Arresting Development: Comics at the Boundaries of Literature.
Why Comics? From Underground to Everywhere, by Hillary Chute. New York: HarperCollins, 2017. 449 pages.
Is comics literature? One simple answer is no: if "literature" refers to works in prose and verse, then comics is not literature any more than film is. Comics is a distinct medium, complete with its own set of aesthetic concerns, its own aesthetic challenges, its own grammar. Another answer might emerge, however, if we are interested less in definitions or in establishing borders between different modes of representation than in assessing the sophistication of the comics form. Taken in this vein, the question "Is comics literature?" asks not how we might differentiate comics from novels and poems but whether the form is capable of aesthetic sophistication that merits serious, sustained, and intense critical attention. Despite their starkly different conclusions about the current state of comics, Christopher Pizzino's Arresting Development: Comia at the Boundaries of Literature and Hillary Chute's Why Comics? From Underground to Everywhere both raise salient questions about the medium: How does the act of reading comics challenge existing notions of literacy? What role do comics play in mediating questions of aesthetic taste? Are comics today taken seriously as a legitimate form of artistic expression?
Since at least the 1970s, when Will Eisner used the phrase "graphic novel" as a way to market his Contract with God trilogy to adults (some consider Eisner to have coined the phrase), there has been talk of comics as a medium coming to maturity. In his book Arresting Development, Pizzino attempts to provide a corrective to the prevailing attitude that the medium has fully matured. Proceeding from the purposefully iconoclastic attitude that "the medium is still considered illegitimate, despite the rise of the graphic novel" (2), the introduction and first two chapters offer an illuminating history of the cultural and political difficulties comics has faced in the struggle for legitimacy, many of which stemmed from early critiques by Sterling North, Frederic Wertham, and Leslie Fiedler. Wertham's Seduction of the Innocent (1954) sought to establish a direct relationship between reading comics and juvenile delinquency, and led the US Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency to announce its famous Comics Code Authority. While the Code prompted widespread censorship (especially of crime and horror comics), Pizzino argues that its most pernicious effect was the dissemination of the idea that the intended audience of comics was always children.
For the last thirty or so years, Pizzino argues, readers and scholars of comics have been announcing the emergence of comics as a sophisticated, mature medium of artistic expression. He labels this coming-of-age narrative the "Bildungsroman discourse," which "claims that comics have changed, over the past few decades, ... from a despised medium with little to no credibility as an art form, a literature or a mode of literacy, to a respectable kind of reading with an earned measure of cultural legitimacy" (30). Pizzino seeks to show how the belief that comics have matured organically from a medium for children to an aesthetically complex mode of aesthetic expression not only maintains but perpetuates the very stigmas of illegitimacy it purports to resolve, and argues provocatively that "the repetition of this narrative over a period that now spans about thirty years speaks to the entrenched nature of the mediums illegitimacy" (31). He uses "Bildungsroman discourse," problematically, to describe not a genre but rather a critical attitude; he doesn't fully define his idiosyncratic use of the term Bildungsroman, largely ignores the fact that the bildungsroman is a genre of the novel, and doesn't address the concept of Bildung in any extended discussion. Still, his argument uncovers an important and often misunderstood history of comics' battle for cultural acceptance.
The best parts of Pizzino's book deal with what he calls moments of "autoclasm," in which the struggle for legitimacy is recognized and built into the structure of the text. Autoclasm, Pizzino writes, "is present when an image effects a kind of self-breaking, as if it is designed to work against itself" (48), and he argues that "autoclasm is a formal tendency specific to conditions where the art of making comics is not considered legitimate" (49). Autoclasm thus bears witness to the ongoing struggle for cultural legitimacy. Where the bildungsroman discourse "obscures and perpetuates the very conditions that make it impossible for comics to be seen justly, either as a medium or as an object of literacy," autoclasm makes "visible, and readable" (61) the conditions the medium has had to overcome to achieve aesthetic legitimacy. The bildungsroman discourse endorses the myth that comics matured organically; autoclasm recognizes formally the cultural struggle comics has faced.
