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Title:Picturing the unspeakable: Trauma, memory, and visuality in contemporary comics
Author(s):Anderson Bliss, Jennifer
Director of Research:Kaplan, Brett A.
Doctoral Committee Chair(s):Kaplan, Brett A.
Doctoral Committee Member(s):Rothberg, Michael; Hansen, James A.; Blake, Nancy
Department / Program:Comparative & World Literature
Discipline:Comparative Literature
Degree Granting Institution:University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
graphic novels
trauma studies
memory studies
Abstract:This dissertation explores the intersections of memory and trauma in comics, arguing that the interrelations of the visual and the textual elements of this medium allow for an expanded understanding of how representations of trauma and memory function. This project argues for the centrality of trauma studies in comics and graphic narratives, as well as the centrality of visuality—that is, how we see and how we understand what we see—in trauma studies. Moving away from a model of literary trauma studies that focuses on “the unspeakable,” this dissertation proposes that we look instead at the intersections of the visible and invisible, the speakable and the unspeakable, through the manipulation of space and time in the comics medium. Investigating these possibilities, my research spans national and generic boundaries in order to tease out the inherent qualities of traumatic representations in the medium itself. This analysis moves from superheroes to 9/11to epilepsy to family photographs, and from America to France to Rwanda, showing the ways in which comics’ juxtapositions of words and images, past, present, and future, and presence and absence, create possibilities for representing trauma and memory. It is precisely in the spaces between images and words, between what we can see and what remains hidden, I argue, that these narratives of trauma and memory thicken and transform into dense and problematic zones of contact. This dissertation begins with an introduction to the broad ways in which the formal aspects of the medium of comics and graphic novels complement the literary and theoretical conceptions of trauma and memory, and an examination of the ways we can use comics to expand these notions to incorporate more precise ideas of the visible and visual. I then move to a series of close analyses, beginning with the superhero genre and its legacy in Chapters One and Two, looking at the Batman franchise and Alan Moore’s Watchmen and the crises—personal and historical, respectively—that they address. Chapter Three moves to the Rwandan genocide and its representation in both fictional and autobiographical comics, drawing together landscape, colonialism, and trauma. In Chapter Four, I move to an examination of Art Spiegelman’s response to the terrorist attacks of 9/11, teasing out the complex relationship between media images and personal images as intertwining representations of trauma. Chapter Five also focuses on the power of images, arguing that Alison Bechdel’s redrawn archive of photographs and other realia in her memoir Fun Home indicates the powerful agency of images—that is, their ability to destabilize and undermine the author and the viewer’s position as spectator. Finally, Chapter Six explores the rhizomatic nature of disability in David B.’s Epileptic, suggesting that rather than considering individuals and their bodies along a linear scale between two extreme points, we can reformulate our understanding of “normalcy” through a nonlinear, multivalent spectrum of experience. This notion of a nonlinear spectrum synthesizes the difficult problems of visuality, trauma, and memory that the dissertation explores as a whole, and it offers up a new mode of conceptualizing the narrative possibilities of representing trauma. By taking in to account the absent, the hidden, the invisible, and the unspoken in these texts, “Picturing the Unspeakable” brings together the emergent field of comics studies with the recent visual and multidirectional turns in trauma and memory studies. This project offers a new way of understanding individual and historical traumas not as a question of either/or (either visible or not, spoken or silenced, past or present, etc.) but as precisely a space of contact between those conventional binaries of representation.
Issue Date:2014-05-30
Rights Information:Copyright 2014 Jennifer Anderson Bliss
Date Available in IDEALS:2014-05-30
Date Deposited:2014-05

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