Why Comics? From Underground to Everywhere

Hillary Chute
Published by Harper-Collins in 2017

The Protestant Reformation made the Bible accessible not only to theologians and priests, but also to everyday people. Interestingly, though, certain branches of that same movement were deeply distrustful of the paintings, statues, icons, and stained glass windows that adorned churches, viewing them as objects of idolatrous worship rather than as doorways and windows to help illiterate congregations know, remember, and interpret biblical stories.

That distrust lingers. Many Christian traditions that trace their theology back to the Reformation think of themselves as people of the Book. Indeed, God’s Word is given to us as a book. Much of the twenty-first-century world we live in, however, increasingly relies on the intersection of both words and images to make meaning. In spite of some predictions of the death of the book that generally set up an opposition between words and images,1 the reality of contemporary communication is that it is multimodal, combining images and words in such a way that the message cannot be understood if either the words or the picture is taken away. Think of a billboard, where the image and the words combine to create a joke or an irony. Think of a website that uses words to comment on or explain an image or graph. Think of Instagram, Facebook, or virtually any other social media platform, where we combine photographs and words to create posts and memes. Think of TED Talks, YouTube, and blogs. Words and images combine in our world to make meaning. As Hillary Chute states in the first chapter of her book Why Comics? From Underground to Everywhere, “Being able to decipher a story that’s coming at you in words and images is crucial. It’s part of functioning in society today” (23).

Indeed, comics are a genre in which words and images have long intersected to create meaning. Comics, depending on how they are defined, have been around since at least the political cartoons in the British humor periodical Punch which began appearing in 1843, as Chute argues, or possibly medieval tapestries or ancient Egyptian wall paintings as Scott McCloud has suggested.2 Comics and graphic novels use conventions like speech balloons, thought balloons, and text boxes, to embed words within the frame of pictures and create a synergy of word and image that has remarkable communicative power. Since comics have been doing this for some time, their particular format has developed an amazingly effective multimodal language. For much of that time, however, they have also been dismissed by Christians and others as throw-away kids’ stuff about superheroes and funny animals that require little thought or interpretive skill to read and have little communicative value.

In the last thirty years, however, that has started to change. Because of the power of the multimodal language they have developed, graphic novels are now being recognized as a highly effective way to communicate. Following Art Spiegleman’s Maus (1986) becoming in 1992 the first graphic novel to win the Pulitzer Prize, the publishing world has seen an explosion of graphic novel publication, sales, and critical acclaim. What is it about this particular format that makes it such a successful way of communicating, and, at the same time, makes it a type of art often dismissed by critics, academics, and Christians?

Hillary Chute’s Why Comics? From Underground to Everywhere sets out to answer the question of why the specialized language that comics and graphic novels have developed is so powerful. Chute breaks that question down into smaller questions which name her chapters and ask more specifically what the graphic novel format can offer to the discussion of certain topics and content. These chapters answer the questions of: “Why disaster?”, “Why superheroes?”, “Why sex?”, “Why the suburbs?”, “Why cities?”, “Why punk?”, “Why illness and disability?”, “Why girls?”, “Why war?”, “Why queer?”, and “Why fans?”

Chute answers each chapter’s question with three elements: brief biographies of two or three graphic novel creators, summaries of the work of those creators, and a critical analysis of those works and how they connect to the theme of the chapter. Sometimes an analysis of why the medium of graphic novels is well suited to this particular subject is also woven into the literary analysis. The most insightful moments in the book, in fact, are when Chute concentrates on such analysis. For example, in the introduction, Chute writes eloquently about the textual/visual language that graphic novels use. Consider her explanation of the gutter, that is, the space between panels on a page in a graphic novel:

The gutter, for instance,…is crucial for comics making and reading. The gutter is an absent space that is part of the story—it is where the reader fills in the blank between pictured moments, participating imaginatively in the creation of the story. And different readers do this and experience this blank differently. Comics is as much about what is outside the frame as what is inside it—what can be pictured, and what cannot or will not be pictured, and is left to the reader’s imagination. (23)

It is common for people unfamiliar with graphic novels to make a false distinction between regular text-only reading, in which the reader must, from the words on the page, use her imagination to create pictures in her head, and graphic novels, in which it is argued that the presence of images means there is no need for imagination when reading. Chute’s explanation eloquently describes how imagination is vital in graphic novels as the reader considers what happens between the panels. This sort of explanation helps articulate how graphic novels work and why what they offer is a reading experience with a different set of af- fordances and constraints than regular text reading, not a reading experience that is lesser or lacking.

