Mirrors in Autobiographical Graphic Novels–Lynda Barry
Civilization’s first gesture is to hold up a mirror to the Object, but the Object is only seemingly reflected therein; in fact, it is the Object itself which is the mirror.
~Jean Baudrillard, The Transparency of Evil, 172-173
– the terror of the / mirror held up by one’s own self up to one’s broken nature – […] IS THIS TRUE? The terrible wrestle / to convey the truth since there is always the temptati- / on/the seduction to allow the word to lead you on to something else to falsify or make it easier on yrself
~Kamau Brathwaite, The Zea Mexican Diary, 151
Why are there so many mirrors in graphic novels? Characters in comics are constantly playing Narcissus, particularly in the autobiographies. Ritually, they look at themselves in mirrors. Where actual mirrors do not appear, the gutters impersonate them and take on their properties. In such instances, gutters are neither empty nor simply connective but refractive. They reflect the panels between them while preserving a sovereign space of difference that allows panels to be read sequentially.[i]
Given their provocative abundance, mirrors both actual and symbolic in comics prod us to wonder about matters of illustration and fidelity, those telling and inevitable departures from the real that any drawing conveys and which become all the more telling in the case of a supposedly autobiographical text.
Lynda Barry’s One Hundred Demons (2002) opens by wondering the same thing. It begins with a mirror scene of Barry painting herself in a miniature self-portrait. She appears in the little picture exactly as she does in the larger one, the panel. This arrangement creates a visual pun. The smaller image may be seen as either a painting or a mirror.
Fortifying the conundrum, the accompanying captions raise questions of veracity as part of the memoir’s obligatory “autobiographical pact.” Philippe Lejeune explains how the truth claims made at the start of any autobiography—what he calls the “autobiographical pact”—help to establish an autobiographer’s authority according to subjective, rather than verifiable, truths.[ii] Although the autobiographical pact usually takes the form of a proposition, it comes as series of questions in One Hundred Demons.
Sitting at her drawing table in the first panel, Barry muses, “Is it autobiography if parts of it are not true?” In the second panel, she inverts the question: “Is it fiction if parts of it are?”[iii] Her posture in the second panel mirrors the self-portrait on the table before her and plunges the whole scene into the abyss of the comics’ mirror.
The word “abyss” is apt as this scene exemplifies the classic trope of a reflection within a reflection, or mise en abyme, meaning ‘to place into the abyss.’ For Barry, authorial self-reflection conjures a space outside of and prior to narrative. In this space, vexations peculiar to autobiography suspend the story before it officially begins.
By calling attention to the same homology of content and structure that Jean Baudrillard’s epigraph describes above, Barry’s figure of the mirror-within-a-mirror seeks to assuage those anxieties of self-consciousness that Kamau Brathwaite laments.[iv] The very act of holding up a mirror to behold the terrors it reveals about the self is shown to be essential to the game of indirection played by both psyches and forms of representation like the comics.
In a way, Barry’s outspokenness about the ineluctable fictions of life writing seems intended not only to confess but also to bypass the paradoxes of her project. As Hillary Chute puts it, “Barry embraces the discursive and generic fault lines of her work as productive, making that instability […] the basis upon which we approach her work.”[v]
By bridging the gulf between fact and fiction, Barry implicitly forces her audience to lend credibility even to the most fanciful elements of her paintings such as the unruly parade of demons in the margins. Moreover, Barry’s collage-based aesthetic and scrapbookish sense of kitsch thicken the reading process, according to Chute, representing memory as a material construct, a “ruffling…[of] the visual surface of the text.”[vi]
Eccentric, colorful, and surprisingly physical, Barry’s pictorial style divulges as it veils.
This familiar paradox of art being the lie—to paraphrase Picasso—“that helps us realize the truth” is not unique to Barry.[vii] Tensions between the cartoonish and the cathartic typify graphic novel memoir, as authorial anxiety regards itself in mirrors compulsively in a range of texts.
[i] This sovereign space of difference is partly influenced by Jean Baudrillard’s notion of the simulacrum. I go on to argue elsewhere that some sequential relationships between panels suggest the gutter to behave as a kind of mirror, replicating as well as relating images in narrative time and space. In Baudrillard’s usage, a representation ultimately preserves the “sovereign difference” between itself and its referent between the concept of a thing and the thing in reality. Simulacra, on the other hand, call both this difference and its sovereignty into question. Jean Baudrillard, Selected Writings, p. 170.
[ii] Philippe Lejeune, “The Autobiographical Pact,” pp. 3-30.
[iii] Lynda Barry, One Hundred Demons, p. 7.
[iv] Mise en abyme, French for “put into the abyss,” is the miniature replication of the whole within some portion of it, a device that therefore reveals the constructedness of mediation (visual or textual). Clichéd uses of it include the picture of someone holding a picture depicting the same scene ad infinitum.
[v] Hillary L. Chute, Graphic Women: Life Narrative and Contemporary Comics, p. 109.
[vi] Chute, Graphic Women, p. 111.
[vii] Robert Cumming, Art: The World’s Greatest Paintings Explored and Explained, p. 98.
For more see my essay, which this post excerpts, Terrors of the Mirror and the Mise en Abyme of Graphic Novel Autobiography published in College Literature 38.3 (2011): 21-44.