- Disaster Drawn: Visual Witness, Comics, and Documentary Form by Hillary L. Chute
Unflinching. That's the word for the graphic narratives of war that Hillary Chute studies in Disaster Drawn: Visual Witness, Comics, and Documentary Form, and it's the word for Chute's book, as well. Building on the theory of graphic memoir she articulated in her first monograph, Graphic Women: Life Narrative and Contemporary Comics (Columbia UP, 2010), Chute takes a long, hard look at documentary representations of war told in comics format. For Chute, comics are the answer to the supposed unrepresentability of trauma, whether personal or public. Memoir is still the mode that interests Chute the most, but while Graphic Women focuses on female comics artists' re-envisioning of their own childhood sexual trauma, Disaster Drawn stares down nonfictional documentation of war atrocities around the globe. "Graphic narrative," in Chute's work, carries both its formalist meaning (as a synonym for the word-and-image format of comics) and its other dictionary meaning ("giving a clear and effective picture; vivid"). Her chosen texts, by vividly picturing war, make trauma into what John Berger might call something to-be-looked-at.
Disaster Drawn is the first book to do a comprehensive study of the documentary mode in comics. The book's subject, Chute explains, is "the relationship of drawing to history" (25). A great deal has been written already about the fiction/nonfiction oscillation in graphic memoirs of personal trauma, particularly by the feminist scholars with whom Chute's earlier scholarship engaged. That work has centered upon the effects of trauma within the family, and the epigenetic ways that those effects pass from one generation to the next through what Marianne Hirsch calls "postmemory." Chute's new book turns its [End Page 261] gaze to public narratives of events witnessed first-hand, even (or especially) when they overlap with family stories. The genre she outlines in Disaster Drawn is partly about the impact wars have on family structures, seen sometimes from the inside of a family (as in Art Spiegelman's Maus) and sometimes from outside (as in Joe Sacco's Palestine). Always aware of the pull between the open artificiality of comics and the exigencies of telling the documentary truth, Chute argues that "comics narrative … suggests that accuracy is not the opposite of creative invention" (2).
The book is divided into three parts. First comes an excellent, comprehensive theoretical survey of the relationships among comics, trauma, witnessing, and narrative. Comics theory is a field still young enough to benefit from specialists' recounting its discoveries (such as the relationship between frames and gutters in graphic narrative form) in the introductory chapter of a book, and no one is better equipped to tell that story than Chute. The introduction presents the received scholarly notion that representations of trauma must always be inadequate or even unethical, and joins with W. J. T. Mitchell and Bruno Latour in rejecting that idea. Chute highlights the unique form of witnessing trauma that graphic narrative makes possible, alluding to one of the most important interventions she has made in comics studies to date. In Graphic Women Chute influentially argued that the materiality of comics, the visible presence of the mark of the hand on the page, affords graphic narrative an ability to signify the body in ways that prose can't achieve. In Disaster Drawn Chute amplifies this point, extending it to a consideration of witnessing. The lines on the page connect directly to the hand and body of the comics artist, the same body that was present to witness first-hand the events being recounted. To produce and publish the documentary graphic narrative is to witness in that other sense, to bear testimony to what one has seen.
The second part of Disaster Drawn consists of two chapters outlining the history of visual representations of war. Beginning with close readings of the representation of war atrocities in the work of such artists as Jacques Callot in the seventeenth century and Francisco Goya in the early nineteenth, the first of...