Autobio Comics ≠ Reality

By | Sunday, March 25, 2012 Leave a Comment
Shortly after I first began collecting comics with any serious interest, Marvel published Fantastic Four #262 featuring "The Trial of Reed Richards." Part of the story included Uatu snatching up writer/artist John Byrne to record the trial as the chronicler of the FF's adventures. It was the first time I had seen a creator actually IN the story they were creating. I later learned this was a shtick that went back decades but, at the time, it was new to me.

However, I never for one second thought that Byrne had actually been spirited away to another part of the universe by a giant-headed, bald alien. It was clearly presented as fiction and Byrne injecting himself into the story was just a clever way to give the story a better sense of being grounded.

I recall a bit of a flap occurring many years ago when it was discovered that Funky Winkerbean cartoonist Tom Batiuk did not in fact carve watermelons instead of pumpkins for Halloween, despite his introducing the idea in his comic strip. I thought it was a rather silly thing to get upset about because, again, the comic strip was clearly presented as fiction and Batiuk didn't even appear as a character in it. It was like getting upset that Johnny Hart didn't go rolling around on a giant stone wheel.

But what about comics that aren't presented as fiction? Or at least not entirely. What about the ones that are largely autobiographic? Diary comics or slice of life strips that are drawn from the creator's experiences.

I saw someone post a note in Facebook recently recognizing the anniversary of their first meeting their significant other. I've been following his strip now for several years, and have become friends with him, so I naturally gave him a hearty congratulations. But I did some quick math in my head and realized the anniversary he cited was two years before he introduced her into the comic strip as a complete stranger, not even having a name for the several strips she was in.

Needless to say, he had taken some artistic license somewhere in there!

So I asked him about it. (One of the benefits of being friends with a cartoonist is that you can pointedly ask them what the hell they were trying to do with their comics.) It turns out that he first met her while he was in a relationship with someone else, and they didn't actually become close until a couple years later. So she was a little too far afield to really include in his comic at the outset, but obviously became much more important later on. Which meant that he had to introduce her as a character in a way that would make sense for his readers, despite her being in his life in some fashion for quite some time prior.

The problem boils down to this: life frequently does not follow a nice and simple narrative. Comics, by their nature, are an abstraction of life and necessarily need to have portions filtered out. But hindsight is 20/20 and we don't always know or recognize which bits are important and which bits can justifiably fall to the cutting room floor until sometimes years after the fact.

If the auto-biographic cartoonist is any good, they will still infuse their work with compassion and sincerity, and the basic truth of their life will be evident. However, the specifics of events that are depicted may not conform 100% with the reality that took place. There may well have been changes for any of a variety of reasons, from a simple mis-remembering of events to a deliberate change to make the story flow better.

It's a somewhat difficult thing to keep in mind, especially when a creator is laying out their most intimate moments on the page or screen for you. But while you may think you know Craig Thompson or Marjane Satrapi or Jennie Breeden or Dustin Harbin or whomever, odds are that you don't know everything and they've lived lives much larger and richer than what you've seen in their work.
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