Before we look more closely at each of the three elements of Chute’s argu- ment—biography, critical analysis, and examination of the graphic novel format— it is worth considering her terminology. Throughout the book, Chute prefers to use the generic term “comics” to refer to anything that uses panels and word balloons to communicate a narrative. In fact, this is such an important position for her that even before the text of the book begins, a comic book style illustration features a nebbish character criticizing the “vulgar marketing sobriquet ‘graphic novel’.” She explains in the introduction that she finds the term “graphic novel” to be too pretentious. Throughout the book, when the term does appear, Chute either puts it in quotes or uses a phrase like “so-called” to make clear to the audience that she does not use the term without disdain.

To be sure, the term “graphic novel” is a misnomer, since graphic novels are neither exclusively graphic (they employ words, as well) nor exclusively novels (the term also refers to non-fiction, memoir, and other types of books). On the other hand, in spite of the imperfection of the term, Chute finds herself using it with some regularity to distinguish book-length comic narratives (graphic novels) from shorter serialized periodicals (comic books); from the radical comics move- ment of the 1960s and ’70s (comix); from the newspaper funnies (comic strips); from single-panel comics (cartoons); and from animated television programs (also called cartoons). Besides being imprecise, at times Chute’s privileging the term “comics” seems as pretentiously hipster as she accuses the term “graphic novels” of being pretentiously academic. The bottom line, however, is that her disdain of the term sometimes gets in the way of the argument she is making.

One other clarification of terminology may also be helpful. Chute chooses to use the plural term “comics” with singular verbs to indicate that comics should be considered as a format worthy of separate consideration from art or literature:

Comics, on the other hand, is a medium in its own right—not a lowbrow genre of either art of literature, as it is sometimes understood—and it can be about anything. For that reason, however awkward “comics is” can sound in a sentence, I use “comics” with a singular verb when appropriate. (2)

This choice, while understandable, sometimes makes for awkward reading.

Biographies

Because for many readers Chute’s book may serve as an introduction to graphic novels, using biographies of the creators of some prominent graphic novels is a good way to highlight both the variety of circumstances from which the graphic novel creators come and the seriousness with which they take their craft. Biographies often afford Chute the chance to highlight the creators’ aesthetic and narrative philosophies, as in her biography of Grant Morrison in the chapter titled “Why Superheroes?”:

Comics writer Grant Morrison, for example, describes [superhero comics’] enduring and widespread appeal movingly. “In a secular, scientific, rational culture lacking any convinc- ing spiritual leadership … superhero stories speak loudly and boldly to our greatest fears, deepest longings, and highest aspirations. They’re not afraid to be hopeful, not embarrassed to be optimistic, and utterly fearless in the dark.” For other comics, though, … investigating failure and doubt is an alternative to such storylines. (75)

Such a quote also reveals Chute’s tendency to privilege storylines that question or disparage idealistic characters or morally decisive actions in narratives. She writes extensively in the second chapter about Daniel Clowes’s The Death Ray, which tells the dark story of an anti-hero whose destructive actions seem capricious and without any justification or motivation. Chute compares Clowes’s work to an oft-repeated trope of Spiderman stories, stating, “But while Spiderman struggles to match great responsibility to his great powers, Andy [protagonist of The Death Ray] falls short. Andy’s superpowers do not lead to any great responsibility or barely any responsibility at all” (95). Chute’s tone in this statement is one of ad- miration of Clowes for creating a protagonist who is without responsibility for his actions. Throughout this chapter, Chute seems to view stories in which the protagonist does not exhibit any moral sense at all as not only more realistic, but somehow more mature, than stories in which characters struggle with questions of responsibility or moral choice.

Unfortunately, some of the biographical sketches also get lost in name- dropping and relying on celebrity and notoriety to argue for the value of graphic novels. For example, in the same chapter, Chute mentions that Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, the two kids who first imagined and wrote about the character Superman, had ties to modern celebrities Nicholas Cage and Kobe Bryant; that noted African-American author Ta-Nehisi Coates has written a run of the comic Black Panther which was then released as a graphic novel; and that acclaimed graphic novelist Gene Yang has also written scripts for a recent run of Superman comics. Throughout the book, references to her good friend Art Spiegelman, author of Maus, abound. These references are usually distractions from whatever good argument she is making at the time. Chute also seems to argue that graphic novels have value because they are often made into movies, mentioned by celebrities, or otherwise impact pop culture. While it is true that graphic novels, like other forms of literature, reflect, impact, and illuminate what our contemporary culture is, the references Chute makes are not her most persuasive arguments.

