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Multiplying Stories across the Body: Embodiment in Autobiographical Graphic Illness Narratives


On May 23, 2024

by Nancy Pedri, Professor & Head English, Memorial University of Newfoundland (Canada)

Embodiment theory holds that “every human stands in a unique and exclusive relationship to her own body” (Buckley and Hall 1999, 191) and that “the boundaries of our embodiment are determined by something about how we experience our bodies as sites of agency and subjectivity” (Aas 2021, 6511). Embodiment announces the body’s position in the world, and it is through this positionality – this embodied experience of the physical, social, and cultural world – that a sense of self is formulated.

Embodiment – “the relationship between bodily identity and subjectivity” (El Refaie 2012 51) – is of utmost importance when studying autobiographical graphic illness narratives because in the comics medium characters are repeatedly and often differently drawn. The repetition of characters and their bodies “promotes a particular kind of embodied understanding of the events represented, along with access to the emotional worlds of the characters” (Davis 2015, 253). Embodiment becomes stylistically and thematically complex in autobiographical graphic illness narratives – autobiographical graphic narratives in which the autobiographical subject relates their personal experience with mental or physical illness – because they feature an autobiographical subject that grapples with changing physical and emotional experiences of self. As in other autobiographical comics, the body is literally “on the page” (Chute 2010, 10), but when the focus is on an ill body or mind its bold assertion of an embodied sense of self is fraught with the vulnerability and unpredictability of illness (see DeFalco 2016, 225).

Drawing examples from several autobiographical graphic illness narratives, I will trace various narrative strategies used to multiply stories – of self, of illness, of the discourses surrounding illness – across the body. This overview will serve to highlight how ill subjects struggle to embody a coherent sense of self. Ultimately, I reach the conclusion that embodiment in autobiographical graphic illness narratives at once provides access to the subject’s illness experience and creates distance from that experience.

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Aas, Sean. 2021. “Prosthetic Embodiment.Synthese 198 (7): 6509-32.
Buckley, Joseph and Lisa Hall. 1999. “Self-knowledge and Embodiment.SouthwestPhilosophy Review 15 (1): 185-96.
Chute, Hillary. 2010. Graphic Women: Life Narrative and Contemporary Comics. New York:Columbia University Press.
Davis, Rocío G. 2015. “Layering History: Graphic Embodiment and Emotions in G. B. Tran’s Vietnamerica.Rethinking History 19 (2): 253-67.
DeFalco, Amelia. 2016. “Graphic Somatography: Life Writing, Comics, and the Ethics of Care.” Journal of Medical Humanities 37 (3): 223-40.
El Refaie, Elisabeth. 2012. Autobiographical Comics: Life-writing in Pictures. Jackson:University Press of Mississippi.


Nancy Pedri is Professor of English at Memorial University of Newfoundland and Labrador, where she has taught since 2006. She is an award-winning author and has published extensively in the fields of comics studies and word and image studies, including photography in literature. Her latest monographs on comics, Experiencing Visual Storyworlds: Focalization in Comics with S. Horstkotte (Ohio State UP) and A Concise Dictionary of Comics (UP of Mississippi) were published in 2022.


On May 23, 2024


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Submitted on April 15, 2024

Updated on May 16, 2024