Hillary Chute Puts the “Artistic” into “Literary” Comics Studies

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When graphic designers hear the phrase “literary scholar,” they might just wince. After all, they tend to value (1), clear communication and (2), a just-so balance between the visual and the verbal. And even the thought of reading works by a literary scholar who specializes in the fun subject of comics can conjure up (1), yawningly dense, impenetrable academic jargon and (2), a focus on the, well, the literary aspects of graphic narrative to the diminishment, or more likely, the total exclusion of the, um, graphic. Well, Hillary Chute defies any such preconceptions. Along with novelist Ed Parks, she’s one of the New York Times‘s two new “comics columnist” contributors, news I recently referenced in my Print column about the paper. Her writing is not just effortlessly accessible, it’s also invitingly engaging to anyone curious about the medium, from casual fan to seasoned pro. Plus, she always brings insight and enlightenment, not just about the art of comics, but also the dynamics between word and image and the ways they relate to broader cultural and philosophical contexts.

Hillary Chute

Keiji Nakazawa: I Saw It, © 1972

“The page that shows the bomb detonating illustrates how comics narrative can capture what we might think of as both exterior and interior trauma. … On the upper-right corner of the page, in the same tier as the flash, is an even more commanding panel that captures the expressionistic sights Keiji saw just before falling unconscious: a tree severs in two, a torrent of roof tiles rush by. It is the kind of image that can’t be photographed, and that is seared into one’s memory. As with the drawings of the camps Spiegelman found on his parents’ bookshelf, drawing can capture the vividness of memory – especially memory formed during sudden traumatic events – in a way photography cannot. Comics, in Spiegelman’s and Nakazawa’s hands, becomes a form of witness to unphotographable events.”

Chute is well respected in the comics community for her extremely knowledgeable essays and her books such as Graphic Women: Life Narrative and Contemporary Comics and Disaster Drawn: Visual Witness, Comics, and Documentary Form. In her latest, Why Comics?: From Underground to Everywhere, she analyzes the power of comics to communicate and influence us more effectively than any other art form. In this way, it’s a “How Comics…” as much as a “Why Comics…”

Karen Green, Columbia University’s Comics and Cartoons Curator, blurbs on the back that “Hillary Chute may be to comics studies what Art Spiegelman is to comics.” Indeed, during an interview Chute recalled an early meeting with Spiegelman she noted, “In a lot of academic writing about Maus, one could read the essay and potentially think it was written about a novel. So somehow the whole idiom of comics was missing from academic analysis. We realized we were both intensely interested in comics form, so we got along very well.” And although Why Comics? rhapsodizes eloquently over Spiegelman, Chris Ware, Dan Clowes, the Hernandez Bros. and other alt-indie auteurs she obviously favors, it also offers sharp, well-considered analyses of team-effort genres such as superheroes as well as other categories.

Here’s a bit of her “comics form” commentary about a few of the book’s hundred-plus images. Enjoy.


Hillary Chute

Jaime Hernandez: front jacket

Hillary Chute

Gary Panter: Jimbo comic strip, Slash, © 1979

“An amusing Jimbo strip from a 1979 Slash crystallizes Panter’s expressive, mash-up aesthetic. … Panter calls attention to the visual surface of the page, to the line or mark itself, as the unit of currency, as opposed to narrative coherence. The words readers can piece together make an absurd whole… It is a self-reflective strip about aesthetics that manages to be also light and funny. Its ragged lines, play of different styles, and black-and-white patterning produce what artist Mike Kelley called Panter’s ‘elegantly brutal’ work.”

Hillary Chute

Dick Ayers and John Severin: cover, © 1968. Joe Sacco: cover, © 1994

“The striking covers of Palestine make legible how Sacco owns comic-book conventions for a new context: he combines the energy and immediacy of inexpensive, accessible, serial comic books with the gravity and rigor demanded by a journalistic investigation into world-historical conflict and its effects on the ground.”

Hillary Chute

David Aja: “Pizza is My Business” from Hawkeye: Little Hits, written by Matt Fraction, © 2013

“Chris Ware steals motifs from superhero comics in order to reject them. And in our current cultural moment, characterized by hybridity, mixing, and dynamism, the superhero comics are now in turn themselves influenced by Ware, as we see in Marvel’s recent Hawkeye run. … The story offers readers only words a dog would recognize, like ‘don’t’ and ‘stay.’ And it offers a world in the colors the dog sess (he and his friends are color-blind). It presents the interiority, if you will, of Pizza Dog. … The superhero comics are now responding to the comics that responded to them to tell and show their more action-oriented plotlines.”

Hillary Chute

Lynda Barry: “Resilience” from One Hundred Demons, © 2002

“Even in its physical design, One Hundred Demons evokes girlhood. Barry is an outspoken fan of handwriting, and her comics have a very distinct – and to me quite beautiful – evident handwrittenness about them. The mix of lowercase and uppercase brush-painted letters, which we see in sentences and even sometimes within the physical, material space of one word, has no narrative function, but it does have a visual function. It is decorative, and in its unpredictability and ornamental quality, it asks a reader to be aware of the body whose hand creates the comics; it ruffles the surface of the page.”

Hillary Chute

Alison Bechdel: Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic, © 2006

“Bechdel draws the photograph bisected by the seam of the page, with her left hand holding it out in front of her. She places readers in the position of her optical point of view, but she draws her hands much larger than life-size, calling conspicuous attention to the scene of looking and to the photograph as a handled artifact, not simply a transparent window into reality.”

Hillary Chute

Allie Brosh: “Motivation” from Hyperbole and a Half: Unfortunate Situations, Flawed Coping Mechanisms, Mayhem, and Other Things That Happened, © 2013

“In Brosh’s hands, we see how adept comics can be at sharing the complicated internal processes of depression. … The power of drawing is that it can capture a concept otherwise too abstract to articulate. Brosh’s drawings of herself reflect her internal reality; it merges that internal reality with an external one, lending features to a self-portrait that indicates the self’s innermost feelings about herself. … This story movingly reveals, through the visualization of separate selves, the difficulties of decision making that don’t immediately appear rational.”

Hillary Chute

Bobby London: cover, © 1977

“Bobby London drew [Blondie] lead singer Debbie Harry in the spotlight, bleaching Harry’s iconic hair and the moniker PUNK with the same electric yellow.”

Hillary Chute

Chris Ware: Building Stories back cover, © 2012

“The back of the rigorously designed box presents the author’s description of the book – and gives no direction whatsoever as to any correct reading order. … The experience of reading Building Stories is as nonlinear as wandering into a house, as interactive as handling objects in space – objects you could take with you, misplace, leave out next to the cereal… Building Stories addresses its reader, claims suburban existence as its domain, and shows from the outset, with its diagram of domesticity, how comics can reveal the intricacies, and the psychological importance, of space.”

Hillary Chute

Richard McGuire: Here, © 2014

“Comics shape time by arranging it in space on the page in panels, which are, essentially, boxes of time. … Panels are how the cartoonist gets to experiment with presenting time, with duration and motion. … McGuire multiplies and layers panels, each of which represents a different time frame, within the same space on every page, opening up dimensions of time. One page depicting 1949, which is about breaking as a general matter, features a spatialized smattering of verbal insults from the 1940s to the 1980s and also, terrifyingly, water pouring into the room’s window, suggesting a totally destructive natural disaster in the year 2111.”

Hillary Chute

Gary Panter: Why Comics? foreword