Professor of English and Art + Design at Northeastern University
Author, Why Comics? From Underground to Everywhere
Graphic Women: Life Narrative and Contemporary Comics
Outside the Box: Interviews Contemporary Cartoonists
"The drawn line in comics can evoke something visceral with a couple strokes of the pen."
By Heidi Legg
Hillary Chute has spent the past decade chronicling comics and graphic novelists as an academic, critic and ardent consumer of the genre. She notes that the comic and graphic novel category is now a billion dollar industry, and, while regarded in France and Italy as formal element, it is still nascent in its literary seat here in the country where the superhero genre was born in 1938. In the 1940s and 50s, she notes, there were comic burnings where many adults saw comics as a loose and dangerous form of youth culture and perhaps still in its nascent form here in America.
Chute sees the power of comics as an intimate form of reveal whether around anti-establishment, youth culture, idealism and even the processing sexual assault. “One of the works I wrote about in Graphic Women that I write about again in Why Comics? under the ‘Why Sex?’ chapter is work by the cartoonist Phoebe Gloeckner whose work is about rape and sexual harassment and her own experience. Her work is incredibly powerful. It's hard to look at in many cases. For the past twenty years, I think that comics has been a form where women can tell certain kinds of stories that they didn't feel they could tell in other ways in part because comics has been out of the mainstream.”
Formerly at the University of Chicago, Chute is now Professor of English and Art + Design at Northeastern University. Her current research is into contemporary American literature, specifically, as to how public and private histories take shape in the form of innovative narrative work. Her new book Why Comics? From Underground to Everywhere is being published by HarperCollins this December. We sat down to discuss the maturing of the formal discipline she calls ‘comics.’
The graphic novel has become such a huge phenomenon in the past decade in mainstream culture, what is visual culture today and would you define the landscape for us?
One of the things I'm really interested in, given comics are so popular today and so acclaimed, is that it's actually an old form. Superhero comics start in the '30s, but the first work that really laid down the conventions of modern comics is from the 1830s, and there are all sorts of fascinating comic works appearing in newspapers at the turn of the century. Some of the aesthetic highpoints in the history of comics are from 1904/1905. So, the essential question for me is: why are people interested in this form in this fresh way right now?
Even the term "graphic novel" seems everywhere.
It is everywhere. The interest in comics has really exploded, and I think there are a couple of reasons why. One actually has to do with the intimacy and the immediacy of a hand drawn line. People are able to feel connected to stories like Alison Bechdel's Fun Home, not only because it's a true story about her childhood – that's a fascinating story – but also because being able to encounter her handwriting is almost like reading her diary. It's something intimate and appealing and compelling.
Would you equate blogs today with the same intimacy? And yet, their popularity has waned.
I think that's a great point. Blogging is another and different form of intimacy, but being able to encounter somebody's handwriting tells you a lot about that person, and there’s a hunger for those intimate sorts of stories, whether or not they're non-fiction like Bechdel's Fun Home or fiction. They feel very immediate and visceral.
I spent my youth bingeing on comics. My dad had a very old collection of classic novels in the form of comics, which I may have borrowed for book reports when I’d procrastinated to finish the novel in time to write a paper… How are comics of the classics different today, and how are they the same?
As you mentioned, the phrase ‘graphic novel’ is everywhere now. I'm guessing that when we were younger, there weren't as many book-length works in the form of comics circulating in regular bookstores as there are today. So, one major change is that a lot of independent comics publishers like Fantagraphics out in Seattle and Drawn & Quarterly in Montreal, who were publishing really fabulous, somewhat underground, very sophisticated work, found book distribution through companies like Norton. This distribution stream radically changed the whole landscape – because suddenly you could walk into your local Barnes & Noble and find a graphic novel, or you could walk into the Harvard Bookstore and find a graphic novel. Previously, you would have had to have gone to a comic book specialty shop.
Your earlier book, Graphic Women: Life Narrative and Contemporary Comics was about female illustrators. In the '70s and '80s were these women publishing classical literature graphic novels?
