Hilary Chute defines Comics as ‘a procedure of mapping: mapping time into space’[1]. Art Spiegelman’s Maus and Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home, as Autobiographics, both attempt to construct an array of subjective memories into the temporal, physical form. They draw on the cross-generational memory of their father’s lives and deaths, yet ‘the deceased…present a greater challenge to reconciliation [of the temporal] via narrative endeavour’[2]. The representation of memory that is somewhat lost or somewhat fragmented means that the author’s own identity and subjectivity as artist and second-generational creator plays far more of a crucial role. The author’s own process thus becomes another nuanced temporal setting attached to the narrative. Elmwood describes these works as sites of ‘sites of projection, investment, and creation’[3]

The photographic image is visually indicative of the comic time; like ‘the panel, [it] shows a single moment in time’[4] In Maus and Fun Home the photograph is literally demonstrative of one moment, but is indicative of both it’s own captured moment and the moments of the author’s process, be it recreation, reconfiguration or placement. Spiegelman and Bechdel explore artefacts as an alternate style of framing memory in time and space which either supports the author’s memorial work as evidence, or undermines them as factual, unlinkable moments. The photograph as ‘both a pseudo-presence and a token of absence’[5] is used to speak about the authors’ re-configuring process in light of lost or blurred memory.

Bechdel and Spiegelman both use title pages that are set on their own in the centre of a blank page, representing their own specific, individual time[s], yet are nuanced with other ideas of time and memory through the narrative. Bechdel introduces Fun Home with an illustrated photograph of her father in front of her family home. This image depicts the two centrefold ideas of Bechdel’s story, whilst introducing her absorbing and re-processing of her family memories. Spiegelman however is unable to represent the deceased in his own comic time frame. The photograph of his brother Richieu, who was born and died before Spiegelman himself was born, is the icon of his felt inability to represent the truth of memory. It is set alone in the centre of the page as the title of his second volume. Bechdel’s bleeding double spread of a photograph of her father’s lover, Roy, is equally set in the centre of the Fun Home, but instead of jarring the narrative with a single, unlinked time, possesses permanence, timefulness, and encompasses the story as an icon of dominant memory. Spiegelman’s bleeding double spread of his family photos, near the end of his narrative, conversely depicts many undeveloped photographic memories and acts to undermine the representational work he has already done.

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The experiences of Bechdel’s father are strongly enmeshed with her own ideas of self, especially her understanding of her own homosexuality – ‘the telling of her life is shadowed by the mysteries of his’[6]. She repossesses her father’s memories by artistically developing them, forming her own understanding of the memories. The single photo corner removed from her opening image begins to a temporal sense of Alison’s own process over her family memories. The already established moment that the photo captures and its placement in the family album are added to by the process Bechdel’s removal and editing of the photo.

Bechdel very carefully suggests her own interpretation of given memories through her layering of them with her own artistic process. Bechdel’s maximalist cross-hatching style of drawing both her father and Roy emphasises this durational creative process. The filled, layering, detailed style demonstrates a developed reinterpretation of family artefacts, rather than creating a sense of the real timelessly transferred to comic form. The same style is re-found in the centre of the narrative, on the image of Roy. The cross-hatching style of the image, emphasised by the more minimalist lines around it, is visually reminiscent of the introducing image. McCloud states that ‘by creating a sequence with two or more images, we are endowing them with a single overriding identity, and forcing the viewer to consider them as a whole’. The same applies here to style. Bechdel states: ‘I hate that mix of drawings and photograph reproductions…I like’ everything to be uniform’.[7] The father photograph, its family album setting and her own text, are all pulled into her own style – establishing her artistic unity with family memories than is integral throughout her narrative.

Bechdel ‘re-interprets the authority that photos as ‘official histories’ seem to hold, and opens them to subjective interpretation’[8]. All of her lines are of similar shape and length, except that of her father’s hair and so the reader’s eyes are drawn to his face. The darkened front door behind him equally draws attention to his figure, and frames him with the icon of home. Bechdel ‘render[s] photographs…as a set of memory mirrors that are continually shaped and refracted by self-engagement’[9]. The different time dimensions that she adds point toward her own authority over memories. An image of her father and their home is clearly chosen to encapsulate both the character that she explores and the motif that she explores it through. It is a carefully chosen and cultivated singular memory, layered by her own time levels.

