I Draw (A Graphic Dissertation), Comics as Method and Holding Environment

Excerpt from Chapter 1 of Kay Sohini's dissertation depicting the author and narrative text against a background of paneled city images

Last week, in “I Draw (A Graphic Dissertation), Therefore I Am,” I wrote about how I got to drawing my dissertation, drawing comics as scholarship, and about comics as a way to think. Building on that, this week I want to start with the concept of “holding environments” (term originally coined by Donald Woods Winnicott and used by Alison Bechdel in Are You My Mother?) in relation to comics.

In working through the first chapter of my graphic dissertation, which is an auto-ethnographic work about confronting trauma image-textually, I found that drawing comics is as much about the process as it is about the outcome. I discovered through practice more concretely what I already assumed from reading works like Are You My Mother? or Thi Bui’s The Best We Could Do to name a couple. In the process of making autobio comics, one does not simply recollect memories but is also able to reenact them via their cartoon self. The artist-protagonist, by confronting their trauma via comics, is able to metaphorically unload it onto the cartoon version of themselves, which aids in freely exploring the conflict without the fear of falling too deep. In a conversation with Hillary Chute collected in the book Outside the Box, Bechdel said:

“I feel like the book [Are You My Mother?] is in a way me, my self, my body. And I’m asking the  reader to hold me not just figuratively, in the sense of an analytic “holding environment,” but literally. “Hold me!”

Panels from Alison Bechdel's Are You My Mother? (page 241) with reference to Winnicott
Panels from Alison Bechdel’s Are You My Mother?

Additionally, drawing comics, using the medium as an investigational space to think, to chart memories, to draw connections,  allows the author-protagonist to expose themselves to a simulation of their traumatic event in a controlled environment. Cathy Caruth, a trauma studies scholar, theorizes in her oft quoted work Unclaimed Experience, that trauma is only fully processed in retrospect. She writes, “The breach in the mind’s experience of time, self, and the world—is not, like the wound of the body, a simple and healable event, but rather an event that…is experienced too soon, too unexpectedly, to be fully known and is therefore not available to the consciousness until it imposes itself again.” The reenactment of traumatic memories within the holding environment of comics, then, enables the author-protagonist to wholly see, process, and come to terms with the repressed feelings that destabilize their sense of self. Caruth further writes that what causes trauma “is a shock that appears to work very much like a bodily threat but it is in fact a break in the mind’s experience of time.” The comics medium makes it possible to not just give visual shape to memories, but do so in a spatial and temporal sequence, which provides a sense of urgency to the reenactment.

This reenactment and simulation of the passing of time in the site of conflict, I contend, aids in processing the “break in the mind’s experience of time” that Caruth theorizes as the cause of trauma. I originally made a part of this argument in a paper on Alison Bechdel’s Are You My Mother?, where I argue that Bechdel’s image-textual reenactment of the time her mother stopped the bedtime ritual of “coofie”-ing her, allows her to trace the roots of her complex relationship with her mother. At the time of the event, she was not allowed to betray any emotional response, but on re-drawing the scene, she is able to see what was not visible to her at the time of the infliction of the psychological wound, as is often the case with trauma that, as Caruth writes, it is “experienced too soon, too unexpectedly to be grasped by consciousness.”

In Graphic Women, Chute writes that “The comics form calls attention to what we as readers ‘see’ and do not see of the subject: the legibility of the subject as a literal — that is to say, readable — issue to encounter.” Later, in a conversation with Chute collected in the book Outside the Box, Bechdel states that “when [she is] drawing, the line [she is] making on the paper is a way of touching the people and things [she] is drawing.” This takes on a double meaning when we consider the fact that before drawing, Bechdel poses as herself, her mother, her father, her therapist, to use as photo references. In doing so, she inhabits (the word was originally used by Joe Sacco) those characters and, by extension, their perspective. In her words, as quoted by Chute in Comics & Media: “It’s almost an aerobic activity sometimes– I do this for almost all of the figures I draw. I pose. Sometimes I put on costumes if I feel like I need to…. As Joe said, it gives you this weird insight into the character…. As I am doing these poses which are really just quick drawing aids, there is a kind of interesting emotional thing that happens as I have to impersonate these characters.”

Like Bechdel (and many other cartoonists, I am sure), I posed — as myself, my parents, my estranged brother — to use references as drawing aids in Chapter 1 of my dissertation, where I was working through an unusual assortment of messy issues: suicide, homophobia, deep-seated familial issues, inter-generational trauma. I have been sitting on the subject un-metabolized for years on end, too afraid that there would be no way out of the rabbit hole if I dared to peek in. Comics, however, was like learning to swim in the shallow end of the pool. Like jumping with a safety net. Like transferring my worst fears onto the paper, in full knowledge that it would somehow be contained within the confines of my hand-drawn panels. Drawing just one key event showed me where to go next.

