Paul Tremblay’s supernatural storytelling balances terror with psychological insight

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Ghost story season is upon us: Those hoping for the perfect balance of terror and psychological insight that makes for the most frightening reading should flock to “Growing Things,” Paul Tremblay’s new story collection.

Tremblay’s bestselling novels “A Head Full of Ghosts,” “The Cabin at the End of the World” and “Disappearance at Devil’s Rock” all play with the traditions of supernatural writing — ghosts, unreliable narrators, folklore, urban legend — and the strongest tales in “Growing Things” continue this exploration of what the genre can do. The disintegration of family, particularly of a father who once formed its center, crops up in many of these stories. In the title work, two teenage sisters hole up in their house, trying to avoid a green apocalypse that began in the soybean fields of the Midwest. Their father has disappeared, but not before warning them: “Don’t answer the door for anyone! Don’t answer it! Knocking means the world is over!” It’s one of the collection’s more conventional pieces — you can see where it’s going from the outset — but the last two lines still resonate with a “The Lady or the Tiger?” urgency. (The late, great editor Gardner Dozois once said that something like 90% of a story’s impact comes from its last line. Tremblay is an expert at them.)

Other stories also stick to the more well-trodden side of the tracks. The meth-head narrator of “Swim Wants to Know If It’s Bad as Swim Thinks” recounts her final breakdown to her daughter. In “Our Town’s Monster,” a real estate agent’s disclaimers to a young couple include “There’s a monster in the swamp. It eats cats and dogs; small, unwanted children, you know the type, and the occasional beautiful woman.” The titular heist of “The Getaway” goes awry with deadly, and uncanny, consequences for its perpetrators. Here, the more conventional grisly tropes are enhanced by Tremblay’s moody evocation of a decaying Worcester, Mass, and the despairing blue-collar workers abandoned there when its factories closed.

Tremblay’s best work probes the nature of horror fiction and those who write it. “Something About Birds” soars into terrifying heights. Ben, a diehard horror lover, interviews William Wheatley, a retired author of weird fiction whose final story, “Something About Birds,” exerts a disturbing power over his interviewer. (Wheatley’s name invokes that of filmmaker Ben Wheatley, whose “A Field in England” remains a highwater mark in modern horror cinema.) As a macabre souvenir from his favorite writer upends Ben’s life, we’re reminded that, in horror as well as fairy tales, no gift comes without cost. The story’s last line made my hair stand on end.

Tremblay continues his deconstruction of the genre with “A Haunted House Is a Wheel Upon Which Some Are Broken,” in which a family’s dissolution is recounted as a choose-your-own-adventure story. “Notes From the Dog Walkers” begins as a comic epistolary tale, but the amusing daily missives from a trio of dog walkers take a darker turn as one of them, KB, grows unhinged by an obsession with the dog’s owner — a writer whose body of work and taste in books seem not dissimilar from Tremblay’s own. KB’s long digressions suggest s/he may be more than just an ardent reader of horror, and also provide some of the collection’s more perceptive insights on the genre. KB’s references to the fictional author as “Mr. Ambiguous Horror” slyly send up Tremblay’s own ambitious forays into experimental narratives, represented here by less successful stories that bear the fingerprints of Mark Danielewski’s “House of Leaves” and Dan Chaon’s “Ill Will.”

Two of the collection’s standouts again hew to more conventional forms. The brilliant “It Won’t Go Away” features another horror writer in extremis. “It’s Against the Law to Feed the Ducks” ventures into Shirley Jackson territory, as a family vacation turns apocalyptic, though with a surprising, and uncharacteristic, glimmer of hope at the end.

“Why horror?” KB asks the unnamed writer, and proceeds to answer the question.

“You’ll … say it’s because of the hope of horror and it’s because of the horror of hope. You will not elaborate or explain or expand. Neither of us will be entirely sure what you mean, but we’ll think you’re close to a truth, and what else can we ask for?”

Growing Things and Other Stories

Paul Tremblay

William Morrow: 333 pp., $25.99

Originally published at the Los Angeles Times.

Movie monster maker Milicent Patrick finally gets her due in ‘The Lady From the Black Lagoon’

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As a teenager, indie horror filmmaker O’Meara became captivated by Universal Pictures’ 1954 “Creature From the Black Lagoon.” Its eponymous amphibian star — a scaled, humanoid figure fondly known to generations of sci-fi geeks as the Gill-man — was the last of Universal’s classic monsters, joining the studio’s pantheon alongside Dracula, the Frankenstein monster and his Bride, and the Wolfman, among others. The Gill-man was also, as O’Meara learned to her delighted amazement, the first — and at the time, only — movie monster to have been designed by a woman.

Yet as she researches her new creative crush, O’Meara’s delight swiftly turns to bewilderment and anger.

Patrick’s design for the creature had for decades been credited to Universal makeup artist Bud Westmore, who fired her rather than have her role in its success become known. “Milicent’s incredible life should have earned her an honored place in film history,” O’Meara fumes, and with good reason. “But few even recognize her name.” “The Lady From the Black Lagoon” sets out to right that wrong, as O’Meara goes in search of this mostly unknown, if perhaps ultimately unknowable, artist.

Born Mildred Elizabeth Fulvia di Rossi in 1915, the woman — who later became Milicent Patrick — was the middle child of three. When she was 6, her father, Camille Charles Rossi, a structural engineer, was hired to work on William Randolph Hearst’s vast California Central Coast retreat, La Cuesta Encantada, better known as Hearst Castle. Rossi soon became the project’s construction superintendent, reporting to Julia Morgan, California’s first licensed woman architect and the castle’s designer.

Like other children whose parents labored there, Mildred frequently visited this dreamland, with its 2,000-acre private zoo and constantly shifting human menagerie of celebrity guests. But her father seems to have navigated Hearst’s kingdom uneasily, fighting nonstop with Morgan, and was dismissed after a decade. In her diary, Morgan called him “unduly revengeful,” and the superintendent of Hearst’s ranch said that Rossi “seemed to glory in human misery.” He was, perhaps, the first monster in his daughter’s life.

A gifted artist, Mildred received three scholarships to Chouinard Art Institute, which served as an artist/animato incubator for nearby Walt Disney Studios. The school later became CalArts. In early 1939, she was tapped to work for Disney’s storied ink and paint department.

