Review of Hillary L. Chute’s "Disaster Drawn: Visual Witness, Comics, and Documentary Form", commissioned by London Review of Books, unpublished. / by Rich Hobbs

"A Picture paints a thousand words" is about the hoariest of hoary old cliches

around. Then again, cliches only hang around long enough to become cliches

because they tend to be true. Both the truth and the potency of this particular

cliche lie at the heart of Hillary L. Chute’s "Disaster Drawn: Visual Witness,

Comics, [stet comma - it’s in her title] and Documentary Form", her

commendable attempt to argue that comics - cartoon strips; sequential

narratives; visual journalism; serial images; graphic novellas; bandes dessinee

or however else you choose to designate this stuff - are uniquely equipped to

provide witness to war and disaster. I commend her effort, because the

medium deserves both to be taken seriously and to be emancipated from its

jealous legion of fans in the Comic Confraternity. The trouble is that the

words "a picture paints a thousand words" kept repeating themselves again

and again in my mind as I struggled my way through the book.

Nonetheless, any argument for the primacy of pictures over written words is

compelling, because pictures pull serious rank by virtue of their seniority by

age. As one of the several ways humans make marks to mediate the reality

around us, recording and recreating it in what we’d now call "safe mode",

we’ve been drawing for at least 40,000 years. That’s roughly 34,500 years

longer than the earliest known writing. (Tellingly, the written marks we make

were initially a by-product of accountancy, systems of visual code mutated

from a tally stick.) It’s also, quite possibly, as little as 500 generations after

the emergence of spoken language.

Even so History - distinct from "pre-history" - is defined by the written record

of the last six millennia rather than by the much, much older drawn record,

and it’s obvious why. Writing, even when in the form of pictures attenuated

into pictograms, is a record of precise information, be it the requirements of a

Sumerian king’s kitchen or his relationship with his gods. But all you can

reasonably extract from the information provided by an Ice Age drawing or

carving of a walrus is that it’s a drawing or carving of a walrus, although you

can then speculate forever on why its creator drew or carved it, while also

being slightly in awe of that fact that she could do it in the first place.

This vagueness when gauging motivation and purpose, along with the

instantaneity with which we consume the visual (as opposed to the slowness

with which we read the textual) explains the suspicion with which visual

representation has been treated for millennia, by everyone from John Locke to

theological iconoclasts throughout History, which consequences from

Savonarola’s Florence to the offices of "Charlie Hebdo".

Then again, there’s different kinds of mediated visual witness. If drawing

outranks writing in seniority of age, it clearly outranks photography in spades.

And yet Delaroche’s famous declamation in 1839 on first seeing a

Daguerrotype, that "from today painting is dead!" has proved to be completely

wrong. The continuing valency of drawing lies in the way it mediates reality

through a human filter, and how it oh-so-humanly picks up impurities on the

way. It’s the way you tell a human from a replicant, that instinct that allows us

to distinguish the real from the pretend, although both eternally swirl around

us with equal intensity. Taking a disaster Chute almost entirely ignores, the

attacks on the World Trade Centre in New York on 11th September 2001 put

these differences in clear relief.

