#MondayBlogs – Disaster Drawn: Visual Witness, Comics, and Documentary Form.

Jacques Callot, The miseries of war; No. 11, “The Hanging”, 1632,

The following review was first published in The Spokesman Issue 133: Socially Useful Production

Hillary Chute puts forward a convincing and comprehensive argument that comics as a medium are perfectly positioned to act as documentary, as a form of witnessing, as a means of engaging and prodding history (particularly war-generated and traumatic histories). The artist is able to enter spaces that have previously gone unreported either due to censorship – there are no photographs from the torture chamber – or because many stories of ordinary lives have simply been ignored because they do not fit snugly into dominant ideologies.

Culture doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It is the product of a never ending struggle to make sense of the world and our lives. If there is one thing that links all people, no matter what our religion, gender, sexuality or postcode, it is war. We’ve been kicking the living shit out of each other for centuries for a whole variety of reasons. Therefore a central question throughout the book is how war generates new forms of visual-verbal witness. And this is what makes this account so important. It is the first sustained critical study of documentary comics.

To do this, Chute blends a mixture of cultural studies, semiotics (textual analysis), literary theory, case studies, history, and critical theory from the likes of Bernard Latour, Roland Barthes and Judith Butler, to ensure a compact genealogy of her subject matter. Although it is largely accessible in tone, you will have to dip into the dictionary on occasion as it can get a little academic at times, although nothing to put off a confident reader. And if you do get lost there are eighty pages of footnotes offering support.


Chute identifies key artists who specialise in visualising war and death from across the ages in Callot, Goya (see above), Nakazawa, Spiegelman and Sacco. To contextualise her arguments we are provided with key illustrations from each artist, all of which are analysed in precise detail to enable a better understanding of their approach. For example, we are taken back to the Thirty Years War via Jacques Callot’s aptly named The Miseries of War which captures the complete disregard for the suffering of others. “The force of its mode of witness is in its attention to observing and revealing endemic suffering on all sides of war” writes Chute, where even ruthless soldiers are “subjected to atrocious acts of punishment for committing atrocity.” The dog is not so much chasing its tail but ripping it to shreds. These intimate portraits position Callot as the “first great reporter-artist”. Chute then shows how Callot’s work would influence court artist Goya, whose eighty three etchings of atrocities in Disasters of War begin with haunting first-person modes of address. “This I Saw” or “This is how it happened” send shivers down your spine through their complete casualness.


Disaster Drawn positions contemporary comics as part of a long trajectory of works that have each informed and created new idioms, practices and typologies of expression. To fully understand their significance “the context of the text must be part of the reading of the text”. Let’s take 1972, which Chute defines as a crucial moment as this is when both sides of the globe came together to bear witness to the very worst atrocities of waring nations. In the East, Hiroshima survivor Keiji Nakazawa’s eyewitness account Ore Wa Mita (I Saw It) would spawn “atomic bomb manga” and break down cultural taboos that had previously induced silence surrounding the subject. While in the West, Art Spiegelman’s Maus would depict Nazism through a very personal secondary account of Spiegelman’s own family’s survival of the Poland death camps.

The reason that this new genre emerged at this historical moment is the previous decades had paved the way forward for greater openness and expression, thanks to the battles fought around identity politics (race, sexuality, gender) as well as growing anti-war protests across the world brought about by the latest war in Vietnam. These issues couldn’t be spun or swept under the carpet anymore, thanks to the mass ownership of television which brought all of this death to glorious life in colour on the screen. Critic Michael Arlen (1966) described this mediation as ushering in the “living-room war” and Chute argues that this led to other countries, particularly Japan, to reflect on the past. It is worth noting, however, as Jean Baudrillard has in his collection of three essays The Gulf War Did Not Take Place, that we’re become increasingly desensitized to violence and now instead we witness stylized, selective misrepresentations of conflict through simulacra. Television may have paved the way forward for documenting certain conversations around war but it now functions as a passive medium.


Comics on the other hand, particularly personalised accounts, bring a more human face to suffering and can push the conversation in new directions. Keiji Nakazawa was six when Enola Gay dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945. He was saved purely because a wall fell on him and protected him from the heat of the blast. His friend’s mother, who he had been stood next to, was instantly transformed into a blackened corpse. It was “violence so extreme it appears abstract.” I’ve read a lot about survivor guilt, particularly in the work of Primo Levi. But until reading this book I had never heard of survivors of an atomic bomb suffering stigmatisation due to cultural anxieties and misinformation. In Japan this is known as hibakushu (explosion-affected people) whereby survivors are treated like lepers.

Nakazawa’s mother was pregnant at the time and out of the city when the bomb was dropped. When she returned home the shock was so much she gave birth there and then on the street. The child didn’t last long. His mother died in 1966 and was cremated. It is a Japanese funeral practice, after a body has been cremated, for relatives to select major bones and place them in an urn. Due to the radiation, her bones had disintegrated. There was no tangible evidence left of her. Consequently, Nakazawa has made the atomic bomb the focus of his creative endeavours. His mother has become tangible by documenting her story. He has helped break down cultural taboos by daring to talk about them. He will not be shamed. Phew.

