- Graphic Women: Life Narrative and Contemporary Comics
Over the past few years, Hillary Chute has become one of the best-known authors of academic articles on "graphic narratives" (a term she rightfully prefers to the famous misnomer, "graphic novel," as first pointed out in the special issue of Modern Fiction Studies she co-edited with Marianne DeKoven in 2006). Graphic Women is her first collection of essays on the topic. Her volume is most welcome, as there are currently very few studies on the prolific but little-discussed production of contemporary comics by women. It is a book written with enthusiasm, clarity, and the ability to condense an obviously exhaustive body of literature that the author has gone through and considered before putting pen to paper. On top of this, Chute neither simplifies nor envelops her prose in all-too-heavy academic lingo, which is one important reason why her book should gain a wide readership, from undergraduate students to established scholars. Another point in favor of this publication is that the author has managed to keep the size of the comics reproduced as close as possible to the originals, and has also included a well-chosen selection of color plates near the end of the book (all of which had already been reproduced in black and white). It is quite important that Chute has interviewed four of the five comic book authors she is discussing (Marjane Satrapi is the exception), and was thus able to pose some of the most pressing questions that have been tormenting both critics and artists involved in the production and discussion of comics for a long time now.
The critical investigation from Graphic Women moves along many interconnected lines which could, for the purpose of this review, be condensed into two main directions. One of them follows the innovative representation of the female body by feminist women cartoonists in a narrative language which, as Chute often remarks, "puts the body on the page" (26). The second main direction of these essays investigates "what comics does differently" [End Page 545] (3) as a medium that has tended to produce a predominantly autobiographical, predominantly post-traumatic tradition after the underground revolution that started in the US in the 1960s. For this purpose, Chute selects several of the most important women cartoonists working today (Aline Kominsky-Crumb, Phoebe Gloeckner, Lynda Barry, Marjane Satrapi, and Alison Bechdel), and discusses each of them in a separate chapter.
The main criteria behind her choice of authors are the cartoonists' established merits in the community, their production of handwritten non-collaborative comics, and the fact that they all address sexual trauma and position themselves for a large portion of their books as children, often on the same page as their adult selves, thus allowing for a productive dialogue which, Chute convincingly argues, is only possible in comics. It might be useful to point out here that, however well Chute justifies this selection, it is still not clear by the end of the book why she decided to include (only) Satrapi, who is a French-language Iranian author, among all the other US cartoonists, particularly since the relationship between various culturally specific concerns in the US and Iran is not sufficiently addressed.
Graphic Women very appropriately starts with a discussion of Aline Kominsky-Crumb's controversial work (including the collaborative ventures with her infamous husband, cartoonist Robert Crumb). The first chapter, "Scratching the Surface: 'Ugly' Excess in Aline Kominsky-Crumb," is perhaps the most powerfully argued and most gripping piece of writing in the book. Chute begins her analysis right where the comics power couple originated, in 1960s San Francisco, with "sexist pig" Robert Crumb leeringly pontificating over what his cartoons picture as a crowd of fame-gobbling female hippies. R. Crumb is notoriously difficult to discuss, especially because it is impossible not to agree that someone like Trina Robbins may have been somewhat right in her sacred rage; however, one cannot afford to admit it without being immediately steeped in ridicule for too simplistically...