Paul Hornschemeier and the Problem of Authenticity in Autobiographical Comics

Of This Much We Are Certain is a story designed to undermine the faith which undergirds all certainty in memory and narrative accounting.  By foregrounding the artistic process which produced the work in question, Paul Hornschemeier invites the reader to interrogate the relationships drawn both explicitly and implicitly between narrative(s) and reality in the comics form.  He accomplishes this end in a number of ways, all of which are unique to the comics form.  Drawing from Charles Hatfield’s “A Comics Toolkit,” this essay will foreground the elements of image/text interplay, panel composition, layout, and style, to demonstrate Hornschemeier’s challenge to authenticity in autobiographical comics, a contradiction which Charles Hatfield describes as the “problem of authenticity” (“I Made That Whole Thing Up”).

            The interplay of words and pictures, described by R.C Harvey as the most important distinguishing feature of the medium is, in the hands of autobiographical cartoonists, a means of appending a layer which both adds veracity (a picture being worth a thousand words) and falsity.  Hatfield notes the unique challenge to autobiographical truth that the, inherently caricatural, art of drawing the self, layers into the otherwise non-fiction form.  Hatfield compounds the assertions of Timothy Dow-Adams, whose work has largely sought to challenge the ability to write truth; narrative exigency requiring the elision of some details.  Hatfield, accordingly, rejects as more authentic, the banal admissions of Harvey Pekar, because they do not address this fundamental contradiction.  Hatfield puts forth Dan Clowes as a possible answer, because Clowes works, actively, to reveal the contradictions inherent in the autobiographical comics form. Hatfield calls this appeal to the very falsity of the form “ironic authentication” because it is a tactic, calculated or not, which seeks to gain the reader’s trust, even if it does so by challenging the basis of their reading of autobiography.  It is into this dialogue that Hornschemeier’s story interjects.

            Hornschemeier’s story sets out its dual timelines through the differentiation of the lettering style, the present (the story of the cartoonist) being lettered in block capitals, and the story of the boy being lettered in standard cursive.  The assumption of any reader faced with such a difference in caption style, is to assume a divergence in the narratives, an assumption which Hornschemeier quickly challenges by having the captions seem to follow on from one another, across these timelines.  In the first example, the cartoonist’s caption reads “There are simple facts that orient us in the story” with the following panel, aslant to imply it is the work in progress, bearing the caption “That this boy is running” (Hornschemeier 2.1-2).  Already, the syntactic assumptions inherent in the English language have led the reader to read the captions as linked. In the next panel, the trees which abut the panel border become the balloon which houses the caption, “That the boy is running after his friend.” This narration, set above an image of the same (absent the implied friendly relationship), exemplifies the duo-specific image/text combination described by McCloud (153).  This culminates in the final panel of the page, in which the cartoonist is shown in close-up, inclined toward his drawing table, beneath the caption “That the narrator is the boy” (2.5) This is the preface to the story to come, a truth claim which, as Hornschemeier’s title attests, relies on the presumption that this statement is, that it even could be, true.

            This tension is highlighted again as the story within a story is unfurled; created, if we connect its narrative to the detail shots of the inking brush which, presumably, is being used to fill in its swathes of starless sky (3.2-3). The caption to the story of the boy on 3.5 states “This story is stupid. He should stop. Why does he continue?” an answer to the prefatory anxiety of the cartoonist on page one, agonizing over what to write, that answer being, not this.  In the next panel, connected, again, by syntactic assumption on the part of the reader, the cartoonist’s caption reads “But he cannot die. We are reminded, as the boy is the narrator.”  The implication is that the story cannot be abandoned, that it has been set in motion, that it, like the fall at the story’s climax, is not predestined so much as in progress.  The only “certainty,” and here Hornschemeier plays with the reader’s assumptions about storytelling, is that three of the eight pages of a story are not going to be dedicated to an aborted tangent.

Later in the story, the picture plane itself is brought into tension with the image/text interplay.  From the beginning 1.4, the reader has been directed to regard the story of the boy as the product of the cartoonist, evidenced by the drawing table, the page in progress, and the inking brush from 1.6 which the cartoonist, presumably, holds in 2.2.  In 2.3, the panel borders of the comic and the comic within a comic diverge, the panel within a panel drawn at a slant to imply the surface of the drawing table as distinct from the picture plane of the page, an example of the tension between “narrative sequence and page surface” (“An Art of Tensions” 1). 

On page two, this divergence is still reinforcing the presumed difference between the boy and the cartoonist which is then called into question by the caption in 2.5.  In 5.3 and 5.4, the reader’s presumption is, again, played with.  5.3 shows a closeup of a shoe against a matte background, the implication being that this is the night sky to follow along with the boy’s story.  In 5.4, the panel, again, diverges from the meta-panel, and the camera seems to have shifted, revealing the previous panel to have been a closeup view of this larger panel.  What was a shoe floating in space for all the reader knows, is now revealed to be only inches above the ground, the boy, not levitating, but captured mid-stride.  The caption reads “How will you know you are right side up?” a question which, if we take the previous panel into account, can only be answered with uncertainty.  The next panel challenges this one, the cartoonist, consulting a book and producing, the caption implies, the scientific answer that “you will know you are upright by the semicircular canals in the inner ear” (5.5).  The contrary conclusions, the collision between the uncertainty of position and the “certainty” of scientific conjecture, is underscored by the fact that the cartoonist is viewed in opposing profile to the boy who is running right towards him.

