Three things came together to spur this post, which I'm not sure will amount to a coherent essay so much as a loose tangle of barely connected thoughts. We'll see how it goes and whether it pulls together.
The first is a talk I'm preparing to give next week to a women's group that invited me to speak about Mom's Cancer. I've given several talks--tailored to whether I'm speaking to a "comics crowd" or a "healthcare/social service crowd"--but it's been a long time since the last one, and reviewing my PowerPoint slides has reawakened the experience of crafting the book and its themes. I haven't thought about some of these things in a while.
The second is an article just published in the journal Literature and Medicine, a scholarly publication for healthcare professionals. Unfortunately, the piece by Harvard's Hillary Chute isn't available online, but it cites several works--the comic strip "Funky Winkerbean" and the books Our Cancer Year, Epileptic, Black Hole, Blue Pills: A Positive Love Story, Janet and Me, Mom's Cancer, and others--from the perspective of their value as "illness narratives." In laying out her premise Ms. Chute wrote, "Comics is, in fact, a distinct form--a medium in its own right--not a lowbrow genre of literature or art, as it is often understood . . . In this review, I consider the properties, commonalities, differences, and contributions of a swiftly growing, yet diverse, body of graphic narratives about illness in order to explain the current profusion of such texts and to account for why the graphic narrative is a distinctly effective (and affective) popular form for such stories."
Interestingly, Chute said that she spoke with Spiegelman, though it's not clear if he shared this particular insight with her. But I think Spiegelman's right, and I further think that's the key to understanding something important about how comics work and the kinds of stories they tell.
See, ideally, comics is just another medium that should be able to tell any type of story, fiction or nonfiction, just as books or film can. But, in practice, although many terrific graphic novel creators have explored a lot of different techniques and subjects, a huge share of graphic novels--and most of the really successful ones I can think of like Maus, Persepolis, Fun Home, and Blankets--have been memoirs (leaving aside those originating in the world of pulp and superhero comic books such as Sin City and Watchmen).
I wonder why that is. Does it reflect the immaturity of a medium that just hasn't figured out how to tell different stories yet? Lazy unimaginative authors? Lazy unimaginative publishers? Lazy unimaginative readers? Or something more fundamental about the nature of graphic novels and the types of stories they're somehow suited to tell?
I'll take the easy way out and suggest they all apply. Graphic novels are a relatively young medium for which writers and artists are making up new rules as they go and figuring out how things work. A lot of writers and artists are lazy or unimaginative, taking the maxim "write what you know" too closely to heart and focusing on themselves because, hey, what do they know better (or have to research less) than their own miserable, misunderstood, solipsistic lives? Publishers are lazy or unimaginative, only willing to take a risk on stuff that's already been proven to work. A lot of readers are also lazy or unimaginative, comfortable with the graphic novels they know but not looking further afield for interesting work in other areas.
In addition, comics is the purest expression of McLuhan's axiom that "the medium is the message" I can think of. When you read a comic by Robert Crumb or Chris Ware, every line and letter--even the paper the comic is printed on--reflects the hand of its creator. More than most books and certainly more than collaborative work like television or movies, the content and form of comics are the result of singular creative visions. There's little distance between comics authors and readers, and I think the very best comics feel like a private conversation that jacks directly into the brain.
So I've been long intrigued by the idea that there's something about the way words and pictures combine in a reader's mind that makes comics especially apt for intimate stories that unfold like memories or dreams--editing episodes down to their most essential information, invoking symbols and archetypes, employing a kind of pre-literate shorthand of images and impressions. In other words, comics about stuff that happened to you.
I don't know if that's right. It feels like it could be.
Turning to the illness narrative, I think it's helpful to look at Chute's list of graphic novels as a subset of memoirs (with the exception of Black Hole, which is straight-up allegorical fiction) and in light of Spiegelman's notion of comics and memory. Illness invokes unique experiences and strong memories. "This is strange and frightening and interesting; I need to tell someone about it." I've told this story before: when my Mom became ill and our family fell through the medical rabbit hole, I resolved to share our story somehow. I didn't know if it would be a blog, a magazine article, a book, whatever, but I wanted to communicate our experience and scribble a rough roadmap for those who followed. Mom's Cancer became a graphic novel the day I took Mom to chemotherapy and, to pass the time while she napped in a comfy I.V. chair, turned over a piece of paper and sketched her. There was something in that drawing that perfectly captured our day in a way no other medium could have; the lightbulb lit over my head. I knew it would work. And I think somewhere in there is an insight into how and why it works for others as well.
mouth--in its visual metaphors and its diagrams, it points directly to how the idiom of comics tackles the representation of illness and its range of hard-to-picture effects. Its enthusiastic audience and re-publication in print demonstrate the need and desire in our current moment for narrative and visual chronicles of struggles with illness."