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Authenticity in Graphic Memoirs

Two Nordic Examples

Nina Ernst


This article examines the use of photography in relation to the creation of meaning in graphic memoirs. The use of photography is contextualised as one of a range of documentary sources, and discussed as a means of mediating other forms which otherwise would not be readily included in the graphic novel format. Authenticity is explored in relation to the autobiographical works of two Nordic authors, Hanneriina Moisseinen and Mats Jonsson in which it is possible to see the role of photography in the reflexive gaze, and in the creation and management of self-image. It is argued that photographic images are a mixture of candid and posed, public and private, and are strategically used to convey a sense of process in the creation of identity. In addition, they contribute to the creation of cultural memory and its dissemination to new audiences. The article also illustrates how photographs themselves can be mediated as drawings, and how they relate to peritext, fictionalisation and narrative framing, aiding in the exploration of themes of loss, identity, and memory creation.


Cet article s’intéresse à l’usage de la photographe dans ses rapports avec la production du sens dans les mémoires graphiques. Cet usage est contextualisé comme une des sources documentaires possibles, et on l’aborde comme un instrument de médiation avec d’autres formes que sans cela il serait difficile d’inclure dans le format du roman graphique. Nous étudions plus particulièrement la notion d’authenticité dans les travaux autobiographiques de deux auteurs noridiques, Hanneriina Moisseinen et Mats Jonsson, dont l’écriture a une forte dimension réflexive et contribue à la mise en place et la gestion d’une image de soi. L’analayse cherche à démonter que les images photographiques sont un mélange de caméra cachée et d’images posées, tant publiques que privées. En plus, ces images jouent aussi un rôle dans la production d’une mémoire culturelle et de sa dissémination à travers de nouveaux publics. L’article examine aussi comment ces images photographiques peuvent être communiquées comme des dessins, quel est leur rapport avec les notions de péritexte, de fictionnalisatio et de cadrage narratif, et comment elles servent aussi à explorer les thèmes de la perte, de l’identité et de la création mémorielle.


memory creation, authenticity, narratives, photography, peritext, cultural memory, Hanneriina Moisseinen, Mats Jonsson


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Graphic memoirs often establish an effect of authenticity by including photographs as a means of reflecting back to truth. Tom Wheeler contends that “[f]aith in photography’s authenticity is almost as old as photography itself, due to chemical and mechanical aspects that seem to impart intrinsic objectivity, readers’ long exposure to responsible photojournalism, and average citizens’ dependence on photos as reliable documentation of their lives” (9-10). Silke Horstkotte and Nancy Pedri point out that “[i]t is the photograph’s indexical quality that makes it the most realist of images and links it to the real world” (12). That a photograph represents someone or something from real life and looks like that which it represents, commonly to a larger extent than drawings, adds to its privileged status as an imprint of reality.

The majority of graphic memoirs consist exclusively of drawn panels, although an increasing number of comics artists use photographs in their works,” drawing on the mythical status of photography as a particularly authentic medium” (El Refaie 138). But what happens when one art form is mediated through another? What if a textile narrative is represented in a photo, and a photo is mediated as a drawn image? What effects arise when photos are interspersed throughout a graphic memoir? This article addresses visual strategies used in the narration of graphic memoirs, exploring the works of Nordic cartoonists Mats Jonsson and Hanneriina Moisseinen to consider how the subjectivity of experience is established, and how authenticity is shaped in the narrative. 1 The examples of autobiographical comic art that follow use photographic images, press clippings, photocopied maps, and textiles to explore the past and come to terms with personal identity.

Photographs have, from the time of their invention, been considered “tools of science and of public surveillance” (Sturken and Cartwright 24). In graphic memoirs, the authors incorporate photographs into the narrative in order to add to their value as historical documents. Thus, the photographs used in Jonsson and Moisseinen’s works do not illustrate the narrative; rather, they are deployed as parts of a historical reality. Neither of these comics creators value such fragments of evidence above drawings. Instead, they juxtapose a range of materials to reinforce truthfulness. They include photographic images, newspaper clippings, and maps, all usually regarded as more factual, authentic, or documentary than cartoon images. In their storyworlds, such intrusions are narrative strategies for forming authenticity.

