An illuminating analysis of graphic narrative’s documentary power.
Though many of the artists whose work receives close academic scrutiny here served their apprenticeships in what was once called “comic books,” Chute (English/Univ. of Chicago; Outside the Box: Interviews with Contemporary Cartoonists, 2014, etc.) situates them within the framework of a much longer legacy, of art annotated by words conveying the witness’s horror of war. She quotes art critic Robert Hughes on Goya as “the first modern visual reporter on warfare” and documents the famed artist’s influence on Robert Crumb. Chute then extends that legacy to encompass Joe Sacco, an American Book Award winner and “the contemporary force behind comics journalism, a term he devised,” and Art Spiegelman, with whom she collaborated on MetaMaus (2011). Even those who admire the accomplishments of those artists will likely see them in a new light here, as Chute’s analysis shows how the medium renders time as space, allowing readers to dictate the pace (as documentary film does not). It turns the reader as well as the artist into a witness of the unspeakable in a manner that often transcends polemics and partisanship. The author also introduces readers to the global expansion of the form, drawing connections between American artists and those in Japan and the Middle East. Given the breadth and depth of most of the book, the 10-page coda feels tacked-on, and could be a book in itself, as the Charlie Hebdo murders and other Muslim responses to images they find offensive reinforce the contemporary power and influences of the work—and find Spiegelman and Sacco on opposite sides concerning the freedom to draw such images and the responsibility to publish them.
Though this academic study has a stylistic density that a general readership might occasionally find difficult, the epiphanies are worth the effort.