Andrew J. Kunka

Autobiographical Comics

Kunka, Andrew J. Autobiographical Comics. London & New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2018. 290 pp. ISBN: 978-1-4742-2785-8 (hardback). £65 (UK); 978-1-4742-2784-1 (paperback). £20.68 (UK). ��

Reviewed by Golnar Nabizadeh, Universty of Dundee (October 2018)


Comics scholarship continues to expand and grow in dynamic ways, with joyfully sprawling analyses mirroring the myriad permutations of their creative counterparts. The subset of autobiographical comics in particular has received extensive attention from scholars such as Elisabeth El Refaie (Autobiographical Comics: Life Writing in Pictures, 2013), Hillary Chute (Graphic Women: Life Narrative and Contemporary Comics, 2010), and Michael Chaney (Reading Lessons in Seeing: Mirrors, Masks and Mazes in the Autobiographical Graphic Novel, 2017 and the edited collection Graphic Subjects, 2011), among many others. Each of these works has made substantial contributions to the understanding and critique of autobiographical comics, but there has not, until now, been a survey-style volume of the subject. Andrew J. Kunka’s Autobiographical Comics (2018) does just that, allowing the reader to comprehensively grasp the topic and its history.

The book is the second title in the Bloomsbury Comics Studies series – the first being Superhero Comics (2017) by Chris Gavaler – and makes a valuable contribution to the study of comics. The series editor, Derek Parker Royal, explains that amidst increasingly specialised scholarly discourse on comics and graphic novels, the Bloomsbury Comics Studies series, “reflects the need for more programmatic classroom textbooks devoted to the medium, studies that are not only accessible to general readers, but whose depth of knowledge will resonate with specialists in the field”, and as such is aimed at providing comprehensive introductions to a “specific theme, genre, author, or key text” (vii). Autobiographical Comics achieves these aims and in a lucid, thoughtful and engaging manner. The book is organised in five parts, which takes readers through an introduction to autobiographical comics, their history, critical questions, social and cultural impact, before the final section on key texts. This arrangement means that readers are provided with an overview of relevant historical, literary, and thematic contexts, before engaging with in-depth analysis of significant autobiographical comics. Kunka then provides four appendices – an excerpt from a panel conversation between Aline Kominsky-Crumb, Phoebe Gloeckner, Justin Green, and Carol Tyler; an interview with Jennifer Hayden; and two drawn excerpts by David Chelsea (from ‘Everybody Gets It Wrong!’, 2008) and from Autobiographical Conversations by Ryan Claytor (2013). These appendices are useful resources and respond to many of the themes the book explores. Kunka makes these connections clear by introducing each of the appendices, which offers a useful scaffold along which to extend the debates discussed earlier in the book.

The chapters offer useful entry points with regard to both critical and creative modes of engaging with a range of comics. In chapter 3, entitled ‘Critical Questions’, Kunka offers deft overviews of particular themes, tropes and strategies deployed in autobiographical comics, such as the use of mise-en-abyme, photography, and the autobiographical pact. For example, the discussion of paratexts with regard to establishing the autobiographical pact highlights the multiple angles from which readers derive meaning within a text. He engages closely with contemporary scholarship in the field, introducing the reader to what have become well-known terms, and concepts, such as Scott McCloud’s notion of an ‘infinite canvas’, understood as the potential for web comics to exploit the medium without the limitations of print. Kunka discusses the infinite canvas in relation to Stuart Campbell’s web comic, These Memories Won’t Last (2015), which embeds Campbell’s grandfather’s experience of dementia into the fabric of the text in a manner perfectly suited to the digital domain. As Kunka observes,

[r]eaders experiencing this comic for the first time will learn that the loading screen is essentially teaching us how to read the work: the images and text will be ephemeral, and readers will not be able to hang onto the page/screen in any kind of stable way. (142)

It is these kinds of insights that will provide scholars of Comics Studies—newcomers and experienced practitioners alike—a broad array of questions, approaches, and disruptions through which they can continue to unlock the power, and promise, of autobiographical comics. Moreover, Kunka’s sophisticated and nuanced discussion means that the reader can acquire a diachronic as well as synchronic overview of the diverse responses to comics from critics, scholars, and artists. This extends to both theoretical considerations, but also the practical dimensions of self-publishing and censorship, among others. While one might wish the book could potentially cover more texts and contexts, it more than delivers its remit. Kunka’s footnotes progress the discussion, supplemented with suggestions for further reading of both critical and creative sources. A brief glossary precedes a selected list of primary sources and critical bibliography and the bibliography under the section ‘Resources’ provides an incisive catalogue. Autobiographical Comics achieves all that it aims to do through Kunka’s rigorous and lively discussion, and offers an ideal survey of the field.

© Symbiosis, 2018

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