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Fiona Murphy ’23.
As Fiona Murphy ’23 creates her comics, she pulls her mental state into the physical world. Each blurred line or harsh impression is purposeful, constructed to evoke a certain psychological experience: gender dysphoria, body dysmorphia, or sleep deprivation.

When linework is not sufficient, she places her anxieties into bodily monsters. The faceless figure, Baghead, mimics a Catholic altar server as a way to embody the anonymity and loss of self that Murphy experienced in her conservative, religious neighborhood. This artistic technique of transforming the mental into something physical is known as embodiment and is the central theme of her Emerson research project, “Comic as Body: An Art Historical Approach to Graphic Narrative.”

“That term, embodiment, spawned this whole project,” Murphy said. “I’m literally embodying my feelings in the art, and it has been a sort of relief to finally, viscerally express them.”

Fiona Murphy '24
Fiona Murphy '23 works on her comic. Photo: Kevin Waldron

Before creating her own embodiment-focused comics, Murphy spent five weeks reading and analyzing over a dozen comics and graphic novels. She hoped to learn which artistic techniques brought cerebral experiences to life. Al Davidson’s The Spiral Cage introduced the mental heaviness one could achieve with a black background. In The Greatest of Marlys, cartoonist Lynda Barry used a messy art style to embody a child’s voice and struggles. It was this book that first exposed Murphy to the artistic technique of embodiment. She read it in the course Contemporary Graphic Narratives taught by Associate Professor of Literature Benjamin Widiss.

“Some of my classmates said that they couldn’t finish Barry’s work because they didn’t like her art style,” Murphy said. “But it was purposely childish and that added something to the narrative.”

As a course offered in the Literature and Creative Writing Department, Contemporary Graphic Narratives focuses primarily on the literary elements of graphic novels as opposed to artistic ones. Though Murphy enjoyed the course, it left her wanting more. She became increasingly interested in how artistic techniques could affect the story’s development — something that is understudied in comparison to the works’ literary elements. 

Graphic novels are often viewed as stories with guiding art, but good graphic novels have art that drives the story, Murphy said. Instead of reiterating the text, the images create a distinct yet connected line of thought, adding new layers and depth to the story’s development. Murphy wanted to recognize and emphasize this artistic importance. After reading each graphic novel featuring embodiment, she used art interpretative language to analyze the artistic techniques. These analyses are featured on her blog, Comix as Art History.

Fiona Murphy ’23

Major: Art
Hometown: Chicago
High School: Marist High School

“When you talk about art historical pieces, you use art interpretative language, and it places the piece on this pedestal that graphic novels have never really been allowed to be on,” Murphy said. “I wanted to talk about comics intellectually and call them things like ‘visceral’ because that’s what they are and that’s what they deserve.”

Having completed the research weeks of her Emerson, Murphy is now focused on completing four to five of her own comics that feature embodiment. With the help of her advisor William Salzillo, the Kevin W. Kennedy Professor of Art, she plans to showcase the pieces either online or at an in-person gallery event this fall.

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