This argument--that comics confront and formally address their own cultural history--leads to some productive readings of a diverse group of texts. After the first two chapters, which lay out the problems of the bildungsroman discourse and the idea of autoclasm respectively, the final four chapters of the book offer detailed case studies of four important comics: Frank Millers Batman: The Dark Knight Returns (1986), Alison Bechdel's Fun Home (2006), Charles Burns's Black Hole (2005), and the Hernandez brothers' (Gilbert and Jaime) long-running and much-loved series Love and Rockets (1982--present). Pizzino should be commended for including a discussion of Dark Knight Returns without apologizing for writing seriously about a (serious) superhero comic; comics studies suffers from the lack of sustained attention to the works of artists like Grant Morrison, Joss Whedon, Garth Ennis, and Robert Kirkman. (1) Pizzino shows convincingly how Miller confronts directly the stereotypes of "dangerous" comics outlined in Wertham's Seduction of the Innocent, especially crime comics, which were subjected to broad censorship.
Pizzino is at his best in his discussion of Bechdel's highly regarded (and now canonical, even outside the world of comics studies) Fun Home. Pizzino reads Bechdel's tenuous relationship with her own medium through her frequent invocation of a literary tradition that includes F. Scott Fitzgerald, Marcel Proust, and James Joyce. Pizzino does not suggest that Fun Home's frequent allusions are a straightforward effort to elevate comics to the status of "high" literature but, rather, that they become part of the book's "lengthy meditation on the special allure of the cultural legitimacy associated with literature" (110). Pizzino reads Bruce Bechdel, the problematic father around which the text revolves, as torn between legitimacy and pleasure, especially insofar as the two come to be irreconcilable. "Fun Home's critique of Bruce Bechdel," Pizzino points out,"targets his obsession with legitimacy much more than his ethical or political shortcomings" (113). Pizzino provides a brilliant reading of a scene in Fun Home when a young Bruce Bechdel lounges in the army barracks, alternately reading a biography of Fitzgerald and writing impassioned letters to his future wife, Helen. In the background, an anonymous character reads the comic The Haunt of Fear (1950-54), one of the horror comics published by EC that was discontinued after the Comics Code. The barracks thus becomes a "scene of reading and writing, which is also a scene of legitimation," as Bechdel contrasts the high-literary world of Fitzgerald with the taboo world of horror comics (116). As Pizzino points out, the contrast is not just between matters of aesthetic taste but "between illegitimate and legitimate forms of culture and ways of being." In the bottom right-hand corner of the page, the anonymous comics fan has retreated behind Bruce so that only his arms are visible. In a pointed visual gag, Bechdel positions the comic directly in her father's line of sight, as if he's reading the comic and not the biography. Pizzino smartly observes that part of the joke redounds on us: readers of the comic Fun Home are aligned not with Bruce and his cultivated high literary tastes but with the comics-fan soldier in the background.
While Pizzino produces some enlightening readings of the formal ways cartoonists respond to the problem of legitimacy, several parts of the argument don't land. Pizzino takes the criticism of comics as an inferior medium of artistic expression to be unique to the form; he thus overlooks the critiques that were once (and are sometimes still!) leveled at film, novels, and even certain modes of painting. Regarding the state of comics and comics scholarship specifically, the argument feels outmoded and would have been more effective as an account of a particular moment in comics history, the period from roughly 1985 to 2006, rather than as a broad assessment of the ongoing state of comics and comics studies. In the introduction, Pizzino cites a number of pointed--but dated--remarks from comics authors, including Art Spiegelman, Charles Burns, and Will Eisner and Frank Miller, all of whom reflect on the struggle for cultural legitimacy, in 1995, 2001, and 2005, respectively. The book's critical insights are most applicable regarding the state of comics culture and comics studies to roughly 2006, when Fun Home, the most recent book that appears as a case study, was published. How would a comics artist like Nick Drnaso, author of the highly acclaimed Beverly (2016), who was four years old when Maus won a Pulitzer prize, respond to the question of cultural illegitimacy?