The comics classics genre that you made mention to – sometimes called ‘classics illustrated’ – began in the 1940s, and it was huge, and one could read the comic book version of Moby Dick, for example. I often show my students a slide of its cover. But that fell out of fashion by the '70s. It's actually recently been resuscitated, but it had a high point in the '40s when comic books in general were having a high point. Superhero comics begin in 1938, and comics took off right through the Second World War and into the '50s. All of the superhero characters as well as other genres were flourishing. These more didactic comic book story adaptations of famous works of literature, along with romance comics and horror comics became huge. There were really comics in every genre then.
But not everyone was on board. In your book you explain a movement led by American psychologist Fredric Wertham, who said that comics and their images were ruining our youth. As a result, comics began to be burned. What was going on?
Part of what happened was the huge proliferation of genres that led to horror genres, violent action genres, noir-ish bloody gruesome storylines, and people loved it. They were hugely popular. I think it turned dark for a couple reasons, and one is the environment. It's the postwar, right? And Art Spiegelman has this great quote that I've always found so fascinating: that the horror comics of the 1950s were the Jewish American secular response to Auschwitz. There were disarticulated bodies, a lot of scenes of horrified witnesses looking at disarticulated bodies. Comics were very dark, and I think that had to do with the war.
Does this new book reflect the politics of today?
There's definitely a political angle to this book that has to do with people making their own media. This idea probably comes up most explicitly in my chapter on the connection between punk and comics around this idea that ‘You don't like what's out there? Go make it yourself!’ These people fascinated me. Part of what I wanted to do in this book was to call attention to individual cartoonists who laid the groundwork for this incredible graphic novel movement that seems to have happened without precedent. These were artists doing the work that they liked with no sense that they would ever become famous or get paid. Art Spiegelman never thought that Maus would be the hit that it was and the bestseller that it continues to be today.
Your book draws me into the history of filmmakers out in California and that movement and how it began as a parallel in time. Do you see think about that industry as a prototype?
I'm so glad you mentioned that. Thank you. I actually think the comparison to film is really useful. I think what's happening in the past ten or fifteen years right now in comics is something that we saw happening in the '50s,'60s, and '70s with film. Back then, museums were not collecting film and now museums do, and it's been taken up in academia. Now it seems totally normal for there to be film studies departments, but thirty years ago it wasn't the norm at all. There's a push these days for there to be comics studies departments. I don't know how I feel about that, but it's a similar situation.
The chapters in your book have razor clarity: Why Superheroes? Why Suburbs? Why Punk? Why Sex. Why did you approach your chapters the way you did?
I wanted to write a book that wasn't boring. That was really my main goal given I come from academia. I've published three academic books before this book, and I knew that I did not want to give a dry academic chronological history of the development of comics because I feel bored when I think about that.
What was your favorite chapter to write?
I really loved writing the chapter about punk because I feel like it's the chapter that stands in for the argument of the whole book: people going out on a limb to make their own media and then somehow exploding into the mainstream.
It certainly felt the most newsworthy at this ‘Trump’ moment in time.
It echoes a lot with me in terms of thinking about people blogging, as you said, and also in terms of thinking about certain lifestyle preferences and consumer preferences that are now so dominant like Etsy as a marketplace for all things homemade. It was a huge consumer revolution, and comics is all about the handmade: It's all about printing up your ‘zine’ [a magazine, especially a fanzine or a webzine] and selling it in a baby carriage on Haight Street the way Robert Crumb did.
In the chapter on sex, the comics are pretty graphic, and you allude to the controversy around the student at Duke University who didn’t want to read Fun Home. How important has sex played as part of the comic industry?
I think it's one of the issues that makes comics the most fascinating to think about right now, especially in terms of education, and what's seeable, and what's say-able, and the line we want to draw. So, yes, sex in comics is really different from only reading about sex in say, Ulysses (by James Joyce), which had its own obscenity trial. One of the things I wanted to point out in that chapter is the student, Brian Grasso, who wrote the op-ed in the Washington Post about refusing to read Fun Home, was onto something. It feels really different, for example, to look at an image of two people having intercourse in comics than it does to only read a couple sentences about it.
It’s also not polished up by an industry like the online pornography industry. It’s quite raw, awkward and raunchy. What do you think about that?
