Drawing Digital: Exploring the Subjects and Spaces of Autobiographical Webcomics

Author: Shannon Sandford

  • Thesis download: available for open access on 28 Nov 2025.

Sandford, Shannon, 2022 Drawing Digital: Exploring the Subjects and Spaces of Autobiographical Webcomics, Flinders University, College of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences

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“In the historically relative sense of the term”, writes Hillary Chute, “the medium of comics has always been experimental” (“Graphic” 407). From three-panelled strips to book-length graphic narratives, comics has continued to redesign its aesthetic possibilities and vigorously expand its structural form. Its more recent shift into the digital sphere has set the groundwork for today’s webcomics, an experimental and exploratory medium that exists primarily on the Internet. Once maligned by comics creators and scholars, in the age of Web 2.0 and participatory digital cultures, webcomics have re-emerged as a precise, hybrid form of autobiographical expression. This thesis seeks to examine webcomics as a subcultural space for self-display that captures the trends and tendencies of contemporary life writing in the domains of digital technology. As texts “born digital” (Rogers 19), webcomics come attached to particular modes of production, publication, and/or circulation online, thus the scope of this research is intentionally broad, highlighting a vibrant spectrum of webcomics emerging on various digital platforms, including personal blogs, websites, and social media, to vast audiences of networked users.

This thesis organises several autobiographical case studies around subjects of trauma, illness, memory, and displacement to position the visual-verbal-digital idiom of webcomics as a subversive and underrepresented site for life narrative. Beginning with Richard McGuire’s ground-breaking Here, the literary and cultural history of webcomics is traced through the text’s permutations as comic strip (1989), graphic novel and interactive eBook (2014). Stuart Campbell’s These Memories Won’t Last (2015) interprets the layers and complications of memory and its loss by combining illustration with sound, animation, and motion. Allie Brosh’s immensely popular blog Hyperbole and a Half (2009–present) and Alec MacDonald’s Instagram account @alecwithpen (2017–present) are examples of webcomics mobilised to convey intimate and invisible experiences of mental illness, while the artist collective MUTHA Magazine (2013–present) signals the counter-cultural aesthetic and intimate publics of women’s webcomics. Finally, canonical Australian artist Mary Leunig’s short series of Facebook webcomics (2019) and Safdar Ahmed’s Villawood: Notes from an Immigration Detention Centre (2015) highlight the strong socio-political dimensions of webcomics which posit acts of resistance within larger web-based activism.

In these case studies, I suggest webcomics offer a distinct rhetorical position from which to speak about polemical and marginal subjects, a position enriched by their presentation in the digital, networked spaces of the Internet. Thus, the lines of inquiry that progress this discussion are two-fold: I examine the ways modern webcomics, by inscribing subjects on the edges of representation, signal the urgencies of Life Writing as a practice and discipline, then consider how the platforms, affordances, and audiences of the Internet offer important paratextual context for this reading. In a contemporary moment fascinated with life narrative in fluctuating digital spaces, webcomics point to underlying tensions between the intimate handcraftedness of graphic art and the fast-paced digital environment which prioritises fast forms of self-expression. As such, this thesis draws together fields of comics studies, new media studies, and Life Narrative studies to propose an interdisciplinary methodology through which to reflect on the powerful visual narratives activated by webcomics as well as the practices of reading mobilised by digital technologies.

Keywords: life writing, webcomics, graphic life narrative, illness, memory, trauma

Subject: Humanities thesis

Thesis type: Doctor of Philosophy
Completed: 2022
School: College of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences
Supervisor: Professor Kate Douglas