Reading notes: drawing en abyme

I have begun working on a new project called “Comics panels and file cabinets: Inside Alison Bechdel’s queer archives.” In this project, I will explore Bechdel’s queer archives—that is, both her comics in the archives and her comics as an archive of queer life. I am interested in two kinds of containers—panels in comics and file cabinets in archives—and what and how they document. I will visit Bechdel’s archives at the Sophie Smith Collection of Women’s History at Smith College to do research on Bechdel’s life and work, but also to get a feeling for her archive and her practices of documenting. Before heading to Smith this summer, I have been re-reading Bechdel’s work—not exactly systematically, as I started with Fun Home and then read The Secret of Superhuman Strength. Right now, I am devouring The Essential Dykes to Watch Out ForAre You My Mother?awaits, promising more pleasure in re-reading. My earlier work on Bechdel’s comics has led to my interest in her archive and what it enacts as an archive and in her comics.[1]

But for this reading notes post, I want to take a moment to look at two paired panels in Bechdel’s Secret of Superhuman Strength that capture her creative process and demonstrates a concept and practice I call “drawing en abyme.” I first presented on drawing en abyme at the Comics and Medicine Conference in Dundee, Scotland in 2016, and I further developed the concept in a keynote address for the Curating Health: Graphic Medicine and Visual Representations of Illness, organized by the Nordic Network for Gender, Body and Health in Stockholm in 2018. Some of that address was posted on The Polyphony blog as “Graphic Medicine en abyme: drawing sketching-as-therapy in Ellen Forney’s Marbles.” I have also used this concept to discuss mirrors and mirroring in graphic Frankenstein narratives. I describe drawing en abyme as a method-image for thinking about how graphic narratives stage identity as a process of becoming through drawing. I have discussed at length the mirror as a prominent prop and visual trope in many graphic narratives, including in Bechdel’s Are You My Mother?

[Screen grab of detail from p. 172 of Alison Bechdel, The Secret of Superhuman Strength (Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2021).]

In Secret of Superhuman Strength, we see this staging with a different prop—a digital camera—used as part of a drawing process that Bechdel explains in a caption “now involved many layers of preparatory sketches” (172; figure 1). The two panels depicting Bechdel’s process are at the bottom of a 6-panel page in which Bechdel juxtaposes images of an intense exercise program that she adopts to match her intense work schedule. In the second tier of two square panels, we see Bechdel on an exercise bike struggling to catch her breath and on her back on the floor trying to slow her heart rate during a tachycardia episode. Bechdel then expresses frustration that she couldn’t “increase her drawing speed by sheer force of will,” explaining that her “process had grown progressively more laborious over the years…” (172). In the left panel, we see a digital camera on a tripod in the foreground with the camera’s viewfinder framing a photo of Bechdel in the center of the panel pouring whiskey from a bottle into a glass. This doubling is then repeated with a difference in the right panel in which the viewer is in the position of the cartoonist, who holds the camera in her left hand with an enlarged close up of the image the hands, bottle, and glass as the right hand sketches the image in a panel-in-process on the page. The left panel includes a caption in the bottom right that reads, “first digital camera” and the right panel has a caption in the middle above the camera that says, “my comic strip.” This is Bechdel at her meta-best! We have a drawing of a staging of a digital photo and then a drawing of a drawing of the digital photo which stages for us Bechdel’s process of drawing her comic strip.

[1] I have written about Bechdel’s practice of graphic analysis, which I define as a “long and difficult therapeutic and creative process of doing and undoing the self in words and images” in her graphic narrative Are You My Mother? Lisa Diedrich, “Graphic analysis: Transitional phenomena in Alison Bechdel’s Are You My Mother?,” Configurations 22 (Fall 2014), 183-203. I have also taken up Bechdel’s work as an example of documenting health activism in comics in, Lisa Diedrich, “Drawing Health Activism: Illness Politics and Practices of Care in Graphic AIDS Narratives,” in Lester Friedman and Theresa Jones, eds. Handbook of Health and Media (New York and London: Routledge, 2022), 346-359.