Summaries and Critical Analysis of Important Graphic Novels

Chute is very perceptive and has written well in her previous books—notably Graphic Women: Life Narrative and Contemporary Comics (Columbia University Press, 2010) and Disaster Drawn: Visual Witness, Comics, and Documentary Form (Harvard University Press, 2016)—about images, facial expressions, body positioning and what it means in a particular scene, and what images can reveal. In those books, she is quite articulate in describing the interaction between words and images, whether that interaction is ironic, parallel, supportive, or extending.

In Why Comics?, the graphic novels Chute selects and the ways she approaches them critically reveal a set of values that draws heavily from a postmodern understanding of the world. Chute values graphic novels that tackle difficult non-fiction topics with honesty and candor; that present divisive issues from an open-minded perspective and without judgment; and that display hidden aspects of life (sexuality, defecation, inner thoughts, detailed realism, painful abuse); as well as anything connected to the counter-cultural underground comix movement that had its start in Haight-Ashbury during the 1960s and ’70s.

Chute traces the countercultural influence effectively and makes a good argument for the importance of this thread of graphic novel history. It is easy, however, when reading the book, to forget about the influence of comic books carried to Europe and Asia by allied soldiers during World War II that spawned the Manga style in Asia, the French/Belgian comics movement, and many modern creators who do not have clear connections to the comix movement, like Gene Yang, Hope Larsen, and Craig Thompson, all of whom are comfortable addressing questions of belief, identity, redemption, and forgiveness. Chute does include more well- known graphic novels like Spiegelman’s Maus: A Survivor’s Tale (Pantheon, 1986) and Representative John Lewis and Andrew Aydin’s March (Top Shelf, 2013), but leaves out other lesser-known and less-radical graphic novels like Apostolos Doxadis’s Logicomix, which is a splendid biography of Bertrand Russell (Bloomsbury, 2008); Gareth Hinds’s excellent adaptation of the Odyssey (Penguin, 2010); or Bryan Talbot’s realistic novel The Tale of One Bad Rat (Dark Horse, 1994).

In the chapter titled “Why Sex?”, Chute provides an extensive analysis of the work of both Robert Crumb and his wife Aline Kominsky-Crumb. In summarizing the critical impact of their work, Chute states,

Kominsky-Crumb and Crumb encouraged each other to push away the inner censors in their comics and have become the two people perhaps most directly responsible for creating comics as a medium for a certain kind of intimate, body-focused expression. Comics excels at this, with its hand-drawn, intimate, diary-like properties; capacity for capturing detail; and ability to give shape to the wildest imagination. (127)

In the same chapter, Chute describes the graphic story “Minnie’s Third Love” by Phoebe Gloeckner. The story describes Gloeckner’s seduction by her mother’s boyfriend, loss of virginity, running away to San Francisco, and an incident where she is “drugged, raped, and pimped out by her jealous girlfriend.” She is accused of pornography, but emphasizes in the trial that she is accurately drawing what happened and that the images are not intended to titillate. Chute’s focus on graphic novels that describe with great detail sexuality, defecation, and other topics that seem to be shocking for the sake of being shocking, however, limits her discussion of the affordances and constraints that the graphic novel format offers.

In contrast, the chapter titled “Why Illness and Disability?” digs deeply into what it is that the graphic novel format can lend to an understanding of these two very different topics. Chute concentrates this chapter on how “Comics can make visible both external features of a condition and internal, cognitive, and emotional features that are otherwise hard to communicate” (243). Chute writes convincingly of “the capacity of comics to be diagrammatic” (241), showing close-ups of biopsy needles, medical equipment, and graphs and charts in close connections with facial expressions and descriptions of both procedures and the thoughts and feelings of patients, family members, and doctors in a way that gives the storyteller an incredible range of possibilities for narration and point of view. She also describes how graphic novels can “render metaphors concrete on the page in order to make an experience vivid” (259) and how graphic novels use “double-trackedness,” that is, the pairing of “commentary in text boxes with action unfolding in frames” (259). Chute illustrates each point with an example from a graphic novel, in this case Maria Marchello’s Cancer Vixen for illness and Justin Green’s Binky Brown Meets the Holy Virgin Mary for disability.

In summary, Chute’s critical analysis is at its best when, in examining the themes and content she is investigating, she takes into account what the graphic novel format can offer, but also when she is able to expand her critical focus be- yond a kind of glee about the edginess and transgressive qualities of the graphic novels she is selecting.

