A few months back I had the pleasure of interviewing Ryan Claytor about his Indiegogo project, Autobiographical Conversations, and I had the temerity to ask him, “What the heck is autobiographical theory anyway, and how does it relate to the medium of comics?” He answered, “Basically we’re exploring questions like, how and why does the artist portray themselves in a particular manner in autobiographical comics, why don’t more theoreticians present their work in comics form, and does autobiography need to be truthful?” He went on to tell me that the whole comic is basically a record of a series of conversations he had with Dr. Harry Polkinhorn, a professor of English and Comparative Literature at San Diego State University.
When I heard all this my first thought was, “Wow, that sounds utterly fascinating.” My second thought, though, was, “Hmmmmm, how the hell is this going to transfer to an engaging comic without being overly pedantic and plodding?”
The answer to my second thought is this book – this delightful, engaging, thoughtful, quiet little book.
Autobiographical Conversations, while a “read” due to the heft of its subject matter and the back and forth conversational nature of its dialogue, is also a “view” as Claytor's cartooning style and choices add a level of humanness and mundanity to this otherwise cerebral exploration. Some of my favorite moments in this book are the quiet ones, like when Claytor and Polkinhorn are discussing ideas of how being emotionally honest can co-exist with being objectively dishonest in autobiography, while at the same time they are getting their lunch, choosing sodas out of a full refrigerator case, and paying at the register without breaking stride.
Claytor goes to great lengths to keep things casual and breezy, reminding the reader of familiar everyday moments as he and Polkinhorn discuss a wide range of topics around the nature of autobiography. By grounding this high level discussion focused on esoteric ideas, Claytor keeps his narrative grounded as well and accessibly readable. There is never a moment in Autobiographical Conversations where you feel talked down to or underwater in a thick didactic sea.
There is an authenticity to Autobiographical Conversations which Claytor intently set out to capture and which is completely apt given the nature of the book itself. This authenticity never gets in the way of the book as a comic, though. The flow from panel to panel is as natural as the flow of a conversation. While Claytor attempts to capture the nuances of voice and place as exactly as he can, he admits that this obsession can, at times, lend a layer of plasticity to the proceedings. Claytor is an artist who understands when to back away from an idea if it interferes with the work as a whole. This book shows it.
Autobiographical Conversations is a study of the nature of autobiography. Moreover it is a study in the nature of perception and the nature of truth. Sometimes we have to make choices about these issues in order to communicate what we want to say, more so than tell what actually happened. Claytor makes excellent choices in construction and in telling and, because of this, we become part of the conversation.
Autobiographical Conversations is available on the Elephant Eater Comics Website.