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Posts from the ‘Graphic Novels’ Category

Prosopagnosia & Other Predicaments in “Happenstance,” the Graphic Novel Done in Photographs

Meet Rebecca & Paul and Alex & Chris, two youngish couples who live in Ithaca, New York. Paul and his significant other, Rebecca, are Jews, except that Paul is secretly exploring the idea of converting to Christianity. He and his new acquaintance, Chris, who is struggling with her evangelical Christianity and with religion in general, go for long walks and talk about God, the universe, faith, and other weighty matters. Chris and her girlfriend, Alex, are a lesbian couple, a relationship that is troubled by the fact that Chris won’t come out to her parents. It’s Paul, a would-be novelist who works in a bookstore, who has prosopagnosia, which means he has face blindness and usually cannot recognize faces—even, on embarrassing occasions, Rebecca’s face. He can only recognize people by what they say or something they are wearing or that they carry, like a purse.

Welcome to Happenstance (Ithaca: Snark and Boojum Press, 2019), Stephen Saperstein Frug’s photographic novel. Printed with the help of a Kickstarter project and the result of a decade of work, Happenstance can be read as an internet comic, although I highly recommend and prefer the print version (available at Amazon or through the publisher). Happenstance is that rare thing, a graphic novel made using photographs instead of drawings. Frug used a variety of techniques to create exceptional literary nuance: innovative speech ballooning, embedded Google maps, single-image spreads broken into multiple frames, stripped-down b&w images to suggest interior thoughts or past tense, and multiple ways of toying with his photographic images.

At 450 pages in length, Happenstance takes as long to read as a regular novel. It’s also as rich as a textual novel because the photographs provide such a wealth of information about each character—information that can more easily change from one frame to the next than from one sentence to the next. At the same time, that very specificity can become a limiting factor. I will forever see Rebecca & Paul and Alex & Chris as Frug wanted me to envision them—with specific faces, specific gestures, and specific clothing—which is not how I would have imagined my own Rebecca & Paul and Alex & Chris had I been reading a text-only novel. I’m not saying that one way is better than the other; but these are two very different ways in which I think readers construct characters in their minds. Happenstance is a very visual novel.

There have been only a handful of graphic novels using photography that I am aware of, and I have included them in my ongoing bibliography of novels and poetry with embedded photographs. To make it easier to find them, I have given them their own listing called Photo-Embedded Graphic Novels, which can be found under the pull-down menu Photo-Embedded Literature, at the very top of this blog. Go check them out!

Text and Image in Autobiography

I’m continuing my traversal of the essays in the new book of The Future of Text and Image, edited by Ofra Amihay and Lauren Walsh (Cambridge Scholars Publishing) with the three essays in the section called Text and Image in Autobiography.  (My overview of the anthology can be read here.)

Molly Pulda’s “Portrait of a Secret: J.R. Ackerley and Alison Bechdel” deals with J.R. Ackerley’s photographically-illustrated autobiography My Father and Myself (1968) and Alison Bechdel’s well-received graphic memoir Fun Home (2006).  In both books, the authors discovered posthumously that their fathers had led secret lives as homosexuals.  And in both books, photographs cause some of the epiphanies that each author stumbles upon.

Bechdel and Ackerley seek in their fathers’ portraits an essence of heredity, proof that something lives on in paternal absence.  Their process of mourning calls for an image, a visual representation of the father’s mortal secrets.  What is revealed in their photographic quest may not be a visual secret, but simply the process itself, the negation of familial revelation that is extended to the reader….The open wound of loss is manifest in Ackerley and Bechdel’s family secrets.  Rendering the father’s “erotic truth,” distilled through the author’s hand and eye, may not restore the father, but it can bond the author and reader in a sticky solution of secrets withheld and revealed.

Tanya K. Rodrigue’s “PostSecret as ImageText: The Reclamation of Traumatic Experiences and Identity” deals with the huge online confessional world of PostSecret, which seems to be spawning an academic mini-industry devoted to the endless stream of posted “confessions.”  PostSecret, of course, is unmoderated, and hence it is essentially impossible to verify the truth of any post.  Rodrigue is not concerned by the inability to know true confessions from fictional ones, nor is she concerned about selecting a single image out of a relentless stream of images as the basis for extended analysis.  She uses the image (below), upon which some text is written, to address the discourses of trauma, language, and identity surrounding the subject of rape.  I’ll just say that I was not convinced and I’ll let it go at that.

The essay by Dale Jacobs and Jay Dolmage, “Difficult Articulations: Comics Autobiography, Trauma, and Disability,” focuses on David Small’s autobiographical graphic book Stitches, a memoir of his disease and eventual disability.  Their essay revolves around the history of images of disability and deformity and how such images – especially those in Stitches – can be understood using the discipline of Disability Studies.

My other two posts dealing with essays from the book are here and here.