More damningly, Pizzino's evidence is at times myopic, as he never really addresses the growing counter-evidence that comics has been legitimized. He mentions that Watchmen (1986) was included on Time magazine's 2005 list of the hundred best books since 1923 (and cites Lev Grossman's comment justifying the inclusion of a comic book) but then doesn't mention that the very next year Time selected Bechdel's Fun Home as the best book of the year--not the best comic of the year but the best book of the year (Grossman was one of the editors). He doesn't mention the 2014 special issue of Artforum, the prestigious art journal, dedicated to comics, nor does he discuss the special issue of Critical Inquiry, also published in 2014, called "Comics and Media," edited by Hillary Chute and Patrick Jagoda, which includes essays by some of the major cartoonists working today (Art Spiegelman, Alison Bechdel, Chris Ware, Lynda Barry) as well as some prominent academics who write about comics (WJ. T. Mitchell, Tom Gunning, N. Katherine Hayles). (2) Pizzino dedicates an entire chapter to Fun Home but, bafflingly, doesn't mention the Broadway musical adaptation, which won five Tony Awards in 2015, including Best Musical.
Pizzino writes that Leslie Fiedler worried, in 1955, that comics was "the first art for post-literates" (quoted in Pizzino 25). In Why Comics? From Underground to Everywhere, Hillary Chute opens with what might be read as Art Spiegelman's 1995 response to Fiedler (not cited in Pizzino): "It seems to me that comics have already shifted from being an icon of illiteracy to becoming one of the last bastions of literacy" (1). The quote exemplifies the differences between the two books, which arrive at opposite conclusions: far from being relegated to the margins of serious narrative and literary art, Chute argues, comics has never been nearer the center. (3) While she admits that "the whole comics medium still often gets mistaken for its most popular genre: superheroes," she provides abundant evidence for the cultural significance of the medium. As a sampling, Chute notes that in 2015, the American comic-book industry made over a billion dollars, and graphic novel sales rose 22 percent. Lin-Manuel Miranda, she reports, told the New York Times in 2016 that the last great book he read was the comics work Saga (2012--present). As Columbia University librarian Karen Green has observed, "graphic novels are the most frequently requested material in our Ivy League request system" (quoted in Chute 5). Undergraduate and graduate students can earn degrees in comics and comics studies, and "cartoonists like Art Spiegelman are sought-after public intellectuals."
The importance of Chute's book--it is already among the most important books in comics studies--lies in the fact that it is much more than a survey of the reach of comics. Each of the ten chapters, titled in the form of a question ("Why Cities?" "Why Suburbs?" "Why Girls?" "Why Queer?"), delineates the formal properties of the hand-drawn comics page in order to investigate the startling inclusivity of the medium. Comics has long been a democratic space, from the sexually explicit underground comics of the 1960s (R. Crumb and Justin Green), to the self-published and purposefully "bad" comics of the 1980s (Gary Panter), to the polished lines of the outcast superhero through the decades. The most recognizable superhero of all time, Superman (who turns eighty this year, though he doesn't show it), was created by two young Jewish men, the sons of immigrant parents who fled European anti-Semitism in the early years of the twentieth century. Superman, Chute points out, is himself an immigrant and an outsider, unable to fully assimilate into his adopted planet. Fun Home was written by a lesbian who more than once depicts herself both giving and receiving cunnilingus. The most important comics journalist--in fact, the veritable founder of comics journalism--is the Maltese American Joe Sacco, who writes about atrocities in Bosnia and Palestine.
That Chute's book was written with a popular audience in mind (it was published by HarperCollins) is part of its strength. Each chapter investigates its theme through mini-biographics of the most important artists working in comics today. Combining close readings of both canonical and lesser-read comics with detailed histories of works and authors provides both casual readers and academics with a wealth of information that has never been assembled in one place. (A complaint for the publisher: academics hoping to teach material from the book, and other curious readers, will be frustrated by the absence of footnotes, which makes specific references hard to track down. One wishes HarperCollins had followed the example set by Penguin with Kevin Birmingham's The Most Dangerous Book , which included abbreviated footnotes and citations at the end.) Chapter 4, "Why Suburbs?," is among my favorites in the book. After a brief discussion of the many comics that take place in the suburbs or take up the suburbs as a topic of investigation (Blondie, Archie, Peanuts, Calvin and Hobbes, Paper Girls), Chute turns to a close examination of Charles Burns's Black Hole and Chris Ware's pathbreaking Building Stories (2012). Providing both background on and close readings of each of the books, Chute writes that Building Stories "presents a poetics of the suburbs, which is to say it seeks to present the experience of space and duration, including the conflicting feelings that any regular person generates over time" (169). She's attentive throughout to the question that frames and titles the chapter, and provides a tentative and convincing answer: "Comics--a medium whose panels enclose and juxtapose space--is perfectly suited to reveal how the suburbs fence out the undesirable, and how geographical and social spaces are linked" (156).