9/11 was probably the most visual event in human history. The next day every

British newspaper had pages and pages of photographs of the planes hitting

the buildings, the buildings burning, people jumping (to their deaths) out of

the buildings, the buildings collapsing and the burnt and broken bits of three

thousand real human beings billowing out over Lower Manhattan. The TV

screens were filled with practically nothing else apart from these images of

bodily desecration for days and days, and were counterpointed by millions of

words of analysis and conjecture and prophesy, written and broadcast. And the

only journalists - the commentators, the reporters, the witnesses, the what-

you-wills - who got it in the neck in the immediate aftermath of 9/11were the

cartoonists. Many readers complained that a cartoon on this topic was wholly

inappropriate; cartoonists were told by their editors to cover another topic

(there wasn’t one); their work was spiked, their strips were moved to other

sections of the paper; in the US some even received a knock on the door in the

middle of the night from the Feds under the meaning of the Patriot Act. Even

before other visual taboos kicked in - like the one against reprinting or

rebroadcasting images of those people leaping to their deaths once they’d

been individually identified - it became clear where the difference between a

drawn and a photographed visual witness of this disaster lay. It seems we

could just about stomach images captured by machines, but not those caught

and then recreated via a human mind. This is on top of the deep weirdness of

this act of mass murder being planned specifically to be spectacularly visual

by men whose religious dicta deplore most forms of visual representation

(apart, that is, from endlessly reproduced snaps of Osama bin Laden looking


The taboo against drawing this particular disaster seemed limited specifically

to cartoonists, by which term I include comic book artists. Although it only

gets a passing mention from Chute in her otherwise thorough analysis of his

work, Art Spiegelman’s post 9/11 comic book "In the Shadow of No Towers"

perfectly proves the point. Commissioned and published in "Die Zeit" in 2003,

in Spiegelman’s home city and the scene of the attacks, neither the New York

Times nor The New Yorker (where Spiegelman’s wife is the art director) felt

they could go within a mile of such insensitive/irreverent/provocative material

(again, take your pick of the most appropriate term), even though the New

York Times selected the subsequent book of the comic strip as one of their

100 notable books of 2004. Even as late as 2008, the US publishers of my

cartoon book "Fuck: The Human Odyssey" insisted I remove the 9/11 page.

In her detailed exploration of comic book witnessing of both the nuclear

bombing of Hiroshima in Keiji Nakazawa’s "I Saw It" and the Holocaust in

Art Spiegelman’s "Maus" all these themes - drawing versus photography, how

we look at things and what things we’re allowed to look at - coalesce in

Chute’s chapter on Joe Sacco, the Maltese/American cartoonist, specifically in

one chapter in his 1993 comic book series "Palestine", which is titled "A

Thousand Words".

Straight away in that title the comic strip is playing to one the greatest

strengths of the comics medium, something which it shares with others

cartoons - that they are neither text nor illustration, but both; and that the use

of captions can both augment and undermine the images. This kind of picture

is woven through with allusion, irony, cliche and the full baggage of popular

culture, the realm it inhabits, witnesses, chronicles, criticises and, as often as

not, mocks.

Anyway, the chapter then tells, textually and visually, the ongoing story of

Sacco himself during his two month stay in Gaza and on the West Bank

towards the end of the first Intifada. Accompanied by a Japanese

photographer, they encounter a demonstration of Palestinian women and

children which is broken up by Israeli police, and which Sacco photographs

with the camera he carries to take reference shots for his subsequent drawings.

Later on, a Palestinian photographer for an international wire service suggests

Sacco come into his office to develop the film, which leads Sacco off into a

riff fantasising about his photo making the news, in the sense of both being

broadcast to a wide audience and thereafter shaping the news agenda itself by

what he’s revealed through his act of witness. However, in the end none of

Sacco’s photos are considered to be any good, mostly because of his

standpoint. As another photographer explains in the final frames of the strip:

"See, if you’d been standing where this guy is standing, you would have got


Sacco straight away presents us with a maelstrom of ironies undercutting

ironies, language cliches curling in on visual ones. Which "standpoint" is "no

good", his physical or political one? What kind of pictures are his eponymous

thousand words worth? As with the visual witness to 9/11, the same

unperceived but understood fault line between the drawn and the

photographed leaves Sacco, the "comics journalist", with his photographs

rejected as no good by other "visual journalists". Worse, it’s because he hasn’t

"got faces", a failure he recognises as significant enough to be worth retelling

through drawing, although this is a digression from his primary intention,

which is to report on the condition of Palestine.