Analysis of the Graphic Novel Format

When Chute digs into the question of what it is about the graphic novel for- mat that particularly lends itself to certain sorts of narratives—what the format’s affordances and constraints are—the book really gets good. Chute is remarkably insightful both about the general aspects of graphic novels and how they are particularly suited to certain topics, though I do not think she is so much trying to argue that there are some topics that graphic novels do well with and others they do not, as much as she is trying to show how the graphic format, applied to any particular content, holds great possibility. She might have chosen ten different subjects, and her analysis would likely have been just as insightful.

In the chapter titled “Why Disaster?”, for example, Chute writes generally about how the way each graphic novel page is organized with panels allows for time to be fluid within the story. A single panel can show both present and past, as when, in Maus, Art and Vladek are riding in a car on a forest road after discussing how, when Vladek was in the concentration camp, he saw four young girls who had tried to help a prisoner rebellion and whom the German guards executed by hanging. As Art and Vladek ride through the woods, you can see the bottom of prison dresses, legs, and shoes clearly hanging from the trees. While this example is drawn from a graphic novel focused on disaster, Chute’s insights about the fluidity of time in graphic novels apply to volumes about other topics, as well.

Other insights are more exclusive to graphic novels specifically about disaster. As Chute writes, “In comics, images that represent extreme experience can feel powerfully immediate and direct, which often gives them an emotional force when they are expressing what cannot be put into words.” She goes on to state,

There exist many, many comics about trauma, and for a good reason. This handmade form is able to explore violence without sensationalizing it. It can express the multifaceted experience of trauma—and the disaster of history—in the grammar of boxes, gutters, and lines. (35)

Chute gives examples of how this works in graphic novels about the Hurricane Katrina floods in New Orleans, the destruction of the Twin Towers on September 11, 2001, and other topics.

Unfortunately, this level of insight is by no means consistent. The chapter titled “Why the Suburbs?”, for example, contains some insightful critical analy- sis, but there is very little about the graphic novel format. The conclusions Chute reaches might have been made about a similar collection of regular books. Perhaps she is trying to show that graphic novels can provide source material for serious literary analysis, but such analysis should take into account what is particular to the format being analyzed. No one would expect an analysis of a novel written in verse, for example, to fail to mention the single most unique aspect of such a book, its poetic form.

In chapters in which she does engage the graphic novel format, however, Chute’s postmodern perspective still leaves some aspects out of the discussion. As a Christian considering the affordances and constraints of graphic novels, I was struck, in reading the “Why Disaster?” chapter, how well the combination of words and images can capture the depth of the brokenness of sin. Christians might consider not only the way the Bible uses words to craft images to achieve similar ends (consider the description of the great flood in Genesis or the detailed descriptions of Jesus suffering on the cross, which help us imagine “the multi- faceted experience of trauma—and the disaster of history”). But we might also consider how, in everything from paintings to children’s Bibles, Christian artists have depicted that brokenness. Because a Christian understanding of disaster has room to understand both the depth of how the brokenness of sin has affected every aspect of Creation and that God’s grace is clear in the rainbow and the torn veil, Chute’s chapter might also, for Christians, suggest that this graphic novel format might be something we should research, study, and create (as many Christians already have begun doing).

Conclusion

Why Comics? has value in that it focuses a solid critical eye on a limited range of graphic novels, mostly non-fiction. It is also an interesting book for Christians, in that it is a remarkable example of what happens when postmodern criticism runs into difficulty in rendering complex aesthetic judgments in the context of a world that is increasingly recognizing the value in having a basis for rendering such judgments. As such, Chute’s book may be indirectly (and unwittingly) mak- ing an argument that Christians looking at multimodality in general and graphic novels in particular have something very important to contribute to the critical conversation. Seen another way, this is a good introduction to important graphic novelists and their work, which Christians at the least should be aware of. It would be interesting to see a nuanced Christian response to the same works that Chute presents here. Ultimately, however, I do not believe that the book answers the question “Why comics?” It may, however, offer enough of a nudge to begin a very important discussion.


Footnote

William Boerman-Cornell is a professor of education at Trinity Christian College and co-author, with Jung Kim and Michael L. Manderino, of Graphic Novels in High School and Middle School Classrooms: A Disciplinary Literacies Approach (Rowman & Littlefield, 2017).

Cite this article
William Boerman-Cornell, “Why Comics? — An Extended Review”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 48:2 , 183-190

Footnotes

  1. See, for example, Sven Birkerts, The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1994); and Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in an Age of Show Business(New York: Penguin, 1985).
  2. Scott McCloud, Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art (New York: Harper Perennial, 1994).

William Boerman-Cornell

Trinity Christian College
William Boerman-Cornell is a professor of education at Trinity Christian College.