catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 7, Num 9 :: 2008.05.02 — 2008.05.16


Neither Minnie Mouse nor Wonder Woman

New hope and heroines in graphic novels

When you picture women in comic books, what do you see?  Wonder Woman, in her bathing-suit-like costume punching out a group of evil-doers?  Minnie Mouse in a rowboat with the moonlight on the lake and Mickey serenading her?  Betty and Veronica competing for Archie’s attention at the malt shop?

Comics have been undergoing some major changes over the last decade and a half.  Instead of being sold only in the supermarket, you can now find them at Borders, and instead of being a flimsy side-stapled magazine, comics now appear as graphic novels, book length stories told using the conventions of the comic book form.  If you check out the graphic novel section of your local bookstore, you might be confronted by some very different pictures.

Image 1: A tall, dark-haired man morphs instantly into a shaggy angry monster.  Though he and the woman seemed to love each other earlier in the narrative and dreamed, planned, and moved across the country together, now the man/monster pounds his girlfriend’s face with his fists again and again.   We see, in the next panel, the woman’s broken face and see in her eyes that she is emotionally broken as well.  

Image 2: A teenage girl who suffered sexual abuse on behalf of her father confronts him in order to continue her healing process.  In response to his daughter’s accusations the father raises his hand to hit his daughter.  Inches away from her face, he realizes that abuse is his initial response and looks at his hand in disgust.  This moment is pivotal in the daughter’s journey through the pain of abuse and into healing. 

Both of these images describe actual panels from two different graphic novels: Katherine Arnoldi’s The Amazing “True” Story of a Teenage Mom and Bryan Talbot’s The Tale of One Bad Rat.   Graphic novels range in topic and style and they address topics inherent in all of literature.  These two graphic novels delve into issues of abuse: what is the impact of abuse on a girl’s psyche? How do young women heal from abusive pasts?  How do girls regain hope after all is stripped away?  In a world where young women can only hold onto cynicism and desperation, hope seems in short supply. 

As the author of Proverbs says, “Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but when dreams come true there is life and joy.”  This proverb points to a disease that infects not only literature, but also our society.  While this disease infects everyone, it especially preys on teenage girls.  Take a look around, the symptoms are everywhere—the 43% of teenage girls who are called overweight by their doctors, the 10% who are plagued by some form of eating disorder, the 40% of teenage girls who lose their virginity by age fifteen and report feeling forced to do, the 37% of pregnant teenage girls who abort their child, the 23% of teenage girls who regularly feel the effects of depression.  The list continues.  Teenage girls’ lives are saturated with stories of endlessly deferred hope.  These stories walk in and out of our lives every day, these stories have faces, these stories are the children we teach, doctor, serve, walk by on the way to work.  Anorexia has a face.  Teenage pregnancy has a face.  Rape has a face.  Depression has a face.  For every statistic concerning the plight of teenage girls there are numerous girls whose daily existence embodies the battle against a statistic.  Varying circumstances lead to this state of hopelessness in teenage girls, but no matter the cause, the effect is similar: these girls are left without hope, and without hope they have little to reach for.  How then, do we respond to these stories?     

Humans possess an innate affinity for narrative.  Narrative surrounds us, and something about narrative movement captivates the hearts of human beings.  Why is this?  Christians can look to scripture to uncover a reason for this affinity: storytelling resides in the heart of God.  Genesis 1:26 says that man is created in the image of God, and God has an affinity for storytelling.  How are we certain of this?  Jesus Christ, God incarnate, presented truth after truth during his earthly ministry in story form.  At several points, Jesus’ disciples question this practice.  Matthew 13:13 relays Jesus’ answer: “This is why I speak in parables: ‘Though seeing, they do not see; though hearing they do not hear or understand.…’”  Jesus answers their question with an invitation.  He invites the disciples to explore his stories, to question them, to examine them, to break through their blindness and discover the truth.  Graphic novels can offer another way to break through the blindness and confront the truth face to face.  Though often dismissed as a medium of Donald Duck and Batman and Robin, graphic novels have won critical acclaim in Europe and are beginning to do so in the States as well.

