Thoughts on Graphic Women

Welcome to my new blog. My name is Aaron Kashtan, I got my Ph.D. in English from the University of Florida, and I’m currently a Marion L. Brittain Postdoctoral Fellow at the Georgia Institute of Technology.

This blog will cover a variety of topics related to my personal and academic interests, which I find are rather difficult to distinguish from each other. Future posts may focus on video games I’ve been playing, theoretical books I’ve been (EDIT: I forgot to finish this sentence, I was going to say:) studying, novels or comics I’ve been reading, and so on.

The original inspiration for this blog was that I had been thinking a lot about Hillary Chute’s fairly recent book Graphic Women: Life Narrative and Contemporary Comics, and I felt I needed a public forum to share my thoughts on this book. Therefore, here they are:

On one level this is a really impressive book. Hillary Chute has a sophisticated knowledge of the academic discourse she’s working in (feminism and trauma studies) and a clear understanding of how her own work fits into that discourse. Her scholarship is well-researched and academically rigorous. This elevates Graphic Women above much other work in comics studies. Even if I fundamentally disagree with the argument of the book, that’s only possible because she does make an argument that is interesting and non-obvious and that therefore invites disagreement.

However, while I cannot find fault with this work’s level of scholarship, I do think that it’s wrong in a lot of ways and that it tends to close off discourse rather than opening it up. Chute begins the book by making what Noel Carroll calls a medium specificity argument: she argues that because comics can do certain things more effectively than other media, comics should do those things and not other things. She does not clearly identify this argument as such, but that’s what it is. She writes: “The form of comics has a peculiar relationship not only to memoir and autobiography in general, as I will note, but to narratives of development. Additionally, comics and the movement, or act, of memory share formal similarities that suggest memory, especially the excavation of childhood memory, as an urgent topic in this form” (4). She continues: “Through its hybrid and spatial form, comics lends itself to expressing stories, especially narratives of development, that present and underscore hybrid subjectivities.” Chute goes on to suggest that because comics has a “peculiar relationship with” or “lends itself to” stories about development, trauma, history, etc., these stories should be the privileged subject matter of comics. “The force and value of graphic narrative’s intervention, on the whole, attaches to how it pushes on conceptions of the representable that have become commonplace in the wake of deconstruction, especially in contemporary discourse about trauma” (2). “The diegetic horizon of each page, made up of what are essentially boxes of time, lends graphic narratives a representational mode capable of taking up complex political and historical issues with an explicit, formal degree of self-awareness, which explains why historical graphic novels are the strongest emerging genre in the field” (9). “Green is responsible for creating the autobiographical genre of comics that has become the dominant mode of contemporary work … It is fitting that Green would choose comics, a medium that is centrally occupied with experiments in spatiotemporal representation, for a narrative marked by an obsession with space and time” (17).

Chute certainly has every right to be personally uninterested in comics that deal with subjects other than trauma, autobiography, memory, etc. However, her rhetoric suggests that these subjects are the only proper subjects of “literary” comics – that comics which address other topics are not literary, not among the stronger genres, not the dominant mode of contemporary work. This is a medium specificity argument, an argument which conflates formal properties with cultural properties. It’s equivalent to Alberti arguing that the historia is the ideal mode of painting, or Lessing arguing that painting should be about bodies and poetry shoud be about actions. In the first place, this sort of argument has often been used to claim that comics cannot be literature. But more importantly, the effect of this argument is to close off the field of comics studies, implying that other types of comics are less worthy of study than those that Chute studies. Chute is resolutely uninterested in, for example, mainstream comics or manga, and her model of comics is not applicable to these types of comics. She explicitly says, for example, that she’s not interested in comics produced by multiple creators (6), and her historical account of mainstream comics ends with the Comics Code (13).

In the specific context of Chute’s argument, this is fine, because I get the distinct impression that Chute is more interested in issues of feminism and trauma than in comics as such. Chute’s book is primarily an intervention in debates over feminist visual culture. However, it also frames itself as a book about comics, and Chute has become a significant institutional representative of comics studies. To that extent, I think it’s unfortunate that Chute seems uninterested in promoting the study of other modes of comics, or even of comics as comics. To the extent that Chute proposes a theory of comics, it’s a theory which is limited to a very narrow body of work, and which does not help us understand the wider body of comics.

I have additional problems with the way Chute theorizes materiality, but that’s a subject for another post.

WORKS CITED: Chute, Hillary. Graphic Women: Life Narrative and Contemporary Comics. New York: Columbia University Press, 2010.

5 replies on “Thoughts on Graphic Women”

Aaron, I found your post to be thought-provoking. I have been spending time recently helping students form their introductory sections to their dissertations, and I have also read Chute’s text closely twice. It seems to me that Chute is attempting in her introduction to set the limits necessary for a monograph; I didn’t come away from her text feeling as if she were diminishing other types of comics. Rather, I felt that she was justifying her particular thesis, which is exactly what a dissertation advisor or book editor would ask her to do. I don’t mean to dismiss your claim, but I am curious as to how you would have preferred Chute establish the various subjects that her text covers. In other words, what would be a more inclusive way for her to have carved out her purview? This is an important question because as more academics begin to write on comics, we will need to be mindful of inclusiveness. Thanks for listening (reading).

Thanks for the insightful comment, Gwen. I understand that limiting the scope of the monograph was necessary. I think the principal problem is the sort of rhetoric she uses to do so. She gives the impression that if she’s chosen to discuss this particular category of comics, it’s because this is the category of comics that’s most worthy of discussion. Instead, she could have suggested that the ability to tell stories about childhood trauma is *one* of the things comics is good at, among others.

I feel that the lineup of guests at the recent U of Chicago conference that Chute organized was an example of the same problem. Clearly this conference was a massively important event — it gathered 17 of the best-known cartoonists in America, and was sponsored by one of the world’s preeminent universities. However, all of the guests were independent, alternative or underground cartoonists, and most of them were autobiographical cartoonists. (Brunetti and Burns are the exceptions here, but even their work is published by alternative presses.) There were no guests who do more commercial work, whether in print comics or webcomics. And on the conference website, we read: “The first of its kind, this historic conference brings together 17 world-famous cartoonists whose work has defined contemporary comics. These internationally acclaimed figures have innovated the visual styles, genres, and formats that make comics popular and fascinating; **they set the terms for the possibilities of the form**” (emphasis mine). That implies that the “possibilities for comics” are limited to the sort of work done by these 17 people, and that other types of comics are not innovative or not definitive of the form, or whatever.

I think this sort of rhetoric is unhelpful. I think we need to promote multiple and diverse approaches to the field, and to recognize that no single body of work is coextensive with comics as a whole.

Thanks Aaron–I very much agree with your critique of Chute’s book/work. I have a critique from another angle, which is the focus on women’s “life writing” in comics to the exclusion of attention to women working in the comics medium in other narrative shapes (short story, poetry, fiction, popular comics etc.). I agree with much of what Chute says about why comics is powerful, but find the power not limited to memoir/personal trauma writing. I have an article “Duel, I’ll give you a Duel!” that touches on this critique in the new book “Comics and American Cultural History” (Continuum, 2012), and have another article in mind “Beyond Autobiography” that looks at some younger women comics writers working in fiction and “poetry” (Kelso, Carre, Tamaki/Tamaki for example).
I hope to read more on this blog!

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