Hillary Chute is probably today’s premiere scholar of comics, so it’s no surprise that Why Comics? From Underground to Everywhere, her carefully researched analysis of this often-neglected art form, reads like a social and cultural history of the United States over the past 80 years. However, while the tome might well be used as a textbook, Chute is an accomplished prose stylist, and the many comics — a number in full color — that illustrate her argument make for an invigorating reading experience.
Chute’s history begins in earnest with the 1938 introduction of Superman in the first issue of Action Comics. The history of comics is full of ironies, so it should come as no surprise that Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, the creators of one of the most famous characters on the planet, sold the rights to their work, in perpetuity, for $150. In 2014, a mint copy of their first comic was auctioned for more than $3 million, and of course they and their heirs have missed out on the hundreds of millions of dollars the various incarnations of Superman have generated over the intervening decades.
Fortunately, not all cartoonists have fared so badly. R. Crumb of “Keep on Truckin’” fame and his wife Aline Kominsky-Crumb live in a huge home in southern France; Harvey Pekar was the subject of a film, American Splendor, starring Paul Giamatti; and Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home was made into a Tony Award–winning musical. Yet it’s artists on the edge of popularity, those who push boundaries and get themselves into trouble, that seem to interest Chute the most.
The book’s chapter titles are phrased as questions, which the chapters themselves attempt to answer, usually by zeroing in on one cartoonist who has had a significant impact in that particular area. The chapter entitled “Why Disaster?”, for example, discusses comics’ ability to cut to the heart of horrifying issues with a few well-drawn panels, and focuses on Art Spiegelman’s Maus. “Why the Suburbs?” looks at the brilliantly depressing comics of Chris Ware, while “Why War?” examines the “comics journalism” of Joe Sacco, highlighting his masterpiece about the Bosnian War, Safe Area Goražde.
While some squeamish readers may be put off by the violence and sex on display, overall, it’s hard to imagine a more entertaining and insightful introduction to this constantly evolving world than Why Comics?