Chute's book shows the importance of factoring the panels and page layouts into the reading process.

hillary chute why comics art
Photo by Kris Snibbe

Classics Illustrated did a lot of damage. The series of comic book adaptations of canonical works of literature ran from 1941 to 1971, and they confirmed the suspicions of everyone who dismissed comics as kids’ stuff. They were perceived as short cuts around the heavy lifting involved in reading Melville, Dickens, or Dumas, and a lot of crucial material was lost in the process of boiling hundreds of pages of dense prose to 24 pages of comics. In her introduction to Why Comics? From Underground to Everywhere, Hillary Chute quotes Art Spiegelman’s de facto rebuttal to the detractors. In 1995, he said, “It seems to me that comics have already shifted from being an icon of illiteracy to becoming one of the last bastions of literacy.” 

Why Comics? illustrates that thought as Chute takes a close reading of works by some of the important comics creators of the last 40 years to see how they subtly speak in adult ways to adult concerns. The form may have been used historically to tell stories for kids, but that doesn’t mean it’s by nature kids’ stuff. 

She’ll be at Octavia Books on Saturday at 6 p.m. to sign the book and talk about comics. 

Recently, Chute and I talked about her relationship with comics for The New Orleans Advocate—growing up reading Tin-Tin, Asterisk, and The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers, the latter belonging to her sisters. “Later, it became clear that all of their adventures were about smoking marijuana,” Chute said, laughing. “I didn’t understand that as a child. They just seemed adult to me and therefore fascinating.”

See the Advocate story for more on Chute’s history with comics, her love of their rituals, and her lack of interest in superhero comics.

Harvey Pekar story (click the image to see in a larger viewer)


“The language of comics is so sophisticated and so intricate and so complex,” Chute said in our conversation. “Thinking about the way that panels and gutters and tiers and speech balloons work. The rhythm and size of panels, and the way time is allotted. It’s such a complicated narrative medium.” While we talked, we chewed a little on a one-page story from Harvey Pekar’s American Spendor comic, “Overheard in the Cleveland Public Library, March 21, 1977.” The page is illustrated by Gary Dumm and features the brief interaction as a guy asks a librarian for take on his poetry. When he feels brushed off, the librarian says, “Sir, there’s nothing wrong with writing poetry that rhymes.” 

As part of her breakdown of the story, Chute writes in Why Comics?

In the center of the page, Pekar and Dumm drop the panel borders to emphasize the librarian’s shock, and add the spiky lines, a staple of comics language that cartoonist Mort Walker named “emanata,” which indicate surprise. They also drop any speech or thought balloons—the panel is silent. Pekar, so attuned to rhythm, to jazz, often uses his sensitivity to music and to sound in general, to dramatic effect by removing it in his comics.

The page presents the mundane drama of a guy looking for something that the librarian can’t or won’t give him, and in her analysis in Why Comics?, Chute described the librarian as “encouraging.” That wasn’t how I read interaction. I look at the way the librarian is shaded and the non-committal look on the would-be poet’s face when she tells him, “Sir, there’s nothing wrong with writing poetry that rhymes” and don’t see a signal that tells me the response was sympathetic. I see it as gentle deflection, and when he says, “Well, thank you, m’am,” he recognizes that it was at least the blow-off was kind. Although Dumm draws the man as burly in most of the panels, he seems smaller in the final panel, bordered on three sides by walls of books. It’s hard to see in panel where he seems encouraged. 

The challenge word balloons present, as Chute says, is that we have to look for clues to know how to read the speech. As Pekar’s story illustrates, the words don’t tell us with certainty what lines or thoughts should get emphasis. It may be that when the man says thank you at the end, he’s being sarcastic. Or, he may be genuinely grateful for being taken seriously, which is what I thought was going on the first time I read the story. The reader decides if Pekar and Dumm are telling the story of a guy trying to bear one more low-grade defeat or of a tiny act of kindness.

“Comics is a form that benefits from re-reading,” Chute said. “I’m always telling my students, You have to close-read the frame. And what I love about comics is that it’s asking you to read these two elements—one verbal and one visual—together. I think Scott McCloud calls it a ‘duotextual form’ or some enticing piece of jargon like that.  I like to just call it ‘hybrid,’ but it’s making you participate in the creation of meaning through a process of looking and re-looking. And for me, asking readers to participate in that way is an exciting ask. The form is asking you to be a part of how you make meaning.”