Visualizing Memory in the Graphic Novel

Maya Hajdu

Text and image have been intertwined since time immemorial to create illustrated literature. John Bell, a leading scholar in the history of Canadian comic books, defines them as a medium that “combines words and pictures (usually in sequential strips of panels) to create a unique form of storytelling – graphic narrative.”1 In Canada, there was a demand for censorship in the late 1980’s in response to the increasingly adult content of comic books. The mature themes that were portrayed in many of these works were deemed to be offensive by a public who had traditionally regarded comics as a medium intended for children. For many graphic novelists, discarding the superhero genre was necessary in order to appeal to a more adult, intelligent audience. The move away from the superhero genre to a more mature narrative has prompted the development of a new kind of comic book: the historical graphic novel. Two important works in this genre are Chester Brown’s Louis Riel: A Comic-Strip Biography(1999-2003) and Bernice Eisenstein’s I Was a Child of Holocaust Survivors (2006). Brown and Eisenstein provide distinct perspectives of historical narratives that deal primarily with the fluidity of memory and the ways in which this can be translated into imagery and text. By exploring the narrative and conceptual limits of the graphic novel, these artists have re-defined previous views of popular culture.

In Brown’s now-famous graphic novel Louis Riel: A Comic-Strip Biography (2006), the artist recounts the story of Louis Riel’s Red River Rebellion, his exile and incarceration in a mental asylum, and his subsequent trial and execution for his role in the North-West Rebellion. Chester Brown conforms to comic book conventions in certain respects, but he also moves away from this format through the seriousness with which he broaches his topic. It was after having read Maggie Siggins’ biography on Louis Riel, Louis Riel: A Life of Revolution (HarperCollins Canada, 1994), that Brown decided to create a graphic novel inspired by his life: “I read the book and thought, ‘That’s a good dramatic story—it’d make a good strip.’”2The artist favored a simple six-panel arrangement throughout the book in which he used text sparingly in an effort to have many panels that were entirely reliant on imagery. His aesthetic was influenced by Harold Gray’s Little Orphan Annie comic strips: “Brown [emulated] Gray’s deceptively simple drawing style, including his tendency to portray huge bodies and small heads.”3The crispness of the artist’s drawings as well as the lack of tonal gradations lend a dramatic air to the narrative that is often reinforced in pivotal scenes, such as Riel’s trial and execution. Brown insisted on printing his comic book on yellow newsprint in a smaller format than a regular comic book, giving the work a feeling of warmth and intimacy. Due to its smaller size and the seriousness of its topic, Louis Riel resembles a book more than a mainstream comic.

Thematically, Brown was highly interested in the controversies surrounding the historical figure of Louis Riel: was he the religious leader he claimed to be, or a dangerous madman? Riel’s anarchistic tendencies, as evinced by his leading a rebellion against the MacDonald government, are expressed throughout Louis Riel. During Riel’s trial sequence towards the end of the book, Brown establishes a heavy, dramatic setting by abandoning value gradations and opting for small white figures set against large inky black backgrounds, thereby isolating the characters (fig. 1). In one panel, Riel tells the jury that he has not committed treason and that it is, in fact, the Canadian government that is guilty of betraying the Métis people. This scene is followed by a series of panels that are entirely silent and black, in which Riel awaits his verdict and is then sentenced to hang by the neck until death. In response to Quebecers’ pleas for mercy on behalf of Riel, Prime Minister MacDonald famously ripostes: “He shall hang though every dog in Quebec bark in his favour.”4

On this note, Brown notably caricatures Sir John A. MacDonald in an especially obvious manner: he has an extremely large nose. The distortion of the Prime Minister’s facial features demonstrates Brown’s political leanings in the matter and this reliance on caricature is indeed a useful way to critique MacDonald’s policies: “Caricature, then, is a more ideologically-charged version of the cartoon, a sort of political ‘amplification through simplification’ that accentuates certain physical features of political leaders as a way of speaking back to their power.”5 Political satire has many historical antecedents, but was a tool especially useful to 19th century French realists like Honoré Daumier. In an earlier scene, we see Sir John A. MacDonald sitting alone in a hotel room with what are presumably beer bottles strewn all over the floor (fig. 2). Macdonald laments: “… as if I don’t have enough problems… Like, what am I going to do about the half-breeds?”6 In these moments, Brown’s disapproval of MacDonald becomes apparent. The Prime Minister is portrayed as a man of ambition who wishes to ensure that his legacy remains intact, regardless of who opposes him. As he guzzles down his alcoholic beverages, a large onomatopoeic “Glp, glp, glp” hovers above his head.

