by Alex Belsey
Published by Belknap Press, 2016 | 376 pages
This has been a year of disaster. Hurricanes plundered coastal cities. Campaigns of ethnic cleansing erupted. Gunfire pelted down from hotel windows. Men in collared shirts marched with lit torches.
To acknowledge such disaster is a moral imperative. But before one can respond, one must first bear witness. To bear witness is not merely to look and see. To bear witness is to pause, to take in, to engage with, and to contemplate empathetically. In Disaster Drawn: Visual Witness, Comics, and Documentary Form, Hillary Chute’s masterful exploration of the portrayal of various disasters within the comic and graphic novel forms, we encounter an argument for the role of hand-drawn and captioned images in the bearing of witness to violence. In her construction of a new genealogy of comics, Chute transforms not only the way we conceive of comics, but also the way we engage the tragedies unfolding around us.
Since the advent of the photographic record, for critics such as Roland Barthes and Susan Sontag, who witnessed the normalization of photography as a tool for war reporting, government documentation, and propagandistic advertisement, the photographic image was the central medium of mediated political witness. While championing photography’s power to make visible distant events and realities, critics simultaneously disputed the notion of the photograph as bearer of objective witness. Photographs can, for example, have unintended emotional effects on their viewers, as Barthes explored at length in Camera Lucida; they can also, as Sontag argued in On Photography, reproduce and reinforce dehumanizing forces by turning human suffering into a commodity to be circulated.
In Disaster Drawn, Hillary L. Chute investigates whether other forms of visual representation – in particular, the hand-drawn image – might offer alternative forms of bearing witness. In order to show how the comics medium produces alternative forms of mediated political witness, Disaster Drawn pursues two principal routes. First, Chute produces an expert guide to how comics work as a witnessing medium. Her formal analysis draws on an extensive genealogy of newspaper and underground comics dating from 1830 to the present, and amounts to a capacious theoretical toolkit from trauma and genocide studies. In so doing, Chute demonstrates how “picture writing” became “a language in which the snaking lines of history could be legible,” making accessible and immediate images of human suffering. Secondly, Chute constructs a vivid history of “visual witness” comics. Positioning the year 1972 as a pivot point—the year that both the Hiroshima survivor Keiji Nakazawa and son-of-a-Holocaust-survivor Art Spiegelman published their earliest comic works of witness—Chute traces disaster drawing both back to the war etchings of Jacques Callot (1592 – 1635) and Francisco Goya (1746 – 1828) and forward to the contemporary work of “comics journalist” Joe Sacco.
Drawn images of war are as old as human artistic practice. But the complex text-image relationship that is unique to comics emerged as a clearly articulated artistic form somewhat more recently. In Francisco de Goya (1746–1828)’s work, in particular, Chute locates the origin of the key innovation that distinguishes comics as a medium: the elevation of captions to a status equal to the images they accompany, such that they can disrupt or counteract, as well as simply describe, those images. Examining a Goya image in which “the genitals of a stripped dead man who is suspended upside down are sliced off by a group of soldiers with a large sword,” Chute writes that “the black gulf between his legs, held wide open by French troops, pulls our eye in, as the direct center of the page above the caption.” The text reads simply, “What more can one do?” In this way, Chute argues, Goya forged a new visual mode of witnessing violence, and earned the priviledged designation of being the first “comics-reporter.”
Disaster Drawn’s analysis of the contemporary “comics journalism” of Joe Sacco (born October 2, 1960) shows the importance of hand-drawn comics as a means of documenting violence, even in our age of omnipresent cameras. Like Goya, Sacco has committed himself to drawing mostly in a realist mode, portraying ghastly scenes of execution and genocide. At the same time, influenced by the New Journalism of the 1960s, Sacco uses comics to reveal the flawed subjectivity that is inherent to any reporting project. Sacco constructs elaborately drawn scenes that might juxtapose narratives from different times and spaces, or use the composition of text on the page to emphasize certain aspects of a journalistic narrative. In her analysis of a single page of Sacco’s Footnotes from Gaza, Chute notes how he juxtaposes three illustrations of massacred Palestinian bodies: from above, from a helicopter’s eye-view, and in extreme close-up. A perceptive reader-viewer will note the same thick eyebrows and moustache on one victim as on the face of the survivor who, in another part of the drawing, is shown telling the story to Sacco. In addition, as Chute points out, the composition of Sacco’s page self-consciously mimics Goya’s own painting of an execution, The Third of May 1808. The artist himself was not present at the shooting; he couldn’t have photographed it, and official records of the event are in question. However, Sacco’s drawings render visible the human bodies behind the conflict headlines that would otherwise remain hidden. Whether drawn by eyewitnesses or interviewer-artists, then, comics make possible the bearing of witness of things that those in power too often attempt to redact and censor.
One of the most revelatory objects that Chute examines is itself a drawn response to a censored history. Published the same year as the earliest stories that would become Maus, Keiji Nakazawa’s Ore Wa Mita / I Saw It is a work of “atomic bomb manga.” As a first-grader, Nakazawa survived the bombing of Hiroshima. Most of his family did not. The images from I Saw It, reproduced in vivid color in Disaster Drawn, are grotesque: “bodies with flaps of dissolving skin dripping off their frames, eaten faces without eyeballs, and bald, burning women,” as Chute describes them. Such witnessing was anathema in 1970s Japan, which censored post-war images and ostracized bomb survivors. In manga form, however, both I Saw It and Nakazawa’s subsequent work Barefoot Gen were able to penetrate the tight-lipped post-War public culture, spurring national and international conversation about atomic destruction.
Nakazawa’s hand-drawn images of bodily mutilation and destruction exemplify, Chute argues, the comics medium’s capacity for representing the body on two distinct levels: drawn pictures of the cartoonist himself, and the undeniable presence of the artist’s own hand, producing pictures made without machines. In I Saw It, the camera is analogized to the atomic bomb; it is a flash of light that leaves a frozen, shadowy image behind it. Pen-and-ink drawings, on the other hand, show images of Hiroshima as they are constructed by a living resident with his own hands, not seen through a pilot’s scope. Thus, Nakazawa’s art, unlike (censored) domestic photographs or U.S. aerial images, emphasizes the physicality of survival in the wake of dystopic violence, the undeniable truth of what happened.
Disaster Drawn, ultimately, insists on the ethical power of the comics form. Such a medium makes possible, as Chute puts it, the “concatenation of drawing, history, and ethics,” a combination which spurs viewer-readers to humanize both those portrayed and those doing the portraying. As such, Disaster Drawn should be read and taught alongside Chute’s predecessor’s works of photographic theory and criticism, both as a compliment and counterpoint. If Sontag’s On Photography cautions us to be skeptical of photographs of violence, to treat those pictures as potentially reproducing the disasters they represent, Chute’s work suggests something much more hopeful. As Chute’s readings of Callot, Goya, Nakazawa, Spiegelman, and Sacco argue, hand-drawn, textually-situated images have the power to make legible and accessible the suffering and pain of others.
If the contemporary world feels destabilized, shot through with disaster and the threats of a future even worse than the present, Chute’s book is hardly a balm. Nor should it be. On the contrary, Disaster Drawn explains how we can account for violence aesthetically without cheapening it or reducing it to spectacle, how we can represent it in language without anesthetizing it into abstraction or tactical evaluation. Instead, Chute demonstrates comics’ power to help us examine violence, witness its consequences and—ideally—begin to heal.
Cassius Adair is a writer from Virginia. He lives in Ypsilanti, Michigan.