The getting of faces is what turns the drawing of cartoons and comic strips

into something much deeper and darker than merely making a visual record,

and it’s where drawing leaves photography standing. I only worked this out

myself when I drew Tony Blair’s then Director of Communications Alastair

Campbell from the life in May 2002 for a series of caricature portraits I was

producing for the walls of "The Gay Hussar" Hungarian restaurant in Soho. It

became increasingly obvious that he truly hated what I was doing - at one

point he shouted across the crowded restaurant "You just won’t be able to stop

yourself from making me look like a really bad person!" - because I was,

quite simply, taking control away from him by filtering his appearance

through the agency of my own consciousness and recreating it in caricature;

shape shifting him, in other words. What I was doing lay more in the realm of

sympathetic magic than either pure recording of his image or, as a caricature,

dabbling in a bit of light-hearted fun. You know, something funny for the kids.

The poignancy of Sacco’s role in his narrative lies in him recognising that the

potency of the visual journalism depends on getting "the faces", which he’s

failed to do. But he’s failed through photography, which is only his secondary

medium for "capturing" images and which he uses only because it’s quick. As

a "comics journalist" on the ground, he doesn’t have time to sketch the

backgrounds or sketch the action.

But what kind of journalist is he? The guy who draws "The Wizard of Id",

syndicated in newspapers worldwide, is just as much of a journalist as the star

columnist or the war correspondent. Or the crossword puzzle compiler, for

that matter. In Chute’s view Sacco is quite specifically the news-gathering,

war correspondent kind. But as what Sacco eventually filed from what he’d

witnessed took him two years to draw, it’s hardly hold-the-front-page stuff.

It’s also a specific kind of journalism, centred round and filtered through him

in some sort of gauche gonzoism. Making himself and his hapless immersion

into the circumstances of the Intifada the pivotal part of the story is a fairly

standard - if not cliched - journalistic trope. But what should we make of his

visual representation? Which, it should go without saying - or drawing our

attention to it - he produced himself. Sacco has a fine line, and a crisp, realistic

style, rarely involving that much caricature. When he depicts himself,

however, he shapeshifts into a big-nosed, comic book (Maltese, goy) nebbish,

whose glasses are as opaquely white as Little Orphan Annie’s pupil-less eyes.

Is this self-denigration implying, as an outsider, he can’t see what’s in front of

him until he’s compiled the textual and visual witness statements he then

depicts in the comic? Or that his journalism, filtered through his own head, is

untrustworthy because he can’t see out? Or is he just seeing what’s inside his

head (like the rest of us - the trick being in getting it out onto the paper)? Or is

he just nodding back to his comic book roots and, in their turn, their own roots

in newspaper cartoon strips, which include Little Orphan Annie?

While we’re still unravelling that lot, let’s return to the visual witness bit, the

core of Chute’s thesis. It’s clear that the purpose of Sacco’s work is to bear

witness, and to make us pay attention to that witness because of the medium in

which he’s chosen to bear it. Sacco actually taught himself to draw in order to

tell stories he thought were not being told in other media, most obviously in

newspapers and on TV. But in fact he’s hardly ever a witness to the atrocities

and the disasters he records: what he does instead is give visual form to the

aural witness he hears from others. This is what Spiegelman also does in

"Maus", which isn’t a documentary of his witness, but a memoir of him

recording his father’s witness to the Holocaust.

But even at secondhand the power of the visual recreation of the horror,

through drawing, screams at the reader (the looker, the observer, the

consumer, the spectator - Chute, like me, draws a blank on the correct words

for the way we take in these images). There are pages of "Maus" I can’t bring

myself to look at, any more than I can look at some of Goya’s etchings in his

series "Disasters of War". That’s probably because, in both cases, either at one

or two removes, the proximity to the unviewable and the unspeakable is still

far too close. As Chute observes, one of Goya’s etchings is called "I saw it", a

title Nakazawa borrowed for his initial manga about witnessing the atomic

attack on Hiroshima (though interestingly this one of Goya’s etchings, amidst

the images of dismembered corpses I can’t look at, merely shows people,

including toddlers, running in horror from something they see but we don’t).