Staffed entirely by women, it was housed in a separate building on the Disney studio campus, where the so-called Ink and Paint Girls reproduced tens of thousands of animators’ drawings onto celluloid, a mind-bogglingly laborious process. As Patricia Zohn wrote in a 2010 Vanity Fair article, “their job was to make what the men did look good … at an average of 8 to 10 cels an hour, 100 girls could only, in theory, turn out less than one minute of screen time by the end of the day.” At Disney, Mildred worked as a color animator (then considered a special effects technique) on “Fantasia,” contributing to four sequences, including the legendary “Night on Bald Mountain,” where she created gorgeous color pastel animation for the demonic Chernabog — “the most magical Disney character” for O’Meara and generations of monster lovers.

Mildred left Disney in the wake of the 1941 animators’ walkout, a strike that irrevocably changed the way the studio functioned. But Mildred wasn’t among the strikers. At some point, she had embarked upon an affair with another Disney animator, Paul Fitzpatrick. His pregnant wife found out and killed herself and their unborn child. The tragedy left Mildred and Fitzpatrick free to marry, and also estranged Mildred from her family. When, after a few years, she and Fitzpatrick divorced, she took on the name Mil Patrick. At some point she refined this to Milicent Patrick. She claimed to be Disney’s first female animator — probably not true, but close enough — and further embroidered her background by saying she was an Italian baroness.

She certainly looked the part, as one can see in a promotional film and photos from her time at Disney — strikingly beautiful, with long black hair and a regal air that not even Ink and Paint’s utilitarian smocks could diminish. She continued to create art, including illustrations for a collection of off-color jokes, but mostly seems to have worked as a model.

Then, in 1947, she met William Hawks, brother of filmmaker Howard Hawks and also a producer. She began to get uncredited bit parts as an extra — water nymph, flashy woman, tavern wench — in mostly forgettable films. She became involved with actor Frank L. Graham, best known for voicing the lascivious Wolf in Tex Avery’s cartoon short “Red Hot Riding Hood.” A few months into their relationship, in September 1950, Graham committed suicide. His will contained a note that read, “To Mildred, I leave nothing except the pleasure she will have knowing that now she won’t have to decide whether I am good enough for her or not.” Also, a postscript: “Gee, I wish Mildred had called me back yesterday morning.”

By this point — nearly halfway through O’Meara’s book — readers may be thinking, “Gee, I wish we’d get to the Creature.”

This is the heart of O’Meara’s story, and it’s a good, if infuriating, one. O’Meara writes that, in 1952, while working as an extra on the Universal lot, Patrick met the head of the studio’s makeup department, Bud Westmore. (I recently came across a 1948 publicity photo online of Patrick holding the monster’s mask from the film from the same year “Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein,” with a handwritten note saying that she helped make the mask and also did its fine detail painting.) Westmore oversaw makeup for that earlier film, so it’s possible that Patrick met him at that time, and that Westmore was already familiar with her work when, in 1952, she was hired as makeup designer for the B picture that became “Creature From the Black Lagoon.”

Unfortunately, none of her preliminary or finished sketches seemed to survive.

But others familiar with the movie (including Chris Mueller, who sculpted the Gill-man’s mask) state unequivocally that Patrick designed the creature, a graceful, elegant and surprisingly sexy monster whose influence extends to Guillermo del Toro’s 2017 Oscar-winning homage, “The Shape of Water.” During previews, it became clear that Universal’s new monster flick was going to be a hit, its audience reactions fueled, no doubt, by an underwater pas de deux between the Gill-man and his female, human prey that still retains an erotic charge. The studio decided to capitalize on Patrick’s involvement and send her on a publicity tour with the tagline, “The Beauty Who Created the Beast.”

Westmore, known to be difficult and controlling with underlings, hit the roof.

O’Meara summarizes memos from the publicity team (they can be read in Tom Weaver’s in-depth “The Creature Chronicles,” one of O’Meara’s sources) detailing their battles with the makeup chief. The upshot: Patrick was sent out with masks of several Universal monsters, including the Creature, and was renamed “The Beauty Who Lives With the Beasts.” Even this wasn’t enough for Westmore. He struck Patrick’s name from the credits, replaced it with his own and, when she returned from her successful, nearly monthlong tour, had her fired.

At one point, O’Meara rages, “Several [people] expressed doubt that [Patrick’s] story could be more than an article, let alone fill an entire book.” The truth is, much of the book is padding, and it often reads as though it were written for a young audience, with long passages and footnotes explaining who Hearst was, what a scream queen is, and so on.

If Patrick left any diaries, journals, letters or the like, they’re not quoted from here, though O’Meara does speak with others intrigued by her history (including Mindy Johnson, whose 2017 “Ink & Paint: The Women of Walt Disney’s Animation,” delves deeply into the role of women in the studio’s early years).

But many specific details of her life as a working artist remain scarce.

O’Meara even visits the artist’s niece, who talks to her for hours about her aunt, and gives the author access to Tupperware filled with Patrick’s papers and ephemera. “The answers to almost all of my questions about Milicent were in these boxes,” O’Meara states, but she shares nothing of what she learns, except in the vaguest terms.

We learn that Patrick is “a friendly and warm person,” with “a warm personality,” “well-spoken, friendly and charming.” “Socializing was easy for Milicent,” and Graham’s suicide “caused her to lean harder than ever on her friends.” There are no interviews with friends, and no citations for quotes, including comments like “[Milicent] loved looking glamorous. It made her happy” or, “How marvelous that she refused to try to fit into the boy’s club [sic], that she was unapologetically herself,” or, later, that she was “beset by loneliness.”

O’Meara, unsurprisingly, identifies with her subject. Like Patrick and many other women, O’Meara has her own experiences of being harassed, abused and treated contemptuously by men in the film industry. Still, her book could use less of the author’s own rage and occasional fangirl gushing, however well deserved, and more about its subject, a woman whose father was said to “glory in human misery,” who knew firsthand the devastating effect of suicide, and who submitted a memo totting up the damage to her wardrobe for the Universal tour (amounting to nearly $4,000 in today’s money).

“One cocktail dress—completely ruined.

One cocktail dress—beading broken and lost.

One gabardine suit—shrunk and can’t be repaired.

One lace coat—burned, torn, and shrunk—ruined beyond repair.

One afternoon dress—torn but repairable.

One pair of earrings—cut in half by pub. man and stones lost.

One velvet blouse—torn, can be repaired.”

All of which makes one wonder if Patrick was accompanied on tour not just by masks but by the monsters themselves.

