Drawing (on) the Past

Representation and Memory in Graphic Novels rezensiert von Joanna Nowotny

How can comics render memories visible? In her monograph Representation and Memory in Graphic Novels, Golnar Nabizadeh shows that comics employ diverse formal strategies in order to deal with the experiences and traumata of minority and disenfranchised groups.

The treatment of trauma and memory is what gave comics their respectability as an art form in the English-speaking world. One of the first comics that was taken seriously as a work of art and a subject of research was Art Spiegelman’s Maus (1980-1991) – the tale of a survivor of the Shoah told through the eyes of his son, who shows how traumatic memories affect the next generation. The subject of Golnar Nabizadeh’s monograph Representation and Memory in Graphic Novels is therefore one central to comics studies.

At the basis of Nabizadeh’s arguments lies the assertion that comics are uniquely suited to thinking about memory and testimony because memory, like comic art, is a process of reconstruction and representation, and comics as a medium offer a multitude of ways of encoding memories visually – for example through monochrome or ink washes, through different representations of text within narratives, through caricature or ›realistic‹ drawing. Furthermore, Nabizadeh holds that comics are particularly useful for portraying minority and occluded voices, because the plasticity of the comics form means that a plurality of lived experiences can be expressed, a fact »especially significant for groups whose voices have traditionally been ignored, and who all too readily continue to be dismissed« (1). Accordingly, her chapters deal with topics such as the construction of memories in the face of migration, trauma and loss (e.g. Shaun Tan’s The Arrival; Ari Folman’s and David Polonsky’s animated film Waltz with Bashir), cultural memories and racism (e.g. Pat Grant’s Blue) or memories of illness and their inscription on the body (e.g. David Small’s Stitches). Interestingly, though Nabizadeh mentions »women« as a group that often continues to be dismissed on the first page of her book, she only deals with one notable work by a female artist that interrogates the ontological and political position of women – Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis. This is somewhat disappointing in a field full of original and important female voices, and though other influential artists like Alison Bechdel, Aline Kominsky-Crumb or Miriam Katin are mentioned in passing, there is no in-depth treatment of their work.

While works like that of Satrapi have been much discussed, Nabizadeh, who teaches at the University of Dundee and received her PhD in English and Cultural Studies from The University of Western Australia, also focuses on some lesser known comics. The last chapter that deals with digital graphic narratives is particularly enlightening: at the center of the discussion lie two comics reflecting on the experiences of refugees and asylum seekers in Australia. Both A Guard’s Story (Wallman et al.) and Villawood (Safdar Ahmed) explore space, memory, and the haptic representation of bodies in situations of great distress and insecurity. A Guard’s Story also makes use of its digital platform in a way that generates meaning by neglecting the traditional structure of frames or panels and emphasizing the large white space around the drawings, a luxury afforded by computer screens. Semantically, this empty space represents the »precarious and uncertain status of the detainees – as psychic, embodied and legal subjects – over substantial, if not indefinite periods of time« (172). The de-framing also engages readers and renders visible the story’s destabilizing impulse; it tears down the comfortable distance between the narrative and the person consuming it.

The division into thematic chapters with concise close readings makes Representation and Memory in Graphic Novels particularly suited for scholars who teach comics, be it at university or at school. Nabizadeh includes bibliographies after every chapter with recommended further reading on the subjects at stake and draws a myriad of parallels to visual history, to famous paintings and films. At times, one wishes for more visual material to go along with the text – for example, the assertion that the arrangement of space in David B[eauchard]’s Epileptic is shaped by the medieval Biblia pauperum (117-118), while thought-provoking, remains somewhat abstract without illustrations or figures.

Nabizadeh makes use of a wide range of methodological and theoretical approaches, ranging from memory studies with its distinctions between explicit and implicit, semantic, episodic and unconscious memories to Marianne Hirsch’s famous concept of ›postmemory‹. Hirsch coined the term in relation to Maus and it refers to traumatic memories the children of survivors deal with, secondary memories that can become so vibrant as to intrude on the next generation’s life. Nabizadeh’s openness to different methodologies allows for new and interesting takes even on graphic texts that have been interpreted a lot. However, at times Nabizadeh seems to mostly namedrop concepts such as Kristeva’s ›lacunae‹ or Deleuze’s and Guattari’s ›rhizome‹ (both on p. 47) in passing without really showing where her analysis benefits from such theoretical weight (an impression not helped by the fact that Kristeva’s name is misspelled in the passage in question). Another point of critique would be that Nabizadeh extensively relies on statements by the artists or authors to underline or ›prove‹ her interpretations, often without appraising them critically. When David B. links his brother’s epilepsy to the Shoah, both in interviews and in the visual and verbal languages of the comic Epileptic (122), one for example wishes that Nabizadeh wouldn’t just take such parallelism at face value and instead ask whether such an »entanglement of personal and collective histories« (123) also has certain troubling implications. One might ask whether David B.’s appropriation of this traumatic past is somewhat tactless, given that his family has »no connection with Judaism«, as he stated in an interview with Gilles Ciment and Thierry Groensteen. Such criticism notwithstanding: Representation and Memory in Graphic Novels is an inspiring and varied volume that will be of use for many scholars and above all teachers to come.

Representation and Memory in Graphic Novels
Golnar Nabizadeh
Abingdon and New York: Routledge, 2019
208 S., 71,14 Euro
ISBN 9780367670795