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Review of Comics, Trauma, and the New Art of War

By Chase Machado

Earle, Harriet. Comics, Trauma, and the New Art of War. University Press of Mississippi, 2017.

Harriet Earle’s Comics, Trauma, and the New Art of War is an examination of the representations of trauma in Post-Vietnam American comics. Earle’s monograph analyzes three specific first-generation American creators’ comics: Art Spiegelman’s Maus, Alissa Torres’ American Widow, and Doug Murry’s The ‘Nam. Earle uses these works to represent the experiences of children of people who have encountered firsthand trauma, and how it is transferred and represented visually to a third party. Through six chapters Earle delves deep into foundational trauma studies and Modern and Postmodern theory, along with general comics studies practices vital to understanding the passage of time, the importance of visual emphasis, and the establishment of the comic form.

Throughout the book, Earle creates a linear understanding of why the texts she has chosen are select examples of the ways in which comics are able to depict trauma. Earle uses key figures from trauma studies such as Freud and Lacan. Earle herself voices the antiquated nature of these theories of trauma, though she uses them as a foundation upon which to build further discussion. Earle’s first chapter analyzes how comics depict and visualize trauma. She devotes a significant portion of this chapter to explaining how the comics form uses its inherent and fundamental tools of gutters, panels, and full-page bleeds to tell a narrative and to emphasize various aspects of the author’s traumatic experiences.

The next three chapters find Earle directing her attention to the more personal aspects of the comic’s trauma representations. Earle breaks down one specific page from The ‘Nam involving the main character’s dream of the trauma taking place simultaneously with other events, creating a juxtaposition of time and events. Earle closely relates images such as this to Picasso’s Guernica in the introduction of her book. While Earle explains how panels are traditionally used in comics, scenes like this display the passage of time in one image that creates an exceptional account of multiple traumas occurring simultaneously to the viewer. These dreams are a way for the narrative to depict the frenetic experience of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Earle then elaborates on these types of narrative depictions. Narrative images of traumatic loss are not just those that induce a chaotic feeling in the viewer, as exemplified in Alissa Torres’ American Widow. The simplicity of the page emphasizes the loneliness and sadness of the main character. This chapter uses one main point of argument to make clear its thesis that the dreamer is always represented as the catalyst to convey a vast amount of information regardless of how much is depicted on the page.

Chapter four brings the personal trials of trauma to the forefront of the monograph’s discussion. Earle investigates the generational impact of trauma through Art Spiegelman’s Maus, GB Tran’s Vietnamerica, and Carol Tyler’s You’ll Never Know Book I. These comics are crucial to Earle’s argument about personal trauma experience. Each of these comics illustrates Earle’s thesis that trauma is transferable from generation to generation. All these comics explore the events of a traumatized generation and how the experiences of those events impacted them, and then were transposed on following generations of family members. Earle argues that these comics are not only depictions of firsthand trauma but are accounts of the author working through inherited trauma.

Building on this thesis, Earle’s fifth chapter examines how these comics engage in breaking the fourth wall. Not only is the author’s voice represented through narration in many of the comics Earle uses, but accounts of remembered historical events from those directly affected by them are included. This inherently creates a question of accuracy that Earle addresses, assuring the reader that this is not as important due to the natural conflict of memory and perspective during and after traumatic events. The breaking of the fourth wall is more apparent while recreating images from well-known photographs or when fictional characters interact with current events, as seen when Marvel created the 9/11 memorial series to raise funds for relief after 9/11. These topics lead seamlessly into Earle’s final chapter, which explores the Modern and Postmodern classification of comics within the context of trauma studies.

The penultimate chapter invokes the heavy hitters of Modern and Postmodern theory: Fredrick Jameson, Clement Greenburg, and Michel Foucault, to analyze these comics vis-à-vis trauma studies as it relates to this monograph. Through these theorists Earle states that comics as a medium is neither Modern nor Postmodern yet simultaneously contains elements of both movements due to its inherent ephemeral nature and creation and its stylistic choices. Both descriptions of Modern and Postmodernism help identify the effects of these comics that survey trauma in an attempt to convey the experience of dealing with the subject matter.

Ultimately Comics, Trauma, and the New Art of War is an interesting read that proposes many questions and pairs them with unique concepts of trauma and comics studies theories. However, some issues arise that could be considered controversial, such as the use of Freudian theory. As the book was published in 2017, one might infer that there are more relevant studies and theories upon which to base Earle’s thesis. Secondly, the selection of comics is extremely limited. While this makes sense as to allow for a more structured and detailed analysis of these works for Earle’s thesis, readers might be aware of more significant works that are beyond the North American borders from within which Earle has chosen. Despite these criticisms, Earle has a focused, well-supported thesis throughout, and this is a book that anyone interested in trauma studies, comics studies, or visual rhetoric would find fascinating. Comics, Trauma, and the New Art of War is for novices in academic study or could act as supplemental reading for seasoned academics on these subjects.

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