Drawn to life: the diary as method and politics in the comics art of Gabrielle Bell and Julie Doucet

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Brief excerpt: As forms of autobiography, diaries are often framed as secret, private, and confessional modes—they are presumed (desired) as an unfiltered and uncensored genre. In popular culture, diaries are frequently used to connote the image (or experience) of a teenage girl and are connected to expectations for emotionally heightened and subjective or unfiltered narration. Suzanne Bunkers says: as a form of life writing, the diary crosses that often-blurred (and sometimes imaginary) border between the public and the private, the literary and the historical. The diary also crosses generic boundaries and, although it is not bound by gender, the diary provides an especially congenial form of personal narrative for girls. What is “congenial” (or not) about the diary to girls is a focus in this chapter, which explores the diary comics of Julie Doucet and Gabrielle Bell as texts that negotiate with the cultural status of the diary as a mode implicitly connected to private life, to female (girlhood) experience, and to subjective self-reflection. That is, these visual artists use diary as a method, a discipline for managing and producing a sustained output in a comics medium, but they also mobilize rhetorical and affective qualities of the genre that are tied to the broader cultural status of diary as a form of autobiographical self-representation. The diary is “congenial” to the kind of ongoing, serial labor that a certain type of comics output demands, but it is also a mode that allows for other modes of otherwise marginalized experience and subjectivity to emerge into view. For example, like comics, diaries have often been regarded as both lowbrow (non-literary) and juvenile (unsophisticated). For female authors who are seeking to turn their attention to much-maligned zones of female, domestic, and quotidian experience, stereotypes of childishness or girlishness are tropes that they might choose to resist or deploy. This is something that comics scholar Hillary Chute has looked at particularly sharply, for example, in relation to works like those by Phoebe Gloeckner, whose Diary of a Teenage Girl (2002) mobilizes discourses of public/private knowledge in relation to both childhood and genre, enabling “the narrativization and display of what has been typically excluded from the public realm”. The diary comic is a particularly dynamic site for such negotiations and politics to unfold and become visible. Structurally, both diaries and comics have a special relationship to temporality and narration over time, and they share a cultural and disciplinary status as marginal, though this is changing. The potential of comics as art, however, has been a key development in critical engagements with the medium and has shaped the production and reception of comics in recent times and indeed, has even produced a “comics canon”. Jospeh Witek, in his assessment of the historical development of the comics form, argues that the advent of the long comic book, or “graphic novel,” has had a profound effect on the evolving perception of comics as a literary mode. The comic as graphic “novel” confers a prestige that newspaper comic strips, for example, have otherwise been viewed as lacking. Subsequently, comic strips and comic books must be seen to “differ in their situations in the marketplace, in their cultural status, in their physical mode of presentation, and in the reading conventions they evoke”. Thus, Witek, for example, advocates for the term “sequential art” over “comics.” The diary has a similar relationship to markets and readers, and a similar trajectory (also somewhat visible in nomenclature): long regarded as a “marginal” form and as an incidental autobiographical mode best understood as a mine for anecdotal or biographical information, the diary is increasingly visible as a published literary form and has gained prominence as a deliberate mode of autobiographical address. Both diaries and comics, then, can be understood as culturally marginal forms that are evolving and changing in a contemporary context.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationThe comics of Julie Doucet and Gabrielle Bell
Subtitle of host publicationa place inside yourself
EditorsTahneer Oksman, Seamus O'Malley
Place of PublicationMississippi
PublisherUniversity Press of Mississippi
Number of pages21
ISBN (Electronic)9781496820594, 9781496820600
ISBN (Print)9781496820570, 9781496821096, 9781496820617
Publication statusPublished - 2019


  • Diaries
  • Popular culture
  • Teenage girls
  • life writing
  • Personal narratives


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