Excerpt from Chapter 1 of Kay Sohini's dissertation depicting the author and narrative text against a background of paneled city images
Excerpt from Chapter 1 of the author’s dissertation

I was able to move between various key points in my life that mediated the primary conflict. On the more technical aspect of things, I had to agonize less over transitions than I would have if I was working in the textual medium alone. In Chapter 2 of my graphic dissertation — “Pandemic Precarities” — I was constantly going back and forth between several topics ranging from grief of losing a loved one to COVID-19 complications, to ableism, to racism, to wealth inequity, to commodification of healthcare. The seamless fluidity allowed by the form was especially useful when jumping from one disparate but ultimately connected subject matter to another. I was able to switch narrative voices without much in the way of interjectory verbal explanations. Most indispensably, I was able to focus on the larger sociopolitical circumstance and the intimate personal details, without one taking away from the other or coming across as disjointed. In a nutshell, scholarship in comics form compels me to find the best possible way to visualize the complex subject matter at hand, and, in doing so, I arrive at a deeper understanding of the subject.

Making and Visualizing Affordance/s

Comics, or thinking within/with the help of/via comics, also allows one to make affordances of other existing works with ease. For instance, in Fun Home, Bechdel redraws a page from James Joyce’s Ulysses concerning the suicide of the latter’s protagonist’s father, to demonstrate her coping mechanisms following her own father’s death. Throughout the length of her graphic memoir, Bechdel visually refers to a range of literary works — from The Odyssey to Collette’s Earthly Paradise — since books “serve[d] as [their] currency” and were a way for her to connect with her father after a childhood of considerable psychological abandonment. Within the visual space comics, Bechdel is able to make visible the web of intertextual networks that are crucial in making sense of her troubled relationship with her father.

Similarly, I was able to draw on (and literally re-draw) certain pages from literature that helped me make sense of the crises I was dealing with. To rewind a little, my interest in certain comics, such as Satrapi’s Persepolis or Bechdel’s Are You My Mother? or Amruta Patil’s Kari, exceeded mere cognitive appreciation. Their evocative nature moved me beyond polite interest; they were my punctums (a thing that pricks or bruises to paraphrase Roland Barthes’s concept from Camera Lucida). Ten years ago, when I first chanced upon Kari, it was unlike any other literature I had previously encountered.

I remember being somewhat unsettled (but in a good way) by the image of Kari (the eponymous protagonist) standing in front of the mirror, unable to come to terms with her reflection. There was something strangely affirming to see somebody else, even a fictional character, struggle with the burden of flesh and femaleness. It was not just the realistic depiction of depression and sexuality from a young, queer woman’s perspective that I connected with, but also the fact that the story was actually set in India, where I then lived and where we did not (not back then anyhow) talk about mental health and sexuality, let alone homosexuality. The character’s resilience, as well as the very existence of literature that highlighted these struggles, made me hopeful about the shared communities of empathy that literature of resistance engenders. It made me believe in the transformative affect of storytelling. To put it briefly, being able to reference, expound, draw upon, and quite literally re-draw pages from other comics that I resonated with, in my work, was indispensable to my “graphic analysis” — a process that Lisa Diedrich refers to as “a long and difficult therapeutic and creative process of doing and undoing the self in words and images.”

Comics theory gives us the critical language to talk about the medium and is an absolute necessity for the advancement of the field. But over the last few months of drawing a dissertation in comics form, I have realized that perhaps some of the affordances of the medium is best discoverable and/or advanced through practice. In other words, I believe that there is a case to be made for the use of drawing comics in comics studies. Considering, notable journals in the field such as The Comics Grid or Studies in Comics solicit graphic submissions as do major conferences (such as Comics and Medicine), maybe we are already witnessing a shift in that direction. In 2017, University of Florida’s Department of English started Sequentials, a journal dedicated to “the creative capabilities of comics as a medium” [Editors’ note: check out this interview with Ashley Manchester about the launch of Sequentials]. Moreover, this year alone, there has been a noticeable increase in collaborations between the comics academe and the industry. The way I see it, these collaborations, these intersections between drawing comics and studying it, stand as a testimony to the growing popularity of comics as method, as a medium, and not a genre as the common misconception goes. Consequently, the question I want to move forward with is: what can we discover about comics — its role in the academe, in narrative medicine, in ethnography,  and broadly, as literatures of resistance — by drawing comics?

Works Cited:

Barthes, Roland. Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography. The Noonday Press, 1988.

Bechdel, Alison. Are You My Mother? A Comic Drama. Mariner Books, 2012.

Bechdel, Alison. “Interview.” Outside the Box: Interviews with Contemporary Cartoonists,  By Hillary Chute, U of Chicago P, 2014.

Bechdel, Alison. Fun Home. Mariner Books, 2006.

Chute, Hillary. Graphic Women. Columbia University Press, 2010.

Chute, Hillary L., and Patrick Jagoda. Comics & Media. A Critical Inquiry Book, 2014

Caruth, Cathy. Unclaimed Experience: Trauma, Narrative, and History. Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996.

Diedrich, Lisa. “Graphic Analysis: Transitional Phenomena in Alison Bechdel’s Are You My Mother?” Configurations, vol. 22, no. 2, 2014, pp. 183–203, 10.1353/con.2014.0014. ‌

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Kay Sohini

Kay Sohini

Kay Sohini is a comics-maker and PhD candidate in English at Stony Brook University. She is currently drawing her doctoral dissertation as a comic, which is an auto/ethnographic project about race, gender and illness politics. Her work on comics has been published in Inside Higher Ed, Sequentials, Assay: A Journal of Non-fiction Studies, amongst others. She serves as the Secretary on the executive committee of the International Comic Arts Forum (ICAF). More details about her work can be found on her website.