I am just returning to an essay I had to place on the back burner last year about Guibert and Lefèvre’s acclaimed photo-comic collaboration, The Photographer. The essay questions the ethics of war-time photography, especially when done in an ethnographic mode, and then reflects on a suggestion Marjane Satrapi made about the humanist potential of the comics medium being tied to its iconicity. As I’ve been thinking about the use of photography in conjunction with drawn comics, I’ve also wondered what might be said about less systematic uses of photographs within drawn comic strips. I’m especially curious to hear what readers of PPP think of those cases where a single photo irrupts into the visual regime of the drawn strip in order to create some kind of interruptive or shock effect. Photocomics and the like warrant a separate discussion, I suspect. (Craig Fischer has a good essay in The Comics Journal that deals with the question of photocomics). There is also the question of whether drawn photographs in comics should be separate from that of actual photographs in comics. In both cases, the presence of a realistic visual regime interrupts the painterly or iconic visual regime of the drawn panels. PPP’s own Roy Cook contends with this phenomenon in The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism where he suggests that making a distinction between intra-panel content and extra-panel content might allow for some aesthetic consistency where fictional comics are concerned. As Roy points out, autobiographical, documentary, and other non-fiction comics allow more easily for the kind of multi-modality we see in The Photographer and Allison Bechdel’s Fun Home; in a word, they index the same reality.


When autobiographical comics artists use photographs in drawn comics it is often when memory is problematized in some way. The photograph would seem to have some kind of evidentiary power to ground the remembered event in reality but it more often ends up bringing attention to the constructedness of memory. Photographs are strange memory objects because, unlike most comics panels, they are silent and unnarrated but also rich enough in information to hypnotize the comics reader into an obsessive visual mining process. In Bechdel’s Fun Home the photo turns into an infinite archive of her father’s aesthetic and social sensibilities, simultaneously revealing and hiding his homosexuality. In Fabrice Neaud’s autobiographical Journal the photograph he takes of his unattainable love object, Dominique, shows the latter in a frozen moment that makes him available as an object in a way that the “real” Dominique will never abide. The photograph thus becomes a way for the reader to experience Dominique both as “his own person” and through the distorted lens of Neaud’s desire. In both cases, the photograph participates in the infinite in a way that Cortázar captured well in his eerie short story, Blow Up (and to a lesser extent, Antonioni’s adaptation of it).

What other examples are there of autobiographical comics artists using photos within their drawn comics? What difference is there between a drawn photo and a scanned photo in such instances? What effect does this have on the reader’s experience?


About Michael A. Johnson

Michael A. Johnson is an Assistant Professor of French at Central Washington University where he teaches courses on French language and culture and Franco-Belgian comics. His research centers largely on questions of gender and sexuality, rhetoric, pedagogy, and psychoanalysis. With one published article on Fabrice Neaud's Journal ("Placing/Facing Fabrice Neaud") and another essay in the works on Lefèvre's and Guibert's The Photographer ("How Not to Orientalize the Afghan") his focus in comics so far has been on questions of autobiography, the ethics of alterity, and the face. He also keeps a food blog (http://letthespiceflow.blogspot.com) and is interested in the growing phenomenon of comics cook books and comics food blogs in the francophone world. His recently finished manuscript, The Medieval Erotics of Grammar, is currently under review.

3 responses »

  1. This is a very interesting question, Michael, and one I’ve thought about in relation to John Porcellino’s work. He includes drawings of photographs in his coming-of-age graphic novel Perfect Example. He also includes two “author photos” at the back of the book–both of which are also drawings (it’s a great book, by the way, especially if you are also a fan of mid-1980s underground rock and American post-punk).

    I talked a little bit about my thoughts on his use of these drawings of photos in my essay on Porcellino and Carrie McNinch in the International Journal of Comic Art 13.1 (Spring 2011). I wish I’d had more space in that essay to explore some of these issues. I found his use of drawings of family photographs to be expressions of some form of disassociation–especially as first described in Henri Frederic Amiel’s Journal Intime–on the part of the narrator. Perfect Example begins with an image of the main character having an out-of-body experience over Lake Michigan.

    Marianne Hirsch’s readings of the “real” photos in Maus, both in her book Family Frames and in The Generation of Postmemory, are also very compelling. Thanks for raising these questions!

  2. roytcook says:

    This is really interesting stuff! Thanks for referencing my paper here – but I agree with you that there is much more to be said – especially in the realm of autobiographical comics (my focus in the paper you mention, of course, is the more realistically rendered drawings of photographs in fictional, mainstream comics, where there is no independent ‘reality’ to which they might be judged accurate). Thanks!

  3. […] Maus in her influential 1997 study Family Frames. More recently, Michael A. Johnson at Pencil, Panel, Page asked the question, “Why do artists use photographs in drawn comics?” Hirsch offers a few […]

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