Reliability, Authority and Authenticity

Confessional Comics: Part 4 of 4

The real mystery is this strange need. Why can’t we just hide it and shut up? Why do we have to blab? Why do human beings need to confess? Maybe, if you don’t have that secret confession, you don’t have a poem—don’t even have a story. Don’t have a writer (quoted in Gill, p. 67).

—‘Ted Hughes: The Art of Poetry’, The Paris Review 134: 54-94.

To situate the term “confessional comics,” let us examine a working definition of “confessional poetry,” a term generally applied to a group of poets working in the 1950s and 1960s who were experimenting with a hitherto unfamiliar poetic form, deeply personal in character. Elizabeth Gregory (2006, p. 34) assigns the following characteristics to confessional poetry:

  • It is derived from the poet’s autobiographical context, and is usually written in the first person.
  • The work assumes an authorial stance, insisting that the events and emotions being described are the narrator’s own.
  • The confessional poem generally expresses ideas that are antithetical to conventional social mores; mental illness, familial tensions, acrimony between family members, childhood trauma and abuse (sexual and/or psychological), and a preoccupation with one’s body are topics that are often present.
  • Where subjects generally considered forbidden to discuss are named and even explored in depth, the term “confession” may be applied. From within generally accepted religious, psychoanalytic, and legal frameworks, the events being described are considered sinful, neurotic and/or psychotic, or illicit: in short, the subjects being discussed are usually considered taboo.

Gregory contextualizes confessional poetry in terms of the psychoanalytic and psychotherapeutic approaches to self-revelation beginning to take root in American soil at the time (33). Confessional poems were simultaneously an expansion of the poetic innovations introduced by modernist poets, notably the use of free verse.

Undeniably, artifice and the careful construction of a first-person narrative persona are trademark signs of confessional writing. However, the presence of a singular authorial voice may not have been established to misrepresent the author or delude the reader, but to articulate a lucid storyline out of what would otherwise exist as the seemingly disparate experiences of a fragmented self.

Gill emphasizes that a writer’s duplicity may be fully intentional. Consulting secondary sources may prove to be a dubious activity, if a writer is writing letters or journaling as a form of experimentation that may later lead to fully polished fictional works. Some excellent examples of this can be found in two highly complementary essays in Modern Confessional Writing, in which the claims of Sylvia Plath’s biographers blatantly contradict one another, and Ted Hughes’ Birthday Letters, written by Plath’s husband many years later, adds a new layer of interpretation to the events of Plath’s life.

To suggest that “Binky Brown Meets the Holy Virgin Mary” and its offspring wield literary merit is also to suggest that the problems of literature, and more specifically, the problems of confessional writing, apply to graphic works as much as their exclusively text-based cousins. Issues concerning “reliability, authority and authenticity” (Gill, p. 1) are fundamental to an understanding of confessional comics through the lens of postmodern literary interpretation.

Certainly, no narrator is to be entirely trusted—whether the author’s intent is to convince the reader of certain truths, to convince himself or herself, or both. We may nonetheless appreciate the narrative trajectory constructed by an author through the combination of linear fluidity and artful incongruity.

The Internet has exponentially increased the availability of information on any subject, autobiographical testimony and biographical fodder not excluded. We remain best to sustain belief in any one truth, to remain sceptical at every turn. Tracy Brain (p. 13) cites Lucretia Stewart’s injunction,

…Now that we live in an increasingly confessional age there are perhaps fewer secrets and lies. There are, however, surely more half-truths and many more opportunities to present things as you want to rather than as they actually are or were (1999).

Where does this leave us with confessional comics? In terms of co-opting the tools of literary criticism to examine the graphic memoir, we are left high and dry on unstable ground. The fact that dialogue on such matters can take place within the comics medium is testament to the intelligence that artists are bringing to their work. And to have arrived at this point, we have Justin Green to thank.

Justin Green – He’s out of his mind! I love every stroke of his nervous pen, every tortured scratch he ever scrawled! He was the FIRST, absolutely the FIRST EVER cartoonist to draw highly personal autobiographical comics. Binky Brown started many other cartoonists along the same path, myself included. By me, he’s tops! Someday Justin will get the recognition he deserves, if only by the scholars and connoisseurs of comics, but for the time being, it’s just as well he doesn’t get it. It would only cripple him and add more weight to his already heavy burden of guilt.

—Robert Crumb. “Testimonials” Justin Green’s Binky Brown Sampler.

Bibliography for Confessional Comics Parts 1-4

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