The Disabled Male Body 'Writes/Draws' Back: The Graphic Fictions of Masculinity and the Body in the Autobiographical Comic 'The Spiral Cage'

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    For the purposes of this essay it is assumed that comics are a mature and sophisticated medium, a set of cultural signifying practices in which masculinity, ability, embodiment, and sexual difference can be interrogated by their creators and readers. I focus on the graphic life narratives of Al Davison, in which he writes and draws in the comics medium his disabled male body, both as a topic and a performance. Some readers may never have encountered autobiographical comics, so different from the superhero or "funny animal" genres that they may have read as a child. Since the 1960s, adult comics have slowly but surely developed into quite a feast of genres and styles, and autobiographical comics especially are a distinctive and rewarding domain for gender analysis, particularly when men tell the stories of their lives through their conceptions of their bodies. We urgently need to investigate how a hegemonic notion of masculinity informs and interacts with men's experiences of embodiment, but Lennard Davis pointedly reminds us that "while many progressive intellectuals have stepped forward to decry racism, sexism, and class bias, it has not occurred to most of them that the very foundations of which their information systems are built, their very practices of reading and writing, seeing and thinking, and moving are themselves laden with assumptions about hearing, deafness, blindness, normalcy, paraplegia, and ability and disability in general." I shall heed Davis's summons and attend to certain normative assumptions about the disabled male body in order to explore masculine subjectivity, identity, embodiment, and self-representation from a different perspective. Recent theory has attempted to grapple with the materialization of gendered and sexualized bodies. In her celebrated performative theory of gender, Judith Butler draws on the many senses of "perform" to extend the application of performativity from acts and their doings to normative acts and their effects. It is the ritualized repetition of norms that constitutes the "temporalized scene of gender." Butler contends that "sex" is part of a regulatory practice that produces the bodies it governs. Arguing against radical constructivism and linguistic monism, she navigates a path that calls for a return to "the notion of matter, not as a site or surface, but as a process of materialization that stabilizes over time to produce the effect of boundary, fixity, and surface we call matter." Certain bodies are constitutively excluded, erased, foreclosed, yet they return to haunt the very terms of discursive legitimacy. Attending to the performance and materialization of the gendered body is imperative, but how is the disabled male body to be conceived in such a performative theory? What happens to the theory when the cultural inscription of disability is one of failure or the inability to act or perform--does the theory omit the disabled body from its purview? What of the fragmented body of a man with an impairment or a debilitating disease? For disabled men it may be more a question of how to do things, how to get others to do things, or even how to be undone or not done unto, as well as how to do things with words or signs. Unfortunately, Butler's token examples are rarely illustrative of the bodily experiences of these "other Others." This I hope to correct by focusing the analytical weight of performativity theory on one example of a body that is always already marked as not a "proper object" and yet is desperate to perform a semblance of masculinity. Of course, in autobiographical comics by disabled men it is not just the material body that should interest us; we must also look for tensions in any notion of "manhood" between the graphic fictions of the masculine body, the body of the text, the body of the male narrator, the graphic body of the character "I," the cultural body, and the body politic.
    Original languageEnglish
    Title of host publicationRevealing Male Bodies
    EditorsNancy Tuana, William Cowling, Maurice Hamington, Greg Johnson, Terrance MacMullan
    Number of pages25
    Place of PublicationBloomington, IN
    PublisherIndiana University Press
    Publication date2002
    ISBN (Print)0253214815
    Publication statusPublished - 2002


    • disability
    • graphic novels
    • comic books
    • autobiography
    • masculinity
    • gender

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    McIlvenny, P. (2002). The Disabled Male Body 'Writes/Draws' Back: The Graphic Fictions of Masculinity and the Body in the Autobiographical Comic 'The Spiral Cage'. In N. Tuana, W. Cowling, M. Hamington, G. Johnson, & T. MacMullan (Eds.), Revealing Male Bodies (pp. 100-124). Indiana University Press.