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Graphic Biography

Cultural Studies


GENG-7820-052 Topics in Visual Cultures: Graphic Biography
Professor C. Rifkind
Winter 2017

Wednesdays 6-9 PM

This course explores how contemporary alternative cartoonists are using comics to depict the complex interplay of history, celebrity, power, and personality that shapes the art of biography. We will read a range of graphic biographies about figures known for their political, scientific, artistic, and athletic achievements, including Louis Riel, Martin Luther King, Jr., Marie Curie, Alan Turing, Annie Sullivan, Vincent Van Gogh, John Coltrane, Michael Jordan, and Samia Yusuf Omar.

The forms and styles of the graphic biographies vary widely, from sketchy black-and-white to vibrant colour, and from realism to expressionism. As well, many of the texts reproduce archival elements, such as photographs and letters, even as they play with the very idea of documenting biographical truth. In addition to undertaking aesthetic and formal analysis of each text, we will investigate how lives and life narratives are shaped by race, religion, gender, sexuality, and citizenship. We will draw on comics theory, life writing studies, and celebrity studies to consider how each of the texts deals with the biomythologies of their subjects. Throughout, we will frame our discussions with a set of theoretical problems: whose lives enter collective memory and how? what are the ‘facts’ of a life? how can comics construct and deconstruct biography’s promise of intimate knowledge of the subject? how can we get a feel for the person and what they felt?

Students need no prior experience reading comics, nor any familiarity with the relevant theories, just an intellectual curiosity about this surprisingly complex area of popular culture and a willingness to participate in the collaborative environment of the seminar.