The technique of mixing different materials in one’s work runs the risk of giving a higgledy- piggledy impression. However, I would argue that by using these strategies, authors of autobiographical comics create works that suggest and intend the very opposite. With their aid, they craft conciously wrought-out compositions in which the photographic intrusions contribute to a more intimate reading of their memoirs. In the examples from Jonsson’s and Moisseinen’s works, objects from their private lives and personal memories are included in and interspersed throughout the drawn works. The inclusion of non-drawn elements assumes something more than an objective documentation, and raises questions connected to cultural memory. These non-drawn elements allow and reveal a narrative complexity “concerned with social, medial, and cognitive processes, and their ceaseless interplay” (Erll 6). The

1. Mats Jonsson’s comics consist solely of autobiographical narratives. The works discussed in this article are Unga norrlänningar (Young Norrlanders, 1998), Hey Princess (Hey Princess, 2002), Pojken i skogen (The Boy in the Woods, 2005), and Mats kamp (Mats’ Struggle, 2011). Hanneriina Moisseinen’s graphic memoir Isä (Father, 2013) will also be discussed. In the following, I will refer to the work titles in my English translation.


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function of memory will therefore be addressed in order to shed light on how it is reconfigured by these two Nordic writers.

Mats Jonsson’s strategic use of memory and authenticity

The covers of Swedish comics creator, Mats Jonsson’s Young Norrlanders (1998), Hey Princess (2002), The Boy in the Woods (2005), and Mats’ Struggle (2011) contribute to the peritext, which is composed to imply authenticity and direct readers to see these works as non-fiction. Gérard Genette defines peritext as the part of the work located inside the text, within the volume itself, including “such elements as the title or the preface and sometimes elements inserted into the interstices of the text” (4-5). All the frontispieces of Jonsson’s works are comprised of photographs of the comics creator himself at the age in which the narrative takes place. The covers of Jonsson’s comics at once convey authorial information and indicate the autobiographical, non-fictional genre. The photographs thus create a documentary- quality impression by drawing a strong parallel between the author’s real world and the autobiographical world of the comics.

Jonsson’s three later works, Hey Princess, The Boy in the Woods, and Mats’ Struggle share characteristics of writing, drawing, and design. Similarities of format and composition, including the use of peritext and the nature of the content, combine to suggest that the three graphic memoirs warrant a shared theoretical approach. Tellingly, each work has a drawn representation of a photo gallery on the inside flaps showing the most important characters in the story, and each includes a photograph of the author at a young age.

The frontispiece to Jonsson’s earliest comic book, Young Norrlanders, has the same peritextual theme, directly referencing the young protagonist’s dreams and preoccupations. At the same time, it treats these preoccupations with an ironical wink at their historical context. The cover picture is an explicit travesty of David Bowie’s album cover Young Americans (1975). Jonsson exhibits self-mockery by superimposing his own young, bespectacled, and pimpled face over that of Bowie. The title is in a font and design identical to the one used in the original album, extending the irony. Alluding to a pop icon is one of many popular cultural references that continuously shape Jonsson’s autobiographical writing and locates it in the wider popular cultural context of the 1980s. It connects his personal story with the shared cultural memory of its historical setting (Fig. 1). “No memory,” as Erll points out, “is ever purely individual, but always shaped by collective contexts” (5). By fusing his own face with Bowie’s, Jonsson interweaves his own persona with a public image of an artist who is famous for a multitude of alter egos. Thus, from his very first autobiographical comic book Jonsson problematises authenticity in his play with the construction of self.


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Fig. 1: Front cover of Young Norrlanders. Generally speaking, photographs are believed to create an

Fig. 1: Front cover of Young Norrlanders.

Generally speaking, photographs are believed to create an impression of greater authenticity than drawn images. As Roland Barthes writes, “in Photography I can never deny that the thing has been there. There is a superimposition here: of reality and of the past. […] Photography’s inimitable feature (its noeme) is that someone has seen the referent (even if it is a matter of objects in flesh and blood, or again in person(76-79). Jonsson denotes authenticity by using a photograph of himself as a child in the frontispiece of The Boy in the Woods (Fig. 2). It shows him as a boy in his everyday surroundings reading a comics in a private moment, unconscious of the camera. The image does not obey the formal rules of composition and lighting, which one would expect in a professional or constructed image. The subject is not a posed model, and does not exhibit any one of the facial and physical expressions common in professional image making. Instead, the photograph, compositionally unstructured and naturally lit, is a typical family snapshot. It appears to have been taken in the spur of the moment and without its subject awareness. There could have been no photograph unless the boy ‘was there’ reading his comics. That it is a snapshot further accentuates the photograph’s authenticity, firmly establishing the author’s past existence and his early interest in comics.