He was right that there's a difference, and there's a difference that is an immediate effectual difference… but what was sort of amusing to me about his labeling Fun Home as pornography is the fact that it's a book in which the sex is awkward, sweet between two kids in college – it's the opposite of pornographic. It's about inhabiting a textured subjectivity in a growing sexual consciousness. There's nothing prurient about it at all. It just happens to picture bodies.
I found myself asking as a feminist, ‘Oh, is a line-drawn sexual act a healthier way to look at sex because it is less objectified?’ In comparison to online porn, consumed massively today and mostly by men, where there is a representation in online porn that glamorizes submissiveness, comic sex looks awkward. While the Popeye illustration you show in the book is pretty raw, I found myself asking, ‘Is this a better way to experience visual forms of sexuality?’
The Popeye comic that you're referring to specifically is a so-called Tijuana Bible. That was a genre of comics that were ‘under the counter.’ These were underground circulating comics in which famous people from history, famous comics and cartoon characters, and in some cases fictional characters – but very typological – were having sex and having wild sex. Popeye is having sex with Olive Oyl while the third character is having sex with him. It's a big free for all.
What’s so amazing goes back to what I was talking about before with the drawn line. The drawn line in comics can evoke something visceral with a couple strokes of the pen. It’s not some big production pornographic film or some short pornographic video. This is pen on paper.
It feels very visceral, and I think that the seamy side of comics, the ‘under the counter’ sex comics, persist today because there's a way that a cartoonist can draw something that would be very hard to film, for example, and also very hard to evoke only in words. One can draw from imagination and not only have to be capturing a scene from life with a camera, the unrestricted Id can find shape in comics, and it's not slick.
It also doesn’t feel like a consumptive product.
There's something illicit about comics, as I mention in the book around the idea of the kid drawing his teacher without clothes. Because it's one person producing it, and it’s one person writing and drawing it instead of a team of people. It is the kid scribbling the picture of his teacher without clothes in the back of the classroom. It only takes one pen and one hand to make that happen. So, there's something very immediate about it.
Is the experience different for the cartoonist from that of the producer?
Yes, because it's coming out of your hand and your mind instead of being taken through a lens.
The punk chapter seemed the most contemporary in terms of both the rise of Neo-Nazis and resistance. Did you want to draw any immediate parallels with what was going on then, and what is going on politically today?
In the US, punk was really happening in California and in New York. It took off in LA and then in New York City and the kids – and I say ‘kids’ on purpose because they were pretty young teenagers or early twenties – who were involved in this. They were not interested in white supremacist punk subcultures that had been sprouting up in England. They didn't have a political topic the way those punks, who were white supremacists in some cases, did over in Europe but rather they wanted to call attention to the idea that the politics is in the production. You don't want to be sold a life by a corporation. You want to go make your own media and it was all about putting out magazines, fanzines – both are often just called ‘zines’ – with collectives, with communities of people pitching in with volunteer staff.
So was it less of a political movement and more of a movement for the industry? So it was more about affiliation than ideology?
Exactly. I think ‘affiliation’ was probably the word. Not an affiliation with a certain ideology although they were anti-racist and anti-misogynist. There were a lot of women involved in early Punk in LA and New York, but it really was about youth culture. It was about this idea that kids, even if they weren't the polished kids, even if they weren't the fancy kids, even if they weren't the successful kids, had something to say and they had this energy and drive to put out work, even imperfect work, and, in fact, on the contrary, work that celebrated imperfection.
In this age, how do comics help us process?
One of the things that I find so interesting about comics form is what it can do with presenting time. For example, Maus shuttles back and forth between Poland in the 1930s and '40s, and New York City in the 1970s and '80s. Part of the reason that that book has been so successful and a model for what comics can do is because it interweaves the past and the present so beautifully.
Comics is such a self-reflexive form. I've several times made the comparison between making a picture and so-called ‘taking a photograph’ as if it’s there, and all you have to do is ‘take it.’ When you're making a picture, it's an artificial process and in comics you're even putting a little box around it. Nobody thinks that this is reality in the way people often think of a photograph or a film that has a certain kind of verisimilitude. It wears its constructed-ness on its sleeve as a form, if that makes any sense? And so, that's why I think it's become such a powerful form for processing events that are hard to process.
