Objectifying Visual Language in Autobiographical Comics

By: Adam Whybray


Volume: 07
Issue: 02:2021
ISSN: 2459-2943
DOI: 10.18680/hss.2021.0018
Pages: 73-95
Lic.: CC BY-NC-ND 4.0
Autobiographical comics
Graphic novels



Critiques of the objectification of female characters in comics have often focused upon depictions within the superhero genre (cf. Avery-Natale 2013; Cocca 2014; Nelson 2015). Such arguments adopt the framework of Laura Mulvey’s ‘Male Gaze’ (1975) to assess the costuming, physical physique, and narrative role given to such characters. In one comment on similar controversies, Neil Cohn (2014) has argued for a greater emphasis upon the visual language used in objectifying depictions that does not get caught up in debates over realism since, he argues, comics are unconcerned with reality. Autobiographical comics, however, now form a significant part of the comics market and scholarship (cf. Schlichting and Schmid 2019). A tension exists between the rhetorical mode of visual metaphor exploited by comics (cf. Venkatesan and Saji 2021) and the appeal to authenticity made by non-fiction (cf. El Refaie 2012). Focusing on autobiographical comics – here, some published between 1991 and 2018 – allows us to assess how sexual objectification operates within comics without the issue being clouded by irresolvable appeals to reality in the fundamentally escapist/fantastic superhero genre. The visual language in the comics by Chester Brown, Joe Matt, and David Heatley has been criticized for reducing the ‘other’ to a series of more stagnant, occluded, and restrictive graphic patterns than afforded to their author surrogates. Ariel Schrag’s work, meanwhile, points towards possible means of avoiding such tendencies in future autobiographical comics.


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