In the 423 pages of Why Comics? From Underground to Everywhere, author Hillary Chute never really answers her book’s titular question.
Instead, she offers readers an authoritative but accessible overview of what Chute calls “comics for grown-ups”. That includes everything from underground comix to punk zines to graphic novels.
The book is broken into ten chapters, each focused on a particular topic. “Why War?” dives deep into the making of Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis and the works of Joe Sacco. “Why Punk?” reviews the role of underground zines and the careers of Gary Panter, Matt Groening and the Hernandez brothers (of Love and Rockets fame). “Why Sex?” focuses predictably on comix by R. Crumb an Aline Cominsky-Crumb. Each chapter fills in part of a larger history, in which comics emerged from an underground curiosity to a medium for legitimate literature.
Chute writes extensively about the usual suspects—Alison Bechdel, Chris Ware, and Art Spiegelman all make repeat appearances—and dwells unapologetically on their most popular works. That makes her book an indispensable introduction for new comics readers, but many enthusiasts will find it covers a great deal of familiar ground.
Though it’s never explicitly outlined, Chute draws clear borders around the universe of comics she considers to be worthy of analysis. She all but omits discussion of super-popular comics like those published by DC and Marvel. Even her chapter “Why Superheroes?” eschews discussion of figures like Jack Kirby and Stan Lee in favor of Chris Ware’s Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Boy on Earth. The ongoing resurgence in superhero comics and comics-inspired films is addressed only in a concluding chapter, “Why Fans?,” in which Chute mostly describes her experience at various conferences. She passes over most international works (with a few notable exceptions), generally seeming to prefer English-language and American comics. And among those, she clearly prefers the hipster stuff.
That said, Chute’s taste is impeccable. Each chapter of her book mentions upwards of a dozen comics titles (though she generally focuses on only two or three authors), and all deserve spots on every readers’ shelf. Even if this book offered nothing else to its readers, it would be worth the price of purchase just for use as a reading list.
Chute writes from an unassailable position of expertise; a professor of English, art, and design at Northeastern University, she’s previously written three books about comics and served as the associate editor of Art Spiegelman’s MetaMaus. But her book is not an academic slog. She has a gift for peppering poetic language into information-dense prose, striking a tone that’s at once breezy and authoritative.
Take, for example, this segment from “Why Sex?”
“Kominsky-Crumb and Crumb encouraged each other to push away the inner censors in their comics, and have become the two people perhaps most directly responsible for creating comics as a medium for a certain kind of intimate, body-focused self-expression. Comics excels at this, with its hand-drawn, intimate diary-like properties; capacity for capturing detail; and ability to give shape to the darkest or wildest imagination.”
Observations like these are wound throughout the book. Though her analysis is always rooted to specific comics or comics creators, she’s not shy about waxing theoretical. Thankfully, though, she presents those discussions with very little shop talk. Her book is friendly even to readers who have never heard technical comics terms like “gutter” or “bleed”.
In all, Why Comics? Is a comprehensive, insightful, and deeply readable overview. It belongs on the shelf of any comics enthusiast, and it will be indispensable in helping budding comics readers stock their own collections.