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Fig. 2: Front cover of The Boy in the Woods. The Boy in the Woods

Fig. 2: Front cover of The Boy in the Woods.

The Boy in the Woods concerns itself with childhood memories of growing up in the north of Sweden. It is an attempt to scrutinize fragmented memories in order to discover why that boy turned into the person he became. In it, Jonsson intermingles photographic fictionalisations of himself and original, untampered historical material. In contrast to his own drawn material, a third party produced this. Maps, wallpaper designs, and newspaper clippings can be thought of as independent sources, outside his subjective interpretation of the past. They are also injections of the outside world into his storyworld. For example, they introduce the viewpoint of the parent who took the snapshot or the view of the journalist with an audience to publish for. This fosters a certain interpretation of the text in the reader, namely, that these are real events that happened in non-fictional places.

The back cover photograph also shows the protagonist as a child, this time outdoors viewing his hometown in the winter landscape of the far north (Fig. 3). The photo suggests a melancholic atmosphere, a metaphoric reference to the bleak emotional landscape and loneliness examined in the memoir itself. The boy surveys the world he knows from above, looking out at the northern landscape that is sparsely dotted with a few houses. We see the boy from behind and cannot ascertain if it really is


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“Mats”. Nevertheless, photography’s persistent connection to reality encourages readers to accept the image as a reliable reference to the cartoon-Mats. When we look at a scene from behind the protagonist, we, as viewers, are being invited to join him within the story, invited to walk along the same path of emotional exploration that he walks. The contents of his story, its theme of loneliness and its particular setting in the northern landscape, are embedded in this photo just as the budding comics artist is present in the frontispiece. The two photographs frame the graphic narrative, introducing and, at the same time, expanding the memoir.

introducing and, at the same time, expanding the memoir. Fig. 3: Back cover photo of The

Fig. 3: Back cover photo of The Boy in the Woods.

The cover of Hey Princess shows Jonsson with his girlfriend Victoria, embracing and kissing as they lie on a lawn covered with autumn leaves. The frontispiece of Mats’ Struggle is a photo of Jonsson and his daughter Ellen. She stands next to her father, a peritextual indication that she plays a major part in the memoir. She holds her father’s hand, and in her other hand she has a bill. The comics creator looks straight into the camera while the girl casts a watchful eye at the bill. A metaphor for a cutting implement, the bill is suggestive of a saw, and will become increasingly significant in the narrative, repeated in the prologue and epilogue of the memoir, and on the flap of the backcover, where Jonsson


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is pictured crouching against the same wall, with the same bill in his hand. Repeatedly used throughout the narrative, the bill symbolizes the responsibility of adulthood, and doubles as a tool for separation and removal. His daughter’s birth is a step towards attaining adulthood, but at the same time, becoming a parent could imply cutting the ties to the past.

The cover of The Boy in the Woods shows an amateur photo of a teenage Mats in his bedroom, reading a comic, and presaging his future life as a cartoonist. It is the early 1980s, and he is surrounded by comics, with his beloved cat curled up on his bed. This is a private photograph from a personal archive. As such, it stands in stark contrast to the cover image on Mats’ Struggle, which is an obviously orchestrated photograph in which a saw symbolises the cutting of the umbilical cord and perhaps also the perils of parenthood (Fig. 4).

cord and perhaps also the perils of parenthood (Fig. 4). Fig 4: Front cover of Mats’

Fig 4: Front cover of Mats’ Struggle.

The cover picture of Hey Princess must also be interpreted as constructed after the story has been completed. A representation of the romantic crush is created to indicate the central content of the story. The photograph fixes and freezes a moment, a kiss, certainly staged in retrospect, but experienced nonetheless and, indeed, reexperienced in the frontispiece. The story’s happy ending is suggested on


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the cover. Are these staged photographs less authentic even though they fit the narrative? Does the orchestration signal the processes of fictionalisation that, as Horstkotte and Pedri argue in another context, may very well result “in an instability of the genre concerning both the photograph and its contexts” (8)?

