- Disaster Drawn: Visual Witness, Comics, and Documentary Form by Hillary Chute
Comics no longer needs apologists for its status as an art form. In fact, we are living in the age of the so-called graphic novel, that hotly contested term, and the comics world is now running full tilt with titles for all ages. What’s happened in the meantime is the growth of comics criticism, which is a strange thing, indeed, caught as it is between those individuals who are interested in superheroes and pop culture and the others intent on unpacking its formal complexity and semiotic uncertainty. No one needs to defend comics any longer from charges of immorality or immaturity, and in academia the field of “comics studies” is already here. The trick, however, is getting criticism sophisticated enough to reveal the strange, beautiful, messy worlds that develop once you put together images and words to tell a story.
Hillary Chute’s Disaster Drawn is a bold step in the right direction, and one with the imprimatur of Harvard University Press no less. Following fast on the heels of her landmark study, Graphic Women: Life, Narrative, and Contemporary Culture (2010) Chute has decided to focus more specifically on what is, in reality, comics’ ongoing fascination with violence. And here we are not talking about superhero “POWS” or “KA-BAMS.” Chute wants to understand why the medium itself is so well suited for the task of representing real historical atrocities that include the bombing of Hiroshima, the Holocaust, and the genocide in Bosnia. The image on the cover taken from Joe Sacco’s Safe Area Goražde makes this point perfectly. A line of soldiers is in the [End Page 203] process of shooting a group of blindfolded men into a pit that is already littered with dead bodies. The detail here is exquisite, with zip ribbons tracing the trajectory of the bullets and the wreaths of smoke issuing from the cigarettes of the shooters, and it is tempting to get caught up in the artistry of it all, the photographic realism that someone like Sacco is so adept at capturing. And yet, what this image wants more than anything else is that we acknowledge, and maybe even understand as much as we can, the brutality of it all, the horror of this moment captured at the instant in which the bullets have just pierced through the bodies of the blindfolded men knocking them forward into the ditch below.
This is not comics; it’s history. Or rather, as Chute so persuasively argues throughout this entire book, this is comics as history with an artist willing to assume the role of the amateur historian and a reader forced to assume the position of a “visual witness.” What is in progress on this page and in this panel is the systematic murder of men and boys captured by the Serbs, an event that was connected to other ambushes and executions in which, we are told in the caption, “more than 7,000 Muslim men were killed” (203). How do you even begin to represent this kind of atrocity? Is there a way to humanize the experience and at the same time capture the enormity of what happened?
Considering this kind of representative example, Disaster Drawn, then, makes a lot of sense as a title. It is both a way to identify the representational challenges that await any comics artist willing to assume this task, while at the same time emphasizing the power that these images have to make it all seem so near. Disaster, in other words, is not there; it’s drawing near, right in front of you, on the page, and whether you like or not, you are being asked to look (not to run away).
This is the first full-length book to tackle the comics medium’s complicated attraction to horror, dysfunction, mass murder, and genocide. For artists such as Keiji Nakazawa, Art Spiegelman, and Joe Sacco, it has already been there, and their own work has involved developing...