Introduction

Counter-Narratives, Retellings and Redrawings

in European Comic Art

The articles in this issue range over work from Belgium, France, Italy, Spain and England, and over diverse subject matter: children escaping repressive adult surveillance, memories of war, the clash of ideas among dinner-party guests, the mythology of the colonial explorer, and the environmental catastrophe. All share a preoccupation with counter-narratives, retellings and redrawings.

The articles in this issue range over work from Belgium, France, Italy, Spain and England, and over diverse subject matter: children escaping repressive adult surveillance, memories of war, the clash of ideas among dinner-party guests, the mythology of the colonial explorer, and the environmental catastrophe. All share a preoccupation with counter-narratives, retellings and redrawings.

Monalesia Earle and Joe Sutliff Sanders draw on the former's notion of ‘misdirection’ to analyse Hilda and the Black Hound, a children's comic by Luke Pearson. They find that the protagonists, a child and her magical helper, adopt transgressive itineraries in order to elude adult authority, both within the story world and across the surface of the comics page, making notable use of the gutter as a hiding place. Alluding to the work of other scholars on comics and the Gothic, they note that the gap between the frames may be a space of haunting, mystery and uncontainable excess, and that it is particularly conducive to the subterfuges of the powerless. They further argue that the nomadic, boundary-defying subjectivity accorded to the child characters in this book runs counter to the moralising ethos that children's literature has been traditionally held to promote, and their reading of Hilda widens out onto a consideration of the capacity of the comics medium not only to portray the struggles of colonised and marginalised peoples against institutional hierarchies, but also to materialise them through its gutter-closure mechanism as defiant practices that locate blind spots and open up breaches in oppressive structures. Where Othering by dominant groups can lead to erasure and loss of agency, invisibility as a strategic choice can, they claim, allow for resistance and regrouping.

Cara Takakjian discusses two works by the Italian comics artist Gipi as multi-voiced narrations that question ‘history’ as a depersonalised quest for objectivity. The elaboration of both individual and official histories is portrayed as a work of remembering that is mediated in various ways: witness accounts may be coloured by affect, unreliable or second-hand based on family stories or recollections by other, sometimes bad-faith, participants, and distorted by denials and repression. Meta-narrative observations cast doubt on the veracity of events depicted, and the status of images is rendered uncertain through a number of comics techniques. Variations in iconicity between seemingly direct versions of events and imaginative projections call attention to the artifice involved in all representation, and multiple reframings, including literal reframing through the lens of a documentary film-maker, disrupt any continuity of perspective. The referential illusion is further undermined by vagueness as to temporal and spatial setting. Memory itself is revealed by Gipi as a creative process, and Takakjian's article insists on the artist's foregrounding of the ethical dimension in the construction of personal and collective narratives. Various forms of escapism and avoidance are contrasted with the more conscious detachment achieved by engagement with the stories of others, and readers are summoned to consider their own responsibility, along with that of the artist, in telling and retelling history.

Benjamin Fraser analyses Sonia Pulido (artist) and Pere Joan (scriptwriter)'s Duelo de caracoles [Duel of Snails] using Thierry Groensteen's categorisation of panel-to-panel transitions as ‘shown’, ‘intervened’ or ‘signified’, the latter demanding interpretive activity on the part of the reader and allowing for shifts between inner and outer worlds or the introduction of symbolic or allegorical meanings. Fraser contends that through just such a mode of narration Pulido is able to overlay her portrayal of a dinner party with an evocation of the states of mind of her protagonists and the unspoken dynamics of their interactions. Non-diegetic elements are introduced, like a boxing match or board game, alluding to and exacerbating the sense of competitive verbal jousting, while the recurring image of the snail, as an entity within the fictional world but also a formal motif, invites a metaphorical reading that offers insights into the unconscious of the characters. Fraser relates the use of these visual non sequiturs both to the animal-based psychological studies of the nineteenth-century cartoonist Apel·les Mestres and to the greguerías, or surreally incongruous verbal imagery, of the twentieth-century author Ramón Gómez de la Serna. Fraser notes that, while the comic may be approached prosaically as a chronicle of fluctuating relationships among dinner party attendees, its poetic resonance derives above all from the ambiguity of juxtapositions and the ultimate psychological and philosophical indeterminacy of the duelling snails.

Robert Aman's article examines the work of Olivier Schrauwen, and particularly Arsène Schrauwen, his absurdist ‘memoir’ of his grandfather's exploits in the Belgian Congo, as a satire on the tropes of the colonial adventure novel. Following Joseph Conrad's Mr Kurtz and numerous other literary forebears, along with some notable comics protagonists such as Hergé's Tintin, Arsène undertakes the journey to an Africa that is constructed as a simple negative of enlightened European countries. The superiority, rationality and masculinity imputed to these intrepid colonial travellers depend on the converse attribution of inferiority, primitiveness and childishness to the native subjects, and Aman shows how the satirical impact of Schrauwen's work is achieved through an overturning of these binaries: Arsène reveals himself to be childish, lazy and incompetent, unable to read maps, that key symbol of the imposition of European scientific knowledge upon an empty land, and reliant for his survival on the services of his ‘boy’, who remains curiously out of sight, as do all other non-Europeans, a logical extension, Aman suggests, of the invisibility of the Other in colonial discourse. And he notes that the futurist city in the jungle being built by Arsène's more bombastic cousin not only has a number of literary antecedents, but through its name, ‘Freedom Town’, stands for the overall colonial enterprise in its occlusion of the exploitation of the colonial subjects.

Armelle Blin-Rolland introduces the concept of ecological storylines, and elaborates it under three headings. The first is drawing as a material practice that can, in her examples, render on the page the invisible threat of radioactivity in the Chernobyl landscape, enable a woman artist to inscribe herself into a non-patriarchal wilderness space, or give haptic, textured form to the devastation wrought on landscape by war. The second is redrawing, partly as a gesture of reparation for the past implication of comics in the ideological constructions of nature. Blin-Rolland focuses on comics representations of the Congo, beginning with the Tintin album evoked above, in which the country is portrayed as both vacant and a repository of resources to be plundered. Redrawings by current artists deploy parody by updating racist stereotypes to those that surround unabated mineral extraction in a post-colonial context, imagine a future in which diamond-mining could give way to sustainable cultivation, or trace the path that leads from Congolese uranium to the atom bomb dropped on Hiroshima. And the third consists of flow-lines that run counter to the narrative of endless growth: lines of speed and excitement celebrate the inexhaustibility of resources before faltering across the gutter and collapsing; a meandering path leads us around snapshots of our perverse and distorted relationship to nature; the evolutionary timeline goes into accelerated reversal; and oil flows across every page, a viscous figuration of globalisation.

All of the comics scholars featured in this issue illuminate the affordances of the comics medium, whether through the use of the gutter as sanctuary for the disempowered, the multiplicity of narrative voices that question historical orthodoxy, the disconcerting use of ellipsis to suggest a more complex poetic reading that co-exists with an action sequence, the parodic potential that deliriously inverts the tropes of colonial literature and comics, and the unruliness of a graphic line that deviates from official socio-economic narratives to redirect the reader around disaster sites and in some tentative alternative directions.

Finally, we would like to dedicate this issue to Professor Keith Reader, a great friend and ally of the journal, and a shrewd and generous reviewer.

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