Disaster Drawn: Visual Witness, Comics, and Documentary Form
US: Jan 2016
In a world that has access to an ever-growing array of impressive technologies for documenting and representing reality, why is it that one of the oldest forms of expression, drawing, remains one of the most powerful and compelling? Why is it that comics—that unique combination of drawing and text—are being used more extensively and creatively than ever in documenting and representing experiences of war and trauma?
Those are the questions driving Hillary Chute’s insightful analysis Disaster Drawn: Visual Witness, Comics, and Documentary Form. It’s part of a growing genre of scholarly works analyzing the impact of comics and graphic narrative. Chute, a professor of English who has published extensively on the topic, argues that the comics form is one that is uniquely capable of documenting traumatic historical events. This, she writes, is because “comics has peculiar connection to expressing trauma—that there are potent reasons acts of witnessing and testimony are created and find shape in this form.”
Indeed, the variability of the comics form affords a wide range of opportunities to the comics artist. They can integrate not only drawings but photos, drawings of photos (allowing for nuance and emphasis), and components of other textual documents (reports, screenshots, charts, and more). In their drawings, the comics artist is able to slow down time, speed it up, defy laws of physics, rapidly shift scale and perspective, and engage in a seemingly infinite range of artistic techniques, all of which enable both creative and documentary approaches to merge on the page.
Comics can allow dialogue or convey silence, and the gutter between panels often acts as a trigger for the reader to imagine beyond the text, which is precisely what every writer hopes their reader will do. The comics author can even insert themselves into the text in a variety of ways, enabling a form of reflexivity prose writers can only dream of. Comics combine not only the qualities of art and text, but they can also convey a sense of movement and motion, thus also expressing some of the qualities of film.
Comics were once stereotyped as a form of children’s literature, but no longer. Comics “require an active and complicated literacy,” observes Chute, and she quotes from comics artist Art Spiegelman, author of the acclaimed Maus and other works, on this shift: “It seems to me that comics have already shifted from being an icon of illiteracy to becoming one of the last bastions of literacy.”
Chute is interested primarily in how comics engage with war and trauma, but she invests considerable space in first delineating a genealogy of the form. She traces that genealogy back to the 17th century work of Jacques Callot, who produced a series of captioned prints illustrating the misery of war, directly inspired by his observations of the Thirty Years War in Europe. The works are searing and didactic in their anti-war messaging. The brutality, depredations and suffering of soldiers and civilians alike is portrayed in graphic detail, combined with verse captions.
The 15th century, explains Chute, was a period where war imagery and art began to turn critical, and split into two strains: art that valorized war, and art that criticized the brutality and horror of war. The latter strain, which would eventually inspire many key 20th century comics, can be traced from Callot through to Francisco Goya’s early 19th century art based on the Spanish War of Independence. Goya’s prints, too, featured bitter and incisive captions, which inspired 20thth century comics artists; the relation between image and text/caption is one of the defining features of comics. “I Saw It” is the horrified caption on one of Goya’s prints, and this title would directly inspire 20th century war cartoonists like Keiji Nakazawa (indeed, it was the title of the original iteration of the comic which would eventually morph into Nakazawa’s seminal comic of Hiroshima, Barefoot Gen).
Chute draws attention to the emergence in the mid-1800s of the artist-reporter, of which Callot and Goya could be argued to represent an early form. As newspapers and magazines exploded in popularity, and before the development and widespread adoption of photography, news was illustrated, and artists sent abroad as war correspondents. Indeed, it was the artist who was most vital to this form of reporting: print copy could be pieced together or stolen from a variety of sources, but having a skilled artist on-site to sketch the battles and other key events of history was central. The importance of artist-reporters lingered through the First World War; it was really only the Second World War that brought photojournalism to the fore.
During this time, of course, newspapers also began printing comic strips, and many of the early forms were remarkably experimental (Chute presents several examples in her book). It was the adoption of the infamous government-mandated comics codes in the US, explains Chute—ostensibly designed to protect young children—which killed creativity in comics, requiring comics artists to conform to particular norms of narrative and morality.
But the result of pent-up creativity led to an explosion in ‘underground comix’ during the ‘60s and ‘70s, and it was this field that inspired the current generation of comics artists, many of them dedicated to chronicling war trauma and honing the genre of comics journalism.
Chute’s historical genealogy of comics is fascinating and argued with meticulous detail and precision. From the works of Callot and Goya, to the proliferation of new forms of artistic narrative in the 19th and 20th centuries, there’s not only an artistic and creative common thread to follow, but a thematic one as well. “From nineteenth-century ‘engraved novels’ to newspaper comic strips, ‘wordless novels’ to print-culture-obsessed word-and-image fantasies, mass comic books to radical left comics commentary, short modernist compositions to darkly political satire, each of the narratives…exhibits a formal vocabulary, however distinct, that connects comics to the practice and possibility of witness, to the expression of realities of lived life and history.” Witnessing is a central function of this type of comics, and one for which the genre is uniquely capable.
Truth in Life and Art
Chute’s use of the term ‘vocabulary’ is important. “Comics is not illustration—it is not about accuracy in rendering—but rather is a type of expressive language.”
