The Politics of the Diagram as Graphic Narrative: Chris Ware and Chad McCail
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The Politics of the Diagram as Graphic Narrative:
Chris Ware and Chad McCail

Within the field of indie comics, politics are most visible–and most closely scrutinized–in the nonfictional genres of graphic journalism (e.g., Joe Sacco's Palestine), history (e.g., Art Spiegelman's Maus), and autobiography (e.g., Alison Bechdel's Fun Home). Discussion of these tends to foreground questions of representation and identification; apart from them, as in the film criticism of the Screen era, a certain formalism predominates. Here, the unselfconscious narration of concrete facts and experiences supposedly typifying works such as Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis or Lynda Barry's One Hundred Demons may be taken as a shortcoming, a failure to "lay bare the devices" and to foreground the medium, whereas a preoccupation with the possibilities of form is sometimes taken to have radical political significance in itself. For Daniel Worden, thus, formal experimentation suggests a break with the given, an "assertion of the comics form's ability to defamiliarize, rather than concretize and repeat, genre conventions and social norms," thereby "help[ing] us to think about and envision a better world" (Worden, "Politics of Comics" 69-70). Critical treatment of the works of American comics creator Chris Ware (b. Omaha, 1967) tends to take just this position.

This praise of Ware's political radicalism might come as a surprise to those for whom one of his distinctions is his disinterest in politics (Dycus 127). It would be difficult to characterize Ware as any kind of engagé artist, let alone a radical. Ware's first comics outing, a dystopian graphic novel called Floyd Farland, Citizen of the Future (1987), which he has since disavowed, was about as political as Ware ever got, but even here, the gestures are primarily sardonic. His most directly political gestures, "disseminated between strips and often written in a tiny type," are almost literally marginal to his work–a series of sarcastic barbs, crammed into the "paratext[ual]" spaces of mock advertisements in his ACME Novelty Library series, aimed at the excesses of American jingoism and racism. Under the front cover of Acme Novelty Library #10 (1998), for instance, [End Page 33] we find a roughly 2-inch-wide advertisement for "Atomic Weapons" (alongside similarly-sized ads for "Childhood" and "Irony"): "Fun new technology actually allows you to burn up millions of people in enormous balls of flame who bother you […] Great at picnics, genocides" (3). Here, the blandly upbeat language of marketing highlights the casual cruelty of nuclear war–but only for whoever has taken the time to squint at this seemingly decorative detail in the front matter of the book before flipping the page. Even the full-page ad for "Juan Tanamo" ("Whether you're employing strict sensory deprivation, techniques of sexual disgrace, or just piling people into big human pyramids, leave your robust, richly coffee-colored prisoners with the security detail for a minute or two and take a moment to… relax") is relegated to a back page of ACME Novelty Library #19. Paolo Simonetti notes that Ware himself has described these "fake ads" as "throwaway" gestures, regarding them as "about as effective as composing a symphony with hopes that it would depose a despot" (Simonetti 293; qtd. in Simonetti 293).

By contrast, the political commitments of the rather less well-known Scottish artist Chad McCail (b. Manchester, 1961) are highly visible in his works–veritable anti-despotic symphonies. Unlike Ware's often vanishingly small panels, McCail's 8-foot-tall prints, often mounted on billboards or the sides of entire buildings, often literally serve as advertising for an anti-authoritarian vision, even when sequestered in the more rarefied space of art galleries (Baetens; McCail and Sinclair 1-3; Luke). Where critiques of racism or sexism are presented obliquely in Ware's works, McCail's present a forthrightly anarchist denunciation of hierarchy, domination, and oppression (O'Brien, Fuller).1 Where Ware's works foster a "cult of difficulty," as Martha Kuhlmann and David M. Ball note, characterized by the modernist canons of "irony, self-reflexivity, [and] Brechtian alienation" (Miller 6), McCail, rejecting the elitist insularity of the art world, creates populist works that "show...


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