The arrangement of the cover pictures in three of Jonsson’s works problematises the authenticity of those photographs. However, it could also be seen to enhance the authenticity of the drawn images by directing the reader’s appreciation of the comics’ autobiographical content with peritexual elements. For instance, the chapters in The Boy in the Woods are introduced with photographs of medallion wallpaper typical of the 1970s. Wallpaper designs from the 70s evoke a strong collective cultural memory, fixing the memoir in a specific time period, and creating an effect of nostalgia. In addition, specific years are figured in fonts of the rounded design popular at the time. By visually contextualisating the composition, Jonsson creates a sense of authenticity around himself and the period of time he depicts, drawing readers into the narrative’s frame of reference. Hey Princess relates Jonsson’s 1990s and has a similar structure, with wallpaper backgrounds specific to that decade. And, although Mats’ Struggle has more complex chapter lead-ins, with photographs in which the sharp saw from the cover picture is a recurrent object, together with an empty cat bed, broken windowpanes, a rag doll and a cat, it too authenticates the time in which it is set.

Photographs are not the only materials in these Nordic comics that carry a documentary load. Jonsson includes photocopied press clippings about himself in his role as comics creator to both verify and fix memory and self image. The reproduction of popular documentary evidence contributes another layer of complexity to Jonsson’s visual strategy and further infuses the story with authenticity. Immediately before and after the press clippings page in The Boy in the Woods, cartoon-Mats is shown preparing for an interview. In the panel following the published interview, he reads it and reflects upon his own appearance in the press clipping (Fig. 5). This type of self-reflexive technique, common in graphic memoirs, draws a stong link between what the protagonist sees and what readers see. That we share his experience of viewing an actual image of himself further enforces the authentic quality of the telling. The imbrication of drawings and photographs conduce to a strong authenticity effect.

It is not surprising that Jonsson deploys only a limited number of press clippings, and restricts the reproduction of photographs to the covers of his comics. His sparse use of photographs in a predominantly drawn medium accentuates their presence. Their comparative rarity brings them to the readers’ attention, and suggests to us that the author must have a specific reason for breaking the flow of drawn panels. Our concentration and focus are piqued, and we are thereby encouraged to refresh our reading of the work. It reminds readers, without disrupting the storyworld, that this is fact rather than fiction. They vary the narrative landscape by changing the tone of the text and the form of the images. If more photographs were included throughout the comics, they would lose some of this power.


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Fig. 5: Jonsson, Mats. The Boy in the Woods 187. Additional photographs are incorporated in

Fig. 5: Jonsson, Mats. The Boy in the Woods 187.

Additional photographs are incorporated in Mats’ Struggle; one containing a collage of reviews of his breakthrough comic book Hey Princess, and another of a tabloid interview with Jonsson, which includes his picture. This photograph functions as a counterpart to the integrated interview in the previous work, The Boy in the Woods. The intercalation of ongoing work with new self-representations, reviews of completed works and accompanying interviews, creates a dense weave of Jonsson’s entire creative process. His anxiety, his writer’s block, pride, self-mirroring, and vanity all share the panel space with cartoon images of his daily struggle to produce new frames. As such, they form the life journal of Mats Jonsson.

Jonsson’s method comprises a fictionalisation of photographs of himself, first in the frontispieces and later by incorporating supposedly authentic material from old newspapers into his comics art. These photographs, which are the central ingredients of the author’s visual method, function to create a sense of something genuine and true. At the same time, by arranging memories in reconfigured photographs, they raise for consideration the question of creating authenticity. This is because “[o]ur awareness of the subjective imaging is in constant tension with the legacy of objectivity that clings to the cameras and machines that produce images today” (Sturken and Cartwright 17). The photographs and press clippings


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of Jonsson interjected into his otherwise drawn memoir become an integral part of the story about the comics creator and the lonely boy. They reinforce the cohesive autobiographical thread, which runs through his life writing. By using photographs, Jonsson objectifies himself and, just as in his drawings, he is able to look at himself from the outside, as the reader does. This double gaze also develops into a means of reflexivity.

The incorporation of photographs into the drawn cartoon universe assimilates the documentary

with the aesthetic. The former gives an authentic strength to the graphic narration. We as readers believe that this autobiographical work to a larger extent is strongly rooted in reality and is based on authentic material, albeit with the distance created by drawn panels. While the drawn panels may carry the story,

it is the authentic elements of documentary material that create verification.