This same interplay is brought to the fore on page six.  The first tier is divided in four, each version of the cartoonist varied not only by the seeming lack of connection between their actions, but by their changed clothing.  Contrasted with the captions “But this change in position of fluid will take time./And to register that change will take time./And for that time you will not know where you are./But you will assume that you know” this montage evokes not only the unique ability of comics to relate space to time (to borrow McCloud’s borrowing from Will Eisner) but also the inherent assumptions which readers make about continuity and causality between adjacent panels, a tendency McCloud calls “closure” (67).

            The gradual blending of the timelines through the image/text interplay is set against the more definitive division between panel compositions.  The heavy blacks of the night against which the story of the boy plays out are juxtaposed with the unshaded line art of the figures and the polished contours, particularly the geometric frame of the house, devoid of perspective like the prototypical rendering of a child artist (2.3 and 5).

This image is almost a negative to the positive of the cartoonist’s timeline, likewise un-shadowed, but with the addition of un-inked areas that evoke the effect of high key lighting blowing out patches of the cartoonist’s hair (4.1, 4, and 9).  This inversion of the monochrome is the primary way in which the timelines are differentiated until the final two pages which detail the accident, at the moment of, and after which, the boy’s timeline, even before the shift to day, is suddenly illuminated (7.4-7 and 8.1-3).

            Even in those final pages, however, the linework in the boy’s timeline is cleaner, if only because Hornschemeier doesn’t give the impression, as he does in the cartoonist’s timeline, of the art being unfinished.  Throughout the story, the cartoonist’s timeline is indicated by the inclusion of grey pencil lines alongside the black ink lines, often accompanied by penciled comments, including “push back a bit” (8.4), and the stenciled ruling lines which the cartoonist’s panels are lettered against.  This effect draws attention to the crafted nature of the cartoonist’s timeline, just as the narrative draws attention to the crafted nature of the boy’s story through references to the cartoonist’s profession.  The reader is prevented from dismissing this stylistic choice as a comic rushed to completion, however, because some of the penciled comments, including “fix” (1.4 and 8.7) refer to uneven ink lines, a latter step in the artistic process.

            The layout of the story is in tiers of three, with the exception of the title page which dedicates the first two tiers to a larger panel showing the spot-lit inner ear suspended over a puddle of shadow? Blood? Ink? We cannot be certain (2.1).  This surreal deviation from the “real” of the comic and comic within the comic is repeated in the pan shot that comprises the third tier of page seven, showing a substance rendered identically to the puddle beneath the floating cochlea, suggesting blood to complete the arrested fall of the panel before and the stain on the boy’s shirt on the first panel of the following page, but also suggesting the ink with which it is drawn and which fills the bottle which the cartoonist closes in 8.5, the first tier in the present timeline which follows the pan shot.  These two deviations, 2.1 and 7.5-7, and the repetition of the giant cochlea in 6.6 are, tellingly, also the most abstract moments in the story, the moments which cannot possibly have been witnessed by either the boy or the cartoonist, the former because it features a giant cochlea.  Incidentally, the cochlea is the only object in the story with value shading to emphasize its contours, besides that contributed by the un-erased pencil lines in the present timeline, making it both the most realistic and the most absurd rendering in the story.  The latter is abstract because the boy is, presumably, unconscious. The lettering precludes this being a present closeup of ink, except in the metatextual sense.           

            Certainty, Hornschemeier seems to suggest, is a product of presumption.  Just as abstract comics become comics largely because of the introduction of customary features of the medium, regardless of what is drawn in the panels, so, too, is certainty in storytelling undermined when the reader is forced to interrogate the assumptions that are an integral part of the process of reading comics (Groensteen).  If the reader cannot rely on the relationship (any relationship) between words in prose, or between panels in comics, then the contract is shattered.  If the reader cannot know that the cartoonist is the boy and vice versa, then the timelines which are so painstakingly laid out, blend.  This is true at another level, between the cartoonist and Hornschemeier himself, whose avatar the cartoonist, ostensibly, is.  Certainty is only achievable, in autobiographical comics at least, through a litany of unstable presumptions which constitute an additional wrinkle in Hatfield’s “problem of authenticity.”

Works Cited

Eisner, Will. Comics and Sequential Art: Principles and Practices from the Legendary Cartoonist. W.W. Norton, 2008.

Groensteen, Thierry. “Comics and the Test of Abstraction.” Comics and Narration. University      Press of Mississippi, 2013.

Harvey, Robert C. “Slouching Towards an Aesthetic.” The Art of the Comic Book: An Aesthetic      History. First ed., University Press of Mississippi, 1996.

Hatfield, Charles. “An Art of Tensions.” A Comics Studies Reader, edited by Jeet Heer and Kent                Worcester University Press of Mississippi, 2009, pp. 132-48

Hatfield, Charles. “I Made That Whole Thing Up.” Alternative Comics: An Emerging Literature.                 First ed., University Press of Mississippi, 2005.

Hatfield, Charles. “A Comics Toolkit: Formalist Perspectives.” Handout. California State    University, Northridge. Los Angeles. n.d. PDF.

Hornschemeier, Paul. “Of This Much We Are Certain.” Autobiographix, edited by Diana Schutz    1st ed., Dark Horse Books, 2003.

McCloud, Scott. Understanding Comics: [the Invisible Art]. 1st Harper Perennial ed., Harper         Perennial, 1994.