The title of Hillary Chute’s Nov. 29 lecture, “Out of the Gutter: Contemporary Graphic Novels by Women,” has a double meaning. It refers to the elevation of graphic narratives — comics — from the lowest, most disreputable level of artistic expression to a form worthy of New York Times best-sellerdom, literary prizes, and academic attention.
It also refers to something seemingly far more mundane — the empty space separating the framed drawings in a graphic narrative, literally the “gutter.”
For Chute, whose talk was delivered as the Radcliffe Institute’s Schlesinger Lecture, the relationship between gutter and frame represents “a counterpoint between presence and absence,” delineating the “boundaries of what can be said and what can be shown” in a graphic narrative.
Currently a junior fellow of the Harvard Society of Fellows, Chute last year earned a Ph.D. in English from Rutgers University with a dissertation titled “Contemporary Graphic Narratives: History, Aesthetics, Ethics.” Her interest in comics began when she read Art Spiegelman’s “Maus: A Survivor’s Tale” in a graduate class on contemporary fiction.
“Totally blown away” by Spiegelman’s graphic narrative, as she described her response in an interview in a Rutgers alumni publication, Chute has since written extensively about Spiegelman’s work. Her criticism caught the attention of the artist himself, and they are now collaborating on a book about Spiegelman’s work called “MetaMaus.”
In her talk, Chute focused on two recent graphic narratives by women, more memoirs than novels: “Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood” (2003) by Marjane Satrapi and “Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic” (2006) by Alison Bechdel. Like the 1992 Pulitzer Prize-winning “Maus,” which relates Spiegelman’s father’s experiences as a concentration camp victim in Nazi Germany, these more recent narratives employ words and pictures to describe traumatic events.
In “Persepolis,” Satrapi describes her childhood in Iran during the Islamic revolution and the early years of the Ayatollah Khomeini’s dictatorship. In “Fun Home,” Bechdel, the creator of a lesbian-based comic strip called “Dykes to Watch Out For,” tells of her relationship with her father, a repressed, obsessive-compulsive, closeted gay man, whose suicide when Bechdel was 19 continues to be a traumatic and haunting event in her life.
The reception accorded these books has helped to lift the graphic narrative beyond the pop echelons of “Garfield” and “Superman” into the realm of serious art capable of dealing with complex human situations and emotions. “Persepolis,” which garnered the most attention and critical acclaim of any graphic narrative since “Maus,” has been translated into 20 languages and is assigned reading at West Point. An animated version was released in the United States in October with Catherine Deneuve as the voice of the main character’s mother. “Fun Home” has also been welcomed enthusiastically by critics, spent several weeks on The New York Times best-seller list, and was No. 1 of Time magazine’s best books of the year.
In her talk, Chute suggested that comics, far from being an inherently limited form, may be ideally suited to the portrayal of traumatic events and extreme circumstances. Quoting literary theorist Cathy Caruth’s pronouncement that “to be traumatized is to be possessed by an image or event,” Chute argued that by pairing words and images, artists may be able to express meanings that could not be conveyed in any other way.
In “Persepolis,” for example, Satrapi’s simple, stark drawings, which have been disparaged by some critics for their lack of sophistication, may express the violence that engulfed Iran in the 1970s and ’80s better than a more realistic depiction. Through its very simplicity, the narrative “recognizes the inability of any mode of representation to adequately represent trauma,” Chute said.
Likewise, in “Fun Home,” the style of the drawing, which is dense and complex, full of details and juxtapositions that demand sustained attention, conveys the complexity and ambiguity of Bechdel’s relationship with her emotionally unavailable father.
The sophistication of these narrative techniques contradicts, according to Chute, the assumption that visual literacy is replacing verbal literacy and that this process represents an irreplaceable loss for our culture. She quoted Spiegelman, who has on this issue asserted his belief that comics “are the last bastion of literacy and that most people don’t have the patience to decipher comics.”
In fact, she said, quoting from a 2004 New York Times Magazine story on the growing importance of graphic narratives, “Comics may be what novels used to be — an accessible, vernacular form with mass appeal.”