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Review of Why Comics?: From Underground to Everywhere

By Jacob Murel

Chute, Hillary. Why Comics?: From Underground to Everywhere. Harper, 2017.

Having previously read each of Chute’s prior publications, I pre-ordered Why Comics?: From Underground to Everywhere the moment I learned of its release date. Ordering online proved unnecessary, however, as I later found several copies shelved at the local bookstore—an occurrence indicative of the singular trait separating this book from Chute’s former publications. In contrast to the intended academic audience of her past book-length publications, Chute’s latest release aims towards a general readership. Why Comics? brings none of the imposing jargon or abstraction any lay reader might expect from a former Harvard teaching fellow like Chute. With the non-expert reader in mind, Chute surveys independent and underground comics of the past decades through equally historical and thematic lenses. In her own words, “To present the vibrant comics landscape, Why Comics? is organized by the ten biggest themes in today’s comics and graphic novels” (31). For Chute, these are disaster, superheroes, sex, suburbs, cities, punk, illness and disability, women, war, and the LGBTQ community.

Chute ends up facing an evident problem in claiming these ten topics are the ten biggest themes in all contemporary comics. Despite the change in intended audience, as with Chute’s past publications, the reader will find little mention of more mainstream comics, e.g. superhero serials or newspaper strips. Although she pays homage to these popular forms, such as in the first and last five pages of the book’s second chapter, “Why Superheroes?,” Why Comics? retains a clear focus on what Chute calls “auteurist, individually driven artistic work,” e.g. Chris Ware’s oeuvre or Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis (16). For example, in “Why Superheroes?,” Chute explores why comics have been an apt medium for the birth and fertilization of the superhero genre yet has little to say about actual superhero comic books themselves. She chooses instead to explore how auteurs Chris Ware and Daniel Clowes have commented on superheroes via their own graphic novels, Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth and The Death-Ray, respectively, and how they flout and manipulate superhero conventions with an aim towards general adult audiences. For Chute, both works function simultaneously as homage to and critique of the superhero genre. One could make a similar argument of superhero writers Alan Moore and Todd McFarlane, yet Chute makes little mention of either. Those more versed in the genre perhaps can’t help but feel these two deserve more attention when discussing the superhero genre at large than Ware or Clowes.

A similar instance of exclusivity arises in the later chapter “Why Suburbs?” In a chapter about American comics’ representation of suburbia, Peanuts is perhaps the most obvious comic to be addressed—others being Archie and Calvin and Hobbes. While Chute includes these among “many of the most iconic comic strips and comics books in comics history,” she has nothing further to say on them, devoting the whole chapter to the work of Charles Burns and, again, Chris Ware (141). This is a doleful oversight, especially given Chute’s summary of Lynda Barry in the chapter’s introductory paragraph, “The form of the daily comic strip, published in newspapers, lent itself to the routines of suburban life” (141). If the newspaper comic strip depicts the routine of suburban life so wonderfully, should not popular suburban-themed newspaper comics be given more than just passing reference in a chapter on suburbia in comics?

This isn’t to say Chute’s discussion of Burns’ Black Hole and Ware’s Building Stories is not relevant or worthwhile. Indeed, as she demonstrates, Building Stories aptly captures American suburbia—“there isn’t a central event or central plot point or even central conflict in Building Stories; it’s a book about the ordinary life of an unnamed woman” (167). Through this lack of centrality, a plot element mirrored in Building Stories’ lack of traditional bookbinding and layout, Building Stories’ “obsession with the ordinary lived experience of time” presents readers with a “poetics of the suburbs” (167-169). In this light, although Chute never says as much, Ware’s directionless and uneventful comic may capture an emotional reality of American suburbia absent in the daily gags of a bald kid and his anthropomorphic pet beagle. Though entirely ignoring the power behind Peanuts’ portrayal of suburbia, Chute’s stand-alone exploration of Ware’s Building Stories remains an apt example of comics criticism.

These two chapters on superheroes and suburbia are illustrative of a tension permeating the whole of Why Comics? In the book’s introduction, Chute announces the book will focus on independent, auteurist works to explore contemporary comics’ ten biggest themes. In other words, she analyzes one sector of comics as representative of all comics. But are cartoonists like Lynda Barry and Art Spiegelman indicative of comics overall? Their work is thematically and aesthetically worlds apart from, say, Mort Walker or Bryan Lee O’Malley. Ben Saunders’ critique of Chute’s previous work seems equally applicable here: “The result is a peculiarly thin account of the form—rather like a history of television written by someone who watches only award-winning PBS documentaries” (293).