Each chapter progresses this way, with two authors discussed in depth along with glances toward others, and the cumulative effect is an encyclopedic compendium of biographical facts, important events in the history of comics production and publication, tidbits and factoids useful for the weekly trivia night, and smart close readings of key texts. Reading the book is like taking a series of seminars with the most knowledgeable professor working on comics today. Readers will learn that Pablo Picasso was a fan of Rudolph Dirks's strip 77ie Katzenjammer Kids and that T. S. Eliot and e.e. cummings were both fans of George Herriman's Krazy Kat (cummings wrote an introduction to a Krazy Kat collection). Readers will also learn about the 1954 Comics Code, the emergence of R. Crumb's and Justin Green's underground comics (or comix, the x a cheeky content rating) in the 1960s and 1970s, Keiji Nakazawa's experience surviving the bombing of Hiroshima and his autobiographical comic I Saw It (1972), and "Gary Panter's real-time, rapid pen drawings of what he saw unfold from his Brooklyn rooftop on the morning of September 11,2001" (68). They'll learn about Allie Brosh, author of Hyperbole and a Half (2013), the powerful meditation on depression that began as a webcomic. They'll learn about the punk scene of the late 1970s and 1980s, in both LA and New York, that saw the rise of artists like Pan ter and his close friend Matt Groening (creator of The Simpsons), as well as Raymond Pettibon. They'll learn that Groening named Charles Montgomery Burns, the supervillain owner of the Springfield power plant (and Homer Simpson's boss), after his college friend Charles Burns (author of Black Hole). Through a discussion of Sacco's Safe Area Gorazde (2000), readers learn about the atrocities that Serb nationalists committed against Muslim minorities during the Bosnian war. And in the chapter "Why Queer?," they will learn about the early gay comics artist Howard Cruse, the founding editor of Gay Comix, the discovery of which was for Bechdel, says Chute, "the single biggest event that sealed her fate as a cartoonist" (357).
If the reach of this information feels dizzying in summary, one never feels overwhelmed reading the book. Chute is a captivating storyteller, and she provides a wealth of information that goes beyond a mere chronicling of facts. Accompanying Chute's engaging discussion are the beautifully printed, high-quality images. There are some seventy-four full-page images, eighteen strips or partial-page images, ten two-page spreads, and eight photographs. All images that appeared originally in color are reprinted here in color, and this amounts to roughly fifty full-color images. There are, moreover, three original images: the cover, drawn by Jaime Hernandez and based on characters from Love and Rockets; the foreword, "One Point of View," by Gary Panter; and the author image on the back jacket, drawn by the Canadian cartoonist Seth. In addition to grounding the close readings, the images sometimes reproduce rare or hard-to-find strips or images, such as "Ocurence [sir] at Oki Dog," a collaboration by Gary Panter and Matt Groening published in Flipside in 1982; a page from Aline Kominsky-Crumb's "Hard Work and No Fun" printed in Wimmen's Comix 2 (1973); and the cover of the first issue of Harvey Pekar's American Splendor (1976). The wide array of images attests powerfully, again, to the democracy of the form that inspires so much of Chute's thinking about comics. As she writes in the chapter on cities, "Comics, in its porous, democratic openness, is a mirror of the ongoing vitality of city spaces--their energy, hybridity, range of voices" (194).
