Oberlin Alumna Academizes Comics as Contemporary Literature

Grace Pullin

Professor Hillary Chute of the University of Chicago gave an illuminating presentation last Thursday on a topic that was perhaps untraditional for the English Department. As part of the Oberlin Lectures in English & American Literature series, Chute discussed her personal and professional history with graphic narratives, the term she prefers to the common misnomer “graphic novel.” Aside from Chute’s anecdotes and interesting insights into the world of comics, the lecture directly addressed her field’s at times uneasy and often questioned position within the discipline of English, as well its general place within the formal academic sphere.


Throughout the lecture, Chute contextualized her study of the graphic narrative within her interest in shaping and writing public and private histories. While an undergrad at Oberlin — an experience she recalled fondly and comically throughout the night — Chute studied contemporary American literature. It wasn’t until grad school, when she was assigned to read Art Spiegelman’s Maus, that she discovered the graphic narrative and developed an interest in the medium as a means of narrating autobiographies and works that dealt with traumatic history. Since that realization, Chute has effectively pioneered the field of graphic narratives through her studies of the relationship between image and word in comics and its unique ability to register temporality in a visual form.


Chute’s professional success in the last decade speaks to the continuing legitimization of comics as a own unique medium; she has published her work in various literary journals, including Modern Fiction Studies and Publications of the Modern Language Association of America, as well as in her own books, Graphic Women: Life Narrative and Contemporary Comics and Comics Form and Narrating Lives. She also personally introduced the graphic narrative into the curriculum of the University of Chicago’s English department.


Still, Chute went to great lengths to convince her audience of comics’ legitimacy and growing popularity. She called upon two canonical graphic narrative texts, Maus and Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home, to illustrate the significance of her work and its important place in popular culture. Oberlin has also championed the two authors for their work, especially Bechdel, an Oberlin alum who returned to speak last spring. In the context of Chute’s talk here, her efforts to summarize and reassert the canonization of Maus and Fun Home seemed slightly tedious and unnecessary for the audience.


However, Chutes’s accounts of working with Spiegelman and Bechdel were both enlightening and amusing. She spoke extensively about her experience collaborating with Spiegelman on MetaMaus, offering insights into the nature of the archival process and the challenges associated with researching the personal artistic practice involved. Similarly, she discussed her friendship with Bechdel — the origins of which she credits to their mutual affection for Oberlin — as well as the work they did together at U Chicago while Bechdel was a Mellon Fellow there. She shared rare insight into her friends’ identities as both artists and intellectuals, elaborating on the theory and histories with which they attempt to engage in their work. With a distinct focus on their belabored writing and drawing processes, Chute related their work and her experiences with the authors back to her own interest in the complex nature of the visual in the medium.

Chute’s accounts of recent projects included “Comics: Philosophy and Practice,” a conference she arranged that included the likes of R. Crumb and Charles Burns, and a course she taught with Bechdel on autobiography in which each student was asked to write a graphic narrative and share it with the class as their final project. They gave a strong impression that she is committed to innovation. Since delving into the theoretical side of comics, Chute has expanded the field and introduced new ways of understanding, teaching and talking about graphic narratives. Toward the end of her lecture, Chute mentioned that she had spent the previous year as a visiting scholar at the American Academy of Arts and Science; I found myself hoping she might take up a visiting position at her alma mater at some point, and bring her creative energy and ingenuity along.