Furthermore, From Underground to Everywhere infers an influential movement from the underground comics of the sixties and seventies to comics as a whole. These underground works have undoubtedly become influential on contemporary comics, but what of the influence of non-underground comics on underground comics? Chute does note the influence of more mainstream comics artists, e.g. Charles Schulz and Winsor McCay, on underground cartoonists, respectively, Chris Ware and Art Spiegelman. But in this light, if she is adamant on charting a line of influence, perhaps a better subtitle would be From Mainstream to Underground to Everywhere, although this title has its own problems, suggesting the underground mimicked the mainstream and ignoring the reciprocal influence the underground may have had on the mainstream. In the end, artistic influence cannot be traced so neatly. Still, the current subtitle bears the erroneous suggestion everything was business as usual in the vanilla world of comics until those norm-shattering underground artists revolutionized the medium. On another note: is “underground” still an apt designator for auteur cartoonists, i.e. can one legitimately continue describing a cartoonist as “underground” when the cartoonist in question has work published by Pantheon and The New Yorker?

This raises questions as to why Chute focuses on the comics she does. Each chapter, while listing a variety of comics and iconic comics characters, focuses primarily on two auteur comics works relevant to its respective theme. For instance, Chute’s chapter on illness and disability, while surveying the “graphic medicine” movement and the prevalence of trauma and disability among superheroes, ends up almost wholly exploring obsessive-compulsive disorder in Justin Green’s Binky Brown Meets the Holy Virgin Mary and clinical depression in the web comic Hyperbole and a Half. Chute justifies her choice of the former in that “Green’s devotion to his own highly private, painful obsessive-compulsive disorder as the central plot point of a comics story was unprecedented and threw the field wide open” (249). This makes sense. But it’s harder to see why Chute thinks the latter web comic is worth exploring. She doesn’t interpret it as thematically or aesthetically representative of web comic overall, although she does note the role of web comics’ self-published and somewhat democratic nature in her retelling of Hyperbole’s rise to success. Chute’s explication of Hyperbole’s popular success and wide readership seems intended to justify her multi-page analysis, which typically would be fine. If a commercially successful work has yet to be addressed by academics, from a cultural studies standpoint, that commercial success is one reason to justify its analysis. The problem for Chute is that her book elsewhere ignores more successful comics related to her other chosen themes.

For example, her chapter “Why Girls?” examines what she considers the growing prominence of female perspectives and women in graphic novels, claiming, “In the graphic novel world, girls are the new superheroes. They are the action stars, the focal point, the figures whose backstories, ideas, inclinations, struggles, and triumphs are presented with detailed attention in autobiography and fiction alike” (275).  Wonder Woman is the most obvious comic, even if a cliché choice, to discuss in this context, especially given her long association with feminist movements and her reinvention by a variety of female artists/writers. But she only receives one passing mention in this chapter: “There were very few female superheroes, barring Wonder Woman, for decades” (278). That’s all. Commercial success and popularity is how Chute justifies discussing Hyperbole and a Half and even Maus, but she ignores equally popular works on other topics when they could be relevant.

All of this is to illustrate that the primary problem with Why Comics? is Chute’s tendency to frame her analysis of underground/independent comics as thematically representative of comics overall. Not even just American comics either, which seems to be the realm about which she initially wants to speak. The introduction, while noting comics’ ostensible origins in nineteenth-century England and current Franco-Arab artist Marjane Satrapi, talks almost exclusively about American comics—it contains little, if any, mention of mangabande dessinéefumetti, or the recent explosion of Germanophone comics. But Chute’s extended analyses of Keiji Nakazawa in the first chapter “Why Disaster?” and Marjane Satrapi alongside other Franco-Arab cartoonists in the chapters “Why Girls?” and “Why War?” infer Chute aims to speak for non-American comics as well. Indeed, in the book’s second-to-last paragraph, she writes, “The entire [comics] enterprise, from literary graphic narratives to the Marvel and DC universes and everything in between, is flourishing, in that new storylines, styles, genres, and audiences are becoming that to which comics addresses itself” (410-411). But if Chute wants to talk about the whole comics enterprise, regardless of form or country of origin, what makes Marjane Satrapi more fit for inclusion in a chapter on female representation in comics than the German cartoonist Barbara Yelin, who is equally prolific but less frequently canonized than Satrapi? This is particularly important given Yelin’s depiction of women in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries as well as the booming German comics industry of the past decade. And since Chute addresses trauma, war, and disaster in Nakazawa: what of other manga artists/writers who explore the effects of disaster and war, such as Katsuhiro Otomo’s post-apocalyptic sci-fi series Akira? This seems like an important inclusion given it is often considered a significant influence on the initial rise of manga popularity in America and France. Chute’s evident desire to speak for comics overall combined with her focus on select independent, auteur comics suggests, without ever overtly saying as much, that these auteurist works are representative of comics as a whole, a rather misleading inference.

