Date of Degree
PhD (Doctor of Philosophy)
French and Francophone World Studies
At some point in our lives, we have all experienced physical and emotional pain. We all also try to find meaning in such suffering, first within ourselves, but also through sharing these experiences with those who are close to us. In literature, authors who write autobiographies blur the boundaries between the public and private spheres when they invite readers into their personal world. Georges May and Philippe Lejeune, leading critics of the genre, have concluded that autobiographers not only try to make sense of their own lives, but through their writing, they also seek forgiveness and human compassion. My doctoral thesis explores how an important contemporary literary genre, the French autobiographical comic book (also known as the graphic novel), approaches the topic of health and disease and links it closely with questions of identity formation. Within the theoretical framework proposed by Laurent Berlant, who founded a now thriving branch of contemporary cultural studies known as “Intimacy Studies,” the central aim of my thesis is to demonstrate how these French graphic novels have become an important literary and cultural site for examining the social and artistic significance of a form of writing in which private health concerns are made public.
In speaking of intimacy, emotions such as love and other kinds of interpersonal bonds typically come to mind. However, my study of a corpus of ten French-language autobiographical comic books indicates that health concerns and representations of a variety of physical, emotional and mental afflictions are topics of focus in this genre. Authors share their life stories and discuss their relationships with others, but they also share very personal details about their physical and mental states. This sort of intimacy is, I argue, a product of the medium itself. Comics are a hybrid genre in which written texts and images coexist. Comic artists who take their own lives as the subject of their art draw pictures of themselves over and over again. In the autobiographical comics I study, when illness and other afflictions strike the body, this suffering is rendered graphically on the page. These artists are also preoccupied by their inner lives. Both their writing and visual art allow them to portray the inner turmoil they endure in their private life.
Comic book scholars, whose studies have proliferated over the past several decades, have largely overlooked how important the portrayal of health is in the development of the genre. This is somewhat surprising given the extent to which the underground graphic novelists who emerged in the United States in the 1960s found ways to defy the Comic Code Authority by challenging cultural norms. These artists openly rejected the rules and conventions of mainstream comics, which typically focused on the exploits of super heroes or talking animals. Instead, they found artistic inspiration in their everyday lives and here is where politics and the art of expressing intimacy intersect. Underground comics were certainly infused with a spirit of rebellion, but the artists who participated in this movement sought first to reinvent the genre itself. Little by little, they delved into their inner lives and began to address some of the most taboo subjects of the day, including topics relating to the most personal aspects of their bodily existence. The daring these early underground comic writers showed in examining the unspoken aspects of personal life and relations went a long way toward establishing the genre as a recognized art form, opening the way for a subsequent generation of comic writers to tackle other serious topics such as war and genocide.
Knowledge of the contributions that American underground artists had made to the comic book genre eventually reached Europe in the 1990s. At the time, French artists were also growing tired of their own superhero story lines and disenchanted with the mass-production model that defined the Franco-Belgian comics industry. In response to these conditions, a small group of comic book artists formed a company called L’Association (The Association) which became the first independent comic book publishing house of its kind. They paved the way for many other such enterprises and their formula for success is now being replicated in the mainstream publishing houses these independent-minded artists fled several decades ago. Part of that formula is the inspiration these artists drew from American cartoonists who began in the 1960s to share intimate aspects of their personal lives with their readership. What I have discovered thus far is the frequency with which French autobiographical comics take up and place the subject of ill health and life-threatening disease at the center of the stories they tell.
Broaching the topic of ill health is not unique to the comics genre, but is rather a feature of modern autobiographical writing in general. As medical knowledge and scientific understanding have advanced in the modern era, the field of literature has worked to reclaim narratives from the medical world. But unlike other forms of literary expression, comic books offer more freedom of expression and possess a greater capacity to reflect the complexity of human identity and existence. This is especially the case with representations of human suffering. Images can configure what writing fails to grasp, allowing comic artists to express feelings and convey anguish that words can hardly express.
The autobiographies I examine were produced by authors who have lived through, survived, or were in some way personally touched by a grave health crisis. Their use of the comic book genre allows them to make sense of the often life-shattering events they, or those who live in close proximity to them, have lived. I am particularly interested in the way in which these authors recount the crisis moment in their lives, how they understand the ways it affected them, and how they were able, or not, to recover from the experience. I show that our state of health, both physical or mental, has a profound effect on our identity, and how we perceive and tell stories about this dimension of our lives is crucial to forming a sense of self, particularly in a contemporary digitalized world that is now flooded with information and images once considered too private for public consumption. I demonstrate how the nine graphic autobiographies I have chosen to study are intimate expressions of vulnerable selfhood, showing how these public portraits of human weakness are a particularly postmodern way of reconstituting one’s identity in the social world. Modern and contemporary theories of human subjectivity teach us that the self is always fragmented. When we are sick, however, the task of finding a sense of stability in ourselves and in the world is even more daunting. Illness proves to be such a dominant theme in the comic book tradition, I argue, because it is a reminder of our own mortality. In the works I am studying, it is the experience of pain and the specter of death that often prompts the authors’ reflection on the self and on life. All of the works I am examining share a common feature. They exhibit a constant tension between the anxieties of revealing a deep personal vulnerability and the desire to make their suffering meaningful, which is a crucial aspect of these authors’ quest to recover and to reconstitute a sense of self in the aftermath of a debilitating illness. Informed by the insights of intimacy studies, psychoanalysis, comics studies and visual studies, I will show how the nine works I examine participate in the process of meaning-making and how the comics genre allows them to do so in particularly inventive and contemporary ways.
At some point in our lives, we have all experienced physical and emotional pain. We all also often try to find meaning in such suffering. My dissertation explores how French and Francophone comic book artists approach the topic of health and disease. The central aim of my thesis is to demonstrate how autobiographical comics are particularly prone to express the complexity of the human experience, and how notions of health, intimacy, and identity are closely linked. Intimacy is something deeply human, all of us have an intimate life, and this private life is at the core of who we are. In this research, the authors’ intimacies are usually ones stigmatized. By sharing them, they hope to create a sense of compassion and to change the others’ gaze. The strength of these authors comes from their way of handling their illness and the deep understanding they have of their own. Sharing one’s intimacy creates a proximity with the others which invites to identification, which influences the behavior and can help raising consciousness of these people’s suffering. Deep health issues upset us to our core and for these authors, writing their stories is for sharing it, but also to rebuild themselves. With its unique combination of words and images, comics are an ideal tool for authors to express their intimacy: their thoughts, their feelings, their emotions, and the different layers of personality each person has.
publicabstract, bande dessinée, comics, health, intimacy, intimité, santé
Copyright 2015 Cynthia Vanessa Helénè Laborde