Drawing and Transforming the Body in Ken Dahl’s Monsters – Abstract for Transitions 9

This is my abstract for Transitions 9: New Directions in Comics Studies 2021 (Transitions was canceled in 2020 but will take place online this year – 2021. There will be live sketchnoting during the panels! I’ll speak on 8 April about a chapter of my book that I’ve not talked about at any conferences before. – Check out the full program here.)

Ken Dahl, in his graphic narrative on living with the sexually transmitted disease of herpes, represents his avatar and personifies the illness of the avatar with cunning visual inventiveness. Dahl’s dynamic visualizations freely transform the bodies of the characters, which, I argue, emphasize drawing as a performance and as a way to think about the many controversial topics of this comic (eg. relationships, responsibility, sex, guilt, prejudice). Bodies are constantly created and recreated in acts of drawing, which offer creative ways for Dahl (pen name for Gabby Schulz) not only to find visual expressions of complex feelings and experiences regarding illness but also to testify to the endlessness of pictorial embodiment (El Refaie) itself.

The metamorphoses keep the avatar in what Margrit Shildrick called the “condition of constant becoming” (1): in a particularly vulnerable state where the repeated acts of transforming the avatar’s body are used to ask visual questions about the body. Shildrick does not talk about comics, her book, Embodying the Monster: Encounters with the Vulnerable Self, studies monstrosity and vulnerability in various cultural products: my paper applies Shildrick’s questions to Dahl’s take on normative and the monstrous bodies. I show with examples and by close reading that the morphing of the avatar’s body is expressive of vulnerability on two levels: on the level of the narrative where the illness is transforming the body, and on the level of representation, where it is the lines that govern the transformations of the body.

Content warning: Dahl uses a cartoony style to show a sexually transmitted disease, but occasionally he switches to a very realistic, photoreferential way of drawing, which can be disturbing. Actually these changes are extremely interesting.

Some personal notes:
– this conference presentation is based on chapter 2 of my book, Comics and the Body, which has, I am so happy to say, entered production phase!
– I cannot wait to meet the fantastic members of the comics community in the UK and to talk to keynote speaker Nick Sousanis again! I am 100% sure this will be a most inspiring conference!


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