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Review of Graphic Women: Life Narrative and Contemporary Comics

By Anastasia Ulanowicz

Chute, Hillary L. Graphic Women: Life Narrative and Contemporary Comics. New York: Columbia UP, 2010. Print.

Women have been making comics for a very long time. Consider, for example, the illuminated manuscripts produced by teams of medieval nuns working in ill-lit and often freezing scriptoria. In the margins of these rich and complex tomes exist playful—and often subversive—self-portraits of their female designers, whose existence and contributions would otherwise be forgotten to history. Of course, the role played by women in creating these texts is not widely known: with the exception of such token luminaries as Christine de Pisan, most contributions made by early women artists have remained marginal, as it were, to aesthetic and historical inquiry.

It should go without saying that, today, women no longer need be cloistered virgins in order to produce imagetexts. The comics underground of the 1970’s, for example, was enriched by works produced by the Wimmen’s Comix Collective; more recently, Alison Bechdel’s Dykes to Watch Out For has underscored the political dimension of comics. And yet, all too often, the contributions of contemporary female comics authors have been relegated to the proverbial margins by literary scholars and comic book aficionados alike. Indeed, as Hillary Chute observes in her introduction to Graphic Women: Life Narrative and Contemporary Comics, women artists have been all but ignored by academia and the popular media: a New York Times Magazine article published as recently as July, 2004, for example, “excerpts the work of four [comics] authors, all male; depicts seven authors in photographs, all male; and mentions women only in passing” (1).

One of the objectives of Chute’s book, then, is to draw women’s imagetexts from the cultural margins to which they have been consigned and to reposition them within the arenas of popular and academic inquiry. Of course, as Chute admits, a great deal of such repositioning has been managed by contemporary female authors themselves: texts such as Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis (2003) and Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home (2006), for example, are critically-acclaimed best sellers whose cultural cache now rivals that of Art Spiegelman’s landmark comic, Maus: A Survivor’s Tale (1986/1991). What Chute’s scrupulously researched and exquisitely written study offers, however, is a critical perspective on the ways in which these newly-recognized texts can enrich scholarly discussions of gender, sexuality, self-representation, and trauma.

Although Chute acknowledges a host of women comics authors throughout her book, she focuses primarily on the work of five authors: Aline Kominsky-Crumb, Phoebe Gloeckner, Lynda Barry, Marjane Satrapi, and Alison Bechdel. By concentrating on a limited set of authors, Chute effectively places into relief the rich diversity of women’s contributions to comics. These authors’ texts, she demonstrates, are formally distinct: their work ranges from the “hyperexaggerated impressionism” of Kominsky-Crumb (29) to the “minimalism” of Satrapi (133) to the uncanny blending of “meticulous, painstaking realism” and expressionist “non-realism” of Gloeckner (61). Moreover, Chute maintains, the work of these artists is as diverse in content as it is in form: for instance, Barry’s depiction of the quiet desperation of working-class American childhood contrasts markedly with Satrapi’s representation of upper-middle class childhood in revolutionary-era Iran.

Even as Chute calls attention to the distinctiveness of each of the oeuvres she discusses, she also observes the ways in which they address convergent questions of self-representation. What unites these otherwise disparate contributions to comics, she explains, is their shared investment in both telling and showing intimate experiences. For this reason, she characterizes these texts as “graphic narratives” rather than as graphic novels, since they are “not novels at all” but instead exercises in “self-interpretation” and “written and drawn documents of real life” (2-3). Such graphic narratives, she continues, “reject the categories of nonfiction and fiction altogether in their self-representational storylines”: whilst they aim to document lived experience, they also self-reflexively call attention to the discourses and texts that mediate the transmission of such experiences (3). Thus, for example, Bechdel’s literary bildungsroman, Fun Home, is framed by allusions to Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, just as the attempt at self-excavation in Barry’s One Hundred Demons is drawn from the “lost and found” section of newspaper classified ads.

