ICLTS Seminar Series | “A Grotesque, Incurable Disease”: Whiteness as Illness in Gabby Schulz’s Sick
International comparative Literature and Translation Studies Research Seminar
Co-hosted by the Department of International Comparative Literature and Translation Studies and United States Studies Centre
“A Grotesque, Incurable Disease”:
Whiteness as Illness in Gabby Schulz’s Sick
Dr Frederik Byrn Køhlert (University of East Anglia)
Graphic memoirs of illness and disability typically either insist on the representation of physical difference or work to make outwardly imperceptible ailments visible, both of which are strategies enabled by the comics form’s ability to depict subjective notions of bodies as well as mental states as drawings on the page. But what happens if such embodiment is bound up with bland but complicit racial whiteness—a color typically represented on the comics page as nothing more than an absence—as seen and experienced by the artist through the lens of debilitating bodily illness? In Sick, his 2016 memoir about suffering under a mysterious illness, Gabby Schulz (who is also known under the pen name of Ken Dahl, the author of Monsters) visually investigates the intersection of illness and whiteness in an America desperate to efface its own privilege. As fever wreaks havoc on his body, Schulz begins to see—and to visually depict—his entire existence as a ghost trying on a series of disguises intended to conceal what he calls the “psychic stillbirth” of being white in America—a perspective that allows him to understand, as he says, that “‘embracing my heritage’ is like covering myself in shit.” In this way, Schulz’s critique also comes to include not only the comics form itself, which has so often served to naturalize whiteness as the universal human category, but also the habitual neglect in comics scholarship to examine the racial implications of the white spaces on the page. A horror story with whiteness as its monster, Sick helps fill this scholarly gap through drawn depictions of white racial identity morphing into increasingly disturbing images of the death and destruction upon which it rests.
Dr Frederik Byrn Køhlert is a lecturer in Comics Studies and American Studies at the University of East Anglia. He is the author of Serial Selves: Identity and Representation in Autobiographical Comics (Rutgers University Press, 2019) and The Chicago Literary Experience: Writing the City, 1893-1953 (University of Copenhagen: Museum Tusculanum Press, 2011). He is also the series editor of Routledge Focus on Gender, Sexuality, and Comics Studies, the editor of A History of Chicago Literature (forthcoming from Cambridge University Press), and the course director for the Master of Arts program in Comics Studies at the University of East Anglia.