However Spiegelman’s photographs, both real and illustrated, outline what is missing from the narrative. They frame his struggle to find linear time and representation of truth in those that he never knew. Their confrontation with his own form underline the insufficiency he feels in his attempt to represent both personal and mass memories of Auschwitz: ‘I feel so inadequate trying to reconstruct a reality that was worse than my darkest dreams’[10]. This inadequacy is explained alongside the imprinting absence of Richieu – ‘he was mainly a large blurry photograph in my parent’s bedroom’[11]. In doing so Spiegelman presents these two in unity. His fear of misrepresentation is deeply embedded in his inability to represent the brother he never knew. This scene constructs the second narrative time that is simultaneously understood as part of the wider concept of Richieu. The two times realms of the photo of Richieu itself and Spiegelman’s feelings around it are constructed separately in the narrative to give a sense of disjunction, to demonstrate that he cannot develop or narratively connect with Richieu’s life.

Spiegelman limits his image of Richieu in the comic time frame of the panel Rather than layering the image with time moments in support his own interpretation, Spiegelman presents a memory trapped in its own time, questioning his abilities to represent the past in linear temporal space. Scott McCloud explains that ‘Each panel of a comic shows a single moment in time’[12] Richieu’s photograph represents a singular idea in time, just as bleeding represents a haemorrhaging of the time frame. These elements simply demonstrate the limitation of Spiegelman’s memorial concept of Richieu.

Conversely, Bechdel’s image of Roy ‘bleeds’ off of the edge of the page – ‘time has haemorrhage[d] and escape[d]’[13] and no longer constrains Alison’s telling of the story. Her father’s sexual relationships whilst married to her mother are significantly troubling for her and Roy acts as the icon of Alison’s process of dealing with her father’s affairs. Thoughts such as ‘Perhaps I identify too well with my father’s illicit awe[14]’ are expanded across time, given permanence that encompasses her view of her father’s sexuality. The time frame is broken down thus the image represents unity and permanence in the narrative. It joins the two sides of Bechdel’s narrative with a singular memory that encompasses the story of her father’s infidelity.

Spiegelman’s use of objective evidence is jarring in the narrative, presenting fixedness in its own separate unlinked time moment. The ‘disabling of memory is only advanced by the reliance on photographs as repositories of some essential truth of the lost person.’[15] , Although Spiegelman sticks to the comic time frame, he pulls away from the comic format through photographic image and the lack of juxtaposition. The reader has adapted to a linear narrative and the progression of characters through the representative mouse character. When the narrative is cut in half with a singular photograph it is both unsettlingly real, and yet missing so much – it is informatively empty.

Roy is not linearly linked or even narratively introduced from its preceding page, but is visually beckoned. In the previous page Alison and her father look at a reclining man in a magazine and Bechdel compares their desire of the masculine form – Alison’s as ‘subjectively, for [her]self’[16], Bruce’s as an ‘object of desire’[17]. Bechdel claims that the ‘true organising principle of the book is associative.’[18] This was said of her book ‘Are You My Mother?’ but, as comment on style, applies to all of her works. The subject associative link means that Roy does not represent a specific point in narrative time but mental, memorial time. Bechdel says that she focuses upon ‘the idea of…psychic time: Freud’s idea that the unconscious is timeless…[that] all of those things [moments] are always in us simultaneously.’[19] Her presentation of significant memories is thus stretches through time. Her knowledge of her father’s affair with Roy informs many of her ideas of him and her own sexuality, and so are made to resonate throughout the narrative. Roy is unconfined in narrative and so spread through all exploration of her father’s sexuality.

The enlarged thumb holding the photograph acts to pull the photograph out of the narrative backdrop – the grey background gives the impression of context that was once there but has been filled in as irrelevant. The clearly artistic style of the photograph’s representation demonstrates her subjective questioning process of the artefact. Conversely, Spiegelman’s photo of Richieu represents lack and emptiness and is set upon a white expanse – an expanded gutter. McLoud argues that when the eye reaches the gutter between panels ‘the reader is released…into the open air of imagination…then caught by the outstretched arms.’ The reader is thrown into a search for a placement of this captured memory but does not find the answers that would usually reside in the next panel. Just as Bechdel’s visual resonance unites her images, Spiegelman’s artistic authority implicates his visual sequences with subjective integrity and unity. In order for him undermine this authority; to express the emptiness and loss that the photograph represents, it had to be placed individually. Joining the photograph with his own discussion of Richieu, even incorporating ideas of confusion, would incorporate his feelings in unity with the photograph. Instead Spiegelman choses to present the photograph as a symbol of broken narrative, of lost irretrievable memory in it’s own time and it’s own literal place and, later on, the emotions that are associated.