It’s also significant that Goya etched his witness instead of simply drawing it:

it was created to be reproduced and distributed to share the witness, even if the

prints weren’t published until 36 years after Goya’s death. Although it’s not a

line of thought Chute chooses to pursue, it’s worth considering in what degree

Goya’s "witness" of war differs from Picasso’s "witness" in his painting

"Guernica". Does, or doesn’t, the almost infinite number of photograpic

reproductions of Picasso’s painting make it identical to Goya’s etchings? They

were created solely for the purpose of reproduction, whereas Picasso painted

one unique artifact that could not, through its own integral agency, be

reproduced, but nevertheless he created it, in black and white, to echo a

newspaper photograph. Along these same lines, in her chapter on Nakazawa

Chute reflects at length on the significance of how the visual witnessing of the

atrocity at Hiroshima is borne by the rubble of the destroyed city itself, in the

"shadows" left by vaporised human beings in a process not unlike


It’s salutary, considering all this, to compare the power of Sacco’s

"journalistic" work covering Palestine and Bosnia with "The Great War", his

2013 accordion-fold book depicting the first day of the Battle of the Somme.

In the "witness" work, many of the drawings are simply of Sacco talking to

rooms full of people or trudging through bleak, broken urban landscapes.

(When I interviewed Sacco on stage at the ICA in 2003 I referred to a

beautiful double page spread of a crossroads in a refugee camp and asked him

how he felt when he’d finished drawing it. "I danced round the room," he

replied, which makes perfect sense.) "The Great War", meanwhile, although

depicting far worse things, comes across more like some kind of Pity-of-War

Where’s Wally.

But this is where it gets truly weird. Despite neither of them having

themselves seen what they subsequently drew (in both senses) from other

people’s witness, being therefore the part of the process of creation they made

up in their heads, what both Spiegelman and Sacco draw is true. Remember,

moreover, that prior to being filtered through the artists’ heads, the events

have been filtered through the memories of their witnesses - in Nakazawa’s

case, his own memory, plus his family trauma, plus societal taboos against

discussing the nuclear bomb, plus the conventions of manga, and so on. And

yet despite these layers of filtration - or probably because of them - a deeper

truth emerges. As the great 20th Century political cartoonist David Low said

when he drew Albert Einstein from the life and Einstein complained that it

didn’t look like him, "it looks more like you than you do."

Some of which Chute gets, but a lot of which she doesn’t. Before dealing in

detail with "I Saw It", "Maus" and Sacco’s work, she recruits a great host of

character witnesses for her thesis about visual witness to war and disaster. I’ve

already mentioned Goya, to whom she adds Jacques Callot’s 1633 series of

prints "Miseries of War", which inspired Goya, and Otto Dix’s set of

etchings, "Der Krieg", which was inspired by him. Chute also brings in

Winsor McCay, the American newspaper cartoonist who created "Little Nemo

in Slumberland", presumably because he can testify for the operation of comic

strips as well as how to record disaster with his 1918 propaganda animation

"The Sinking of the Lusitania" (which he didn’t witness). Then there’s

Rodolphe Topffer, Harvey Kurtzman and "Mad" Magazine, Jules Feiffer, Will

Eisner, a nod to Robert Crumb and the occasional name check for Hogarth and

Gillray. "Krazy Kat" creator George Herriman gets a mention in relation to

way he influenced Spiegelman’s early work, and artist Philip Guston is roped

in to raise the tone.

But a glaring absence, in any study of the power of pictorial evidence of war,

is Ronald Searle. It’s not quite clear why she left him out. He, like Goya and

Dix, actually witnessed war and its horrors as a prisoner of war of the

Japanese, and then bore his witness visually. True, unlike them, and

countering my earlier argument about the need to bear visual witness in

reproducable form, he didn’t etch his record of Japanese war crimes as the

local circumstances mitigated against this. Instead, he managed to acquire

drawing materials while in Changai Gaol and working on the Burma Railway,

though had to hide his drawings beneath the mattresses of his fellow prisoners

who were dying of typhus or cholera, as these were the only places the guards

never searched. Had they found Searle’s work, he would have been

immediately killed. Searle’s later reportage should also qualify him, whether

it’s his work in refugee camps or his coverage of the Eichmann trial for "Life"

in 1961. Then again, perhaps his failure to produce sequential narratives

trumps everything else in Chute’s mind.

