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Openness in Comics. An Unconventional Review

Updated: Nov 25, 2020

Published in 2016 by the University Press of Mississippi, Openness in Comics. Generating Meaning Within Flexible Structures is now available in paperback edition (2019), which testifies to the success and relevance of Maaheen Ahmed’s scholarly work. This review attempts at summarising the book’s insights with the aim of projecting them into the specific sub-area that concerns this blog: the representation of gender-based violence in graphic narratives.

As the title suggests, the volume takes as its point of departure Umberto Eco’s idea of “openness”, a criteria available to the literary critic who’s interested in judging a work’s ability to engage the reader in the (co)creation of meaning. Despite being a clear output of the Sixties’ cultural milieu, Eco’s theory still resonates to critical theorists. Its relevance is notable not only for those who participate in the currents and sub currents of Cultural Studies or for those who are interested in discussing the potential social impact of artworks. The emergence of the so-called “cognitive turn” in literary studies, which is characterised by a new curiosity towards the processes that determine the receiver’s participation, is another event that cannot but reinforce Eco’s popularity and influence among scholars.

But when it comes to the thematic focus and the medium that are of interest here - gender violence and graphic narratives - the concept of “openness” is not merely interesting, it is vital. Gender violence, on the one hand, is a social phenomenon that requires a discreet dose of empathetic commitment in order to be represented ethically, which is to say, in order to avoid the risk of its spectaculatisation. Comics, on the other hand, have built their scholarly success and respectability on the assumption that they can only be deciphered if a vigilant and active reader is involved (just think about Scott McCloud’s famous theory on the gutter as the locus where the receiver’s interpretation materialises). This last point is precisely the idea that Ahmed exploits, expands and supports by means of a critical analysis of fictionalised graphic memoirs and biographies such as Will Eisner’s The Contract with God Trilogy (1978), Jacques Tardi’s C’était la guerre des tranchées (1993), Hugo Pratt’s Saint-Exupéry – Le dernier vol (1995), Martin tom Dieck and Jens Belzer’s Salut, Deleuze! (2002), Frederic Boilet and Kan Trakahama’s Mariko Parade (2003) but also of adventure and superhero comics like Hugo Pratt’s Una ballata del mare salato (1967), Grant Morrison’s Arkham Asylum (1989), Sandman: Preludes and Nocturnes (1989).

Notwithstanding a clear deficiency determined by the choice of not including in the analysis works by women, feminist comics/graphic novels or any sort of reference to gendered violence, the author’s reflection on comics’ general tendency to employ autofictional and metafictional devices that open the text by stimulating the reader’s awareness on the dynamics of narrative construction proves central to the study of contemporary graphic narratives on sexist abuse. The transparency of the author/narrator position (as well as the reader’s ability to infer on its, always critical, development) is, in fact, one of the preconditions for an ethical representation of patriarchal abuse. Otherwise, how could anyone avoid appropriation in telling the victim(s)’ story of objectification and, possibly, survival?

Intermediality – namely, a work’s capacity to include references to other media within the text – is another aspect of comics’ openness, according to Ahmed. In the field of graphic portrayals of gender violence, the propensity to transcend media boundaries with the aim of amplifying the receiver’s experience of and engagement with the text is evident. One of the many examples is the Indian comic Priya’s Shakti, which was created in 2014 as a response to a vicious gang rape happened in New Delhi and still continues to experiment with augmented reality, street art, video to promote its narrative against violence on women to a wide audience.

Last but not least, “disjointness” is the characteristic that, more than anyone else, Ahmed labels as pivotal to comics’ openness. That productive divide between verbal and graphic communication, as well as between different panels, is what enlarges comics’ potential to offer a complex and never pacified representation of reality, thus assisting the reader in her creative endeavour. Once again, this quality is fundamental if applied to gender violence, an area of feminist discourse in which gender binarisms are still dominant (think, for example, at the realistic but conceptually problematic distinction between female victim and male perpetrator). In light of this, the stratification and ambiguity produced by the sometimes contradictory interplay of words and images within separate panels might be of help in the production of portrayals that, instead of simply describing or denouncing the structures of patriarchal abuse, aim at challenging it by problematising the very distinctions (the gender ones) that lie at its core.

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