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Graphic WomenReview - Graphic Women
Life Narrative and Contemporary Comics
by Hillary L. Chute
Columbia University Press, 2010
Review by Sharon Packer, M.D.
Aug 23rd 2011 (Volume 15, Issue 34)

This book was sent to me for review because I wrote a book about Superheroes and Superegos: Analyzing the Minds behind the Masks (ABC-Clio, 2010). But the protagonists of Graphic Women are polar opposite of the masked men and women found in superhero stories from the Golden and Silver Age.

With few exceptions, the female artists and writers in Hilary Chute's book rip off their masks and show their most private selves raw, both literally and figuratively. Their images and their stories are stripped of shame, and are deliberately exposed, to reveal traumas and travails, and to expound upon tales of sexual exploitation. These are not the superhero success stories of early comics, where aspiring superheroes triumph over trauma, and develop "post-traumatic strength" rather than "post-traumatic stress".

I myself would have welcomed comparisons with the early superheroes stories that were written and illustrated by men. But Chute delivers exactly what she promises. This is a book about contemporary comics, rather than an historical account.

Her starting point is Art Spiegelman's Maus (1986), which made underground comics mainstream, to the point that a 2004 New York Times magazine article identified comics or graphic novels as the major medium of our times. That would have been fine by Chute, except for the fact that the Times featured four male graphic novelists and ignored women's contributions.  That omission sparks this edition.

From there, the book delves back to Aline Kominsky-Crumb's 70's era Twisted Sisters. Some of those comics (commix) were collaborations with her higher-profile husband, Robert Crumb, whose sexism came under attack by feminists. It is unclear what Aline or Art contributed, but it is clear that their graphic styles are indistinguishable.

It is also clear is that these images, and many other images in this book, were dismissed as pornographic by feminist commix artists such as Trina Robbins. Compared to some illustrations included in Graphic Women, Trina Robbins' iconic cover imagery from It Ain't Me, Babe (1970) looks comical--as it was intended.  

Robbins' artwork rallied many women to the cause in 1970. It also angered many men. Robbins' rendition of Elsie the Cow, hoof in air, leading a pack of protestors that include Wonder Woman, Olive Oyl (Popeye's love object), Little Lulu, Mary Marvel, and Sheena is charming. I wish I could read more about Trina Robbins' groundbreaking work--but I remind myself: this book covers contemporary comics, not archived comics.    

Arguments about the definition of pornography are important to this five chapter volume--as well they should, given comics' history. The comics industry was brought to its knees by allegations made by psychiatrist Fredric Wertham, MD. Wertham presented his case in his book about Seduction of the Innocent (1954), and addressed Congress at the Kefauver Hearings, and threatened comics' very survival.  

Wertham condemned both horror and superhero comics for promoting violence. He read many sexual messages between the lines--and panels--of superhero stories. He blamed Wonder Women for making little girls unhappy with their female roles, and for advocating lesbianism (in spite of her devotion to her paramour, Steve Rogers, and her willingness to sacrifice her career for his!). Most importantly, Dr. Wertham charged Batman's Bruce Wayne with promoting same-sex sex via his relationship with Robin.

Given this background, it makes sense that later comics/commix artists would be extra-sensitive to issues surrounding sexuality and censorship. Chute informs us that the underground commix movement grew out of the repression that followed the Comics Code, and that independent artists produced edgier editions when commercial comics' publishers were reined in by the Code.

Chute comes to the defense of another featured writer/artist: Phoebe Gloeckner. Gloeckner's imagery is graphic in the extreme, just as the book title promises. Chute's support for the "pornographic" aspects of Gloeckner's work may polarize some readers and distract from the broader aims of this book. Curiously, another artist in this book, Alison Bechdel, writes about sexual topics (as well as her father's suicide), but steers clear of explicit eroticism, even when she photographs herself in drag, dressed as her father.