Like Brown, Eisenstein also utilizes the graphic novel medium to approach serious subject matter. Aside from her incorporation of speech balloons and zip lines (the squiggles along a limb that indicate movement), her work does not conform to many established comic book conventions. Eisenstein’s graphic novel, I was a Child of Holocaust Survivors (2006), broaches the topic of growing up in the face of a traumatic past. Utilizing a medium that is often (although erroneously) associated with children to represent a traumatic event, such as the Holocaust, can be problematic: “The enormity of the atrocity is such that the very act of representing it risked trivializing or over-dramatizing it.”7 The artist’s novel begins with a childhood memory of her father’s burial and the manner in which her family coped with his passing away. Eisenstein’s visual aesthetic deliberately refers to early 20th century painters. In one image, she depicts her and her siblings dancing in a circle that is reminiscent of Matisse’s The Dance (1909). In another picture, Eisenstein portrays her aunt singing atop the roof of a theatre with a fiddler. This drawing has many parallels to Marc Chagall’s paintings of Jewish Russian villages, especially the ones depicting folk rituals. Unlike Brown, Eisenstein includes colors and ink washes throughout most of her drawings, and draws in an intentionally naïve style that works well considering she is writing about her childhood. She also relies heavily on text to propel her narrative, moving back and forth between a traditional graphic novel aesthetic and more of an illustrated book format. Images tend to echo text; at other times, the images themselves propel the reader into other regions of thought by adding layers of complexity to an already complex theme.

With respect to subject matter, Eisenstein, like Brown, reflects on mature historical subject matter. In her work, the artist attempts to express the ghostly qualities of the Holocaust in pictures and in words. With regards to the narrative Eisenstein has chosen to depict in this particular format, we must not neglect to mention a previous graphic novel that has had far-reaching effects and that also discusses the Holocaust. Art Spiegelman’s Maus: A Survivor’s Tale(1986-1991) looks at the artist’s parents’ memories of surviving Auschwitz and subsequently immigrating to the United States. Like Eisenstein, Spiegelman is the offspring of Holocaust survivors and is attempting to come to terms with experiences that he has not lived through, but that still affect him in the present. In one of Eisenstein’s drawings, five famous writers and philosophers sit around a table. Each character has a speech bubble, and the character of Primo Levi (also someone who was interned in concentration camps during WWII) announces: “I fear that my language has become inadequate, that you need to speak a different language today.”8 Like Spiegelman, Eisenstein presents her vision of the legacy of the Holocaust in a new and creative way – through images and words simultaneously. Thematically, the parallels that can be drawn between the two artists are undeniable. However, these graphic novels differ in significant ways as well. Importantly, every figure Eisenstein paints displays unique character traits and eccentricities: “[…] the portraits that Eisenstein paints are detailed with all the individual quirks and features of specific persons.”9Spiegelman, on the other hand, famously chose to depict his characters as animals, based on their ethnicity and religion. Thus, the Jews are portrayed as mice, the Germans as cats, and the Polish as pigs. Maus’ animal characters act like ciphers that underline and ridicule the notion of defining people according to religion and/or ethnicity. They are symbolic of the stereotypes associated with the ways in which we view the Holocaust. Eisenstein’s characters, unlike Spiegelman’s, are not ciphers; they are individualized representations of friends and relatives.