In Young Norrlanders, Jonsson also uses maps to suggest a stronger claim on documented facts, locating his story in a precise geographical place. Jeff Adams explains that maps are characterised by

“their particular conventions and codes, [and] an authority derived from scientific empirism; the reader, familiar with this iconography from other contexts, invests the image with connotations of ‘accuracy’ and ‘truthfulness’” (174). For Jonsson, the maps constitute a compositional means to help readers navigate

a geographical and historical landscape. In Young Norrlanders, each new chapter is introduced with a

photograph of a map of the location in which the story will take place. To further guide readers, three or four dots on the maps mark significant places in the narrator’s life at that particular time. The public map is thus fused into Jonsson’s private storyworld. Through the conflation of public and private archives, the locations become coordinates for the author’s own memory, and the maps become more than a sum of their parts.

In The Boy in the Woods, a photograph from the local newspaper is an objectification of the 15-year-old Mats. While Barthes writes about this objectifying photographic process as an “insistence on corporeal existence and the fear of time passing, as the seeming present-ness of the moment is revealed as always a past moment, a history” (93), Jonsson seems to desire and necessitate his own objectification. Through it, he wishes to emphasise his identity as a comics artist. In the press coverage, the photograph of “Mats” shows the boy drawing a comics page. This page is a metapicture in the article too, emphasising the boy’s obsession with creating comics. The specific date and place of the clipping pinpoint the moment, suggesting that it has a key role in his life. The clipping provides weight to this particular day in “Mats’” life when the news verified his identity as a comics artist; it is a moment and a memory so immensely important that it had to be incorporated not as drawn panels, but as a photograph of the clipping. The use of the clipping resonates in both the past and the present, combining memory and futurity. It is a pregnant detail in the story about the Mats who cannot stop making comics; about the image of self Jonsson wishes to project in public, and the ongoing creative process that fosters the image.

A photograph from the same newspaper integrated into the text shows the young Mats at a gymnastics competition in the 1970s from a different perspective. In it, a number of children are shown in a mutual movement, but in the middle of the picture a small boy is standing still. The next panel shows the same boy in a magnified version and the word “I” included in the drawn caption. We learn


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that this clipping had previously and repeatedly been an object of young Mats’ mockery. It was part of

a collective memory, until one day when he realises with a sense of shock that he is, in fact, the boy in the picture. The discovery is depicted through cartooning, which transforms the public photograph into

a personal one. This transference, which conveys the protagonist’s insight, underscores the sense of alienation and loneliness that pervaded the narrator’s childhood (Fig. 6).

that pervaded the narrator’s childhood (Fig. 6). Fig. 6: Jonsson, Mats. The Boy in the Woods

Fig. 6: Jonsson, Mats. The Boy in the Woods 31

The original newspaper photograph serves a different function here. Before the protagonist realises who the photograph represents, the boy in the picture is an unknown person, an object it is possible to

laugh at. However, once he realises that the boy is himself, the boy is transformed into a subject. Finally, with the safe distance of time and within the safety of the cartoon storyworld, the author can recount the memory of his discovery by distancing himself from his material. This, in turn, enables him to face himself as an object once again. By using different source material, his work becomes an establishment,

a regulation, and a shaping of his own identity. Through it, he stages a dialogue with his own self.

Hanneriina Moisseinen’s memory procedure

Finnish comics creator Hanneriina Moisseinen constructs her story using a combination of authentic material and pencil drawn panels. Similar to Jonsson’s visual narrative strategies, she makes use of a cover picture depicting herself and her father. However, Moisseinen’s image is not a photograph, but a drawing in black and white of a photograph (Fig. 7). The authentic photograph from the author’s private album is reproduced in the frontispiece (Fig. 8).


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Fig. 7. Front cover of Father. Fig. 8. Private photo of Hanneriina Moisseinen and her

Fig. 7. Front cover of Father.

Fig. 7. Front cover of Father. Fig. 8. Private photo of Hanneriina Moisseinen and her father

Fig. 8. Private photo of Hanneriina Moisseinen and her father Seppo Moisseinen

A comparison of the two versions provides evidence of a vanished past that existed, but is long lost. In recreating an existing photograph, Moisseinen imbues it with additional subjective meanings. In contrast to Jonsson’s practice of using photographs as cover pictures, Moisseinen transforms a private photo into a drawn image that fits into her memoir’s black and white visual style. Elizabeth El Refaie suggests that “[w]hen photographic images are redrawn by hand, some of the aura of authenticity associated with photography is likely to be maintained, but this will be weakened by the loss of indexicality involved in the translation from one medium to another” (165). Moisseinen’s reinterpretation of a private photograph is an aesthetisation that creates a distance to the events. To a certain degree, it fictionalizes the snapshot.

