A Conversation with Hillary Chute

9780226099446I first met the scholar and critic Hillary Chute sometime around 2006 or 7, via our mutual friend and Yuichi Yokoyama translator, Taro Nettleton. At the time she was working with Art Spiegelman on what would become Meta-Maus. She went on to write Graphic Women: Life Narrative and Contemporary Comics and has just published Outside the Box: Interviews with Contemporary CartoonistsSomehow along the way she found time to organize the 2012 Comics: Philosophy and Practice conference that famously brought some of the best cartoonists in North America to the University of Chicago, where Chute is the Neubauer Family Assistant Professor of English. Anyhow, on the occasion of her new book, Chute and I exchanged emails over the course of a few weeks to discuss canons and criteria, among other things. What intrigues (and often dismays) me most about this particular time in comics scholarship is the sheer quantity of books engaged in some kind of narrative about the state and history of the medium, often with little new to contribute. It's an almost endless stream right now, including the new issue of Artforum, to which Chute contributed. Outside the Box, though, is a good gathering of process and history interviews with some of the foremost practitioners of long-form cartoon narratives. So naturally I began our conversation by asking her a self-serving question about what's left out of all this current discussion.

Dan Nadel: You elegantly defended your selection of interviewees in the introduction, and all of these kinds of projects are deeply subjective anyway, so I'm not going to play the "why not Jaime Hernandez" game with you. I hate backseat driving editorial decisions. But! One thing that struck me about your book (that you did not address) is that this is roughly the same canon that was covered first by Andrea Juno (Dangerous Drawings, 1997) and then by Todd Hignite (In the Studio, 2006). So, what I'm wondering is, do you think it's a problem that your book and symposium effectively ignores post-2000 developments in comics? To my mind, the comics canon has to be radically rethought in the face of artists like Mat Brinkman, Ron Rege, CF and Ben Jones. Yes, I published them, but I honestly think they reshaped the medium. Is Outside the Box, in a sense, a backwards-glancing book? Let's start there. Feel free to hurl insults my way.

Hillary Chute: No insults, no way!!  Thanks for this question, which makes perfect sense.

To respond to your question: I am so happy you mentioned Dangerous Drawings, by Andrea Juno.  That book had a really big influence on me, not only in terms of learning fascinating things about cartoonists, and getting interested in specific cartoonists, but also just because Andrea Juno is such a great interviewer and that book is an amazing repository of information.  In fact, all of the Re/Search books, and then her own books in the next imprint she next worked on, Juno Books, which featured in-depth and sophisticated interviews, were very important influences. In The Studio was not a big influence or model for me, although it is a very nicely put together book.  My book is pretty differently configured from the coffee table-like In the Studio.  You may also notice there are NO women among the nine cartoonists covered in In the Studio, whereas I interview five women in Outside the Box.

I don't think the Comics: Philosophy & Practice conference or Outside the Box ignores post-2000 developments in comics--almost every single person I cover in Outside the Box has published a really important recent work, like Charles Burns's The Hive, Chris Ware's Building Stories, Alison Bechdel's Fun Home, Lynda Barry's collage activity books, and Phoebe Gloeckner's in-progress reportage on Mexico.  So it doesn't seem backwards looking at all: these people are doing fascinating and game-changing work right now.

As for the people I choose to focus on, it is, if you look at it, an older set, and a set that for the most part is interested, or has been interested, in long-form narrative work.  (Chris Ware was the youngest person I invited to the conference; Adrian Tomine is the youngest person included in Outside the Box.)   This isn't at all because I don't think the the work of Mat Brinkman, Ron Rege, CF, and Ben Jones is important.  A "Girls Against Pain" poster hangs on my apartment wall! I was just admiring Mere yesterday! But for me personally, the work I have been drawn to writing about (both in an academic context and a mainstream literary one, like in The Believer, where a lot of the interviews for my book were first published) is long-form narrative work.  That's probably because of my background as an English PhD.  I'm not trying to make an exclusive canon; I'm just trying to add to the conversation by focusing on the work that grabs me from the context at which I'm coming at it.

That makes a lot of sense. I think in some ways the idea of "taste" is downplayed a lot, so when these sort of events and books happen the reaction is as though a monolith has been built, rather than a conversation had. To that end, I don't know a thing about your taste outside of what you've published, and what's published is always a weird little sliver of what we're generally into. So, where do your comics interests run to that we don't know about? And can you tell me more about how your interest in long form narrative has dovetailed with comics? Until recently (with some very notable exceptions that Art and others have brought to the fore) it has traditionally been a short form medium. Is there enough there to chew on? Where do you look for context for long form comics?

