Art and Narrative: The Monitor Has Two Faces
Carl Jung called it the Shadow, though it's most commonly referred to as the Alter-Ego these days – a way of understanding how the different, and occasionally disparate parts of our personality relate to one another. The alter ego is that reflection of our inner-selves that we project into the outer world.
Occasionally the relationship between the self and the alter ego works itself out in very literal terms, as in Robert Louis Stevenson's classic Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde, common to the super-hero genre in comic books and film. For the purpose of this column, however, I would like to concentrate on the more subtle, and primarily figurative relationship between webcomics creators and their "created" personas.
Unlike most mainstream comics, webcomics are generally the product of one person (though there are plenty of exceptions). Being the product of one person, webcomics can sometimes give us some interesting insights into their creator's personality – in particular, how they see and imagine themselves.
Journal or diary comics are the easiest to start with because the creator in question has decided to explicitly represent themselves in some fashion. These alter-egos are intended as thinly-veiled, and often slightly-iconic versions of their creators. when you read Les McClaine's Life With Leslie, there is no question that Les in the strip is a relfection of the real Les. At the same time it's important to remember that sequential story-telling relies almost entirely on what the artist chooses to show us in each panel – in other words, the creator of a journal comic and the character he or she creates are not necessarily one in the same. Remember back in school when the teacher would remind you that the narrator of a story and the author were not always the same person?
James Kochalka draws himself as an elf, but he does not have pointed ears. The elf in Kochalka's Sketchbook Diaries, and their online incarnation American Elf, is the slightly goofy and occasionally mischievous image that James has created to represent himself in those portions of his life he chooses to share. It's a portrait that recalls a certain degree of simplicity and childhood innocence, and reminds us of the more fantastic and occasionally magical aspects of every day life. The elf is the part of James that he chooses to share in comics. The same could be said for Ryan Sias, Kelli Nelson, or any one of the many Journal comics creators out there.
What I find even more interesting that the more explicit representations we find in journal comics are those that turn up in those webcomics that don't claim to represent "real life". For instance, Is Dorothy Gambrell more Cat than Girl? Is Pete Abrams more Torg or Riff? Of course I'm oversimplifying. The relationship between the creator and the fictional characters they create is a complicated one, and more than likely all the characters possess certain aspects of the person who created them, but the question of whom those creators most identify with in their strips is an interesting one.
In some instances it can be relatively easy to identify a creator's alter ego. Superosity's Chris may not look like creator Chris Crosby, but he is most certainly his alter ego. Likewise, in spite of John Allison's attempts to leave him behind when he ended Bobbins and moved on to Scary Go Round, Tim Jones is still very much an alter-ego.
What's most interesting to me about these webcomic alter-egos is that they are not always intentional, and often develop over time. They may begin as a secondary character, but they gradually take on a life of their own. Though they may share some traits in common with their creators they also tend to possess other traits which the creator may grudgingly admire in some way. Shaenon Garrity may not be a mad scientist specializing in evil genetics, but she and Helen Narbon have a very close relationship. Similarly, I would hope that Lee Herold doesn't know as much about chopping as his alter-ego, Butch, does.
The relationship between a creator and his or her comic alter-ego is one that develops over time. Like relationships with friends or family members, and our own self-image, it grows and changes. Our alter-egos represent us insomuch as they tell us about our dreams, our fears, and our longings. To Carl Jung, uncovering our Shadow was the first step towards a better and more thorough understanding of ourselves – a process which he called Individuation. In a sense, the comics we make, besides allowing us to entertain and blow off steam, can also help us grow as people.
Actually, I suppose I should be wondering how this all applies to our Editor in Chief, Mr. Damonk, and why his alter-ego derives so much pleasure from locking folks up in comic prisons. Could it be he longs to be a law-man underneath, or does he just wish he could keep us all locked up so we don't miss our column deadlines?...
Come to think of it, I haven't been outside for anything longer than a walk around the cell-block in the last six months.
Bill Duncan is the Art Editor for the site.