If there is one low point to this eloquent, powerful, and revealing book, it's the chapter on superheroes. The chapter begins with a brief discussion of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, creators of Superman. Chute dutifully mentions the touchstones of the superhero industry: the publishers Marvel and DC; creators and writers Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, and Grant Morrison; and the specific works Batman: The Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen (though Frank Miller and Alan Moore, respective authors of those works, are left unnamed in the chapter). The chapter then turns to a more focused discussion of Chris Ware and Dan Clowes, two auteurist comics creators who are deeply critical of the superhero genre. While Chute is convincing in her readings of Ware's Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth (2000) and Clowes's The Death-Ray (2004) as pointed critiques of the stereotypes that drive the superhero genre and, in turn, the mainstream comics industry, it seems strange to include them in a chapter titled "Why Superheroes?" I'm not convinced that the only contribution superhero comics make to serious, literary, "comics for grown-ups" (a phrase that recurs throughout the book) is that they provide a foil for artists like Ware and Clowes. It seems far-fetched when Chute argues that comics may be taken more seriously in other parts of the world because "other countries have not participated to the same degree in the United States' superhero obsession" (74). Though superheroes are a markedly American phenomenon, much Japanese manga, which dates back to the eighteenth century, seems to share more in common aesthetically and thematically with the American superhero tradition than with the underground or independent comics of Crumb, Spiegelman, Ware, Clowes, or Bechdel. I'd like a more nuanced discussion of the experimental page layout and provocative ontological reflection of Alan Moore's Swamp Thing (1982), the bleak and deeply political critique of television news media in Miller's Dark Knight Returns (1986), or the stunningly beautiful and often aesthetically challenging design of Grant Morrison and Dave McKean's Batman: Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth (1989), the subtitle taken from Philip Larkin's "Church Going."
To her credit, Chute ends the chapter with an important discussion of the recent diversification of superheroes. Kamala Khan, a sixteen-year-old Pakistani American from New Jersey, is Ms. Marvel. Ta-Nehisi Coates writes Black Panther, a character created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby who first appeared in 1966 and who has taken on a new cultural relevance with Coates's writing and the recent movie (which was a separate project from Coates's work). Gene Luen Yang, author of the highly acclaimed American Born Chinese, wrote a series called New Super-Man, "whose titular hero is a working-class Chinese teenager" (Chute 98). Coates and Yang have both won MacArthur "genius" grants, and, as Coates has said, "my approach to comic books ultimately differs little from my approach to journalism" (quoted in Chute 98).
Given the social, cultural, and political importance of Coates's journalistic work, his comment might seem eye-opening. That Coates thinks of writing for Black Panther as on par with his work for the Atlantic is a powerful testament not just to the cultural relevance of comics but to its political value. Whether comics is literature may not, after all, be the right question. That it's a form worth teaching and studying--teaching and studying its formal syntax, its engagement with social and cultural politics of taste, its contributions to the study of narrative, its aesthetics--seems today beyond doubt. As both of the books reviewed here attest, it's an exciting time for comics studies.
Jonathan Najarian is a doctoral candidate at Boston University. In his dissertation, tentatively titled "Images of Modernist Fiction: Literary and Pictorial Narrative from Stein to Spiegelman," he seeks to understand how an earlier inter-art aesthetic milieu of avant-garde modernist fiction contributed to the rise of book-length graphic narratives in the second half of the twentieth century.
(1.) There are a few exceptions to this. Alan Moore has, of course, garnered more critical attention than other writers and artists who have worked for DC or Marvel. Additionally, in Hellboy's World: Comia and Monsters on the Margins (2016), Scott Bukatman provides a compelling account of the aesthetic merits of superhero comics.
(2.) Though it isn't the type of thing that Pizzino would or should cite, it's also worth pointing out that Hillary Chute's '"The Shadow of a Past Time': History and Graphic Representation in Maus" (2006) is among the top five most-cited articles in Twentieth-Century Literature (see Chute 2006).
(3.) Further evidence of the reach--and cultural legitimacy--of comics and comics studies is that Chute's book was recently lauded on the first page of the New York Times Book Review.
Birmingham, Kevin. 2014. The Most Dangerous Book: The Battle for James Joyce's "Ulysses." New York: Penguin.
Bukatman, Scott. 2016. Hellboy's World: Comia and Monsters on the Margins. Oakland: University of California Press.
Chute, Hillary. 2006. '"The Shadow of a Past Time': History and Graphic Representation in Maus." Twentieth-Century Literature 52, no. 2:199-230.
Dargis, Manohla. 2017. "The Hand of the Comic Artist." New York Times, December 11. www.nytimes.com/2017/12/11/books/review/why-comics-chute-slugfest-tucker.html.
Ngai, Sianne. 2012. Our Aesthetic Categories: Zany, Cute, Interesting. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
|Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback|
|Title Annotation:||Why Comics? From Underground to Everywhere|
|Publication:||Twentieth Century Literature|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Dec 1, 2018|
|Previous Article:||Narratives of Nothing in Twentieth-Century Literature.|
|Next Article:||Introduction: Postsocialist Literatures in the United States.|