“Women are the most important part of horror because, by and large, women are the ones the horror happens to,” O’Meara writes.

“Women have to endure it, fight it, survive it — in the movies and in real life. Horror films help explore these fears and imagine what it would be like to conquer them. Women need to see themselves fighting monsters. That’s part of how we figure out our stories. But we also need to see ourselves behind-the-scenes, creating and writing and directing. We need to tell our stories, too.”

Patrick died in 1998, at age 82, largely forgotten except for a coterie of devoted fans. O’Meara has seen to it that she won’t be forgotten again. Her book is a fierce and often very funny guide to the distaff side of geekdom and reproduces photos and examples of Patrick’s work, many previously unpublished. That alone would be worth the price of admission to the world of this complex, brilliant artist.

The Lady From the Black Lagoon: Hollywood Monsters and the Lost Legacy of Milicent Patrick

Mallory O’Meara

Hanover Square Press, 351 pp, $26.99

Originally published at the Los Angeles Times.

For Stieg Larsson fans, a new voice — and an even darker side of Sweden

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It’s early to be pegging the year’s best books, but “The Wolf and the Watchman,” Niklas Natt och Dag’s stunning debut, is sure to be one of them. A longtime cultural columnist and blogger for Swedish magazines, Natt och Dag brings a reporter’s eye for detail to this feverishly dark historical thriller, first of a trilogy and published in more than 30 countries. Even readers inured to grim depictions of Sweden in the work of writers such as Henning Mankell or Stieg Larsson may be taken aback by Natt och Dag’s 1793 Stockholm, a hellish place that seems mired in the Middle Ages, despite the gradual encroachment of Enlightenment ideas.

The watchman of the title, Mickel Cardell, is one of the ragtag crew employed by the city’s police force to arrest vagrants, prostitutes, orphans and others who struggle to survive in Stockholm’s cesspit streets. A veteran who lost his left arm during Sweden’s ill-fated war with Russia, Cardell works at a beer cellar, where he keeps order with a carved wooden prosthetic — a formidable weapon for dealing with truculent customers. Very early one morning, he’s awakened from a drunken stupor by two children who have found a body in a nearby lake that’s little more than an open sewer.

“The waves lap against the shore, churning up a pale yellow froth. Something rotten — a dark lump — is floating a few meters out. Cardell’s first thought is that it cannot possibly be a human being.”

But it is, or was, a human being, so horrifically mutilated that it causes the hardened Cardell to experience a panic attack. The corpse is brought to the attention of Cecil Winge, a young lawyer turned investigator who works with Stockholm’s police chief, Johan Gustaf Norlin. Set during a period of political and social unrest, with rumors of the French Revolution muttered in the alleys, corruption is rampant among the Stockholm police. In the shadows of this chaos, Norlin and Winge, two righteous men, know their days with the force are numbered, especially Winge’s. In the last stages of consumption, with only weeks to live, Winge has nothing to lose by joining forces with Cardell to uncover the identity of the unknown man, whom they name Karl Johan, and his murderer.

“So this man has had his arms and legs shorn away in turn,” Winge calmly observes to Cardell, before noting even more disturbing details.

Yet even more nightmarish are the descriptions of everyday life in a society where numbing poverty is ubiquitous. Naive farm boys who come to Stockholm fall into paralyzing debt, with dire consequences. Crowds gather to cheer an executioner, himself a condemned man so drunk it takes minutes for him to cleave his victim’s head from his body. Those soldiers who survive attack by Russian warships subsequently die of typhus by the hundreds. Female victims of sexual assault are thrown into workhouses indistinguishable from prisons, where they are tortured. Most sinister of all is the Eumenides, a secret charitable order made up of the city’s wealthiest men that supports the workhouses, which takes its name from Greek myth. The Eumenides, “the Kindly Ones,” are also the ravening Furies.

“The Wolf and the Watchman” is exceedingly grim and often grisly, but, in the elegant translation by Ebba Segerberg, it’s never lurid. Natt och Dag has spoken of his admiration for Umberto Eco’s “The Name of the Rose.” Like Eco’s novel, “The Wolf and the Watchman” is a cerebral, immersive page-turner whose detective is a rationalist trapped in a world ruled by superstition, fear, and men whose humanity has been debased and erased as surely as Karl Johan’s.

“What kind of wolf are you, then, Mr. Winge?” asks a man under interrogation. “A good wolf? A skilled hunter?” Winge replies, “No wolf at all, I’m afraid. What I do, I do not undertake in order to satisfy my bloodlust.”

Yet even a righteous man may fall prey to his darker impulses. Winge’s ongoing struggle to maintain a precarious balance between justice and vengeance, as well as his own life and imminent death, gives “The Wolf and the Watchman” a moral heft reminiscent of works by Graham Greene.

Natt och Dag takes some narrative risks. Divided into four parts, the book focuses on Winge and Cardell’s investigation in its first and final sections, with Winge himself growing sicker and more corpselike every day. The middle two sections jump back to the previous spring and summer: Each follows a different character whose connections to victim and killer are only gradually and chillingly revealed. It’s a strategy with an impressive payoff, as scenes that initially seemed to serve as stylistic or historical flourishes instead prove crucial to the plot, fitting together as precisely as the gears of the pocket watch Winge obsessively takes apart and puts back together.

“The Wolf and the Watchman” makes sly use of the conventions of the modern police procedural: the coolly clinical investigator and his brawling sidekick; the furtive dance between corrupt police commissioners and their politician puppet-masters; even the coffee-swilling Stockholm policemen who avidly avail themselves of the still-novel beverage. The last 50 pages provide plenty of twists to satisfy thrill-starved readers, but it’s the final haunting sentence that raises gooseflesh and leaves one reaching to turn up the light.

Elizabeth Hand’s  novel “Curious Toys” will be published this fall.

THE WOLF AND THE WATCHMAN

By Niklas Natt och Dag

Atria. 373 pp. $27

Originally published at WashingtonPost.com.

Femininjas: Women in Fiction Fight Back

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In Stieg Larsson’s best-selling Millennium series—The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, etc.—a disaffected teenaged rape survivor, Lisbeth Salander, kicks ass and takes names. Readers and critics hailed Larsson’s creation as groundbreaking. To pick just one representative case, Michiko Kakutani, in her review of The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, calls Salander “one of the most original characters in a thriller to come along in a while: . . . the vulnerable victim turned vigilante; a willfully antisocial girl.” One would think the critics had never seen a woman in pants before, let alone one who can hold her own against the patriarchy.