Or possibly she’s never heard of him. Her definition of the modern meaning of

the word "cartoon" hardly inspires faith in her capacity for reading widely

around the subject. I quote: [p51] "Cartoon comes from the Italian cartone,

meaning "cardboard"; it denotes a drawing for a picture historically intended

to be transferred to tapestries or frescoes. Later, cartoon came to indicate a

sketch that could be mass-produced, an image that could be transmitted

widely, as in the case of the contemporary cartoonists I discuss here, who

value the term’s mass-medium connotations." Even the briefest Google search

will tell you that the contemporary meaning of the word arose thanks to John

Leech’s "Cartoon No 1: Substance and Shadow", published in "Punch" in July

1843, showing a crowd of the London poor cowering from the rain in the

middle of an exhibit of the preparatory cartoons for the magnificent murals

intended for the new Palace of Westminster. The "marks" Leech had made

were no different in form or intent from what Gillray, Goya , Hogarth or

anyone since had made. But that’s the origin of the word, and has far less to

do with mass-producability, though that’s invariably a prerequisite, than with

the intention to be humorous or satirical.

That’s also where "Maus" came from. While Japanese Manga, including

Nakazawa’s work, is largely autochthonic, the word cartoon diffused out

through western culture to encompass both comic strips and comic books, and

then animation as well. Just like after 9/11, even though political cartoonists

were producing allegorical images where they swapped humour for pathos,

there remains a vestigial hum implying "funny"; even barely recognisable

mutations like superhero comics emit it, though often it’s then misheard to

denote "not serious" or "simply for kids"


The underground comics that spawned Spiegelman and Crumb were based in

just one joke: that you’d take the dull, controlled comics of 50s American,

gelded by the Comic Books Code after a moral panic about the harm such

trash was doing to the nation’s kids, and fill them with sex, drugs, violence

and filthy language. The first, three page version of "Maus" appeared in 1973

in a comic called "Funny Animals", the joke being that the Jews-as-mice and

Nazis-as-cats gag wasn’t funny at all, this being one of satire’s most potent

gambits. In short, the joke is that there’s no joke. Even then, "Maus"’s memoir

structure is based on the classic comedy dysfunction of Jewish

intergenerational family conflict, as Art rows with his dad as he tries to get

down his story, although here again the joke is that the joke isn’t funny. The

"cartoon" Art Spiegelman’s last word in the book, shouted at his father’s

house after finding out he’d thrown away all Art’s mother’s papers after her

suicide, is "Murderer!" In context, that’s about as black a joke as you can get.

Likewise, in Sacco’s work the visual vocabulary of his comic books,

particularly in his depiction of himself, is classic comedy - the loser out of his

depth, the schmuck making an ass of himself - although once he presents his

witnesses’ witness the joke becomes that there isn’t a joke anymore. Even the

disconnect between the form and its content is a kind of pratfall. The shock

delivered by the disconnect between the story of the Holocaust and the

medium of a zoomorphic cartoony comic book is what got "Maus" noticed in

the first place, and then acclaimed.

"Disaster Drawn", however, is a very very serious book. Chute doesn’t do

jokes. So far as I can tell, she doesn’t encourage irony either. Or maybe, when

she describes how Spiegelman set out to draw "Maus" in a much sparer,

bleaker style than its 1973 "Funny Animals" precursor, by using a Pelikan

fountain pen, she simply didn’t know that Pelikan provided the ink the Nazis

used to tattoo identity numbers onto the forearms of the inmates of

concentration camps. Though I bet Spiegelman does.

This might explain why she writes for pages about the vocabulary of

sequential visual narrative, about the role of the "gutter"; that is, the space

between the frames which separates the narrative whereby in one frame you

have things and people, and in the next frame you have things and people but

where time has passed. Who knew? She certainly expends thousands of words

describing what a child of five, reading "The Beano", understands

instinctively. (This is an important consideration: cartoonists of all stripes are

constantly told that our efforts in our "so-called" cartoons could be drawn by a

child of five; I usually respond that you shouldn’t under-estimate five-year-

olds.) Similarly, she interrogates cartoon strips like "Little Nemo" solely in the

way they structure unfolding narrative: the jokes, and the timing of the jokes

within the frames, seem of little or no consequence.