Aesthetically, there are even more distinctions to be made between Spiegelman, Brown and Eisenstein. The drawings in Maus and inLouis Riel are heavily worked and somber; there is no lightness at all to them. Brown’s work, in contrast to Eisenstein, does not manifest childishness. This naïveté that we have previously spoken of, however, is deceptive; if we delve deeper into Eisenstein’s novel, we see the seriousness with which the artist treats her subject. The apparent innocence of many of the images perhaps reflects the way in which we, as the public, tend to view the comic book medium – as something light and childish. There is another explanation for the naïve style Eisenstein uses: in one series of images, there is a drawing of the artist’s mother, grandmother and aunt sitting side by side. Their short-sleeved shirts reveal the tattooed numbers they were assigned as concentration camp prisoners. Below this image, on the right-hand side, a child-like representation of Eisenstein holding paintbrushes declares in a speech balloon: “When I found this photo recently, I couldn’t believe it. [….] After I finished [drawing], I briefly saw something I’d never seen in them or never recognized – a kind of innocence, a lightness, as if their arms don’t even carry the mark of the past.”10 Through this statement, the artist reveals that ultimately, for her, the traumatic past of the Holocaust does not overwhelm the present. She realizes that even though her family underwent horrors and suffering, this has not taken away their “lightness of being.” Eisenstein wishes to present the reader with her memories and personal experiences, but she does not wish to over-dramatize these events. Instead, she represents the seriousness of the Holocaust with an innocence and humor that reflect the way in which she has come to understand its legacy. Her graphic novel functions therapeutically on some levels; it acts as a release of painful memories.

The question of memory is one that is taken up by both Brown and Eisenstein in their work. Notably, the narratives in Louis Riel and I Was a Child of Holocaust Survivors are created through the interaction of text and imagery. Within the medium of graphic novels, writing and picturing need to be considered together, rather than as two separate media. Writing in itself can be seen as a kind of drawing; essentially, it is composed of lines. Line is thus an ambiguous concept that can be read as both text and image: “The writing in comics cannot typically be read as a continuous linear flow in isolation from the artwork.”11 It is the viewer who creates narrative in the spaces between images and text, in what are essentially called the ‘gutters’ in graphic novels: “Gutters are locations of ‘limbo’ […] in which the ‘human imagination takes two separate images and transforms them into a single idea,’ cognitively connecting the imagetext of one panel with the imagetext of the next.”12 Comics are therefore inherently interactive – viewer participation and engagement transform the work into a coherent whole. Notably, implicating the viewer in this manner creates an emotional and intellectual connection. This is one of the purposes of historical graphic novels like Louis Riel and I was a Child of Holocaust Survivors. It is in the viewer’s imagination that the artists’ memories are reconstructed: “Words and images have functioned […] as potent symbols of presence in the face of absence, and as keys to enable the unlocking of secrets.”13 Visualizing memory re-positions the past within a new, modern context – the graphic novel – and allows it to retain its presence. The use of literal imagery to represent a historical moment gives Brown and Eisenstein’s novels a ‘documentary’ component and an authentic feel: “These methods of memory reconstruction and visualization are fundamental to the documentary graphic novel as a procedure.”14The very act of mark-making within the graphic novel provides a more intimate, personal account of a historical past.

Brown and Eisenstein’s documentary graphic novels illustrate a fresh way of representing historical narratives. Rather than either condemning or embracing Riel, Brown offers alternating perspectives of the historical events: “He manages to portray Riel in all his complexity and yet avoid simple conclusions regarding issues such as the legitimacy of Riel’s sense of mission.”15 Although he portrays Sir John A. Macdonald in a rather negative light, he does not entirely dehumanize him either. Instead, Brown manages to emphasize his ambivalence towards Louis Riel in his Notes at the end of the novel. In this section, the artist provides alternative accounts for much of his earlier depictions of historical events. An example of this would be a panel in which Macdonald learns that Riel’s army has defeated the Mounties at Fort Carlton. The next panel depicts numerous Mounties fleeing the Fort in dog sleds. When one reads Brown’s notes at the end of the book, however, the artist offers information that contradicts our initial impression:  “ ‘If you were to trust my drawings, you’d think that the Mounties fled from Fort Carlton in broad day-light, but that’s not what happened.’ ”16 Through denying his previous depiction of events in more than one instance, Brown implies that history, and Riel’s life in particular, can be looked at in many ways, and that the past itself is a fluid concept. The way in which we claim our past depends very much on the context in which we find ourselves: “There is a pervasive tendency of either claiming Riel or disowning him.”17 In any case, what Brown seems to be intent on avoiding in his work is giving a definitive, or finalized, account of a very controversial figure. Louis Riel was, and still is, an ambiguous figure in Canadian history. Brown manages to maintain this ambiguity. At the same time, he seems to be insisting on the authenticity of his comic book as a historically accurate narrative. As we read the Notes, it becomes clear that a lot of research went into Brown’s conception of Riel, MacDonald and the Métis people and that he wishes to provide the reader with as much precise information as possible.

