Monster en abyme: sympathy and ill feeling in graphic Frankenstein narratives

Later this month, I’ll be participating in the symposium “Frankenstein and Popular Culture,” celebrating the 200th anniversary of the creation and publication of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. The event takes place October 27-29 at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and is organized by Susan Lederer (UW-Madison) and Lester Friedman (Hobart and William Smith Colleges).

My paper is turning into a monster with many component parts: mirrors, mise en abyme, graphic narratives, diagrams, sympathy, and ill feeling. Here are some images and my abstract.

At the very center of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is the moment when the monster first views himself in a transparent pool. This moment is in the middle of the monster’s tale which is itself nested in the middle of Dr. Frankenstein’s tale nested in the middle of Robert Walton’s letters to his sister. In a remarkably condensed footnote in his important psychoanalytic reading of Frankenstein, Peter Brooks notes that, “A diagram of the narrative structure would look like this: {[()]}.” Brooks’s diagram also looks to me like a graphic depiction of a mirror, and mirrors and mirroring are central to the complex processes of subjectification that Frankenstein enacts in both its form and content. Mirrors are also a key visual trope in graphic narratives; they are a prominent prop for staging the identity question “Who’s There?,” as Lynda Barry asks in an evocative drawing of Maybonne staring into a mirror in just one example of what I call “drawing en abyme.” My presentation will look at the operation of the mise en abyme in comics and graphic narratives of Frankenstein. In particular, I am interested in how verbal and visual depictions of doubling operate as passageways—relational vestibules or transitional spaces—between interior and exterior, subject and object, self and non-self, and between sympathy or fellow feeling and its opposite, queer or ill feeling.

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