Back and Further Back to the Drawing Table
Scholars have given a name to the pictorial moment where medieval scribes include their own self-portraits within the curves of illuminated letters. They call it the “colophon,” which designates a “signature-inscription.” So if I were to sign everything with an MAC, in which a tiny picture of me moons you from behind the final staff of the M, that would be my colophon.
In the origin of the term, colophon once indicated merely the scribe’s mention of the place or date of production. Eventually, the term grew—perhaps due to an increasing appreciation for the significance of images—to encompass “images of the scribe or author when they are the same individual wherever such images appear in” medieval manuscripts (Azar Rejaie, “Late Medieval Self-Portraiture…” Authorship 1.1 2011; n. 2).
While medieval scholars disagree on the frequency of these colophons, there is consensus regarding the significance of the depicted gesture. As with our contemporary artists like Julie Doucet, the great Quebecois comics memoirist, the appearance of the person responsible for the book is said by medieval scholars to have created a point of metaphorical rupture and convergence for readers. It connects the mediated object (the book) to its actual maker and implied reader.
Given the fact that many of the artisans undertaking the work of illumination were also clerics, scholars have noted a spiritual implication to the signature-inscription and its visual emphasis on the tools of production: “the image is of the craftsman at work, doing work, and thus, perhaps, we are to appreciate the fruits of his finished labor. If this interpretation is valid, this type of self-image would parallel many existing colophons that enjoin the reader’s attention to the worthiness of the work, and recommend the scribe’s soul to God” (Rejaie).
Little effort is required to find colophonic analogues in Julie Doucet’s quirkily gritty My New York Diary. With an inky line style that combines the aesthetics of punk rock with the anxieties of a hoarder, Doucet portrays herself on the cover in a pose as old as the illuminated manuscript.
She sits in profile, writing meditatively in what appears to be more of a journal than a comic. Her table is teeming with clutter. Like the myriad objects littered throughout the room, the table has sundry things on and below it. Nevertheless, each thing is curiously recognizable. Each object is distinct despite seeming to have been strewn about as part of the general disorder of random objects that compete for visual attention in the frenetic background.
The shoe, hair brush, brushes in a can, the electric plug, coffee mug, and waving little man only mimic cacophony. Further scrutiny reveals the careful orchestration lying behind their placement. Each “thing” occupies its space in the panel and each available space of the panel is occupied by a visually-independent and readily recognizable object.
If the picture plane of the self-portrait reflects the unconscious, Doucet’s self-conception represents identity in relation to other entities normally rejected from consideration. This portrait tells us that the refuse of life is never refused by Doucet. Rather, these typically overlooked objects dance with unexpected life when seen through her eyes.
We are not just seeing Julie here, but seeing as her.
Doucet’s vision reflects a radical egalitarianism. Even the ordinary dirty ashtray is imbued with value. It is visually delineated. It has an anthropomorphic spark of subjectivity about it. And it vies for attention within the panel.
The ashtray, as well as most every other object in other words, has ego and competes with Julie and for our sympathies. This design proposes both the radical equivalence of humans and things as well as the absurdity of the proposition.
After all, the clutter is never taken for itself. It is never simply a matter of mise en scene, but an artful excess of background. The aggressive egoification of detail blurs foreground and background, human and thing, but it does so ultimately always with its tongue firmly in its cheek. We know this by virtue of the ubiquitous sight-gag embedded amidst Julie’s charismatic junk—the cup that winks at us from one panel to the next, or the bottle that begins to do a little dance for us in the corner of a panel.
The unexpectedly animate detritus of Doucet’s unkempt existence may require us to let go of the arbitrary detentes we make between fore- and background. It may require us to squint away the boundaries separating humans and hodgepodge. And yet our laxity with boundaries is only temporary.
According to the rhythms of the comic strip joke, with its set-ups, intervals, gags, and necessary returns to normalcy, our eye can always travel from the boundary-crossing junk back to Julie, the artist, writer, and spiritual conduit who has given all of these things life in the first place.
For if we drift too far from her, winks return us scurrying back. When my eye alights upon that background object that decides to grow a pair of winking eyes and little dancing legs, it’s the wink that matters. It pushes me back to the only eyes in the portrait that truly see.