Another indicator of Brown’s relation to memory and the historical events he portrays can be seen in the way in which he illustrates the characters. Figures are consistently portrayed from a distance. Indeed, we never encounter a close-up of any of them. Brown depicts his characters from a distance because he is not involved with his own personal memories. Unlike Eisenstein’s work, Louis Riel is not based on first-hand experiences, but on historical accounts. As such, Brown maintains a certain distance from the events he portrays and perhaps this is the reason for his ambivalence. In the end, Brown illustrates the controversial nature of Riel’s life as we understand him today: “He can be a traitorous rebel, then he can be a Canadian patriot.”18 The distance between the characters and the reader seems to mirror the distance and perspective of encountering historical events. We can only view them from afar, as outsiders. In our collective memories as Canadians, Louis Riel remains both a traitor and a hero.

Eisenstein’s relation to memory and her expression thereof is different from Brown’s because she acts as a mediator for her parents’ memories as she experienced them growing up.  One of the first images we see in her work is of a young girl, a self-portrait of the artist as a child, sitting atop a hill made up of words in Yiddish (fig. 3). The little girl is depicted in the pose of Rodin’s famous sculpture, The Thinker (1902). In the thought bubble above the girl’s head is inscribed: “I am lost in memory. It is not a place that has been mapped, fixed by coordinates of longitude and latitude, whereby I can retrace a step and come to the same place again. Each time is different.”19 In this assertion, Eisenstein is expressing one of the primary purposes of her book, which is to cope with painful and traumatic memories. The artist connects to this past through language, and her repetitive use of Yiddish words throughout the text is a testament to this fact. Language has historical implications and is rooted in a particular place. Yiddish is invariably associated with Eastern European Jewry. In Eisenstein’s case, Yiddish is a memory of a past that has been destroyed. Through combining text and image, Eisenstein creates a narrative that brings to life memories of the dead.

Eisenstein’s graphic novel also differs from Brown’s in its approach to time. Although the narrative of Louis Riel progresses according to a standard linear plot, Eisenstein’s story moves back and forth in time. Eisenstein does away with a linear approach to storytelling and instead presents her memories in an intuitive fashion that is akin to a stream-of-consciousness narrative. She represents herself as both a child and as an adult simultaneously: “ ‘I wanted to erase the linear quality of time in order to see something more completely.’ ”20 In discarding traditional notions of time, she confronts the past as if it were still part of the present. She portrays the dead and those who are still alive side by side, with no distinction whatsoever. Through the graphic novel, past and present co-exist simultaneously. As a child of Holocaust survivors, Eisenstein is confronted with a past that she has not lived through personally, but that she experiences indirectly and profoundly through her parents’ mourning of absent family members: “Eisenstein’s graphic novel offers a powerful articulation of the Holocaust’s effect upon survivors and the second generation, and demonstrates a way forward for the ‘hinge’ generation.”21 The past, although it is perhaps represented in a light manner, continues to exert a strong influence on the present. Eisenstein reconciles a difficult past with the present, and points the way to the future.

The graphic novel, as a hybrid art form combining text and image, affords artists the possibility of creating new and meaningful narratives within art discourse. Brown and Eisenstein’s graphic novels have revealed that writing and picturing need not be considered as distinct media, but can be looked at as two necessary sides of representation: “Even today when a chasm divides [writing and imagery], moves from one towards the other vouch for their underlying contiguity.”22 In the case of Louis Riel and I Was a Child of Holocaust Survivors, the intertwining of text and image contributes to the creation of a narrative in an entirely unique way. Through their biographical content and reflection on history, these works bring to light the past in a modern, contemporaneous context. Brown’s work has achieved great commercial success in many countries and has become the first Canadian graphic novel to appear on bestseller lists. One cannot underestimate the value and impact of Louis Riel, as it continues to inspire artists and readers: “The reinvention of Canadian comic art during the past twenty years owes much to his restlessness and daring.”23 Eisenstein’s book was a finalist for the Trillium Book Award in 2006 and has been translated in several languages. After reading Brown and Eisenstein’s graphic novels, we derive a meaning and an understanding that reverberates well into the future.

