Hillary Chute on Graphic Narratives

HillaryIn the Browser:

I’ve just spoken to Tom Gauld about comics. But, whereas Tom Gauld is a cartoonist, you have been studying cartoons, or graphic novels, from a theoretical, academic point of view: a new discipline and you’re at the front of it. So where should we start?

Well, I wouldn’t call them graphic novels. I’d call them graphic narratives or comics, because all of the stuff I’m interested in is non-fiction, so ‘graphic novel’ is simply a misnomer for this kind of work. Also, it’s a publishing, marketing term and a lot of cartoonists don’t like it. It seems like a kind of shallow bid for respectability. So let’s say comics.

You’ve chosen Fun Home by Alison Bechdel to start with. What’s it about?

Alison has a strip that’s been running for a long time called Dykes to Watch Out For, but this is an autobiographical book. ‘Fun Home’ is short for the funeral home Alison’s dad ran when she was a child. It’s a book that blew me away and continues to blow me away every time I read it – and I must have read it five or six times by now: probably the best book I’ve read in the past ten years in any genre or form. It’s an incredibly crafted book in which the chapters are not chronological but thematic, and each chapter is keyed to a book that her father loved. So it’s not a book about what happened to her father, a closeted gay man who committed suicide a few months after Alison herself came out when she was 19. It’s about looking through a family archive to try and get a sense of her father’s particularity.