9780674504516Usually I judge a book by how long it takes me to read it and this book took a staggering five months. Usually this would be a bad sign but there’s a more pragmatic reason for my slowness at turning the page. I was so drawn in by stories such as Keiji Nakazawam, that I had to pause and go and read his, and the other featured artists, comics. So through one review book I ended up reading twenty. Talking of which, readers may want to try Hydrogen Bomb Funnies (1970) by Robert Crumb in which his character Mr. Sketchum writes a letter to Bertrand Russell, believing he may like what he has to say. He steps out on a glorious hot day and happily marches down to the post box full of hope. I won’t tell you the ending. Let’s just end on hope.




Graphic Novels and Literacy

ipadpaulThe following article was originally published in the August issue of the Southwell Folio. This is a magazine edited together by Penny Young which will sadly cease publication at the end of December.  

In 2014 I created an online graphic novel serial called Dawn of the Unread. The narrative conceit is that, incensed by the closures of libraries and low literacy in 21st-century Britain, Nottingham’s most famous dead authors return from the grave to wreak revenge. It’s at this point I should make a confession: I am not an expert in graphic novels. In fact, prior to the project I didn’t even read graphic novels. But it was the right medium for my target audience: reluctant readers.

As far as I’m concerned, illiteracy is a form of child abuse. And Britain’s never had it so good when it comes to this shameful social problem. According to a major study by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), England holds the unenviable title of 22nd most illiterate country out of 24 industrialised nations. The study involved over 166,000 adults and went as far as to suggest the potential threat of “downward mobility”, whereby the younger population is less well educated than the older generation. Not what you’d expect in the ‘Information Age’.

Literacy is a particular problem in Nottingham. Recent figures suggest six out of ten teenagers leave school without five A* to C GCSE grades, including English and maths. We were recently ranked worst in the East Midlands for level two SATs results with 77 per cent gaining a level four or higher, below the 79 per cent national average. It’s a right mess and it makes me furious which is why I decided to do something about it. But we’re getting somewhere. Dawn of the Unread was vital in Nottingham being accredited as a UNESCO City of Literature and was used as an example of best practice in how to engage youth through digital technology. The City of Literature has now become an educational charity, with improving literacy their number one goal. I’m proud to have helped contribute to this conversation.

There’s been much written about the diminishing attention spans of our ‘youtube generation’ so thrusting ‘complex’ books on them isn’t going to help. If teenagers reading levels are already low, Shakespeare will only frustrate them further. Instead, I’ve tried to create a thirst for knowledge. To tease, tantalise and inspire by creating a series of 8 page comics which offer snippets into the lives of our incredible diverse and rebellious literary heritage. By using a wide variety of styles (reportage, poetry, fiction, gallows ballad) and combining different writers and artists, I hope that one of the stories may appeal. And if teenagers go on to the library to get out books, it will be because they want to learn more.


So what is a graphic novel?

The term ‘graphic novel’ was first coined by Richard Kyle in an article for Capa-Alpha in 1964. But to be blunt, it’s just a means of making a comic sound more respectable. There is a prevailing attitude that comics are a form of dumbing down reading and that they are somehow inferior to literature with a big (or little) L. But having edited together 16 issues of Dawn of the Unread I can assure you that comics are anything but simple.

A comic is a kind of creative production line which involves: a writer, artist, colourist and letterer. The writer and artist are co-authors of the text and it’s vital that both get to express themselves equally. Therefore a writer must not be over descriptive as a broad range of ideas can be illustrated by the artist. The style of the artist can also reflect the theme of the story. I selected Carol Swain to illustrate the life of Alan Sillitoe (issue 12) because she draws in rough crayon on textured paper. What better way to subtly reflect the gritty realism of Sillitoe’s writing?

Each page of a comic consists of a limited series of panels (frames) which function to create a sequential pace to the story. This helps you feel the action unfolding and is similar in purpose to a storyboard. How characters react in frames offers a further layer of meaning too. The Gotham Fool (issue 4) is the tale of a group of people who feigned madness in order to avoid building a highway for King John. At the time madness was perceived to be contagious. Labels are a means of reducing identity to one fixed point, so we reflected this in the art by the way characters are not constrained by panels. They break out into the gutter (the space between panels), suggesting a degree of freedom.

05-01Colour is also an important signifier of meaning. When we created the charismatic hybrid Byron Clough (issue 5) we used bright colours and thick black lines, just to stop verisimilitude and reinforce that he was imaginary. Likewise the use of font (letterer) can capture the essence of a character. In issue 11 we explored Geoffrey Trease’s debut novel Bows Against the Barons which features Robin Hood. The font is sharp and crisp, as you would expect from a master archer.

By making Dawn of the Unread available online I was able to utilise the potential of digital technology by including embedded content. This means that when you click on a star icon within a panel it provides contextual information, such as essays. This helped facilitate more insightful discussions for more confident readers who wanted to go deeper into the text. As far as I’m aware nobody has done this before.

Finally we created an App that enabled users to ‘play’ Dawn of the Unread. This consisted of a series of tasks, bringing in a gaming element to our project. By using a wide variety of styles and storylines, making the comic available across media platforms, and providing different narrative routes through the text, I hope that there is something for all types of readers.

There will be a book launch for Dawn of the Unread as part of Nottingham’s Festival of Literature on 11 November (7.30- 9pm) Antenna, Beck Street, Nottingham. Tickets are £5 but you get £3 off a book.