You’re so right about taste! So, in terms of stuff I love outside of what I’ve published on—there’s a lot: Off the top of my head, someone I’ve loved for a very long time is Julie Doucet. What I love in her work and in a lot of other work is the tension between abstraction and representation, and how the two brush up against each other, or in Doucet’s case, create this fascinating graphic universe.  I’m writing a short piece on her work for a forthcoming issue of Artforum.  I also really loved My New New York Diary, by the way… it had that thing I just described that I love, amplified across media: a photographic Julie drinking a drawn beer!

I also love work where the line just feels really distinctive and personal somehow, and calls attention to the hand.  I love Gary Panter’s work, especially Cola Madnes and the sketches in Satiro-Plastic—I’m teaching some of his 9/11 sketches in my “Literature of 9/11” course. CF is in this category for me, and Ron Rege is in this category for me (did we ever talk about how I used to love his really old band the Trollin’ Withdrawal? I’m from Boston), and so is Edie Fake (here in Chicago).  And so is Ivan Brunetti, even though his line is clear, not “ratty” or shaky, and almost typographic. It’s work that makes you encounter the line graphically, makes you encounter drawing as a material object and practice. My gift to myself when I got my PhD was a Gary Panter customized drawing based on three words (I chose the words—for my favorite things—Cats Books and Ocean!)

In terms of older work I am totally obsessed with Winsor McCay, especially his seriously dark comics like Hungry Henrietta and Dream of the Rarebit Fiend.  And I love romance comics.

Going back to the question of story and narrative, a lot of work I like is in a serial format, but tells a story over time.  I love Kim Deitch’s work, both for the amazing way his line codes old and new styles and also because he’s so good at spinning a yarn! I read the Stuff of Dreams comics as they came out and I was hanging on the edge of my seat after each one! The book collections, like Alias the Cat! and Boulevard of Broken Dreams are wonderful, too. (I love work that is about collecting and about archives.)  I’m pointing this out just to clarify that the duration of the story—whether it’s serial or all between one set of covers—isn’t the deciding factor for me.  I love serial formats and I can hang on to a story for a very long time and appreciate the slow burn of waiting for issues, like I did with Love & Rockets, which I adore, or like I did with the Black Hole comics.  I am a Jaime fan particularly—comics about punk girls and female friendships will win me over in a deep way every time!!

A huge interest academically, and also personally, is comics that in some way engage with history. (I first read Maus in a contemporary fiction grad class in which most of novels we read were works of historical fiction.  So I am most interested, to answer your last question, in thinking about how graphic narrative work, through drawing and the grammar of comics, works in a different way—or in some similar ways—with historical prose novels or works of literary journalism.)  I’m writing a book chapter now on Keiji Nakazawa and I Saw It! and Barefoot Gen.  For this reason I also obsessively love Kate Beaton and the ways she makes fun of everything.  And one work that is fictional, but very rooted in a certain historical time and place, that I was recently totally gripped by is Leela Corman’s Unterzakhn.

I didn’t read a ton of comics when I was little, but my brother and I were obsessed by The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers—we had older sisters, 10 and 11 years older, who had some issues of this and other underground comics, which is part of why I love underground comics so much.  And once I found an old trunk in my cousin’s house that had horror comics from '70s.  I really love gorgeous sort of neo-horror work, like Lilli Carré's The Lagoon and Julia Gfrorer’s Black is the Color.

To address your question about short form and long form: I like shorter-form work that tells a long story over time just as well as I like an in-depth narrative delivered all at once.  But since I am a narrative-oriented person, I haven’t tended to write about work that is more self-contained and short, and more abstract without also encoding some storytelling elements, however experimental.  That is to say, I have been following all the discourse around abstract comics—but the work I liked best in the Abstract Comics book was the Crumb piece.  I am profoundly interested in the questions it provokes, but my personal tastes run more, as I was saying above, to the meeting of the abstract and the representational than to work that more heavily abstract.

In terms of the context for long-form work, remember when the New Yorker misquoted me as saying Binky Brown Meets the Holy Virgin Mary was the first graphic novel? I was really upset that they attributed this to me when I hadn’t written it, and also that they refused to print a correction.  However, for me personally, I would say that Binky is crucial—at 40-something pages—for establishing serious long form stories.  And Harvey Kurtzman’s Jungle Book is also really important to me even just in its publishing context of being original stories for a mass audience.  Also I have been very interested in the wordless novels of the '20s, '30s, and '40s as a kind of graphic storytelling that is novelistic and yet totally based on experiments with time and space that come from comics and panelization.  (I brought Art Spiegelman’s WORDLESS! to the University of Chicago this past winter; it was great!)

