Drawn to comics

Literary scholar Hillary Chute frames a career with graphic narrative.

By Elizabeth Station
Image courtesy Hillary Chute, from Graphic Women

Growing up, Hillary Chute didn’t particularly like comic books. Although she’s now helping to define the emerging field of comics theory, the assistant professor of English didn’t discover what she calls “graphic narrative” until 2000, in a graduate-school course on contemporary literature. It wasn’t Batman or Superman but Art Spiegelman—recounting his father’s Holocaust ordeal in Maus: A Survivor’s Tale—who swept Chute off her feet.

“I basically haven’t stopped thinking or writing about it since,” she says. “I felt really invested in the world of the book and how Maus worked as a narrative.” Comics, she realized, could retell history in a “powerful, immersive” way that was radically different from prose or film. Maus revolutionized comics with its two-part publication in 1986 and 1991, partly because it defied traditional categories. Spiegelman drew Nazis as cats and Jews as mice but used interviews with his father, an Auschwitz survivor, to document real-life events. Did that make Maus and the many works it spawned art or history, memoir or biography, fiction or nonfiction—or something new?

Although captivated by the subject, as a PhD student at Rutgers, Chute says, “I didn’t know that I could write a dissertation all about comics.” To make the topic sound broader, she invented “a crazy-sounding orals category called ‘cross-discursive media.’” Once her advisers—scholars of modern American literature, feminist theory, and experimental aesthetics—expressed their support, she realized how relevant comics were to literary inquiry.

Drawn to comics
Comics often defy classification, as Lynda Barry illustrates in One! Hundred! Demons!

The medium’s formal academic study was new enough that Chute could help shape the field and its vocabulary. Her 2006 dissertation and subsequent research on contemporary graphic narrative defined the form as “a book-length work composed in the medium of comics.” Chute prefers “graphic narrative” to the less-inclusive label “graphic novel,” arguing that “the most riveting comics texts coming out right now—from men and women alike—are not novels at all.” Most, like Maus, are memoirs, biographies, history, art—or a sui generis blend. (To read about Chicago students drawing their own comics, see “Panel Discussions.”)

This past fall Chute joined the English Department as an assistant professor. Previously she spent three years at the Harvard Society of Fellows, turning part of her dissertation into Graphic Women: Life Narrative and Contemporary Comics (Columbia University Press, 2010). The book dissects autobiographical comics by five female authors at the vanguard of what Chute calls “a large field of women creating significant graphic narrative work.”

The innovators include Lynda Barry, author of Ernie Pook’s Comeek, a long-running alternative-newspaper strip; Marjane Satrapi, who wrote Persepolis, a comic and film about her childhood in revolutionary Iran; and Alison Bechdel, creator of the strip Dykes to Watch Out For and the memoir Fun Home. Chute’s book also analyzes works by Phoebe Gloeckner, an artist, professor, and medical illustrator; and Aline Kominsky-Crumb, a pioneer of women’s autobiographical comics.

The authors delve into difficult themes: violence, sexuality, abuse, and trauma. Their humor, when present, is dark. Although academic feminist critics mostly ignore graphic narrative, Chute writes, cartoonists such as Gloeckner, who survived rape as a teenager, are “motivated by a powerful if familiar feminist trope: making the hidden visible,” offering “a way to put the body on the page.” Using words and images, the authors tell their disturbing personal stories by “retracing—materially reimagining trauma.”

Chute’s dissertation has also provided material for a second project on nonfiction comics as documentary. Examples include Maus, Keiji Nakazawa’s I Saw It—a Japanese comic or manga history of the Hiroshima bombing—and work by “comics journalist” Joe Sacco, whose Palestine and Safe Area Goražde document contemporary conflicts. “I’m really interested in the idea of visual witnessing and reporting as a narrative form,” Chute says, “and how drawing is part of that.”

She finds the new graphic language of comics compelling in part because its hybrid visual-verbal form allows multiple narrators, locations, and time frames to coexist on a single page. Maus, for example, functions both as an autobiography of Art Spiegelman and as a biography of his father, Vladek. Pictures depict the horror of Auschwitz, while the text presents narration recorded in a New York City apartment decades later. In Persepolis, Satrapi serves simultaneously as innocent-child protagonist and knowing-adult narrator of Iran’s Islamic revolution. A similar dynamic drives Fun Home and Gloeckner’s A Child’s Life: the authors compose comics “as a way of interacting with and actually touching a younger version of self.”

Comics are both mass-produced and artisanal, Chute notes. They shape stories “into a series of framed moments,” which creates distance, but they are hand drawn and handwritten, which creates intimacy. The gutters between panels provide empty spaces between moments—in which readers can “project causality,” make connections, and imagine what might have happened. Comics let readers control what they look at on a page and, unlike film, for how long. This “slowed-down reading and looking” makes graphic narrative a more active, less manipulative, and, she argues, more “ethical” medium.

In 2005 Chute published an online essay analyzing a few pages of Maus. The piece caught Spiegelman’s eye, and he invited her to a party at his home. The two became “friends and intellectual coconspirators” and collaborated on MetaMaus, forthcoming from Pantheon in 2011. The meat of the book is an interview Chute and Spiegelman recorded over two years and edited together. “There are also images on every page, archival documents, photographs, outtakes from Maus, and early notes,” she says.

Given the global popularity of Maus, interest in MetaMaus could be intense. Chute sees the nonfiction graphic-narrative boom that Spiegelman unleashed as a consequence of two forces. First, she says, “People are interested in themselves, and people are interested in narratives of reality.” Second, from World War II to the war in Iraq, the past 70 years have produced trauma, and “whenever you have these kinds of terrain-shifting moments socially, cultural forms are responsive to that.”

Chute does not see the proliferation of comics as a sign that the media age has shortened attention spans and led readers to prefer picture books to “serious” literature. “These works are so sophisticated on a narrative level,” she says, “that they really demand a complex verbal and visual literacy.”

Far from dumbing down the culture, graphic narratives teach people “to read slowly, to read carefully, to pay attention to details, to think about how things are framed, and to think about the relationship of parts to a whole,” says Chute. “The way a comics page is constructed has everything to do with eliciting a careful reading.”


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