrative and editor of Graphic Subjects: Critical Essays on Autobiography and Graphic Novels.
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