According to Chute, what distinguishes these women’s narratives from equally self-reflexive but word-specific texts—say, Lessing’s The Golden Notebook—is their particular blending of visual and verbal language. By using the “inbuilt duality” of comics—that is, “its word and image cross-discursivity”—these imagetexts “stage dialogues among versions of the self, underscoring the importance of an ongoing, unclosed project of self-representation and self-narration” (5). Comics, Chute reminds us, are fragmentary by virtue of their very form: they are composed of discrete frames that are simultaneously linked together and separated by gutters. Moreover, the medium necessarily involves a tension between verbal and visual forms of representation—a tension that potentially produces a degree of cognitive dissonance in both the creator and the reader. Thus, it follows that any attempt at life-writing made through the medium of comics involves an especial awareness of alternate, and often conflicting, modes of self-representation. Chute supports this argument with beautifully composed close readings of key moments in her chosen texts. For example, in an analysis of the “Resilience” chapter of Barry’s One Hundred Demons, she tracks the shifts in tense and perspective of the verbal narrative and demonstrates how these subtle alterations are supplemented and complemented by the recursive, nonsequential images that accompany them. Such verbal and visual slippages, she argues, place into relief the ultimate instability of the self that Barry nevertheless valiantly attempts to “map” (115-117).

In turn, Chute continues, the juxtaposition of words and images in graphic narratives has the potential to destabilize the reader‘s sense of self as well. Citing Marianne Hirsch’s claim that “to be a spectator […] is to respond through body and affect, as well as through the intellect,” (61) Chute argues that the blending of words and images in graphic narratives compels the reader to respond both viscerally and intellectually; in turn, this simultaneous response prompts the reader to reckon with a certain “ambivalence” that characterizes her reception and interpretation of a given text and her position as a reader more generally (62). Thus, for example, Gloeckner’s imaginative and sensual portrayal of her decomposing body in A Child’s Life and Other Stories elicits both revulsion and desire—a complex response that is amplified by the accompanying written foreword to the narrative (62).

Questions of destabilization, disorientation, and fracture are, of course, crucial to the examination of trauma, and certainly, Chute’s study serves as a significant intervention in the field of trauma studies. Drawing on the work of such trauma scholars as Dominick LaCapra, Chute argues that women’s graphic narratives may help us to “rethink the dominant tropes of unspeakability, invisibility, and inaudibility that have tended to characterize trauma theory” (3). Although she concedes that the gutters and ruptures that structure comics attest to the aporia and losses that characterize traumatic experience, she reminds readers that such cracks in representation occur precisely (and necessarily) within moments of presence. That is, even as women’s graphic narratives admit the impossibility of completely representing trauma, they nevertheless make visible fragments of traumatic experience that formerly have been neglected, repressed, or censored. Graphic narrative, Chute argues, establishes an “idiom of witness, a manner of testifying that sets a visual language in motion with and against the verbal in order to embody individual and collective experience, to put contingent selves and histories into form” (3). In making this argument, the author gestures toward the political, and specifically feminist, implications of women’s graphic trauma writing. The “idiom of witness” established in comics, she maintains, makes possible the depiction of “concerns typically relegated to the silence and invisibility of the private, particularly centered on issues of sexuality [and…] childhood” (4). Thus, for example, Gloeckner’s The Diary of a Teenage Girl makes visible the complexities of incest, just as Satrapi’s Persepolis exposes the troubled intersection between private and public responses to war.

Attendant to Chute’s discussion of absence and presence is her consideration of the bodily and the material. Women’s graphic narratives, she observes, are particularly attuned to representations of the body: not only does their work focus closely on the female body’s experiences of both pleasure and pain, but it also considers the physical exertions of, and material traces left by, the woman artist. Citing Barry, who insists that “HANDWRITING is an image LEFT BY A LIVING BEING IN MOTION it cannot be duplicated IN TIME OR SPACE” (128, sic), Chute argues that the material practices involved in the production of comics allows for the artist’s “corporeal habitation” within the text (200). This is especially the case, she maintains, in Bechdel’s Fun Home, whose individual panels were drawn from the artist’s scrupulous photographic restaging of its events. As Bechdel’s formidable work demonstrates—and as Chute in turn insists—the work of women’s graphic narratives dramatize the subtle borders between immediacy and mediation.

The existence of permeable and negotiable boundaries in comics serves as a key theme in Chute’s study, and the author handles it—as well as the attendant theoretical questions it invites—with agility and grace. In this way, this carefully researched and elegantly written work serves as a crucial contribution to the field of cultural and critical studies. Moreover, it constitutes an important intervention in the on-going project to restore comics studies to its rightful place within the mainstream of literary inquiry.

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