Recent journal articles in literacy studies have highlighted the increasing importance of embodiment and multimodality in reading everything from websites to history books.  But in many people’s minds, all the fancy polysyllabic words in academia cannot disguise the fact that graphic novels are overgrown comic books.  What good can come from them?  Consider two graphic novels, and what they have to say about hope.

The Tale of One Bad rat

The Tale of One Bad Rat by Bryan Talbot tells the story of Helen Potter.  Despair is abundant in Helen’s life.  Throughout the beginning of the graphic novel she suffers from repetitive suicide nightmares.  She pictures herself diving in front of a subway train and jumping off a bridge to drown in a freezing river.  Beyond her nightmares, Helen’s hopelessness is depicted through her facial expressions.  Her listless eyes, downward gaze, and perpetual frown are an outward reflection of inward hopelessness.  Talbot uses the interplay of words and pictures to draw readers into Helen’s hopelessness—the abstract emotion becomes very real, and readers cannot help but feel what Helen feels.

Helen’s hopelessness stems from a very specific source: childhood sexual abuse.  Talbot intertwines Helen’s current story with flashbacks to her childhood.  The flashbacks are offset on a black background—the background casts a shadow over the events depicted in it.  While the first few flashbacks hint at Helen’s pain, one sequence explicitly shows her dad advancing at her, her lashing out, and her running away.    Helen Potter is driven from her home to the streets, left to fend for herself in a cruel and uncaring world.  This is hopelessness. 


At this point, we can take another look at Helen’s appearance in the beginning of the narrative.  The graphic shows Helen’s father referring to her as “my little Blondie Bombshell,” so as Helen flees home she cuts her hair off.  Her short hair and listless expression contribute to an androgynous appearance—in fact, when we first encounter her in the story, the gender is uncertain.  Talbot’s depiction of Helen shows an effect of the sexual abuse: Helen buries her femininity in an effort to escape the nightmares of her past. 

Just as the Proverb does not end in hope deferred, Talbot does not leave Helen stuck in this perpetual hopelessness; rather, he takes her on a journey toward hope: there are stops along the way that help Helen find healing from her past hurt.  Helen’s journey begins with her pet rat and continues when she leaves home.  She frees herself from the environment that is holding her in chains.  Helen has many encounters on the street that show her lack of trust in other people.  This continues until she meets Ben.  Ben invites Helen and her rat to live in an abandoned house with him and his buddies.  Although this house seems at first like every parent’s nightmare, it provides more of a safe haven for Helen than her suburban home did.  Ben forges a friendship with Helen and expresses true interest in her artwork—he breathes some worth into her life, and as a result she gains some hope.  Even as Helen gains hope and stability, her past is always lurking near the surface.  For example, when Ben becomes interested in Helen romantically and tries to kiss her, Helen lashes out.  Despite the healing that has occurred, Helen cannot separate physical affection from the abuse of her childhood.

Eventually, Helen runs from this place too.  After a cat kills her rat, Helen continues her journey—this time with a destination.  Helen is hitchhiking along the route to the hometown of her favorite author, Beatrix Potter.  After a long day of traveling without food, Helen ends up fainting outside an old farmhouse.  The residents of the house, actually an inn, take her in, offer her a job and provide her with a home.  Helen lives and works with this couple; in her free time she explores the land, her past and her need to heal in order to have a future.  But still, the past lurks.  Her father figure at the farmhouse wraps his arm around Helen as an expression of fatherly affection; Helen cannot accept this affection—she screams and runs away.  After this encounter Helen decides that she must deal with the past in order to escape this emotional prison she lives in; she determines that she needs to confront her father and move on in life.  She invites her parents up to the inn, and directly tells her father the pain and trauma he caused in her life.  While he denies it and belittles her, this confrontation ultimately frees Helen.  The graphic novel ends with a smiling Helen whose eyes glimmer with hope.

“Interesting story,” you might respond, “but why does it need to be a graphic novel.  Couldn’t Talbot have written this up as a regular text-based novel?”  Perhaps he could have, but the graphic novel genre offers affordances that a text-based novel doesn’t.  His depiction of Helen developing hope is visual.  Throughout Helen’s journey her hair grows longer and she begins to reacquire her gender characteristics.  The physical details reflect her journey from hopelessness to hope, and from an uncertainty about who she is to a reclaimed identity.