And perhaps they never have, in which case introductions are a couple thousand years overdue. “Let no man think I’m a trivial woman, a feeble one who sits there passively,” Euripides’ Medea announces. “No, I’m a different sort—dangerous to enemies, but well disposed to friends. Lives like mine achieve the greatest glory.”

Ah, Medea—the first bad girl of literature, if one discounts Lilith, who’s never given a chance to voice her own opinion of Adam before he dumps her for Eve. Medea, the raging fury, is most remarkable not so much for her extensive list of crimes, knowledge of poisons, or lack of what modern readers might call sympathetic traits as for her unrepentant, single-minded desire for vengeance against her two-timing lover, Jason. First she poisons his innocent bride, gloating at the news of her anguished death. Then, with her own hands, though not without some protracted anguish of her own, she kills her two young children by Jason. Refusing the grief-stricken Jason a final embrace of the boys’ corpses, she gives him a terse kiss-off—“Your words are wasted.”

Medea might cast a cold eye on Larsson’s characterization of Salander as a near-anorexic, childlike waif who musters almost superhuman powers in her own quest for vengeance. Emphasizing Salander’s youth and gamine appearance evokes some disturbing similarities with Bella—the weirdly infantilized, profoundly unsexy narrator of Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series—and with Fifty Shades of Grey’s equally dumb and vanilla BDSM protagonist Anastasia, whose college education might have benefited from a SparkNotes reading of Mary Gaitskill and Mrs. Gaskell.

Whatever might be said about these popular 21st-century novels, they can’t be described as feminist works, books that advocate for, and present a vision of, equality between women and men. Larsson’s novels come closest, although their depiction of Lisbeth as a sociopath, irrevocably and pathologically damaged by her rape, is an uncomfortable reminder that, in popular culture, rape survivors are still defined by their trauma. Recent statistics indicate that one in six women will be the victim of a violent sexual assault or an attempted assault. Add to that the number of sexual assaults that go unreported, and you have a vast number of potential sociopaths.

The truth is that many of us who survived rape have gone on to live relatively normal lives, despite suffering from post-traumatic stress and other psychological disorders. I sometimes wonder if the success of books such as Twilight and Fifty Shades is itself a form of mass PTSD or Stockholm syndrome—a reaction to the ubiquity of violence against women and to the way in which stories of sexual violence, real or feigned, have become a culturally accepted form of entertainment; and a reaction to the often intolerable pressures of living in a world where power is still mostly in the hands of men.

But even Larsson doesn’t venture far enough into this battleground. Lisbeth, for all her violence, does not reject her objectification in male fantasies. However, some recent novels feature female protagonists who do, genuinely, transgress in this way. They are, to borrow a coinage from poets Charmira Nelson and Kai Davis, “femininjas”: women characters who utilize stealth, exile, and cunning, not to mention subterfuge and hand-to-hand combat, in their efforts to fight back.

• • •

“This is the story of Bella,” Helen Zahavi writes, opening her debut novel, Dirty Weekend. “She’s no one special. England’s full of wounded people. . . . You must have seen them. You’ve probably passed them. You’ve certainly stepped on them.”

First published in 1991 to considerable controversy, Dirty Weekend was republished last year in an electronic edition after being out of print, and thank God for that. Unquestionably ahead of its time, the book has been unjustly forgotten, despite (or maybe because of) its Hollywood adaptation directed by Michael Winner of Death Wish infamy.

Zahavi’s novel takes place in Brighton, also the setting for Graham Greene’s great noir Brighton Rock. (Dirty Weekend’s original cover art features a crushed stick of Brighton rock, the phallus-shaped candy that gave Greene’s novel its name.) Bella has a few things in common with Greene’s innocently oblivious heroine Rose. Both have symbolically charged names; both come under the microscopic, deranged scrutiny of sociopathic men; both undergo a powerful religious experience during a nightmarish narrative of Brighton’s underworld.

A minor difference is that Rose’s epiphany revolves around self-deluding religious belief, whereas Bella’s involves the inexpert yet highly satisfying deployment of a hammer into a man’s face.

Bella lives in a spectacularly grim basement bedsit: lightless, clammy, smelling of drains. She’s a “good loser”:

All she wanted was to be left alone, which didn’t seem a lot to ask. She expected little, and received less, and thanked her gods for what she got. . . . it was a dull, grey life, a mutant kind of life, an abortion of a life. But it was hers, and she accepted it.

Bella is one of “the women men don’t see”—to crib the title of a classic story by the American writer James Tiptree Jr., whose real name was Alice Sheldon—until she is seen, in the worst possible way, by a psychotic voyeur in a flat that overlooks hers. Zahavi’s descriptions of Bella’s initial contact with her stalker, Tim, are terrifying; they eschew the sickly pornification of such encounters in too many novels and films. Instead, Zahavi captures the horrific banality of a stalker’s obsession, how in repetition it becomes ritualized sexual behavior.

“Cheap women buy cheap curtains,” Tim says when he first calls Bella, who has an unlisted phone number.

I can see the shape of you through the material. When you have the light on I can see you moving about. I like the way you move. I like looking down and seeing you move and knowing you’re in there. I can tell by the way you move that you know I’m watching you. You’ve got a kind of look-at-me way of moving. It’s naughty of you, to move like that, when you know I’m watching.

The stalker becomes more suggestive, and more threatening, until Bella finally takes action and contacts the one person she believes can help her—not a member of the local constabulary or rape crisis unit, but an Iranian self-professed clairvoyant who goes by the unlikely name of Nimrod. It’s one of the novel’s longest and funniest set pieces, and not without its own horrors: a former journalist, Nimrod lost a hand for his political beliefs. He elicits from Bella the revelation that she used to be a prostitute, then asks, “Tell me what frightens you.”

‘Everything frightens me.’
‘What above all?’
‘Men,’ she said. ‘Men frighten me.’
‘You’ve known many men. You know their weakness. You know their cowardice. What is there to fear?’
‘Their hunger frightens me. The way they look at me frightens me. What I read in their eyes frightens me.’
‘And what do you read?’
‘What they want they must possess. What they can’t possess they must penetrate. What they can’t penetrate they must destroy.’

Bella’s responses become a litany: she is creating her own ritual. And as many rituals do, this one demands a sacrifice. Nimrod gives her a switchblade, along with a brief lecture:

‘For most people,’ he said, ‘The world is divided into murderers, victims, and spectators . . . . You must choose what you will be.’

‘I want to be a spectator.’

‘You don’t have that option.’

‘So I have no choice.’

‘You have a choice.’

‘What choice?’

‘The only choice . . . . Take the knife.’

She does, and she goes hunting.

We’ve been through first-wave, second-wave, third-wave, and now fourth-wave and no-wave feminism. In their gleeful nihilism, books such as Zahavi’s might be seen as exemplars of post-wave feminism. In Dirty Weekend, Zahavi unapologetically stacks the deck against the Y chromosome. Bella is a modern Circe: within a short time of meeting her, each man she encounters turns into a grunting, heaving, lust-addled pig, and she slaughters every one of them.

“You see them on the screen,” Zahavi writes of the men whose fantasies repeat in every medium, “trying not to smirk as they sit there in their freshly laundered linen . . . . And running through it all, bubbling away beneath the surface, you hear the self-justifying snivel of the unrepentant rapist.”

Bella’s killing spree is a fantasy of another sort, a distaff fantasy. Like the eponymous heroine of Lolly Willowes, Sylvia Townsend Warner’s 1926 novel about a twentieth-century witch who strikes a deal with Satan to escape male tyranny, Bella upends the usual relation in which men see in women only what they want to see—objects of lust. She casts her spell, and now men see only what she wants them to see. She is Wedekind’s Lulu with an Italian automatic, and the ending of Dirty Weekend is an obvious homage to Georg Wilhelm Pabst’s unforgettable silent film Pandora’s Box (1929), down to the confrontation with a knife-wielding serial killer who preys on women, in both versions named Jack (as in the Ripper). Only instead of dying in Jack’s embrace, as Louise Brooks’s Lulu does in the film, Bella guts him.

“To stab him, she discovered, was to know him,” Zahavi writes, and as Bella savages the beast, it would take a heart of stone not to cheer.

Or perhaps not, if you’re a man. Dirty Weekend’s final lines are as minatory and sinister as anything in recent fiction. Mothers, lock up your sons.

• • •

Cara Hoffman’s So Much Pretty (2011) opens with a description of another anonymous victim:

They are looking for someone with blond or dark brown or black hair.

Someone with blue or maybe brown or green eyes. She could be five foot six or five-eight. Her hair could also be red, could be an unnatural color like pink or white.

It is likely she weighs between 110 and 140 pounds and may have a scar or bruise on her throat.

She would be working somewhere unseen. Working as a waitress or secretary or laborer. She could be a student. . . .

She could be hitchhiking or taking public transportation, could be walking. She could be named Jamie, or Catherine, or Liz. Alexandra, Annie, Maria. Any name at all. . . .

As we are well aware, it is easy for a woman who fits this description to just disappear.

As we are well aware, it is easy for any woman to disappear. Perhaps the sole common denominator in the novels discussed here is women’s deeply embedded fear of annihilation. Not necessarily fear of death or murder, though those are certainly on the table, but the far more generalized, frightening, existential dread that the critic John Clute calls “vastation”: a fear of obliteration, of being swallowed by the abyss, of being erased.

Again and again in these novels, a woman’s sense of her own identity comes under threat, and we witness it dissolve like a body in lime.

In Sophie Hannah’s The Other Woman’s House, Tana French’s Broken Harbor, Mo Hayder’s Gone, and Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, the danger appears to come from a husband. In Megan Abbott’s Dare Me, set in the hothouse adolescent world of competitive cheerleading, it comes from another girl. In other books, it’s an entire culture—California’s porn movie industry in Christa Faust’s Money Shot, the Arab world in Zoë Ferraris’s City of Veils, the diseased American heartland in Hoffman’s So Much Pretty.

Hoffman is a former journalist who covered upstate New York’s rust belt. In So Much Pretty, her first novel, that experience bleeds into her characterization of Stacey Flynn, a small-town reporter investigating the disappearance of a young local waitress named Wendy White. The hard-drinking Stacey is fueled by rage; she isn’t obsessed with vengeance but rather with justice:

‘You know, I spent most of today on the phone with the Bureau of Crime Statistics . . . . I looked up the names of all the women who were murdered this year—and the subcategory of all the women who were murdered by their boyfriends or husbands or guys they’d dated. . . .

‘If you wanted to make a memorial for those women who died in that kind of violence throughout history—which no one does, of course—but if you did you would be carving names at roughly the same rate the crimes are being committed. If you wanted a historical monument—you know, one that had casualties, beatings, rapes, disfigurations—you’d need something like the Great Wall of China.’

Hoffman isn’t interested in designing a memorial for those women, but in righting the balance of power between men and women—and not through discussion or education, political empowerment or economic equity, but by the means men have traditionally used: violence, directed at both guilty and innocent.

She creates a heroine who becomes a real-life action hero—Alice Piper, the precocious fifteen-year-old daughter of almost pathologically optimistic artists who moved upstate from the Lower East Side in search of a more authentic, rural life in the town of Haeden, a place that’s been literally poisoned by the agribusiness that bought out its failing dairy farms.

A casual friend of the missing Wendy, Alice is a loner who wishes the kindly older girl hadn’t graduated from high school before Alice started her freshman year. Hoffman—for whom fairy tales such as Peter Pan and Lewis Carroll’s Alice stories are obvious reference points—has said that she’s given her young protagonist the sort of origin story one usually associates with superheroes, though Alice has no actual superpowers. She is, however, an exceptionally gifted child and a superb swimmer. Her one close friendship is with a similarly intellectually precocious boy who, like herself, is an outsider among Haeden’s claustrophobic, small-minded populace. Hoffman doesn’t mince words in her depiction of Haeden, or of anything else for that matter. As Stacey puts it in a diatribe directed against her male employer, Scoop:

‘You’re here because you are comfortable around stupid people. You know they’re easy to exploit. And the cost of living is cheap. There’s about one hundred of you who are even capable of abstract thought! And even those people are nearly unintelligible. . . . I don’t need to learn how to speak your fucking language, because your language is being eradicated, thank fucking God! Do you know that word? “Eradicated”? Your life, your way, your language. And for a good fucking reason. It’s all bullshit!’

Scoop merely gapes at Stacey in disbelief: “He had never in his life seen anyone behave like that.”

Poor Scoop should get used to it. Stacey isn’t the only woman turning a Medusa’s gaze upon the men of Haeden. Alice is young enough, smart enough, strong enough, and idealistic enough that when her ideals are shattered, she adopts a scorched-earth policy toward evildoers. Like Zahavi’s Bella, Alice is a maenad with a mission.

Wendy, the missing waitress, shows up dead after having been abducted, held captive, and repeatedly gang-raped. In the hallways at school, Alice overhears a group of boys talking about the rape and realizes they are the perpetrators.

She doesn’t go to the police with the information. Instead she starts to educate herself by reading about similar crimes.

“These were things I didn’t know about,” Alice realizes.

My mother and father never told me about these things. They gave me books to read. Theory and philosophy. Ideas about why the culture is the way it is. But we didn’t talk specifically about who was doing these things. . . . It was a big gap in my education.

Quick study that she is, Alice immediately grasps who is doing these things, and who did them to Wendy:

Men raped her, men killed her, men dumped her, men found her, men are examining her remains, men are looking for the men who did it. Then the men who did it will be represented in court by men, and a man will make the decision based on laws men made throughout the legal history of this country.

Like Zahavi, Hoffman has no compunction about stacking the deck against the opposite sex. It would take centuries, perhaps millennia, to compensate for all those female corpses. Alice and Bella are simply making up for lost time.

“Research is essential in making any rational decision,” Alice states in one of the novel’s most chilling lines. So Much Pretty isn’t satire, but there are Swiftian echoes in Alice’s actions and in her revelation that “my parents, whom I love, were utterly wrong.”

All the boys I had ignored or pitied or excused throughout school were also something else. They were something entirely different.

After Wendy White’s body was found, I saw the world as it was for the first time. When her body was found, I was also found. I woke up in her grave and gazed down at my legs, took in the power of my lungs, my biceps, my hands, and knew what they were for.

The ending of So Much Pretty is controversial and shocking. On her high school’s Spirit Day, when many of the students wear costumes, Alice dresses in a mermaid wig and glitter makeup, pulls a gun out of her backpack, and starts shooting boys. It’s a horrifying scene, difficult to read, difficult even to write about, especially for a parent, which Hoffman is. The final body count is seven: Alice kills the boys who preyed on Wendy; she also kills innocent male bystanders. As her chilling earlier revelation has made clear, Alice’s response to the boys’ behavior is rational and in kind, with a Glock 37 pistol. She’s now playing the same game they are, only on the girls’ team. She’s just leveling the playing field.

One of the police officers—a woman—who books Alice as a possible suspect notes of the prisoners with whom Alice is briefly incarcerated,

Alice Piper, if she was guilty, had done something I’m sure a lot of them dreamed about. Hell, I think there’s girls not even in jail who’ve had those feelings.

There’s a lot of angry girls in here. That’s just how it is. Put two and two together. You can see it in their faces. None of them were shedding tears over what happened at Haeden High.

Hoffman says that So Much Pretty is only in part about male hatred of women. It’s also a full-bore attack on the commodification of violence against women, so deeply embedded in our culture that we no longer notice how sick it is.

“Every single day, every half hour, someone is disposing of a woman’s life,” she said in an interview. “And that is very entertaining in this country. Look at CSI—it usually begins with a female victim. Look at the news. As much as possible, media links to sex. You see a piece about a man who sets his girlfriend on fire; the picture is of her in a bikini.”

In popular culture, women who don’t play by the rules tend to either be killed or to choose their own annihilation. Even Beth, the manipulative, perhaps sociopathic head cheerleader who wreaks havoc in Abbott’s Dare Me, in part because she’s spurned by the girl she loves, deliberately takes a near-fatal swan dive in front of a packed gymnasium during the team’s final competition.

Alice Piper isn’t self-destructive. Alice Piper doesn’t fit the diagnostic criteria for a sociopath. She’s not impulsive; she has no record of violent behavior; she’s not a compulsive liar, or antisocial, or emotionally detached. She’s a precocious child who has an abrupt and terrible moment of clarity when she sees the world for what it is—a place where the balance of power is determined by violence, lies, and cunning. To seize power from the enemy, one must learn to use his weapons.

In this, as in so many other things, Alice is a quick learner.

• • •

Amy, the charmingly narcissistic antiheroine of Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl (2012), really is a sociopath. The “treasured only child of creative-genius parents,” Amy is a wealthy writer possessed of her own creative genius, though we don’t see it in action till halfway through Flynn’s sublimely clever novel.

Gone Girl opens with the frantic efforts of Amy’s husband, Nick, to prove himself innocent when Amy goes missing. Their living room shows signs of a desperate struggle.

Nick knocks back more than a few stiff ones after Amy disappears, and just about everything suggests that he murdered her. The most damning evidence is Amy’s diary, which recounts all the sweet little events and memories they shared during their marriage, and Nick’s gradual unraveling after he loses his job. As one entry reads, “Being married to Nick always reminds me: People have to do awful things for money.”

Do the awful things include bludgeoning your sweet, patient, loving wife and then dumping the body in the Mississippi? Poor Amy!

But two hundred pages in, we find ourselves reading about the real Amy. “Not Diary Amy, who is a work of fiction (and Nick said I wasn’t really a writer, and why did I ever listen to him?), but me, Actual Amy.”

Unlike Diary Amy, Actual Amy is a cold-eyed chameleon who expertly impersonates the kind of woman she believes a man wants. In fact she’s more basilisk than chameleon, and herkilling gaze nails both men and women; her tongue drips acid and some nasty truths: not only are we faking it in bed, but we don’t really like football, either.

Men always say that as the defining compliment, don’t they? She’s a cool girl. Being the Cool Girl means I am a hot, brilliant, funny woman who adores football, poker, dirty jokes, and burping, who plays video games, drinks cheap beer, loves threesomes and anal sex, and jams hot dogs and hamburgers into her mouth like she’s hosting the world’s biggest culinary gang bang while somehow maintaining a size 2, because Cool Girls are above all hot. Hot and understanding. Cool Girls never get angry; they only smile in a chagrined, loving manner and let their men do whatever they want. . . .

Cool Girl . . . is basically the girl who likes every fucking thing he likes and doesn’t ever complain. (How do you know you’re not Cool Girl? Because he says things like: ‘I like strong women.’ If he says that to you, he will at some point fuck someone else. Because ‘I like strong women’ is code for ‘I hate strong women.’)

Gone Girl topped out at number one on Publishers Weekly’s hardcover fiction bestseller list. It’s a brilliant novel, witty and creepy and often hilarious. But I have to wonder how many women laughed out loud once Actual Amy took over the page, and how many boyfriends and husbands cringed. Nick isn’t a rapist or an abusive partner. He’s sexy, intelligent, and mostly supportive. He communicates well and seems eager to please his romantic partner. His mortal sin is to be taken aback when, after two years of marriage, Amy stops pretending to want to be a Penthouse centerfold:

I hated Nick for being surprised when I became me. I hated him for not knowing it had to end, for truly believing he had married this creature, this figment of the imagination of a million masturbatory men, semen-fingered and self-satisfied. He truly seemed astonished when I asked him to listen to me. He couldn’t believe I didn’t love wax-stripping my pussy raw and blowing him on request. That I did mind when he didn’t show up for drinks with my friends. . . . That awful phrase men use: ‘I mean, I know you wouldn’t mind if I . . .’ Yes, I do mind. Just say it. Don’t lose, you dumb little twat.

• • •

In “The Women Men Don’t See,” Tiptree’s notorious 1973 story, Mrs. Parsons and her daughter are vacationing in Mexico. When their plane crashes, they’re marooned in the Yucatan with a fellow American who feels his job is to “protect” them, even as he casually contemplates rape:

The woman doesn’t mean one thing to me, but the obtrusive recessiveness of her, the defiance of her little rump eight inches from my fly—for two pesos I’d have those shorts down and introduce myself.

At the story’s close, the narrator is stunned when the Parsons opt to take their chances with an alien spaceship rather than remain safely with him. “Do all Mrs. Parsons’s friends hold themselves in readiness for any eventuality,” he wonders, “including leaving Earth?”

Maybe. “What women do is survive,” Mrs. Parson tells him at one point. “We live by ones and twos in the chinks of your world-machine.”

What women do in the books mentioned here doesn’t consist of survival so much as sabotage. They throw bricks and rocks and flaming bottles into the chinks of the masculine world machine, then pick up a gun and fire into the turning gears. If rape and other sexual violence, religious servitude, and the politically determined inaccessibility of contraception can be seen as acts of war, stories like these may not just be a means of escapism. In the mind’s eye, they might be weapons, to be picked up, opened, and deployed.

Originally published on BostonReview.net.

The Look of Disaster: Comic Books as a Documentary Form

Artwork: Jacques Callot, "La pendaison" (detail), from  Les Grandes Misères et Malheurs de la Guerre  (1633). From    Wikimedia   .

Artwork: Jacques Callot, "La pendaison" (detail), from Les Grandes Misères et Malheurs de la Guerre (1633). From Wikimedia.

Disaster Drawn: Visual Witness, Comics, and Documentary Form
Hillary L. Chute
The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, $35 (cloth)

If violence is intrinsic to human culture, then the history of human violence is also the history of art. Greek vases from the fifth century BCE illustrate scenes from the Trojan War: blood spewing from the wounded Hector’s chest, a grief-stricken Achilles. Roman texts show images of war machines. The first purely informational literary work was a richly illustrated military how-to guide, Roberto Valturio’s 1472 De Re Militari (The Art of War).

In 1633 the innovative printmaker Jacques Callot published Les Grandes Misères et Malheurs de la Guerre (The Miseries of War), eighteen sequential prints depicting the horrors of what became known as the Thirty Years War: soldiers ransacking a farmhouse, raping its inhabitants as well as burning them alive; two dozen corpses hanging from a vast tree while onlookers chat casually a few yards away; public tortures and executions by burning at the stake.

Francisco de Goya’s Disasters of War print series (published posthumously in 1863) remains one of the most compelling statements against war. Created in response to the 1808 Dos de Mayo uprising in Madrid and the long conflict it spawned between Spain and Napoleonic France, Goya’s terse written comments suggest that he was a witness to some of the scenes: “I saw it.” “One cannot look at this.” “Why?” accompanies a picture of a man being bound and strangled by soldiers. “Barbarians!” editorializes a trussed man being shot point-blank. One of the most horrific images—the remains of mutilated, disarticulated corpses arranged on a tree—earns the sardonic, “A heroic feat! With dead men!” Goya makes viewers complicit in these horrors, unable to look away, despite his injunction.

Pictorial journalism became an increasingly popular form during the nineteenth century, when newspapers and magazines like Harper’s Weekly published the work of battlefield artists who produced on-site drawings of the Civil War. By the twentieth century, photojournalism was commonplace but still had not supplanted documentary illustration. The English artist Bruce Bairnsfather sketched his fellow soldiers in the trenches during World War I. According to the artist, his weekly Fragments from France cartoons in the Bystander showed those at home the “macabre and pathetic predicament of mutilated landscapes, primitive trench life, ceaseless wearing drudgery.”

The first cartoon documentary to be shown in theaters was also the first animation about a wartime catastrophe. Winsor McCay’s twelve-minute The Sinking of the Lusitania (1918) relied on eyewitness accounts to create the thousands of hand-drawn cells. McCay’s rendition of “the crime that shocked Humanity” resembled a contemporary newsreel, which in some sense it prefigured. Viewing the film remains a disturbing experience. Black smoke spews from the doomed ship as drowned corpses float in its wake. Hundreds of passengers leap to their deaths in scenes evocative of 9/11. The final, haunting image shows a mother sinking below the surface, helplessly trying to hold her infant above the water that swallows them.

One might think that a genre typically known to depict fantasy might be viewed skeptically as history. Indeed, Bruno Latour has argued that “the more the human hand can be seen as having worked on an image, the weaker is the image’s claim to offer truth.” Yet Hilary Chute argues in her new book, Disaster Drawn, that documentary comics are capable of unflinchingly representing events that verge on the unrepresentable—at times doing so better than media more conventionally associated with documentation, such as photography and film. This is because of what Chute calls their “plenitude,” the way they combine and juxtapose points of view, perspective, characters, chronology, and styles (in both words and images), allowing the viewer to become truly immersed.

Chute’s 2010 study Graphic Women explored autobiographical and sociopolitical narratives by comic book artists such as Marjane Satrapi, creator of Persepolis (2000). Her new book focuses on Art Spiegelman, Keiji Nakazawa, and Joe Sacco, whose best-known, groundbreaking works make readers experience atrocity at ground level: as Spiegelman says of Maus and Auschwitz, “It was a way of forcing myself and others to look at it.” In Disaster Drawn, Chute offers an elegant aesthetic and theoretical argument for how “made-up pictures” allow us to enter into traumatic historical events, “inviting one to look while signaling the difficulty of looking,” making them not only an accurate form of witness, but an ethical one. Chute thus underscores her main tenet: that the form of comics is inextricably tied to a moral response to trauma. This is not advocacy, as Chute writes of Sacco’s work, but the experience of history as “a kind of haunting by the other that does not end.” “Events are continuous,” Sacco writes in Footnotes in Gaza. “But the past and present cannot be so easily disentangled. They are part of a remorseless continuum, a historical blur,” not a liminal state of transition, but an immurement in the past that one is not condemned to repeat, but to confront.

• • •

Among the most significant documentary comics is Keiji Nakazawa’s 1972 Ore wa Mita (I Saw It: The Atomic Bombing of Hiroshima: A Survivor’s True Story). As a six-year-old, Nakazawa witnessed the atomic bombing of Hiroshima: he was shielded and saved from the blast when a concrete wall collapsed on him. His artist father and two of Nakazawa’s siblings were among the seventy thousand killed outright, as his pregnant mother watched. Traumatized, she gave birth that day to an infant who died four months later of malnutrition. Eventually she and her son found refuge with relatives outside the ruined city.

Like his father, the impoverished young Nakazawa was an artist. He drew on the backs of discarded movie posters, sewing the pages into books, and at an early age worked as a sign painter. Enthralled since childhood by the work of Osamu Tezuka, the legendary manga artist and activist best known to Americans as the creator of Astro Boy (which debuted in Japan only six years after the bomb), Nakazawa moved in 1961 to Tokyo to become a cartoonist. He did not disclose his experience of the bombing: after the war, the American occupiers and Japanese government censored mass media in Japan, outlawing mention of the devastation wrought by the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the lingering effects of radiation poisoning. Within the resulting culture of silence and denial, survivors were known as hibakusha, “explosion-affected people,” stigmatized not unlike American AIDS sufferers during the height of the epidemic in the 1980s and early 1990s.

Nakazawa found work as a manga artist, and by the early 1960s was publishing generic manga—spy stories, science fiction, samurai adventures—in Boys’ Pictorial magazine. His mother’s 1966 death from radiation sickness shattered him. When he went to retrieve her remains from the crematorium, Nakazawa says: “There were no bones lef in my mother’s ashes, as there normally are after a cremation. Radioactive cesium from the bomb had eaten away at her bones to the point that they disintegrated. The bomb had even deprived me of my mother’s bones.”

In the aftermath of her death, Nakazawa wrote “Pelted by Black Rain,” his first fictional work about Hiroshima and the first Japanese comic about the bomb. It made the rounds of traditional publishers before finally appearing in 1968 in Manga Punch, a men’s magazine, where it was followed by four other atomic bomb–themed manga. In 1970 Nakazawa’s “Suddenly One Day” appeared in Boys’ Jump magazine, considered, like Manga Punch, to be a lowbrow rag. An unprecedented eighty pages long, “Suddenly, One Day” was the fictional account of a second-generation hibakusha whose child dies of leukemia, a result of his parent’s exposure to the bomb. It was many readers’ first encounter with both the facts of the bombings, and the lingering effects of radiation poisoning. The story triggered a huge public response (Nakazawa’s editor wept upon reading the story’s first pencil draft).

After the success of “Black Rain” and “Suddenly, One Day,” Nakazawa’s editor at Boys’ Jump encouraged him to create I Saw It, published as a stand-alone issue in 1972. Its grotesque images of shambling hibakusha and smoldering, melting corpses inevitably call to mind illustrations from horror comics like Tales from the Crypt and George Romero’s 1968 film Night of the Living Dead. Other scenes evoke the destruction wrought by Godzilla’s “atomic breath.” But Nakazawa transforms these horror tropes into an extraordinary act of witness: “he responds to the most high-tech of high technology, the atomic bomb . . . with the deliberately low-tech, primary practice of hand drawing.” Chute astutely notes that in I Saw It, Nakazawa recognized science fiction “as a genre of reality” that irradiated our world more than seventy years ago.

• • • 

The first version of what became Art Spiegelman’s masterwork, Maus, appeared as a three-page black-and-white comic, “Maus,” in Justin Green’s anthology Funny Animals (1972). The story was later expanded, serialized in Raw, and finally published in two volumes, an edition that received the 1992 Pulitzer Prize, the first ever awarded to a comic book.

A fan of Harvey Kurtzman’s MAD Magazine, the wellspring of American underground comics, Spiegelman began drawing as a boy. “I was oddly imprinted very early like a baby duck with Mad,” he said during a 2011 conversation with Joe Sacco at the Pacific College of the Northwest. “It was like tree, rock, Mad. Once I realized that comics were made by people, I wanted to be one of them.” At eighteen he started doing freelance work for Topps, where he designed trading cards, most memorably the Wacky Packages series of stickers that sent up name brands, MAD-style—Neveready Batteries, Crust Toothpaste, Ratz Crackers, Jail-O—a huge playground hit for those of us who grew up in the late 1960s (and now highly collectible, if any readers still have theirs). After moving to San Francisco in 1971, he became part of the city’s flourishing underground comics scene and, like Nakazawa, published cartoons in second- or third-tier men’s magazines like Cavalier.

Spiegelman’s Polish immigrant parents, Anja and Vladek, were Holocaust survivors. Like the hibakusha, they did not speak openly of their experiences. The young Spiegelma first learned about the Holocaust from his mother’s “forbidden bookshelf,” which consisted of pamphlets written by survivors, many illustrated with cartoons. The often-crude production values and sometimes comically drawn characters underscored the stark horror of camp chimneys churning smoke and emaciated figures trapped behind barbed wire fences. Most of these booklets were printed after the war. A few were drawn by prisoners in the camps, like Horst Rosenthal’s Mickey au Camp de Gurs (1942), which featured Mickey Mouse imprisoned in the same camp as Rosenthal, who later died in Auschwitz.

After returning to New York, Spiegelman began compiling the massive amount of documentary material—written, visual, and oral—that he used to research and write Maus, including interviews with his father, Vladek. Just as Nakazawa draws on the imagery of pulp horror, Spiegelman deploys comics tropes, such as talking animals, to chilling effect. Maus’s mouse narrator, