Thursday, 2 December 2010

Autobiographical Comics and Constructions of Happiness

I was recently asked to write about my '100 Tiny Moments' project in relation to the concept of 'Construction of Happiness', which is an arts project by Astrid Bussink.  It's been a year and a day since I started the hundred days project so I thought it would be a timely moment to post the piece.  You can explore Astrid's project here.

Comics are simply the meeting of words and pictures.  But as the great comics autobiographer Harvey Pekar once stated “You can do anything with words and pictures”.  There’s something sweet and childlike about this philosophy - the idea that by matching words and pictures we can create a new more perfect artform, full of possibility.  It suggests that the comics artist is a pioneer, constantly able to reinvent visual language through new combinations of word and image.  Because comics utilise these two factors of visual communication (two factors, incidentally, that stimulate different sides of the human brain), the comics artist is free to shape representation in a way unparalleled by any other medium.  And when we shape representation, we can shape our own realities, constructing a vision of our world more perfect and more desirable than the real one.  As a result Comics are perhaps one of the artforms most suited to the construction of happiness.  

A comic character’s face can be as basic as a few lines, an almost blank canvas onto which we can project ourselves or others.  But with a few lines, we can also create an ideal self, a simple, perfect alternate.  For my project ‘100 Tiny Moments From My Past, Present and Future’ I illustrated one hundred autobiographical comic stories over the course of one hundred days.  The characters I drew were far from realistic, but instead perfect projections of the world around me.  The comics version of me is an idealised iteration: with an oversized head and big eyes he looks more like a bearded baby than he looks like the real me.  It is a childlike interpretation of the self, a mirror-phase reflection that helps me understand who I am.

Problematic is the fact that our comics equivalents can come to develop powers beyond our own.  In superhero lore comics characters possess God-like abilities we could never dream of, but even in the autobiographical strip such mutations can occur.  In condensing and caricaturing reality, you have to select what parts of that reality you wish to interpret.  For brevity you discard inconvenient elements so that a conversation full of stutters, and hems and haws become sharp and witty exchanges.  Your real life self could never deliver such sentiments with the same timing and eloquence!

For all this egoistic revisionism of life, there’s something sweet too about how you can construct your happiness in a comic.  Comics, like any art, allow us to reflect on our lives, and think about our futures.  In my comics I was able to look at my relationship with my girlfriend and build a portrait of it that reflected the good and hopeful things within it, hopefully whilst avoiding too much sentimentality.  How much this portrait resembles our actual relationship, I’m not even sure myself, so entwined are my experiences of those 100 days with the creation of the comics.  I do know though, that like my self portrait, these strips reflect my relationships as I think of them and wish them to be.

Within ‘100 Tiny Moments…’ there are stories where my take on autobiography is to project into the future and take a look at my hopes and fears for what is still to come.  These comics show me as an old man, in poor health and confused by the world around me, or as a parent playing father to imagined offspring.  I predict my death more than once: by unexpected nuclear strike in the near future, by heart attack when in my late forties, and by unexplained causes in my later life.

 There’s perhaps something morbid about these comic strips, but for me they are the perfect construction of happiness.  Looking to the future, and dealing with the fictional pain and joy that we all live through was a cathartic experience.  To imagine the world shortly after my death, where life goes on and I slowly fade from memory, for me this is in many ways a celebration - of life and of the fact that I am part of the ongoing chain of human existence, even if to me no God or spiritual world sits on the other side to make life mean anything other than what it is.

I spent 100 days constructing a document of happiness part real, part imagined.  There is something ‘true’ in this autobiography, even if it isn’t all 100% accurate to real life events.  To attempt such anyway would, I think, be false.  Like the documentarian trying to suggest that their presence is unseen and uninfluential, to suggest that your autobiographical comics have not been constructed is to miss the fact that in drawing pictures and writing words, our choices act to construct our vision of reality.

The major question this whole critique raises though is whether through creating constructions of happiness it is possible to create actual happiness.  Does a representation of possibly faked or exaggerated happiness produce happiness in the real world?  For my readers, I think it did to an extent - as with all art, the viewer experiences and engages with art, and when that art touches a nerve or reflects a truth, that viewer may find a moment of happiness is seeing something they have experienced reflected back at them.  For me, I think too I managed to generate some real world happiness.  From an artistic perspective, the act of creation, and especially the resulting attention from people reading and appreciating my work, brought a lot of pleasure.  Then comes the pleasure too of analysing your happiness (or lack thereof) by constructing images of it.  By drawing strips about my early relationship with my girlfriend, I open that memory up.  It becomes a story that has been told, more real and more fresh for being immortalised on paper - past happiness is brought into the present, and preserved for the future.

Check out Astrid Bussink's project at: www.constructionsofhappiness.com

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