Chute goes 'Outside the Box' in new book on contemporary comics

Since joining the University of Chicago faculty in 2010, Hillary Chute quickly established herself as the campus’ resident comics expert. In addition to co-teaching a course on comics and autobiography with famed cartoonist Alison Bechdel, Chute organized a conference through the Richard and Mary L. Gray Center for Arts and Inquiry, which brought together the world’s leading cartoonists for three days of public conversation. The events of that conference are documented in a special issue of the journal Critical Inquiry, which Chute co-edited with colleague Patrick Jagoda, assistant professor in English Language and Literature and the College.

Chute, associate professor in English Language and Literature and the College, interviewed many of those same comics luminaries—including Bechdel, Lynda Barry, Daniel Clowes, Joe Sacco and Chris Ware—in her latest book, Outside the Box: Interviews with Contemporary Cartoonists, published by the University of Chicago Press. Chute spoke to us about the book, her scholarly work on comics and going all “fangirl” over Daniel Clowes. 

Tell me about the group of artists you chose. Why were you interested in them as a group, and what do you think defines them?

These are people that I have been researching, studying and talking to for my own work and my own thinking over the years. Four of the people I interview, I wrote scholarly book chapters on in my book Graphic Women. Many of the people interviewed in this book came to the “Comics: Philosophy and Practice” conference at the University. These are the people who are setting the terms for the field right now. It's so exciting to be talking to them and having them describe their practice.

This book shows there’s a continuum between scholarly thinking about comics and the kind of writing that would happen in places like the Believer or the Times or the Village Voice. A lot of the intellectual threads are the same in differently marked venues. That's one of the things I find so productive about studying comics—it really pushes on a lot of categories of what’s mainstream and what's esoteric and what’s academic and what’s intellectual. All of these artists bring those issues to the foreground in a really interesting way. 

You’re studying people who are still alive and can tell you if they think you’re right or wrong about their work. Is that a challenge? Are there times when your interpretation of an artist’s work is at odds with their interpretation of their work?

My great model for all of this is Art Spiegelman, because he and I worked on a book called Metamaus for five or six years. He was the cartoonist with whom I first developed a serious intellectual rapport and a serious working relationship and a serious conversational practice.

The thing that was so great about Art is that he was open to disagreeing with me about stuff. He was very intellectually generous. He obviously is the author of his work, and I’m just a person who is studying it, but we would have conversations where we were disagreeing about what we felt the importance of a certain page was. We had a very productive exchange, where we were coming at the work from different angles.

It’s always a little bit scary when you are writing about people who are still alive and you worry they will disagree with you, but I’ve found in practice that people are pretty open to a different point of view. So many of these cartoonists are so articulate about their own work, but it’s important to keep in mind that their voice is ONE among many—even about their own work. 

What appeals to you about the interview format?

I’m really interested in theory and practice—and how theory and practice inform each other. It’s really hard to understand that relationship between theory and practice if you don't know how a person works.

I went to the studios of a lot of these people for the interviews, and that was invaluable. Interviewing artists allowed me to actually learn about their production practices firsthand, in a way that I wouldn’t have access to if I were just a critic writing from a distance. That just seemed totally key to me.

Even little things—like, Art Spiegelman did Maus at a one-to-one ratio, so that the size he drew it is the size you see on the printed page. That’s atypical. To know something like that and think about why he did it makes a world of difference in trying to conceptualize what Maus is doing. Alison Bechdel poses herself in reference shots for photographs she then uses to draw from. Nobody else I talked to in the book does that. So what does that mean about her view of archives and putting her own body back into spaces of the past that she’s trying to visualize for readers? 

Once you get into the process of talking to people, they open up to you about things that aren’t necessarily significant to them, but are incredibly evocative. You realize how the interview format and having this rapport with another person brings out details that make a work snap into focus.

There seems to be something like a canon emerging in comics. How do you feel about that?

I’m totally un-anxious about it. Comics are so energetic and so vital and have been for so long. There’s just no danger of an academic course sapping the energy from contemporary comics. In a way, it’s touching that people think that an academic canon has that much power or prominence. 

To me, the debate about canons can only be good because it generates conversation. To me, a canon isn’t a stable thing. A canon is always shifting. It’s not like I’m trying to create a canon with a capital “C.” What I’m trying to do is to bring the work of the artists I love to the foreground of conversations that I happen to be a part of—about artistic practice, about memory, about narrative, about word and image studies.

When did you get interested in comics?

I remember my mom gave me a Lynda Barry novel when I was in middle school, and I read it over and over and over again. I loved Daniel Clowes’ Ghost World. The only person in this book I’m in danger of being a fangirl around is Daniel Clowes. I remember lying in bed with my best friend in college, and we were snowed in and reading Ghost World and freaking out—like, “How is he so good at understanding girls?!”

I didn’t have a huge exposure to comics, but the ones that I read were sufficiently fascinating that I went looking for more. 

I was really lucky to read Maus in a contemporary literature course in graduate school. That was in the year 2000, and I haven’t stopped writing about it or thinking about it since. I've been studying Maus for 14 years, and I still feel like I haven't “solved” it. My interaction with one really generative text got me interested in comics as a form. 

What do you think has been the impact of the “Comics: Philosophy and Practice” conference you organized?

I co-edited a special issue of Critical Inquiry with my colleague Patrick Jagoda in English. It’s called “Comics & Media,” and we’ve been working on it basically since the conference in 2012. It’s an issue inspired by the conference and also archiving all of the events of the conference. 

I'm incredibly excited about this issue because it reflects a lot of the energy that’s been continually generated since the conference happened. It's a unique issue in the history of Critical Inquiry because the format is different. It is about theory and practice—in the same way the conference was about theory and practice. 

One of the things I heard back about the conference is that people were inspired by and really happy about the fact that the artists got the central platform. There weren’t academic papers about the artists; the artists came and spoke with academic interlocutors about their work, but no one voice was prized. The artists were setting the terms in conversation with curators like Hamza Walker or with faculty in English, Art History and Sociology. The issue of CI has illustrated transcripts of those conversations. It also has three essays about media theory, and it has three essays about comics including two by film theorists. 

The issue itself is enacting the conversations between theory and practice. You have an essay by Tom Gunning and you have a nine-page comics piece by Lynda Barry, and they're sitting next to each other in this issue. I collaborated on a one-page piece with Alison Bechdel. It was my first time working on a comics piece as an author. It's a series of gag strips about Roland Barthes.

There’s a world of superhero comics and a world of web comics, but you seem particularly interested in this kind of comic that is largely handmade and flourished in the “zine” era. What is it about that era and that style that you find interesting?

Part of what I love about comics is all the attention that comics makes the reader spend thinking about the material object and embodied reading through things like foldouts and turning the book around and squinting at the book. 

Comics—and the graphic novel and the graphic narrative more generally—is really keeping the book as object afloat in the 21st century. A lot of these books can’t be formatted for e-readers at all. The story starts on the cover. The endpapers are significant. Often, the table of contents page is narratively and graphically significant. The book is the whole object, and the narrative is the whole object. 

A lot of the comics that I care about inhabit themselves totally as printed objects. Comics really bring this to a contemporary reader’s attention in a way that other formats don’t.