I wondered if you could, for the record, restate your response to the criticism of the Chicago symposium. I think your defense is important -- do you worry about canonization and exclusion? It's a function of any event that not everyone gets invited, but are the ramifications of such groupings of concern to you?  It was, I think, the whiteness of the panel, omission of Hernandez Bros, and the idea that it was a conservative canon-making. And finally, what's next?

About the whiteness of the conference (and it wasn’t entirely white, but largely so): I appreciated Keith Knight’s comments a lot, and I also appreciated, in the follow up, his thoughts on how diversity in the comics field is growing.  The conference website (for which all of the editorial content was written by me) states that the conference "brings together 17 world-famous cartoonists whose work has defined contemporary comics.”  That is a true statement, in my opinion, for everyone who was invited. But it doesn’t mean that I think they are the only cartoonists whose work has defined contemporary comics, by any means.  It would have been fabulous to have more people up there, and more non-white faces up there.  If I could have gotten the funding to pull off an even bigger conference and invite more people, I would have!! I asked people I knew, who I had worked with or interviewed or met before. It’s a pretty white crowd, but not intentionally so!

I love the question about the omission of the Hernandez Bros followed directly by the question about canon-making. Clearly someone has a canon in mind and it includes the Hernandez Bros.! I am not that worried about “canonization”; I am perhaps less than others are. I hope my work will inspire conversations, not parameters or classifications; I guess I always just assume that’s the case.  I adore the work of the Hernandez Bros. (particularly Jaime), but I don’t know them at all, have never met them in my East Coast/Midwest contexts, and haven’t had a chance to write about them (since my first book was about women creators and non-fiction). I wasn’t trying to build a canon, as I explain above—I was just trying to bring together a fantastic group of people I knew, and knew would have interesting things to say to one another.  As it was, having 17 people there almost knocked me out work-wise!  I wanted everybody to have the chance to talk to each other, and hear each other, so it was all plenary over 3 days; there were no concurrent sessions.

In terms of the idea that the conference was "conservative canon-making,” I’m not sure I know what “conservative” means here. Certainly Charles Burns’ work is not conservative, by any stretch of the imagination!  Phoebe Gloeckner’s work is not conservative.  Gary Panter’s work is not conservative. In my opinion none of the cartoonists who came to the conference do conservative work, politically or aesthetically.

To answer your general question about canonization and exclusion, I feel like I am open to all sorts of different groupings happening all the time.  I’m not trying to define a rigid field or space; the more voices and ideas the better.  That is to say, I’m not polemical about my own groupings, in Graphic Women or Outside the Box or the conference.  I write about work I care about, and I try to find a platform for discussions around it, in popular and academic writing and in events like the conference.  At some point, it is useful to look at trajectories and groupings and the ideas of “the field” (especially because what that is is so often up in the air and debated) but my version isn’t meant to be definitive. It’s one slice of the pie. I’m much more interested in staging conversations where people have a range of viewpoints than I am in propagating one idea of the field.  That’s why I loved moments at the conference when people actually disagreed (like with Mouly and Crumb).

The book I am writing now, for Harvard University Press, is called Disaster is My Muse: Visual Witnessing, Comics, and Documentary Form. I have been working on it for years.... And within the next month the special issue of Critical Inquiry on "Comics & Media" should be out! I co-edited it. It has transcripts of the conference, academic essays on comics and media, and new original work by 8 conference participants for the issue, including a new 2-pager by Kominsky-Crumb (yay! I was so psyched), a nine pager by Barry, a five-pager by Gloeckner.... And my first comics collaboration credit, on gag strips about Roland Barthes with Bechdel. Cover by Crumb... I am really excited about how it came together.

What's the brief description of your upcoming book?

From my faculty bio: My next book, on comics as documentary, will look at the post-World War II environment in which Art Spiegelman in America and Keiji Nakazawa in Japan concurrently developed comics as a form for addressing the fallout of war, as well as exploring current graphic reportage by figures such as Joe Sacco on the Balkans and the Middle East. And then maybe I would add something like: In asking why there are so many difficult, and even extreme world-historical conflicts portrayed in the form of comics, and how it came to be a site of documentary that is expanding as I write, this book is centrally occupied with the question of how war generates new forms of visual-verbal witness.