What form lends itself best to witnessing, to telling stories, to telling truth? Particularly when truth itself is a nuanced, fraught concept? Chute notes that even though the world has relied on artists to document historical events for far longer than it has relied on photographers, in today’s world artistic renditions of reality are often treated with greater skepticism than photo or film evidence.
In a similar vein, claims of journalistic objectivity are often treated as a more reliable representation of fact than fictional or creative reportage, or even self-reflexive forms of new journalism. Chute up-ends these received notions of truth and accuracy by arguing passionately and persuasively that comics are able to transcend the limitations of other forms. Comics allow for realistic visual representations of events while also permitting the nuances of creative expression that render narration more resonant, experiential, and perhaps even ‘accurate’ from a humanistic perspective. They enable the reader to feel, and thus understand context more clearly. They enable multiple perspectives and truths to be represented simultaneously, thus permitting a richer and more critical form of storytelling.
Hence, comics’ sustained and growing significance for the narratives of war, trauma and disaster. “Comics is powerful precisely in how it intervenes against the trauma-driven discourse of the unrepresentable and the ineffable,” writes Chute. Comics like Spiegelman’s Maus, she says, demonstrate “how the vocabulary of comics—the narrative shapes its grammar offers—along with its visual surface, the extrasemantic layer of its drawn lines, conveys information while at the same time accounting for the excess (or absence) of signification and reference.”
Or as Spiegelman himself put it, “Maybe vulgar, semiliterate, unsubtle comic books are an appropriate form for speaking the unspeakable.”
Chute and Spiegelman collaborated on the celebrated MetaMaus, which explores the creation of Spiegelman’s award-winning comic Maus, and his work lends itself profoundly well to her analysis. Spiegelman refers to the ability of comics in “turning a narrative into geography”; in the case of Maus, this was reflected in “’creating [the concentration camps] as a mental zone,’ not just as a visual re-creation.”
Spiegelman’s Maus comprises one of three specific case studies Chute analyses. She also looks at Keiji Nakazawa’s work on Hiroshima (his semi-autobiographical ten-volume manga Barefoot Gen and its precursor, the much shorter but also less studied I Saw It). Finally, she explores the comics journalism of Joe Sacco.
Sacco’s work offers other unique dimensions demonstrating the profundity of trauma-driven comics. Just as comics challenge contemporary perceptions of accuracy and truth-telling in history, Sacco’s comics journalism—which has included comics reportage on conflicts in Palestine, Bosnia, Sarajevo, Gaza, and even on poverty in the United States—provides a unique vantage to debates over objectivity in journalism. “Because comics texts are conspicuously drawn by hand and thus inherently reject transparency, instead foregrounding their situatedness, nonfiction comics demand attention to history’s discursivity,” Chute writes. “The medium of comics is always already self-conscious as an interpretive, and never purely mimetic, medium. Yet this self-consciousness, crucially, exists together with the medium’s confidence in its ability to traffic in expressing history… nonfiction comics call crucial attention to the fact that in any medium or genre, “accuracy” is always an effect.”
An additional benefit—and one which Sacco’s work shares with other comics artists—is that comics are able to visualize history based on oral testimony, writes Chute, “meticulously archiving previously unarchived voices.” This is particularly valuable when dealing with disputed accounts of history, illustrating both literally and speculatively the role of memory and perspective in constructing history and truth. “This is what the form of comics always does best: enacting, rather than only thematizing, the relationship of past and present,” observes Chute.
Moreover, the ability of comics to alternate between documenting, thematizing, and enacting illustrates another powerful quality of the form, what Chute refers to as ‘inhabitation’. “It focuses our attention on how people remember and reenact their own histories through drawing, and on how cartoonists endeavor to enter ethically into others’ histories by materializing them on the page. It also describes graphic narrative’s connection to worldmaking—its ability to create worlds on the page for its readers to inhabit.”
Sacco’s work is often dense with words and images, forcing the reader to pause and absorb, seeking to make sense from it. It’s a deliberate technique to slow down the pace of the reader’s consumption of the material; Sacco refers to this as “slow journalism”, and as Chute explains it is “both a mode of ethical awareness and an implicit critique of superficial news coverage.”
“Sacco’s investment in slowing readers down and asking them to grapple with producing meaning is a deliberate technique positioned both against the global news media’s propensity to offer quickly consumed visual spectacles and against the restless acceleration of information that is characteristic of so many of today’s reporting outlets.”
Chute’s work is a magnificently insightful and meticulously researched analysis of the powerful role comics play in witnessing war and trauma. Chute treats her material in scholarly and academic detail, combining artistic analysis, literary and communications theory, and even philosophical insights in her effort to understand, and reveal, the unique relationship between comics and the witnessing of trauma in modern history. What emerges is a particularly impressive sense of the sustained power of comics and drawing. As Sacco wrote following the Charlie Hebdo murders, “When we draw a line we are often crossing one, because lines on paper are a weapon.”
As Chute observes, comics will continue to play a powerful role in expressing and shaping experience and history, regardless of whatever other technologies may appear. The comics scene today is more vibrant than ever, particularly in spaces and communities experiencing trauma, from the poverty-stricken streets of US communities to the crime-ridden towns of Mexico to the refugee camps of the Middle East. “Drawing today,” she writes, “still enters the public sphere as a form of witness that takes shape as marks and lines because no other technology could record what it depicts.”
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