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The Story Behind the book

Hillary Chute on using cartoons to tell real stories about war

David Wilson for the boston globe

“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,” Art Spiegelman’s groundbreaking work that blends word and image with family and world history.

“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.”


In “Disaster Drawn: Visual Witness, Comics, and Documentary Form,” Chute looks at more than 350 years’ worth of graphic narrative around war and conflict.

Contemporary cartoonists writing about the Middle East are part of “a really long, proud history,” she said, dating back to “newspapers during the Civil War when photography wasn’t as efficient for capturing images of war” and beyond that, to the Thirty Years’ War in the 17th century.

Chute, who teaches at the University of Chicago, is a visiting professor at Harvard for the spring 2016 term, where she will teach comics as literature. “The narrative takes place or unfolds through the relationship between words and images,” Chute said.

“Because it’s a narrative form, literature is really one of the disciplines that should be paying attention.”

Some comics fans are wary of academics “trying to suck the vitality out of comics,” Chute said, adding that the form is “too vital” for that. “It can be a very sophisticated medium,” she went on. “But even people doing really sophisticated work right now are sort of proud of and interested in comics as a democratic form, an accessible form. That’s part of the reason it’s such a powerful form today.”


Chute will read 8 p.m. Thursday at Newtonville Books.

Kate Tuttle, a writer and editor, can be reached at kate.tuttle@gmail.com.