By questioning the division between popular culture and fine art, as well as the less overt one of text and image, Brown and Eisenstein re-define the way in which we view illustrated literature. The intersection between serious subject matter and a light medium, as it has been historically viewed, has led to certain issues of classification. Many documentary graphic novels have been presented to the public not as graphic novels, or comics, but as biographies and historical novels. These documentary works are often kept separate from the graphic novel section in libraries and in bookstores, which implicitly points to the pervasive, ongoing view of the graphic novel as a medium that is not to be taken entirely seriously. Brown and Eisenstein’s works have thus been critically distinguished from the format of the comic book, which thereby reduces their controversial use of a pop culture medium.

Ultimately, Brown and Eisenstein have demonstrated that the graphic novel, and popular culture in general, need to be taken seriously. At the same time, documentary graphic novels such as these seem to counteract mass-marketability by presenting very specific, personalized accounts, which remain ambiguous. In fact, one might argue that it is the ambiguity of these works that ultimately resists consumer culture: “[…] it may be the case that the dissemination of knowledge of specific traumatic events may be rendered more effective through the confounding of any unitary, fixed meaning.”24 The international recognition that these works have received indicates that the graphic novel is beginning to be taken seriously in some measure: “Canada’s popular culture merits serious attention, both for its own sake and as an invaluable and fascinating barometer of social attitudes and values.”25 No single medium or narrative can convey the whole experience of a historically significant moment in time, but the graphic novel provides a distinct and original way of doing so. Brown and Eisenstein’s works have re-positioned the graphic novel, to a certain extent, within the centre of Canadian culture as something that is valuable and needs to be explored further.

Endnotes

1 John Bell, Invaders from the North: How Canada Conquered the Comic Book Universe (Toronto: Dundurn, 2006), 15.
2 Dave Sim,  “Conversations with Chester Brown,” in Getting Riel, Cerebus Fangirl interview, http://cerebusfangirl.com/artists /louisriel1.php (Nov. 17, 2009).
3 Bell, Invaders from the North, 165..
4 Chester Brown, Louis Riel: A Comic-Strip Biography (Montreal: Drawn & Quarterly, 1999-2003), 233.
5 Ross Langager, “History in the Gutters: A Critical Examination of Chester Brown’s ‘Louis Riel: A Comic-Strip Biography’,” M.A. diss., University of Alberta (Canada), in Dissertations and Theses: Full Text (2006), publication number AAT MR29886, 59 (http://proquest.com).
6 Brown, “Comic-Strip Biography,” 133.
7 Jeff Adams, Documentary Graphic Novels and Social Realism(New York: Peter Lang, 2008), 184.
8 Bernice Eisenstein, I Was a Child of Holocaust Survivors(Toronto: McClellan & Stewart, 2006), 7.
9 Miriam Harris, “Releasing the Grip of the Ghostly: Bernice Eisenstein’s I Was a Child of Holocaust Survivors,” in The Jewish Graphic Novel: Critical Approaches, ed. Samantha Baskind and Ranen Omer-Sherman (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2008), 141.
10 Eisenstein, Child of Holocaust Survivors, 113.
11 Eric James Stainbrook, “Reading comics: A theoretical analysis of textuality and discourse in the comics medium”. Ph.D. diss., Indiana University of Pennsylvania, In Dissertations & Theses: Full Text(2003), publication number AAT 3108870, 16 (http://proquest.com).
l2 Langager, “History in the Gutter,” 18.
13 Harris, “Releasing the Grip,” 132.
14 Adams, “Documentary Graphic Novel,” 62.
15 Bell, Invaders from the North, 166.
16 Brown, “Comic-Strip Biography,” 261.
17 Langager, “History in the Gutter,” 25.
18 Langager, “History in the Gutter,” 23.
19 Eisenstein, Child of Holocaust Survivors, 10.
20 Pan Macmillan Publishers, An Interview with Bernice Eisenstein,http://panmacmillan.com/interv iews/displayPage.asp?PageID=4247 (accessed Nov. 15,  2009).
21 Harris, “Releasing the Grip,” 141.
22 Michel Melot, The Art of Illustration (New York: Skira/Rizzoli, 1984), 9.
23 Bell, Invaders from the North, 168.
24 Adams, “Documentary Graphic Novel,” 67.
25 Bell, Invaders from the North, 187.

Bibliography

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Sim, Dave. “Conversations with Chester Brown”. In Getting Riel, Cerebus Fangirl interview, http://cerebusfangirl.com/artists /louisriel1.php (Nov. 17, 2009).
Spiegelman, Art. Maus: A Survivor’s Tale. New York: Pantheon Books, 1986-1991.
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