The webcomics blog about webcomics

The (Autobio?) Borg Of Art

I recently attended a comics-folks meet-up sort of thing (it’s more organized than I’m making it sound) in which two things fell into place. First, one attendee gave a tiebreaker vote to Planet Karen by Karen Ellis for this week’s column (thank you, by the way). Second, someone else asked if I had a theme for this column, and I do even though I haven’t quite articulated it. My academic work is largely to do with gender, comics, and popular culture, so I’m interested in webcomics that do interesting, smart things with gender. The original plan was for the column (updating Thursdays) to alternate between longer, critical pieces one week and shorter reviews the next, and they’re going to be in the first person. As I’ve continued, however, those boundaries have become less easy to delineate (today’s was supposed to have been a shorter piece, for example).

Planet Karen is an ideal example, actually, in this case. It’s a diary webcomic in which the gothy title character details her day-to-day life in England with a ten-day lag with subjects as varied as publishing her webcomic diary, making merch, discovering she has diabetes (during the holidays, even), fearing she crashed a website, paying the rent in cash because she’s lost her checkbook, and so forth. It’s upfront and earnest and self-reflexive, even for autobio work. It’s pretty captivating and led to a number of interesting questions (most of which I’m still thinking about).

Part of my desire in reading it was also to consider autobio work’s appeal a little more critically. I have a decided preference for autobio work (and admittedly, I’m not objective as I do a print-only autobio comic), and part of what’s so interesting to me about autobio work is that it seems to break down some of the distance between creator and reader. Now, with webcomics, this distance already seems a little blurry because of both the immediacy and the anonymity of the internet.

But do autobio works imply a level of trust? As readers, do we take it on faith that the autobio is “true� or is that less of a concern? I’m thinking of book scandals where authors weren’t who they said they were, or confessed to making it all up but selling it as “authentic� autobio, and readers got really angry. They felt betrayed, in a sense. I’m not sure I want to get into a discussion of authenticity, but I’m interested in what happens with a reader when there’s a character who is, either implicitly or explicitly, based on the artist creating the work or on another real-life person? How does “fake autobio� (I’m thinking of OverCompensating here and stealing the term from Scott McCloud) complicate this concept, if at all? Are we as readers less inclined to be critical of things that are pitched as actual events in someone’s life? (I’d say yes). And how does this all dovetail with our understandings of binary gender?

Well, for starters, there must be male-identified webcomics artists who produce autobio work that I just don’t know about yet. James Kolchalka is the only one who comes immediately to mind (and, again, I’m more familiar with his print works). There are certainly a number in print comics; Jeffrey Brown, Craig Thompson, and Joe Matt. There’s R. Crumb, of course, Chester Brown, and Seth to some extent as well. There’s anthology work like True Porn (1 and 2) and Not My Small Diary, and there must be many more in minicomics.

But so many more female comics artists leap immediately to mind when I think about print autobio work in comics—folks like Dori Seda, Julie Doucet, Nina Paley, Aline Kominsky Crumb, Roberta Gregory, Ellen Forney, Mary Fleener—the list goes on, believe me. This disparity makes me wonder: like comics, webcomics seem still to be a largely male-dominated field, though perhaps not so much when it comes to autobio work. I’ve got to read more, of course, but I’m guessing there are a fair amount more of autobio or semi-autobio webcomics by women than there are by men. I’m wondering why. While I think webcomics are much closer in terms of equality than print comics since the gender ratio isn’t quite as skewed and the publishing opportunities are much more vast, I’m interested to see what autobio works by male-identified folks are out there. Any thoughts?

At the aforementioned comics meeting, I was given a print copy (thank you) of the very funny Girlycon 2006. It’s a fairly savvy discussion on gender in webcomics from the Minimalist Stick Figure Theater, and I was grateful to have been introduced to it, since I don’t think that I’d have found it on my own. The book includes a few especially interesting points spoken by characters from MSFT; two male characters are tabling at Girlycon in an attempt to attract the “niche segmentâ€? of female readers to their webcomic, and a third, playing the part of a female reader, visits their table and starts asking questions. She states that female characters in webcomics tend to be “generally stronger characters than their print comic counterpartsâ€? (viii:1) and “webcomic women are usually sharper, smarter, and more rational than the men of the comicâ€? (viii:2). I’m still thinking about these points, which are interesting even though I don’t feel like I’ve read enough webcomics to be able to really agree with those statements yet. Give me a little time.

However, one of the things that this same character says really stuck with me: “readers want something that they can relate to. They want escape, but in a way that comfortably hyperbolizes the issues they’re familiar withâ€? (ix:3). While I don’t think that’s exclusive to autobio work, I think there’s something about autobio work that’s particularly immediate in this exact sense and weirdly fascinating; you’re reading about someone else’s life, and you relate to it, and it doesn’t feel quite as far away from your own life as something else, more fictionalized, might. It fosters a connection that somehow feels less fictionalized, and I find that most captivating of all. Planet Karen does exactly this, and especially well.

And, speaking of relating to a work, boy can ever I relate to this lately. See y’all next Thursday (unless anyone wants to go offline and a little old-school print-style for a few hours at the Boston Zine Fair…).

We miss you Anne!

Awww! I miss y’all too–working at home is great, but there are no fun webcomics folks to run into here!

Since you expressed interest in seeing autobiographical comics by males, I will say that I write One-liners, which I consider autobiographical, but not strictly so.

It’s not a complete account of my life or anything. I only share funny stories from my life, or those I have heard from friends and acquaintences. Everything else is too boring or personal to share.

It’s not 100% true, either, but it’s close. The characters in the comic bear no resemblance to their real life counterparts, this was a deliberate decision on my part in case anyone ever changed their mind about being in my comic. Also, the places all the stories take place in rarely resemble where they actually took place, this is because I cannot be bothered to spend my life looking for reference photos.

And of course, my memory is not perfect. I have a good memory of events, but not everything that was said. So sometimes it’s necessary to make up dialogue to establish context.

Lastly, a few strips are entirely fictional.

So, to get to the point, what I am saying is that I try to keep the comic as true as possible, but some deviations from the truth are necessary. And sometimes, I choose to deviate from it for the sake of humour.

Lee Munday’s “The Lumbering Dead” is an excellent example of a comic written and drawn by a male creator and which – while obviously fictionalised – is clearly based very heavily on real life experiences. Painfully funny and yet, by avoiding the “daily punchline” format, it gives a far more accurate representation of “life as it is lived” than perhaps any other slice-of-life/diary-style comic, including – dare I say it – most of those by female creators.

It’s online at my website but, before I’m accused of simply self-promoting here, I promise I have absolutely nothing to do with its creation. (I just happen to love it!)

If I’ve whetted your appetite at all, you can find it at:

Also, while we’re talking about autobiographical webcomics, I think it would be cool to see a collective featuring them.

Shameless, shameless self-plug:

“CulturePulp” (which I’m currently re-posting 5 days/week in Webcomics Nation from my original blog archives) is more of a pop-jounalism comic — but the cartoonist (i.e., me) is very much a character in the thing.

[…] Being able to reach not just a given number of eyeballs, but the right eyeballs, is what gives some of these sites what you might call premium pricing. If I want to pitch a new webcomic about women, for women, I’d be far better off using a PW button ad on Planet Karen than Penny Arcade, even if the prices were the same and I could get exponentially more impressions at PA. […]

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