Katherine Arnoldi’s The Amazing “True” Story of a Teenage Mom wrestles with similar issues.  This story is autobiographical.  Seventeen-year-old Arnoldi was kicked out of her mother’s house, sexually abused by her brother-in-law, and kicked out of her sister’s house—all before having a child. Time after time other people in her life tell her that she has made her bed, so she should lie in it.  Slowly, outside circumstances, including the dead-end job she keeps to support her daughter Stacie, strip away her hope. 

The Amazing True Story of a Teenage Mom

Arnoldi hits rock bottom after heading out west with a man she met at her factory job.  He uses all the money she earned and ends up abusing her.  Again, Arnoldi runs.  She takes Stacie and heads out to pursue her dreams alone.  At this point Arnoldi recounts all of the abuse she suffered in her life and questions whether or not her life is one vicious cycle of pain.  She looks hopelessness in the face and decides that it will not win in her life.  Arnoldi takes her newfound hope and pursues her dreams.

She hitchhikes to Denver, meeting her father along the way, and enrolls in a community college that allows her to pursue her education and be a mom.  Finally, her dreams are becoming reality.  The end of The Amazing Story is the beginning of the rest of Katherine’s life.

These graphic novels both depict teenage girls on the journey through hope deferred: both girls leave abusive situations, spend time in houses that first appear as safe havens, make a physical (hitchhiking) journey toward a new destination, confront the past and look forward to the future.  While the journeys are characteristically comparable they differ in the presentation of hope deferred.  Helen’s hopelessness is internal; the people surrounding her impose horrible circumstances on her and she internalizes the muck thrown at her.  On the other hand, Arnoldi shows an amazing capacity to remain hopeful despite her broken past and newborn child, even as other people lose hope in her and place restrictions on her that prevent her from attaining her dreams.

Despite differing sources of hopelessness, both Helen’s and Arnoldi’s journeys through hope deferred present some striking similarities.   First, both girls embrace a sense of freedom and newfound hope while out in creation.  For Helen this comes on the exact mountaintop that Beatrice Potter looked to as a retreat; for Arnoldi this comes while lying on a blanket underneath the Arizona desert sky.  In both scenes the girls stand in awe of the grandeur of creation; this grandeur points them to something beyond, something greater than the pain and hopelessness they know.  Recognition of the transcendent brings healing.  As Romans 1:20 says, creation screams God’s qualities, both invisible and visible.  Although neither of these girls acknowledges the transcendence as God, both present a strong case for general revelation as they encounter transcendent qualities that enable them to move forward in life.

Another similarity revolves around community: both graphic novelists depict characters that encourage the protagonists on their journeys, as well as characters that perpetuate the protagonists’ deferred hope.  For Helen, the first group includes Ben and later the couple who both provide her a home.  The respective settings of these two groups differ drastically: the boys are vagabonds living in a party house and the couple a traditional, functional family.  Yet, both offer Helen exactly what she needs—space to process, question, grow and heal.  Talbot offers an interesting contrast.  The idyllic, suburban, two-parent home creates a living hell; the outcasts and the elderly couple provide a safe haven.

This contrast occurs in Teenage Mom as well.  Arnoldi is surrounded by people who perpetuate her hopelessness—her mom, sister, brother-in-law, bosses and boyfriends trap her and prevent her from pursuing her dreams.  Family, supposedly the supportive community, pushes Arnoldi away.  She finds true community through the semi drivers who take her away from her abusive situations, the young mother she meets on the street who offers both friendship and practical advice for getting into college and the students and staff at the college who encourage her dreams and create a pathway for her future.

Both graphic novels present women who are not invulnerable superheroes with voluptuous figures and magic crime-fighting paraphernalia, and not cute little animals with gentlemanly suitors and dreams of domesticity, but rather are realistic, burdened people with actual nearly insurmountable problems, who, perhaps through grace, find some hope in a broken world.

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