I personally want to think Chute’s omission of mainstream works is well-intentioned. Considering the general reader’s likely familiarity with more mainstream comics, perhaps Chute’s focus on auteurist comics may be intended to expand the American public’s perception of comics beyond its more famous variations and show that comics are not only for children as generally believed. But if that is the case, she never openly says so, and, moreover, her selective critical lens only reinforces the traditional American denigration of mainstream comics. Chute writes that comics in the twentieth century, perhaps even today for many, were “firmly associated with youth culture” (11). To counteract this perception, Chute employs the phrase “comics for grown-ups” to describe her beloved auteurist works. The point behind this seems to be that the general reader of Why Comics? will likely hold a common American perception of comics as children’s fare.  To combat this misperception, Chute employs the phrase “comics for grown-ups” as her own Bat-signal, signifying a Chris Ware graphic novel can possess all the literary qualities general readers admire in a Jonathan Franzen novel. Chute herself describes Ware as John Updike “minus the controversial sexual politics,” a comparison that extends further than she may realize—like Updike, Ware seems obsessed with sex, death, and himself (158). “Comics for grown-ups” means independent, auteurist comics harbor a sophistication traditionally considered absent in mainstream works, or as Chute writes, contra mainstream comics, “Underground comics were avant-garde; they were political; they were taboo-shattering; and they were formally experimental” (15). But this ignores the power and sophistication of more mainstream comics, and many of them can likewise be described in these terms. In referring to only independent/underground comics as “comics for grown-ups,” Chute ignores the many sophisticated mainstream comics intended for adults, such as those by Frank Miller or, in this reviewer’s opinion, Scott Adams.

In Why Comics?’ final chapter on fan culture, Chute writes, “Comic-Con presents a vibrant, inclusive cultural mash-up, a democracy of forms and genres that openly mix under the wide umbrella of the comics universe” (398). The problem with Chute’s book is that she is absolutely correct here. The comics world is too large to encompass in one 450-page book. Chute wants to speak for all of comics, but can only actually address independent, auteurist comics. Either one of these alone would be fine, but she tries to portray comics’ whole thematic landscape through a small and contentious selection of auteurist works. But the latter is not necessarily an apt representation of the former.

This isn’t to say that what Chute does have to say on independent/underground comics is not worth reading. It is. In the penultimate chapter “Why Queer?,” Chute addresses what she considers “the fastest-growing area in comics right now,” queer comics, broadly defined as “comics that feature in some way the lives, whether real or imagined, of LGBTQ…characters” (349). Alison Bechdel looms large in this penultimate chapter, yet Chute surveys other queer comics as well, including a brief overview of LGBTQ superheroes as well as more political comics about young girls, such as Lumberjanes. She also devotes the chapter’s first pages to providing a summarized history of gay comics, including the seminal Gay Comix serial and gay presence in Matt Groening’s Life in Hell. Though Chute never mentions the increasingly popular web comic TransLucid, those interested by her mention of Dylan Edward’s Transposes, which features “true stories about female-to-male queer-identified trans people,” may be equally interested in the recent release of Julia Kayes’s autobiographical Super Late Bloomer: My Early Days in Transition (387). It is no secret that comics have long been denigrated as an art form in America. Perhaps it is only fitting a marginalized art form becomes a means of self-expression for the marginalized in society.

That Why Comics? is published by Harper rather than an academic press speaks volumes. As mentioned near this review’s introduction, the book is intended for general readers, and can thereby serve as an excellent introduction to underground and auteurist comics, making it an appropriate text for any undergraduate comics course. It provides a sweeping, yet nonetheless detailed, account on the thematic and historical background of the rising auteurist trend in comics. Anyone teaching Maus or Fun Home would do well to include Chute’s sections on each as supplemental reading. Her focus on auteurist comics inhibits her introductory claim that her book explores the “ten biggest themes in today’s comics and graphic novels”, as what she actually explores are the ten biggest themes in a specific realm of comics (31). This doesn’t mean the rest of the book lacks value, only that one should read it aware of Chute’s limited scope. What Chute has to say about individual “underground” works or artists may be accurate, even insightful, but one needn’t follow suit in extrapolating her claims to comics as a whole. She’s good at what she writes about, but she writes about a small portion of comics.

Work Cited

Saunders, Ben and Hillary Chute. “Divisions in Comics Scholarship.” PMLA, vol. 124, no. 1, 2009, pp. 292-295.

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