The first page of Father consists of a single panel showing a photograph of a towel with the Finnish word for “father” (Isä) woven into the fabric (Fig. 9). It is the kind of mundane, everyday domestic object that goes unnoticed in most narratives. However, in this instance, it reinforces the father as the theme of the narrative. Counterintuitively, its documentary power lies in its ordinariness. The towel, which will never be used by the intended person, serves to magnify the absence of that person. It establishes a context of family life from a child’s point of view.


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Fig. 9. Moisseinen, Hanneriina. Father 8. At a later point in the narrative, a drawn

Fig. 9. Moisseinen, Hanneriina. Father 8.

At a later point in the narrative, a drawn panel shows the towel rack in the bathroom with three towels and one missing below the nameplate of “father”. It is the juxtaposition of the drawings without the towel with the photographic representation of the authentic towel that conveys emotions of loss and grief. The photographed towel at the beginning establishes the presence of the father in the memoir. However, when we as readers set eyes on the empty space on the drawn towel rack, we register the absence of the towel and therefore, the absence of the father.

The second frame in the book introduces readers to Moisseinen’s overarching subject matter, namely, the disappearance of her father. In it, a scanned and reproduced press clipping torn from a Finnish newspaper features a notice about Seppo Johannes Moisseinen’s disappearance. It provides brief information about the circumstances, time, and place of his disappearance, and also describes the missing person. It ends with a request to contact the police with information. Additionally, there is a sea chart of the geographical area in which the search took place. The work ends with a handwritten letter from the artist and a photograph of the memorial inscription on the island where her father disappeared. These narrative strategies frame the otherwise cartooned memoir, like a prologue and epilogue of authenticity. Just as Jonsson incorporates maps and clippings, Moisseinen includes non-drawn material to provide


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factual documentation of her father’s disappearance, including details of location and date. In this way, she fixes memory and frames her story in the light of authenticity.

Moisseinen includes photographs of embroidered textiles in her comics to expand and supplement the memory process enacted in the drawn narrative. She uses embroidery as a means of unravelling lost memories. By working ritualistically with stitches, she addresses her past and her lost father in a physical way, and when her body begins to remember, the textiles she works with become a narrative space in which she is able to disentangle her inner turmoil and unprocessed grief. The artist herself has explained how the long tradition of female Karelian artwork is a practice in which she can evoke and capture her memories, and connect with her father. She specifies, “Here the käspaikka cloths refer to the old Karelian habit of inviting the dead person’s soul back, and sending it back to the grave to rest in peace. The käspaikkas have been used in many religious rituals, baptising, weddings, funerals, etc.” (email conversation). The repetitive ritual-like practice of this memory process enables Moisseinen to articulate the darkness she feels and to materialize her lost parent in embroidered shapes. She casts him as a bear that sometimes comforts her but also misses her, as a curled-up body seemingly sleeping, or as gazing over his shoulder to imply a fear of something. The different ways in which she embroiders him may very well nod towards the fact that she never found out the truth about her father’s disappearance. His body was never found and his disappearance remained an enigma (Fig. 10).

found and his disappearance remained an enigma (Fig. 10). Fig. 10. Moisseinen, Hanneriina. Father 86. I

Fig. 10. Moisseinen, Hanneriina. Father 86.


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Moisseinen uses needle and thread to help capture, process, and tie down her past. Her work references a cultural tradition of memory making. Karelian-influenced embroidery is an aesthetic from which she develops in her technique and style to convey a certain meaning in her memoir. She places it in a different context by incorporating it into a graphic narrative, mediated by photography. Her main purpose is perhaps not to create a realistic piece of work, but to unravel the mystery of her father’s disappearance and come to terms with how this event influenced her whole life. The embroidered elements invoke and explore her lost memories in a symbolic and poetic way, while the drawn elements express the time before and after her father’s disappearance in a more straightforward fashion. Eventually, the missing father takes on the metaphorical shape of a bear crying pearls in the embroidery (Fig. 11). The narrator has stitched her grief onto linen, fabricating and anchoring her memories into a material object.

and anchoring her memories into a material object. Fig.11. Moisseinen, Hanneriina. Father 85. This artistic

Fig.11. Moisseinen, Hanneriina. Father 85.

