Reviewed by:
Disaster Drawn: Visual Witness, Comics, and Documentary Form. Hillary Chute. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2016. Pp. 376. $35.00 (cloth).

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 strategies that would make some of the unsayable events of the past imaginable, that is, capable of being translated into image form. Chute uses these three artists as the major pivot points for her argument, which begins some time around 1972, the year when Nakazawa published the beginning of what would become I Saw It!, his autobiographical account of the bombing of Hiroshima, and Spiegelman “begged off the comics story that became Maus” (117). By then, comics had already been around for more than 150 years (if you go back to the histoires en estampes of Rodolphe Töpffer) and the visual documentation of war and its atrocities even longer (with the horrific drawings in Francisco Goya’s The Disasters of War from the 1810s). By the time Sacco arrives on the scene with his comics journalism in the mid-1990s, you could say that war and comics go hand in hand, and they manage to tell the stories about living in and through historical events that so often go unrecorded, in part, because words alone fail.

The big question running throughout Chute’s book is this: how do you see history from below? Not the representation of major battles or the tactical dilemmas of generals, but the effects on those who didn’t have the power to change it? When Nakazawa decided to try documenting what happened after the atomic bomb hit Hiroshima, he was drawing from lived experience. He was there as a child in the immediate aftermath watching the survivors around him with their skin peeling off along with the dead, some of them with their shadows emblazoned on the ground from the intense heat. For his account of the Holocaust, Spiegelman had to rely primarily on the eyewitness account provided by his father, and he positions himself as the comics translator, the one who not only hears the story about what happened but also takes it upon himself to make it transmissible by literally “documenting experience” (183). Sacco’s comics are one step further removed: he visits places like Gaza and Goražde, collects the stories from the people he encounters, and then pieces them together into a series of stories about a collective experience during wartime.

Chute is one of the rare critics who has a foot in both camps: she is trained as a literary critic (PhD Rutgers in American literature) with the talent, expertise, and understanding of a comics artist. She does not make comics (so far as I know), but she has worked very closely with [End Page 204] Spiegelman (even co-editing Meta-Maus: A Look Inside a Modern Classic, Maus) and formed relationships with many of the leading comics artists of today (Lynda Barry, Marjane Satrapi, Gary Panter, Robert Crumb, Daniel Clowes, and Chris Ware among them). The challenge for Chute, and any other literary critic writing about comics, involves trying to maintain that sensitivity to this tension that exists between word and image while also keeping an eye on all the aspects of the materiality of the medium.

In that, Chute excels admirably. She has a sophisticated eye for the panel, the page, and the blank space of the gutter, and she is able to explain where that uncanny, often unsettling, zap of comics comes from. Sometimes, however, you get the sense that the two discourses, comics criticism and literary criticism, are at odds, tripping each other up instead of working together for the sake of critical clarity. Such is the case with Chute’s analysis of a jarring image from Maus depicting four of Vladek’s friends who were hung in a public street in 1941: “A conspicuous horizontal gutter at the bottom of the page queers the movement of the narrative, halting causality or diachrony and instead marking traumatic repetition—in what becomes, through images and words, literal footnotes. Spiegelman repeats and disarticulates the bodies of the hanged” (179). The power of Spiegelman’s punchline, so darkly witty on the comics page, gets lost here in this jumbled explanation, and in doing so, the footnote pun, expressed literally with a close-up of hanged feet, gets lost entirely.

Spiegelman looms large in this book. He’s the king of the one-liner, the comics artist with the gift for talking about the medium like no one else. The problem, however, is that his opinions about all things comics, in this book and elsewhere, can dominate. So much so, in fact, that you begin to wonder if the death of the author is a concept worth revisiting for comics criticism. Such is the case when Chute discusses the motif of burning and the burned body in Nakazawa’s masterpiece, Barefoot Gen. Her analysis is already convincing enough, but as often happens, Spiegelman’s voice gets thrown in as if she is not quite willing to accept her own conclusions. This constant presence of Spiegelman as both explicator and accomplished artist is fine, but it could be the side-effect of this emerging field’s age. Comics criticism in the United States, unlike that in France and Belgium, is still evolving, and there is an academic industry that is keen on figuring out just where it belongs. The trick, of course, is striking the balance between what the critics can say about art and what Art says about art. Perhaps that distancing, so crucial for the very practice of criticism, will come with time, so that the act of writing about comics will not require checking in to see what the artist thinks.

In writing Disaster Drawn, Chute has performed a valuable service for anyone interested in comics or any graphic narrative for that matter. She has an eye for those details, many of them unnoticeable on a first read, that make it possible to understand what is really at stake in the work as a whole. What makes the chapter on Sacco so incredible is Chute’s ability to maintain a balance between argument and description. And this, it seems, is part of the challenge for anyone working on comics: there is no way to theorize them fully without describing what’s being seen. That’s what happens in the moody double spread in Sacco’s The Fixer that Chute carefully describes (and reproduces) before concluding: “He is not trying to replicate a photograph. What matters here is the urge to articulate the physical parameters of space and the affective, immersive parameters of mood by harnessing the expressivity of drawing” (228). That, in a line, is what this entire book is about: the process by which space becomes emotion, thereby making it possible for an experience in the past to be captured in the lines on the page and felt in an ever-receding present. Chute’s book is filled with moments when the power of these images increases through explication. We feel them, but with her as our guide, we come to appreciate how this is even possible.

When reading about the historical atrocities documented by Nakazawa, Spiegelman, and Sacco, we are all thrust into the position of the witness, and considering what’s happening, it is rarely a comfortable place. Chute is acutely aware of the ethical demands placed on us through these representations, but throughout this book, she never wants us to forget that it is all made [End Page 205] possible by a hand-drawn image. These pages, she reminds us on several occasions, are all drawn by hand, each line evidence of a human being who chose to remember what’s been forgotten by putting pen, or pencil, to paper. In that way, the page itself is not just a document of the past, something to be seen. Rather, it is there to be touched, enabling a form of physical interaction with the page through which the past can be channeled. “Embodiment in comics—on the page and in the mark, an index of the body,” she writes in a particularly brilliant reading of a silent page by Sacco, “is a kind of compensation for lost bodies, for lost histories” (252; emphasis in original). Comics as historical compensation, the page as body, maybe, but that’s only if we’re willing to accept that what’s lost can never really get found. Chute’s book is here to remind us, however, that it’s still worth trying.

Eric Bulson
Claremont Graduate University

Back To Top

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. Without cookies your experience may not be seamless.