The expansion of Anglo-American comics scholarship in recent years derives in part from a long-overdue recognition that comics deserve study as a medium in their own right. A more enlightened generation of comics scholars have voiced protests against the conflation of comics with literature because such comparisons are misguided, unhelpful, and ultimately stem from an unnecessary anxiety about the status of comics as a fitting subject for study at higher educational levels. Comics are often subject to the criticism that their medium-specific immediacy renders them ill-suited for the kind of intellectual and critical analysis to which purely verbal texts lend themselves. Instead of treating comics as an inferior subset of literature as it is represented by prose narratives, a more productive line of enquiry involves a rejection of the assumption that narrative is independent of the medium in which it appears and to develop analytical approaches and frameworks which enable the scholar to focus on storytelling as dictated by the constraints and possibilities of the medium in which the story is told. The study of narrative across media is today led by such luminaries as Marie-Laure Ryan and David Herman, and it opens up opportunities for interdisciplinary exploration and academic collaboration with scholars from other fields of enquiry such as film, art, psychology, and the cognitive sciences.
This study takes for its focus the creation of fictional consciousness in comics and explores aspects of visual storytelling in order to account for how a comics reader ascribes a mind to a visually-rendered character. Focalization is central to the study of fictional consciousness and comics scholarship brings a fresh perspective to this concept, one which has occasioned much debate in the study of prose narratives. The application of previous focalization research to a different medium expands the scope of the discussion and entails the possibility of fresh insights. I begin by placing the primary text under discussion in its context as a member of the canon of publications in the genre of graphic medicine, and its status as an autobiographical text. I discuss how genre and public discussions surrounding cancer discourse might affect or even dictate reader expectations, and to complement this discussion I examine the book’s critical reception and real reader responses to the character of Iris. There follows a very brief discussion of current debates in comics scholarship and a cautionary note regarding the omission of any discussion of page layout in this study; discussion of the same features heavily in most comics scholarships, but is not pursued here. I then turn to a more detailed exploration of three areas which contribute to character construction in comics: the depiction of face and body, speech and thought representation, and pictorial metaphor. The final section investigates the concept of focalization in relation to the construction of a fictional mind and endorses the suggestion from film theory that images can simultaneously display several levels of narration.
The primary text for this study is Rachael Ball’s The Inflatable Woman (hereafter TIW) published by Bloomsbury in 2015. Where illustrations are featured to support the argument, all page references are to this edition. The author of this study is a reader in the Western tradition, hence comments relating to reader response to images and reading paths should be understood within the conventions of this tradition. There are numerous terms used for the kind of narrative under discussion here, many of which are tainted by the value judgements of those who coined them; for example, ‘graphic novel’ has become popular with publishers who wish to capitalise on adult enthusiasm for such narratives, but who do not wish to use the descriptor ‘comics’ for fear that this term is associated with publications aimed for consumption by children and superheroes enthusiasts. I have no problem with the word ‘comics’ and I use it wherever possible throughout, as a catch-all term which encompasses every kind of graphic storytelling, including the text under discussion.
Summary of the story (*spoilers*)
Zookeeper Iris discovers two lumps in her right breast and is diagnosed with cancer. While Iris is undergoing a mastectomy and receiving treatment, she enters into an online correspondence with ‘sailorbuoy-39’, or Henry, who describes himself as a lighthouse keeper. Iris, or ‘balletgirl42’, tells him that she is a prima ballerina. Iris and Henry meet for a date, following which Iris buys a wedding veil. Iris’ friend Maud urges her to tell Henry how she feels, but when Iris writes to Henry that she loves him, Henry responds with the news that he has been posted to a lighthouse in the North Pole with no internet or telephone reception and he must say farewell forever. Iris breaks down during her next hospital appointment.
Maud and Granma Suggs drive Iris to The Helping Hand, an alternative clinic for cancer sufferers. Iris finds it impossible to communicate with the other women present, inspiring those running the clinic to take drastic action: Plan X, or The Early Death Experience. The women dig a huge hole in the garden, and Iris is tricked into spending the night there. Polly, one of the other patients, arrives with wine and talks to Iris about the purpose of the exercise. Iris is visited in the night by all the nightmarish visions which have haunted her throughout her illness, but emerges from the hole the next day to cheers and congratulations. Iris leaves the clinic and takes the train back to the zoo. The journey is peaceful until Iris spots Henry standing at a station. He calls and waves to her, and she waves back as the train pulls out, but she knows the dream has gone: as the reader is already aware, Henry is not a lighthouse keeper after all.
The story closes a year later, when crowds fill the zoo for a sold-out World Tour: Maud plays the violin while the penguins perform acrobatics, and Iris, dressed in a tutu, leaps onto the stage to tumultuous applause.