This artistic work is reaching for a kind of authenticity which photographs and maps have less power to convey. Embroidery requires repetitive actions, which can be seen as ritualistic. It has a comparatively long creative process compared with photography or drawing, and leads to extensive contemplation. The action of stitching thus lends itself to thoughtfulness, and onwards to understanding one’s thoughts in the physical forms that are under construction. The textiles both represent metaphorical images of her father and contain emotional parallels within the structure of the stitches themselves. Embroidery has a ‘right’ and a ‘wrong’ side. The stitches are neater on the right side of the work than the wrong side. The back of


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the work reveals a tangle of threads. They are a rather straightforward metaphor for emotional turmoil and confusion; however, they are also part and parcel of creating the more controlled and ordered ‘right’ side. Through embroidery, she binds her emotions into the body of the textile. Embroidery thus depicts her experience subjectively, bringing the reader closer to her emotional state. As she puts it,

The embroidery refers to how the human body restores memories and emotions as well as the brain. It’s the physical part of the experience. As I was stitching, the concrete thing there was that the needle went about millions of times through the canvas to the other side, which means the unseen, unknown. It was a way to connect to the Other Side, to get back the lost memories. At first the memories were really messy and full of knots, and the picture was hardly visible (such as the “shameful” other sides of an unexperienced embroiderer’s works), but in the end they became clear and beautiful, like the finished embroideries. (E-mail conversation)

like the finished embroideries. (E-mail conversation) Fig.12. Moisseinen, Hanneriina. Father 149. I M A G E

Fig.12. Moisseinen, Hanneriina. Father 149.


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In some places, the stitching seems to influence and be reflected in her drawing style. She draws pencil lines, which encapsulate thoughts about the disappearance (Fig. 12).

Moisseinen’s uses the Karelian textile or “käspaikka” as a mnemonic tool and synchronizes her individual past with a collective past. The embroidered parts of her work represent the lost memories, the unconcious side of her father’s disappearance, and imply storytelling in contrast to the drawn images that represent ”what really happened” in a more straightforward, linear narrative. The narrative’s combination of documentary and aesthetic style bestows her memoir with an impression of both emotional and factual authenticity.

It is revealing to apply Stephen Bull’s discussion about objectivity and subjectivity in photography to distinguish between “things, objects and signs” in Father. He writes,

‘Things’ […] exist in nature without the need to be experienced by humans, whereas ‘objects’ -- to be objects -- are things that are, as he [Deely] refers to it, ‘dosed’ with human experience. When these objects are used in the processes of signification (when they are photographed for example) they become signs. […] Deely’s distinctions suggest that the idea of presenting ‘things as they are’ -- without human intervention -- via photographs is impossible. We can never apprehend ‘things’ because, as soon as we do so, they become ‘objects’ of our experience. (110)

Applied to Moisseinen’s work, Deely’s ideas seem to grasp that emotional or experiential distance between items as they are experienced and as they are represented. The textile is infused with human experience, and represents the processes by which Moisseinen recovers and manages her memories of her father and of his disappearance. The textile is a material object as well as a sign, both before and after being photographed. This is because the textile can be, and perhaps was intended to be, shown, or displayed even before it was photographed. The photographs of her embroidery thus function as a bridge between the object and the sign system of the graphic memoir as a whole.

Moisseinen draws from two clear systems: those belonging to comics narratives and the discipline of embroidery. What is original is how she adapts and combines them to create new symbolism. Through her comic art, Moisseinen transforms the pain of losing her parent into a juxtaposition of drawings, photographs, and textile work. The cloths in white and black, embroidered with butterflies, a bear crying pearls, and the island where her father disappeared, are loaded with personal meaning. They validate traditional work by Karelian women, connecting her to her paternal Karelian roots and her story to a wider his/story. There is an echo of history reverberating in throughout the comics. Moisseinen lost her Karelian father, and Finland lost Karelia to the Soviet Union in 1940. Jan Assmann’s exploration of cultural memory discusses its capacity for reconstruction, proposing that it “transforms factual into remembered history […]. This does not make it unreal -- on the contrary, this is what makes it real, in the sense that it becomes a lasting, normative, and formative power” (38). When tying her artwork back to a cultural and gendered background and experience, Moisseinen imbues it with an authenticity that goes beyond the documentary. In pursuit of her memories, she creates an emotional truth.


