Canadian Graphic: Picturing Life Narratives. Wilfrid Laurier University Press (purchase at Amazon.ca) and
Autographics and biographics represent a substantial share of the successful comics published in Canada today, especially in the realm of alternative comics. Many of our most significant comics artists, from Julie Doucet and Chester Brown to Kate Beaton and Scott B. Henderson, draw at least partially on traditions of life writing. That Canadian Graphic exists is a celebration of the progress of comics studies in Canada, and that it is a thoughtful contribution to the field is even better. Candida Rifkind and Linda Warley indicate in their introduction that the larger goals of the collection are to highlight the range and breadth of comics memoir and biography in Canada today, and to encourage future scholarship in this area, and it achieves both. Canadian Graphic offers a good first survey of Canadian life-writing comics, and though the absences are sometimes striking, such as the choice of a relatively obscure Quebec text rather than a discussion of titans like Guy Delisle or Michel Rabagliati, the discussion, especially of English Canadian comics creators, is particularly well rounded and robust. The chapters offer interesting insights and new contributions to the discipline, and that they often had this reader shouting out competing readings is surely only good news for future collections and the health of comics studies in Canada as a whole.
Many chapters draw on the same comics theorists, particularly Scott McCloud and Charles Hatfield, which has the pleasing effect of ensuring that the chapters are almost always in conversation with one another. Indeed, for the most part, the collection takes a robust look at existing scholarship on alternative comics and comix; while some readings could be complicated with more reflection on mainstream comics history, especially those engaging with hegemonic ideas of culture, the collection as a whole is a useful primer on the most current thinking about alternative comics and, of course, particularly autographics and biographics.
It is a joy to see a scholarly collection make such extensive use of excerpts from the comics themselves; too often, visuals are sacrificed because of publishing costs, which often only amplifies the tendency of literary scholars to privilege the verbal over the visual in comics. The chapters in Canadian Graphic engage meaningfully with the art in the comics they encounter, and the reprinted selections help to clarify the arguments and encourage further reading. This is a real strength.
There is much anxiety throughout the volume about the need to take comics seriously. Most chapters begin with or include some gesturing as to why it is worthwhile to think and write about comics, and many fall into the trap of trying to find serious-sounding literary language to try to describe them (in one notable example, the creator-artist is referred to as a “graphic author”). This is a problem not with this book alone; indeed, it is endemic to comics studies and perhaps a particularly easy trap for the first book in a sub-genre of the discipline to fall into. I look forward to a time when comics scholars trust their own work enough to stop apologizing for it and announcing its worthiness; let that be a challenge to the contributors to the next book that comes along.
The editors of Canadian Graphic are mindful of one of the biggest issues plaguing both comics publishing and scholarship, and that is the lack of diversity in voices; they foreground their attempts to address it and recognize that this collection contains a majority of white voices. It is encouraging, however, to see work discussed in this collection from Black and Indigenous creators. I commend the editors for acknowledging the need for collections in comics studies to be more inclusive of BIPOC, disabled, and LGBTQ creators and scholars, and I look forward to the day when this is a natural outcome of the discipline’s inherent diversity.
Canadian Graphic is an excellent and necessary collection of thoughtful, engaged scholarship in a growing discipline. It simultaneously offers a useful review of relevant existing scholarship and important creators to know, and gestures toward work that still needs to be done. Rifkind and Warley have done a great service to Canadian literature, life writing, and comics studies with this important collection.