Kominsky-Crumb. Gloeckner. Barry. Satrapi. Bechdel. Some of the most well-renowned contemporary female comic artists are all featured in the book Graphic Women: Life Narrative & Contemporary Comics by Hillary Chute, published by Columbia University Press. Chute, an associate professor at University of Chicago (and who helped edit Art Spiegelman’s MetaMaus), has written one of the only books out there that specifically looks out how female comic artists tell their story through comics. (And it features a killer cover design by Israeli comics artist Rutu Modan.)
Focusing on one author per chapter–Aline Kominsky-Crumb (Twisted Sisters), Pheobe Gloeckner (A Child’s Life, Diary of a Teenage Girl), Lynda Barry (One Hundred Demons), Marjane Satrapi (Persepolis), and Alison Bechdel (Dykes to Watch Out For, Fun Home)–Chute examines how each of these women uses comics as a medium to relate their (often troubled) stories.
Although the text is most definitely academic (“The gap that is kept open between this particularized narrative and the spectrum of women the book presents visually, proposes space for both possible connection and disconnection”), you shouldn’t be put off by its drier sections. I found that the graphic description, gender commentary, and comics history (how Aline Kominsky-Crumb, for example, was received by her partner R. Crumb’s fans) make up for the more theoretical sections, as do the back-of-the-book notes. I was constantly flipping between the chapter at hand and these little details that really enriched the artists and their work on the page, for example, the following quote from Lynda Barry on doing readings with her longtime friend (and Simpsons/Life in Hell creator) Matt Groening:
Matt’s stuff and my stuff was really different, and if you’re gonna have a book that’s very clever and really funny and talking about people’s difficult situation at work, or you’re going to have a book that’s about horrible things that happen in childhood, there’s gonna be one that has a long line, and another one that has a shorter line.
Chute’s thorough descriptions of the images are great for someone who isn’t familiar with the work of any of the authors. And although Graphic Women includes images from their respective works, it will still make you want to run out and discover (or re-read) the work of these women.
One theme that runs throughout the book though, isn’t about art or comics. It’s about trauma. Be it political, sexual, or removed, the book really drives home that these women are picking up the pen to tell a deeply troubling story, and the varied ways that they approach it–or subvert it, or skirt it–ultimately transform trauma into rich storytelling.
For example, the book relates Phoebe Gloeckner’s account of how she was disinvited to be the graduation keynote speaker at a New York high school a week before commencement because the principal had just seen her work (which graphically addresses child abuse and sexual assault). “It was like an arrow going through my hear, because I knew that those kids needed to hear from me,” Gloeckner said. Books like Chute’s are important because they precisely reveal the art and story behind the sometimes-shocking imagery. While some see Gloeckner’s Childhood erroneously as “pornographic” (but not, as Gloeckner herself notes, as entirely unarousing), Chute’s handling of the text treats it as the work of art (and social commentary) it is, complicating what seems simply black and white on the page.
And as one of the only texts out there that centers female cartoonists while analyzing comics from an academic standpoint, it’s a great read for comics buffs and scholars alike.