Maybe this is why Searle’s witness doesn’t count. After he was repatriated,

instead of producing a graphic novel about the atrocities he witnessed, he

recreated them, defused and controlled them by replaying them as St Trinian’s

cartoons, often directly quoting the earlier images of horror, of slave labour or

beheadings, for laughs. Searle’s first collection of gag cartoons was called

"Back to the Slaughterhouse".

None of which fits Chute’s central argument about comics’ power as media

for documentary witness. Then again, neither do the facts. "Maus" and Sacco

stand out because they’re different, and they’re different because sequential

visual narrative is not only the perfect medium for bearing witness to disaster,

but also to the adventures of Beetle Bailey, the Beckettian despair of Schulz’s

Charlie Brown in "Peanuts", the actions of characters in "June and

Schoolfriend", Billy Whizz, Johnny Fartpants, Swamp Thing, the

empowering over- compensatory revenge fantasies of poor, powerless immigrants in

"Superman", as fictionalised in Michael Chabon’s novel "The Amazing

Adventures of Kavalier and Clay" (which Chute acknowledges), the characters

in Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ genre-busting "Watchmen" and, for that

matter, Walter Shandy and Uncle Toby in my own 1996 comic book

adaptation of "Tristram Shandy". There, as elsewhere throughout the form,

words and images twists and dance round each other, along with irony, action,

horror and jokes.

Sadly, Chute has the zeal of a convert. As she told the Boston Globe in

December 2015, marking the beginning of her sabbatical at Harvard from her

chair in English at Chicago:

"I wasn’t particularly a fan of comics as a kid," said Hillary

Chute, a Cambridge native who later devoted her academic career to

their study. Instead, Chute read novel after novel, trying to understand

how narrative worked. Then she read "Maus".

"I became really obsessed with figuring out why the narrative

worked so well for that kind of story," Chute said. "I don’t think it’s a

coincidence that the most famous graphic narrative in the world, which

is ‘Maus,’ is about war and disaster. I’m still thinking about that

question, which is why I published this book."

Which explains a lot, and why she’s approached the subject from the wrong

end, looking at it upside down. Because I can’t help wondering who on earth

this book is meant for. An encomium from Chris Ware on the dust jacket and

several online interviews between Chute and Spiegelman suggest there are at

least some comics artists who are grateful for the attention of academia, and

are possibly even flattered by it: comics have demotic roots in the gutter press,

even when they’re masquerading as graphic novels the better to steal money

from mainstream publishers. There remains, however, a pretty massive chip

on the shoulder, which is what pricks the best work out of the medium’s most

brilliantly embittered practitioners.

Still, if they enjoy it, good for them. Personally I found the book

practically unreadable, and hence that mantra about a thousand words running

endlessly through my head. This is sad, as I revere the work she examines and

the artists who produced it. But perhaps this is standard procedure in Media

Studies, to take a globally popular form of communication, one particularly

attractive to uncommunicative teenagers of all ages, and analyse it into a

different kind of exclusivity through incomprehensibility. And maybe the best

way to do this is actually to steal the name of your subject from its previous

owners and twist it through language into total unapproachability. This, after

all, is the kind of bad magic cartoonists understand. Nevertheless, each time I

read Chute write the word "comics" and use it as a singular, I screamed. Out

loud. Every sentence thus burdened had the shit kicked out of any further

readability each time she did it. After a while the words on the page kept

blurring in front of my eyes, and all I could see in my mindseye was Professor

Chute marching off campus to her local comics shop, edging past the smelly

male adolescents thumbing through the latest adventures of Spiderman and

asking the long haired stoner behind the counter "Have you got any interesting

comicses in this week?"

A shame.