In two separate posts on Pencil Panel Page, Qiana Whitted and Aaron Meskin have explored the way comics readers engage with images. (Click here to read Qiana’s post and click here to read Aaron’s.) Specifically, they engage Scott McCloud’s claim that readers identify with drawn images of human beings. To quote McCloud, “when you look at a photo or realistic drawing of a face–you see it as the face of another. But when you enter the world of the cartoon–you see yourself” (36).

My question in this post has not to do with images but rather with narrative. When we read comics, to what degree to we see ourselves in the narratives we’re reading? Or perhaps more accurately, to what degree do we see our lives represented therein? Do we identify more with those stories that are less realistic than we do with those stories that are more realistic? Although I don’t think that the terms quotidian and realistic are equivalents necessarily, I do think they provide a rich starting point for a discussion.

Charles Hatfield explores this notion of representations of the everyday in his chapter called “The Problem of Authenticity in Autobiographical Comics.” In his analysis of Harvey Pekar’s American Splendor, Hatfield writes that “Pekar’s achievement is to have established a new mode in comics: the quotidian autobiographical series, focused on the events and textures of everyday existence” (109).

And we find representations of the everyday in vast numbers of comics. In her graphic novel Exit Wounds, Rutu Modan creates a snapshot of the intertwining of two characters’ lives. One central character is Koby, a man who drives a cab in Tel-Aviv for a living. The other central character is Numi, a female soldier in the Israeli army. Koby and Numi spend time together in the story trying to figure out how their lives are connected. [No spoilers here!]

Numi and Korby meet in the park

What interests me about this story is the way that Rutu Modan creates a narrative of every day life—of eating, of sleeping, of swimming, of arguing, of having sex—but infuses in that narrative an incredibly matter-of-fact treatment of bombings. It is notable how the characters in the story move in and out of their conversations with each other, not focusing on how horrible the bombings are but using the bombings as backdrop, as bedrock for conversations revolving around other issues.

Only in occasional moments are bombings the focus of the dialogue; instead, they are much more frequently catalysts which spur narrative action and character development. There is even confusion about which bombings Korby and Numi ask about. Was it the bombing in Hadera? Or did they mean the one in Haifa?

Numi and Korby experience an obstacle in their quest

Are readers more able to identify with narratives that are grounded in the everyday lived experiences of all humans? Are we instead more able to identify with less quotidian, more rarified, perhaps exotic narratives containing mystery, danger, eroticism, and intrigue?

About Frank Bramlett

Until June 2014, I am a visiting lecturer in the English Department at Stockholm University, where I offer seminars in Sociolinguistics; Language and Gender; and Language and Comics; among others. For Fall 2014, I will return to the English Department at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.

5 responses »

  1. roytcook says:

    There is a distinct difference between Exit Wounds and American Splendor. Exit Wounds uses the quotidian as a very powerful contrast to the rather non-everyday events that punctuate the story – bombings, for example. Thus, the point of the quotidian in Exit Wounds is not the quotidian itself, but rather its use as a narrative tool to highlight extreme aspects of other facets of the narrative.

    In Pekar et alia’s work, however, it seems like the whole point is to focus on the quotidian. This is a rather different goal, and as a result (to me at least) the comic functions very differently.

    As to your question about whether the quotidian aspects of the story help us to identify with the characters: First, I am rather uneasy about using the word ‘identify’ here (for reasons hashed out in the comments section of Aaron’s post already), but that is fine, since the question could easily be reworded with ‘engagement’ or something similar without losing the main thrust of the query itself. That being said, I think that the quotidian aspects of Exit Wounds do help to engage us, by connecting the other aspects of the story to everyday events to which we can relate. American Splendor, on the other hand, functions differently – in fact, I personally do not find Pekar’s work very engaging, because his everyday slice-of-life stories strike me as, well, boring.

    This brings up two side notes: First, I think that in discussions of these and related issues, the notion of authenticity (closely connected to the quotidian nature of some autobiographical works) is held up as a virtue in-and-of-itself. But I don’t find this thought all that compelling. Rather, I think authenticity is a virtue only if the story also has other substantial virtues. There is nothing good about an authentic story that bores – a good comic (or good narrative of any sort, for that matter) needs more than mere authenticity.

    Second, it strikes me that in my own experience of comics, it is as often as not something other than identification that causes me to engage deeply with the narrative. For example, part of the reason I get so much out of the works of Allison Bechdel and Howard Cruse is that I don’t identify with them, in the straightforward sense of the term. Rather, they are describing their own experiences – experiences very different from my own – and the value (and the engagement) comes not from identification, but rather from comparisons and contrasts between their experiences and my own (of course, the examples that do and don’t work as examples of this sort will obviously vary from reader to reader!)

  2. Yes, Roy! You’ve hit on my own questions about this issue. Identifying/engaging with a comic for me doesn’t really revolve around seeing myself in it or my own life experiences in it. I have no insider knowledge whatsoever about funeral homes, so Bechdel’s “Fun Home” is much more an outsider-looking-in event for me. Similarly, I was born after the time period described in Cruse’s “Stuck Rubber Baby,” and I didn’t witness the racial conflicts first-hand. In some sense, then, Cruse is representing a snapshot of history, and that’s one of the ways I read it. (Though I also read it in other ways: as something hopeful for gay men, as something hopeful for race relations, as something hopeful for the U.S. South.)

    You raise a good point about the distinction between Exit Wounds and American Splendor, and it’s one that I considered very carefully before I wrote this post. I think, though, that Exit Wounds is about the quotidian much more than your post suggests. In some time periods in Israel (and other places in the world), bombings have been rather more frequent and, thus, much more likely to be woven into an “ordinary” or “everyday” narrative. I’m not prepared to make an extended argument for this claim. And I’m not saying that the quotidian in American Splendor is the same as that in Exit Wounds. But those two works explore different cultures, different lived experiences, thus the quotidian must necessarily be different in them.

    • roytcook says:

      Frank,

      Nice point about the role of the quotidian in Exit Wounds and in American Splendor. It’s definitely important to realize that what counts as ‘everyday’ is very much a function of the culture and experiences of the one making the judgement, and Exit Wounds plays with this (I think intentionally) in a very nice way.

      This does emphasize another way of playing with differences between Exit Wounds and American Splendor, since in some ‘meta’ sense Exit Wounds can be read as being, at least indirectly, about what does and does not count as quotidian, while American Splendor doesn’t do this (at least, not on my reading) but rather focuses on the everyday from a particular (and particularly middle class mid-western American) perspective – one that is at least implicitly assumed will be shared by the reader (hence the ironic title).

      I definitely agree that these differences should be over-estimated, though, and that different approaches to the quotidian don’t preclude useful comparisons between them.

  3. […] my previous post on the textures of the everyday, I explored the blend of everyday occurrences during wartime. How do […]

  4. […] on comics and the quotidian explored the way characters manage their everyday lives vis-à-vis the danger of bombings in one instance and in interactions with robots in the other. But how do we read this comic…this […]

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