Comically speaking with Dr. Linda Warley


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Dr. Linda Warley was recently interviewed by Inside Arts about her research and book. We are please to share just a bit of the fine reporting Inside Arts does about our campus culture.

Comics to graphic texts

Comics means everything from the serialized comics in newspapers to sophisticated works of art in graphic form. We tend to use the term graphic novel to encompass all forms, but in our book Canadian Graphic, the essays look very specifically at graphic books that are not novels, but are based on autobiography (writing about the self) or biography (writing about another ‘real’ person). The subtitle of our book is “Picturing life narratives.”

The genre is generally associated with Marvel superheroes; but Canadian work does not always fit with that genre – not at all! They are often anti-heroic; in fact, they are sometimes downright mundane in terms of the everyday-ness of the lives depicted.

This is the first book-length publication that specifically focuses on Canadian authors, and that was the most important thing to Candida Rifkind, my co-editor, and me. While there are many well-known Canadian comics authors such as Seth and Chester Brown, they tend to be subsumed into North American lists and studies rather than being recognized specifically as Canadian authors.

When we were reading submissions for the book, we were really impressed with the kind of sophisticated analytical strategies that the authors brought to the genre – the kind of nuance they identified in the graphic texts.

Are graphic texts a good way into studying literature?

They can be! We have to develop new forms of literacy, and I think that’s fine – things change. Teaching graphic texts in undergrad courses is a wonderful opportunity to teach students about reading at a critical distance. Unlike literary texts, you’re looking at pictures and words, the frames on the page and their arrangement, the amount of white space, the colours — all those elements.

Graphic texts (or comics) have not been particularly valued as a form of literature until quite recently. But graphic texts are definitely a dominant form now and are taught in universities and high schools; libraries including, academic libraries, have large collections; and there are plenty of publications and conferences focused on the genre.

A few favourite graphic texts

I find the memoir Tangles by Sarah Leavitt about her mother’s dementia is really moving; and Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? by Roz Chas is about the author’s relationship with her aging parents – something I can really relate to. That’s what the graphic form can do: for instance, when the artist draws the narrator in a state of real anxiety or anger, it can be conveyed in a really powerful way in an image; you can look at it for a second and feel that rage or frustration.

Among Canadian graphic texts, I would say Chester Brown’s Riel is a deeply thoughtful and well historicized work about the Northwest Resistance. I’ve used it in my Métis literature class because it gives a basic background and really interesting insights into the final years of Riel’s life – and it’s a fast read. Chester Brown is very self-conscious that he is representing the story as a non- Métis, so there are footnotes and other para-textual material. And there’s no question of Seth’s influence and power: his visual style is instantly recognizable and he has an international reputation.

Who would be interested in Canadian Graphic?

Scholars of autobiography would use it, many of whom look at multi-modal texts – texts that are not traditionally just written. There is a lot of interest in Canadian courses. Last week I was in Montreal and went to the Drawn & Quarterly bookstore (Drawn & Quarterly is a leading publisher of graphic texts), and it was nice to see the book is carried there — especially given it’s a scholarly book in a mainstream store. Words Worth Books here in town sells it, and McNally Robinson in Winnipeg held a book launch for us. So, it’s being sold to the general public.

It’s a very readable book. The writers did an excellent job making their essays accessible to a broad audience. In fact, that’s one of the reasons it won the Gabrielle Roy Prize: readability is one of the criteria.

For me, it’s a career highlight, to win that prize for a book of criticism. And, my colleague Win Siemerling won the Gabrielle Roy Prize last year; it’s remarkable that two profs in the same department at Waterloo have won the prize two years in a row. I think it really does say something about the strength of Canadian studies here.

Read more from Inside Arts.

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