Autographics and the History of the Form: Chronicling Self and Career in Will Eisner's Life, in Pictures and Yoshihiro Tatsumi's a Drifting Life

Article excerpt

Discussions of autobiographical graphic narratives have unveiled multiple layers inherent in this form of life writing. In their 2008 introduction to a special issue of Biography, Gillian Whitlock and Anna Poletti deploy the term "autographics" to describe both a product and a practice. As a product, they explain, autographics may be defined as a "Life narrative fabricated in and through drawing and design using various technologies, modes, and materials" (v); as a practice, it "emerges in and through specific attention to the phenomenology of reading these multimodal cross-discursive texts, and this is accompanied by self-consciousness about the process of interpretation that distinguishes this work of textual criticism. This deliberate attention to 'what happens as I perceive this' marks autographical criticism" (vi-vii). A third factor to be considered, I suggest, includes the social history of the comic book, and how the relationship between the industry and its shifting market influenced the artists' aesthetic choices and thematic concerns. These autographical texts, thus, might also reflect "the way market forces, organizational structure, technology, laws, and government or industry regulation shape the aesthetics and content of an art form. It is also about the logics of cultural production and consumption: how artists and others approach its appreciation and consumption" (Lopes xvii).

These perspectives on graphic autobiographies are particularly salient frames for a discussion of Will Eisner's Life, in Pictures (2007) and Yoshihiro Tatsumi's A Drifting Life (2009), which foreground the intimate connection between their lives, their craft, and the cultural context that made them graphic artists. Eisner and Tatsumi, generally recognized as the forerunners of alternative comics/manga in their countries, therefore deploy autobiography not only to describe their lives in the early to mid-twentieth century, they also use the graphic form to illustrate the development of graphic art, incorporating the story of their artistic trajectory with a critical look at the development of the medium in their time. The texts become exceptional documents that trace the interconnection between politics, society, art, economy, and idealism in the United States and Japan before and after the Second World War.

As I have argued in relation to academic autobiographies, the paradigms of which may be extended to examine any form of life writing that highlights the author's professional life, these texts may serve to introduce readers to the historiographical, intellectual, and cultural tendencies in their authors' times. Eisner and Tatsumi were not professional historians. But because their livelihoods were so contingent on the shifting historical times, their life writing exercises engage the political, social, and economic transformations of the US and Japan. Reading the connections between the history one inevitably writes in the process of describing a life and the history that shapes us leads to an "approach to the autobiographical act that links our notions about processes of self-inscription to our understanding of the ways historical and cultural knowledge and discourse are produced" (Davis, "Introduction" 1-2). As Whitlock notes, "remembering in [professional] memoir is frequently shaped in order to naturalize and confirm the professional identity and vocation of the narrating subject and to produce a pedigree of sorts. That is to say, it can work to invent continuities between past and present, to create and authorize what it perhaps only seemed to describe" (47). These self-historical works, produced in the medium they reference, thus invite us to think about their authors' layering of meaning through words and graphic design.

Eisner's and Tatsumi's autographic work consistently juxtaposes public events with personal artistic trajectories, illustrating how the very possibility of their aesthetic development often depended on history. …