Spiegelman continues to represent the singularity of photographic time through the icons of the comic. Once again, however, he deconstructs the time format, unsettling representations of memory in sequential juxtaposed space. In Spiegelman’s double spread of his family photos each of the photos embodies the rectangular panel of a single moment but they are dislodged from linear structure; throughout the spread falling into the pile pictured at the bottom of the second page. The photos are scattered over the panels of Vladek, as he tells the abrupt stories of the lives and deaths of his relatives. The disjointedness of the photos with the existing panels questions where they can be placed in their telling. They eventually overwhelm the narrative frame, depicting Art’s inability present them. Their multiplicity and style joins them in unity of depicting lost life.

The photos surround Vladek’s words ‘All what is left, it’s the photos’. Spiegelman explains that darkness surrounding an image ‘functions to have this kind of black bracket…around this one moment… Which to me is a very powerful way of understanding what was happening.’[20] Although this is in reference to an earlier page in Maus, the visual effect on both pages is similar. The many photos both inform and impose upon Vladek’s sense of loss, giving a sense of the crushing yet limited memories of the passed family members.

The photo album represents both an absence of the many relatives, and the presence of characters who cannot be developed fully. In contrast to Richieu, the gutters begin to be obscured and eventually disappear, meaning that there is no pause between the individual memories to create a clarifying flow between them. The photos become a ‘visual equivalent of a broken record’[21]. The physical time representation is fractured, and the narrative is jolted with a series of abrupt and singular moments. Although they represent one concept, they cannot be incorporated smoothly into the telling of memories.

Near the end of the narrative, beginning to present a multitude of figures that can’t be fit in to the established narrative form makes the audience question the representative memorial integrity of the story that has been evolving so far.

Unity. Narrative integrity, breakdown of narrative undermines statements.

Bibliography:

Bechdel, Alison, Fun Home – A Family Tragicomic (Jonathan Cape, 2006)

Chute, Hilary L, Graphic Women – Life Narrative & Contemporary Comics (Columbia University Press, 2010)

Chute, Hilary L, Alison Bechdel Interview >http://criticalinquiry.uchicago.edu/hillary_chute_interviews_alison_bechdel< (accessed 01/11/12)

Elmwood, Victoria A. ‘Happy, Happy Ever After: The Transformation of Trauma between the Generations in Art Spiegelman’s Maus: A Survivor’s Tale’, in Biography : an interdisciplinary quarterly, 27.4 (2004) (University of Hawai’i Press), 691-720

Maden, Matt, 99 Ways to Tell a Story – Exercises in Style (Jonathan Cape, 2006)

McLoud, Scott, Understanding Comics – The Invisible Art (HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. 1994)

Sontag, Susan, On Photography (Penguin, 1979)

Spiegelman, Art, The Complete Maus (Penguin 2003)

Spiegelman, Art, Lecture at SHU <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ietzZBf3OD4> (accessed 01/11/12)

Watson, Julia, ‘Autographic disclosures and genealogies of desire in Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home’, in Biography : an interdisciplinary quarterly. 31.1 (2008), 27-58.

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[1] Hilary L. Chute, Graphic Women – Life Narrative ; Contemporary Comics (Columbia University Press, 2010), p.191

[2] Victoria A Elmwood, ‘Happy, Happy Ever After: The Transformation of Trauma between the Generations in Art Spiegelman’s Maus: A Survivor’s Tale’, in Biography : an interdisciplinary quarterly, 27.4 (2004) (University of Hawai’i Press), p.691

[3] Elmwood, p.694

[4] Scott McCloud, Understanding Comics – The Invisible Art (HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. 1994) p.94

[5] Susan Sontag, On Photography (Penguin, 1979) p.16

[6] Watson, Julia, ‘Autographic disclosures and genealogies of desire in Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home’, in Biography : an interdisciplinary quarterly. 31.1 (2008), p.29

[7]Hilary L. Chute, Alison Bechdel Interview >http://criticalinquiry.uchicago.edu/hillary_chute_interviews_alison_bechdel< 7:10

[8] Watson, p37

[9] Watson, p.52

[10] Spiegelman, Art, The Complete Maus (Penguin 2003), p.176

[11] Maus, p.175

[12] McCloud, p.94

[13] McCloud, p.103

[14] Alison Bechdel, Fun Home – A Family Tragicomic (Jonathan Cape, 2006), p.101

[15] Elmwood, p.708

[16] Fun Home, p.99

[17] Fun Home, p.99

[18] Bechdel Interview, 14:40

[19] Bechdel Interview, 13.45

[20] Art Spiegelman, Lecture at SHU <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ietzZBf3OD4> 35:15

[21] Elmwood, p.706

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