It puts it in a box for us?
Well, it puts it in a box, but it puts it in a box in which it can shift the frames of reference, in which there can be two frames of reference. If you have a page of comics, there are a lot of frames on that page, and you can see the past, the present and the future all together on the page. It’s able to experiment a lot with time. One of the central propositions of Maus is the unceasing past in the present and Art Spiegelman is able to illustrate that in panels, in which we get both the 1940s and the 1970s happening at once. Comics can show how weird time can be and also how weird, unsatisfying, and even devastating the movement of history can be.
Are there simply no rules?
One of the interesting things about comics is that it started breaking its own conventions really early. If the conventions were really being codified in the sensational newspapers published by Hearst and Pulitzer in the early 1900s, immediately you have people breaking frames and characters jumping out of frames and all sorts of experiments with the formal grammar of comics. I would say it's a free for all.
Comics is a very funny form in that it has its own set of elements: panels or frames are the boxes. The space in between is called the gutter. One talks about a comic's page sometimes like a building. One talks about the tiers, meaning the horizontal sequences of the frames. You have a speech balloon. You have thought balloons. Those little spiky lines that come out of people's heads are sometimes called emanata. There is this whole vocabulary for comics form, but in practice people just mess around with it, and that's part of what's so fun.
With their brevity in words, do poetry and comics overlap? Is the term "graphic novel" what pushes our thinking of comics into a realm of greater literature and nomenclature?
That's a great question and a double-barreled question. I'll answer the first part about poetry first. I love that question. I actually once wrote a piece for Poetry Magazine and the title of the piece is “Secret Labor,” and the piece is about the formal connections between comics and poetry. One of the things I noticed is that comics is a site-specific form, and poetry is a site-specific form. At the Massachusetts Independent Comics Expo, which took place in Cambridge at Lesley College, I organized a panel on comics and poetry, and I had Stephanie Burt from the Harvard English Department on the panel, and she said something really interesting: she would like to argue for the analogy between line breaks in poetry and the gutter in comics. That to me speaks to this spatial site specificity. You can't just mess around with those lines in poetry the way you can't just mess around with the words on the page in comics without radically altering the work.
I enjoyed the comic of the man on the street who goes into the Cleveland library and says no one is reading my work. Can you tell us about this?
Yes. Yes. I'm so glad you brought that up. That's the Harvey Pekar strip where he overheard a conversation in the Cleveland Public Library and then did a comic strip about it, and to me that's such a powerful strip because in a way it's claiming comics as a kind of working man's poetry. That was very much where Harvey Pekar was coming from. The subtitle of his comic book American Splendor was From Off The Streets Of Cleveland. It was very much about capturing street level conversation and conversation in public and civic spaces like a library. It's about poetry, but it's also suggesting that comics is a form of poetry.
Is the term "graphic novel" what pushes our thinking about comics being more grown up today?
I actually don't love the phrase ‘graphic novel’ although everybody knows what you're talking about if you say the words ‘graphic novel.’ I use it. I'm even teaching a course right now called The Graphic Novel so that students would know what it's really about because with graphics, comics gets quite confusing. These are multivalent words.
You sound nostalgic for "comics?"
I like ‘comics’ and my big point here is that comics, even with an ‘s’ on the end, is a medium. It does not roll off the tongue as easily as film is a medium. To me ‘comics’ is a medium as syntactically awkward as that sounds and graphic novels are just one format of comics. Graphic novels are a very popular format of comics, and that's great, but there's a lot of short-form work that isn't what someone would consider a so-called ‘graphic novel’ that's brilliant too.
Then for you, the parent form is comics, as we would say film?
Yes. The medium and then the formats would be: web comics, comics that are born online or born digital, graphic novel is another format, and the comic book is another format, and the comic strip – which we still sometimes see in the newspaper– is yet another format.
How you think the Charlie Hebdo attack affected the comics industry?
