Saturday, July 5, 2008

POV and Autobiography

David Chelsea, a cartoonist who doesn’t get the kind of attention he deserves in art comics circles, has released a strong new minicomic from Top Shelf that includes two stories done in 2005 and 2007 as part of the 24-hour comic “movement.” The first story in 24x2 is particularly interesting to me because of claims that Chelsea makes about truth, autobiography, and cartooning strategies of representation.

He argues that well-known autobiographical comic creators like Crumb, Pekar, Paley, and Spiegelman “get it wrong.” They falsify experience by employing what could be called an “objective camera” point of view instead of a “subjective camera,” which would truthfully represent experience by showing only what the artist saw when he/she lived the events of the story. Objective camera implies, for Chelsea, that an observer other than the cartoonist is doing the recording; and so, for example, the cartoonist/protagonist can be seen from behind, when the cartoonist should only show what appeared in front of him. I doubt Chelsea thinks that these artists are really wrong (perhaps he does, though; he uses the word “wrong” nine times on the first page.) Perhaps he just wants to make us aware of a strategy employed in conventional auto-bio that he thinks needs to be examined.

I think, however, that there are a number of ways in which his analysis could be complicated and taken further. Chelsea wants to draw our attention to an important choice that many cartoonists make, but there are a number of other choices he doesn’t discuss that I think are equally relevant -- and maybe even more important than POV -- to his argument.

The minute you put your experiences into comics, and certainly into the form in which Chelsea and many other cartoonists do, you are “falsifying” or modifying reality. There seems to me to be no reason to assume that a representational approach like “subjective camera” has any more claim on truth than any other. A cartoonist can easily re-imagine a personal experience from a more expansive point of view. And the rightness or wrongness, for readers at least (if not the cartoonist), will come from a hard to define aspect of the comic, often the way it relates to their experiences of the world; i.e., does it have 'the ring of truth?” -- whatever that is . . .

Chelsea relies heavily on rectangular panels and borders, yet we look at the world through a vision that gets fuzzier and less precise towards the margins of the field of view. So perhaps a more “truthful” -- which is to say a literately accurate method in Chelsea’s way of thinking -- would not use rectangular panels or borders at all, but would feature images that fade at the outer limits or blend into the margins of the page. Maybe something like one of Anders Nilsen’s page layouts would begin to get at this “truth”:

As its name implies, subjective camera is inherently limited, yet Chelsea often limits his panel choices even further to shots in which the implied viewer position is often only a few feet away from the objects he sees/draws.

I think it would be more accurate call his approach in 24x2 something like “subjective camera/close-ups.” It offers restricted notions of “subjective camera” and of human vision -- we can see with far greater variety in "shots," from intense close-ups to extreme long shots (see Dan Clowes's The Stroll below). But “subjective camera/close-ups” is a very effective strategy in creating the kind of claustrophobic anxiety and drama that Chelsea exploits in his second comic, Sleepless.

Also: Chelsea’s comic is black and white and most of us experience the world in a vast collection of colors -- in Chelsea’s own terms then, black and white should also be “wrong.” The same can be said about the many panels in which the background disappears, focusing the reader on the character in the foreground -- this, too doesn’t quite happen in real life; though peripheral details can be out of focus, they still are visible. Another potential problem for “authenticity” is that subjective camera comics often feature a character who looks at the cartoonist and therefore appears to be looking directly at the reader:

This can create a jarring sensation (though an interesting one in many cases), like when an actor accidentally looks into the camera. So a strategy that avoids this situation might appear to be realistic/truthful to most readers, even though it rejects the primacy of the cartoonist’s perspective. In this way, readers might think that Crumb, for example, gets it right by not generally relying on this POV.

Of course, I'm not saying that there’s anything wrong with subjective camera, only with claims about its relationship to truth. Dan Clowes plays with the idea of objectivity in “Daniel G. Clowes in ‘Just Another Day,’” a story about autobiographical comics:

And Clowes has one of the great 1st person-cartoonist POV stories, The Stroll, which is not explicitly identified as autobiography, but appears to be so:

Despite my differences with Chelsea, I like the fact that he creates a strip about approaches to narration, something under-discussed in comics. I hope people will checkout 24x2.


Jason Overby said...

Good points. I think a meta POV might take into account more of an individual's experience (which is not, simply, the visual data you're perceiving - even the act of perceiving visual data implies conceiving thought-forms). You are, in autobiography, presenting yourself as a character, which implies that you are making choices about how you want yourself to appear. Your subjective point of view is not representing a direct, objective reality-as-you-see-it because the cartooning occurs after the fact and is mediated by choices (possibly unconsciously) about what constitutes story or even what constitutes reality. The way a cartoonist like Crumb or Joe Matt very consciously constructs a persona to stand in for them is kinda like recognizing that comics are often an art of abstraction and that attempting to portray the "objective" would be like trying to build a Borges map.

Anonymous said...

I like the fact that you use images from his and other comics to make the point. This helps me to see what you are getting at.

Anonymous said...

A brief and belated comment:

Ken Parille said...


Thanks for taking the time to respond. I'll be following your blog for news about your article on POV, something I am very interested in, too.

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