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Graphic memoirs construct authenticity in several ways, often relying on the evidential qualities of photographic images. This article aims to demonstrate how two quite different cartoonists make use of the comics medium’s considerable potential for breaking the boundaries of conventional narrative forms by employing a diverse range of material. Both Mats Jonsson and Hanneriina Moisseinen reveal their creative processes, and express them in differing ways. Moisseinen’s textiles, first embroidered, then photographed and included as a crucial part of Father constitute a new, narrative technique in the comics medium used by her to invoke cultural memory. On the other hand, the photographs of objects connected to her father reinforce the strict structure of the work, framed with a prologue and epilogue. Jonsson’s use of photographic images is, to a major extent, placed in the peritexts of his works and signal an authentic, real story embedded in drawn artwork. Paradoxically, most of these photographs are staged to attune into the memories that problematise their authenticity. At a conscious compositional level, authentic press clippings and maps are inserted as historical records, as part of a public archive and collective memory, shaping and contextualizing the personal story, and reminding readers that these works hold truths about a life story.

Overall, visual strategies such as incorporating photographs or press clippings in a graphic memoir are used for self-reflection and to convey authenticity. As such, non-drawn elements become an important device in both Jonsson and Moisseinen’s autobiographical storytelling. More importantly, it is the sparse use of these strategies in combination with the less authentic drawings and more fictionalised media that creates narratives of emotional truthfulness. In a larger critical discourse about authenticity in autobiographical comics, these Nordic examples are works that help to further the discussion.

Works Cited Adams, Jeff. Documentary Graphic Novels and Social Realism. Bern: Lang, 2008. Assmann, Jan. Cultural Memory and Early Civilization: Writing, Remembrance, and Political Imagination. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2011. Barthes, Roland. Camera Lucida. Trans. Richard Howard. 1981. London: Vintage; Random House, 1993. Bull, Stephen. Photography. New York: Routledge, 2010. El Refaie, Elisabeth. Autobiographical Comics: Life Writing in Pivtures. Jackson: UP of Mississippi. 2012. Erll, Astrid; Nünning, Ansgar (Eds.). A Companion to Cultural Memory Studies. Berlin/New York: De Gruyter, 2010. Genette, Gérard. Paratexts: Thresholds of Interpretation. 1987. Trans. Jane E. Lewin. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1997. Horstkotte, Silke; Pedri, Nancy. ”Photographic Interventions.” Poetics Today 29.1 (Spring 2008): 1-29. Jonsson, Mats. Unga norrlänningar (Young Norrlanders). Stockholm: Galago, 1998. ---. Hey Princess (Hey Princess). Stockholm: Galago, 2002. ---. Pojken i skogen (The Boy in the Woods). Stockholm: Galago, 2005.


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---. Mats kamp (Mats’ Struggle). Stockholm: Galago, 2011. Moisseinen, Hanneriina. Isä / Father. Trans. Pauliina Haasjoki. Helsinki: Huuda Huuda ---. E-mail conversation with Hanneriina Moisseinen. 22 Sep. 2014. Siltanen, Mikko. “Taiteellinen ompeluseura”, Voima. 2012:7. 20 Aug. 2014.


Sturken, Marita and Lisa Cartwright. Practices of Looking: An Introduction to Visual Culture. 2nd ed. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2009.

Wheeler, Tom. “A Picture of Reality.” Phototruth or Photofiction?: Ethics and Media the Digital Age. Mahwah, New Jersey, London: Erlbaum, 2002.




Nina Ernst is a PhD candidate in Comparative Literature at Lund University, Sweden. Her doctoral thesis deals primarily with contemporary autobiographical Swedish comics, with a comparative perspective taking in European and North American examples. She is particularly interested in narration and the narrative methods used by cartoonists when reconstructing memories and in the creation of self image. She has presented her initial findings at various international conferences, including at the NNCORE conference in Helsinki, the ISSN conference in Cambridge, and at Nanjing University. A paper dealing with performativityin a Swedish graphic memoir about childhood trauma is forthcoming in the Conference series published by The Royal Swedish Academy of Letters, History and Antiquities.

Email: nina.ernst@litt.lu.se


Vol. 16, No. 2 (2015)