It was obviously devastating and an existential crisis happening for people who create and think about comics and cartoons because it's an issue about free speech, and we see this in so many different iterations all over the place today. It was also about recognizing something that we've been talking about throughout this conversation, which is the power of an image to elicit a very visceral response.
Robert Crumb has this comic strip that made fun of comics during the underground era. I think it came out in the late '60s, and the punchline is, ‘It's only lines on paper, folks.’ As if to say, ‘don't take this too seriously. It's only lines on paper.’ But when it is only lines on paper that engender an image of the prophet Muhammad when there is a tradition that that shouldn't happen, people take it really seriously. I think the lesson for me was that the power of the drawn image, even in our current hyperactive digital age, is completely undimmed. ‘Only lines on paper’ can have a really powerful effect on people, both for good and for ill and I feel like it was a moment where cartoonists had to decide, ‘am I person who thinks that cartoonists need to have and claim the right to draw and show anything? Or am I a cartoonist who thinks that there should be some limits?’
Twenty years ago, I interviewed the iconic Montreal Gazette political cartoonist Terry Mosher, known as Aislin, in one of my earliest cable TV interviews. His comic strips brought down politicians and still today act as an Op-Ed. We have core rules in journalism around bias, and libel and slander. Is there such a thing in comics?
One of the things that I think is so powerful about comics and cartoons is how they condense information. We see this in political cartoons, which are generally one single-panel, but we also see this in long form works of comics that today are called graphic novels. It looks easy but it’s incredibly hard to capture the essence of a political situation or the essence of a certain character and somehow being able to do it through line and through gesture is a really powerful tool.
I'm not equating journalism with comics but rather, wonder about their shared role to speak to power.
Yet your comment made me think of the comics journalist Joe Sacco who's the subject of my chapter in this book on war, and he's both a cartoonist and a journalist. One of the things that's fascinating about his book is seeing not only how he reports from the Middle East and the Balkans and other places, but also how he uses drawing to try to capture some of these conflicts between groups of people. His first book is called Palestine and he spent several months in Israel and in Palestine interviewing people on both sides of the divide and the way he renders people in that book is powerful and in the way he renders Palestinians and Israelis that shows their differences but also their similarities.
I wonder if he has an editor and if the structure of his lens comes from his artist’s eye or that of an assigned editor?
It’s interesting that Joe Sacco is one of the people who came out after the Charlie Hebdo attacks with a really powerful piece in The Guardian called 'On Satire' in which he advocated for more caution from cartoonists. Someone like Art Spiegelman, who's actually a friend of Joe Sacco's, went the other way and said, ‘If you're going to be a cartoonist, you can't limit your subject matter. That's part of the power of cartooning.’
Well, one is art and one is journalism. The journalists are trying to maintain unbiased structure inside storytelling and yet an Op-Ed is different. How will comics deal with this once they collide?
Comics journalism is a huge growth area in the contemporary comics scene. There are now websites, like one called The Nib, which feature, regularly, comics journalism. There is even a publication called Symbolia that's dedicated to comics journalism. There was a piece in the Columbia Journalism Review this past month by the cartoonist Josh Neufeld. There's a lot of work happening there in that overlap.
You wrote a 2010 book called Graphic Women. What's the status today of female comics?
It has changed and it's changed for the better. Part of the reason I was so excited to write Graphic Women is that the comics world by and large had been seen as a man's world and – as with everything. But with comics there was always the association of ‘no women ever go into a comic book shop’ right? It's all a certain kind of nerdy boy or man or man-boy or boy-man trading esoteric, snotty knowledge with each other in a space that is very unwelcome to any outsiders.
One of the works I wrote about in Graphic Women that I write about again in Why Comics? is work by the cartoonist Phoebe Gloeckner whose work is about rape and sexual harassment and her own experience. Her work is incredibly powerful. It's hard to look at in many cases. For the past twenty years, I think that comics has been a form where women can tell certain kinds of stories that they didn't feel they could tell in other ways in part because comics has been out of the mainstream.
Well, let me just say, I am so grateful today we have Wonder Woman. I don’t want to know if she was wielding a sword in the early comics. But I hope so, because I think of her sword as a metaphor for asset building and power structure restructuring for women today.
And the lasso of truth! You can’t get better than that.