As it turned out, the chapter that intrigued me the most is the one that skirts this issue of censorship in America, hints at censorship in Iran, but rests upon the strength of the visual imagery. This chapter focuses on Marjane Satrapi, author of Persepolis and admirer of Art Spiegelman's Maus.  

Like Spiegel man, whose encounters with his Holocaust survivor father also start with the personal, Satrapi's first-person story succeeds in transcending the personal and becoming political. Spiegelman makes a horrific historical event more accessible by narrating in first person. His childlike illustrations disarm us and allow us to move closer to this uncomfortable subject. The same can be said for Satrapi.

The similarities between Spiegelman and Satrapi end there. Satrapi is a Persian-born Muslim woman who witnessed the Iranian Revolution as a child. She was educated in the traditions of European fine art but is equally familiar with Persian miniatures, which she also cites as inspirations for her drawings. Her images are Munch-like, and remind us of The Scream (1893-1910). Besides Spiegelman's Maus, Satrapi credits Laughton's film noir, Night of the Hunter (1955), as an influence on her B&W renditions.

It is interesting to compare Satrapi to Munch, for Munch's internationally-known art springs from his own trauma--the loss of his sister to TB. In the 19th century, TB was endemic. It waged war against whole countries, so that individual illness was not simply a family affair, but was an issue that affected many people in similar ways. Munch chronicles that loss before he began The Scream. By abstracting his imagery, and by moving away from the literal renditions of the sickbed found in his early art, Munch gifted the world with a universal symbol of distress, a  symbol that transcends his personal sorrow and expresses emotions inherent to all humans.

Similarly, Satrapi's abstractions hit far the spectator harder than the detailed, Durer-like renditions of Gloeckner's oeuvre. When Chute writes about Gloeckner, she acknowledges the "ambivalent" reactions to Gloeckner. But she makes a value judgment when she valorizes the personal over the political, and the individual over the universal, and when she supports Gloeckner's sensationalized first-person story. Likewise, I make a value judgment when I express a preference for the opposite.  

However, I am a practicing psychiatrist, and Chute is a literature professor. I cannot completely distance myself from my daily clinical experiences as I see the images in Graphic Women. It pains me to think of a patient who repeatedly illustrates her pain, without moving forward. Chute states that these narratives and images are not intended as a catharsis, but that they have an exact opposite goal: to embody the experience and make it material and to provide a permanent record for posterity. This is material for an interesting discussion that does not take place on the pages of this book.  

This approach differs dramatically from the "creative visualization" employed by early comics' creators, who imagined themselves with superpowers that could overcome adversity. They created fantasy characters that distanced them from the pain of the immediate present, when war loomed and when their European co-religionists were herded into concentration camps or confined to ghettos.

That approach didn't change the chain of events that followed, but it is an approach that comes closer to the approaches advocated by contemporary psychiatry and trauma specialists. But that doesn't matter, does it, because this is a book about art and literature (and comics and graphics). It is not a manual about clinical practice--even though it will be read by many practicing mental health specialists.

In the end, I predict that this interdisciplinary book will find its way into a variety of libraries, and that it will open up questions that are important to those varying fields. It brings back age-old questions about art, literature and the inner self. Must art always arise out of pain? Are art and insanity linked (as the Romantics believed)? It touches upon newer concerns: what happens in the brain when we think in images rather than words?


© 2011 Sharon Packer


Dr. Packer is a physician and psychiatrist in private practice. She is an Assistant Clinical Professor of Psychiatry & Behavioral Science. She is the author of Dreams in Myth, Medicine and Movies (Praeger 2002), Movies and the Modern Psyche (Praeger, 2007), and Superheroes and Superegos: Analyzing the Minds behind the Masks (ABC-Clio, 2010). Her book on Sinister Psychiatrists in Cinema (McFarlane, 2012) is in press. She is currently editing The Devil that You Know: Evil in American Pop Culture (ABC-Clio, 2013).


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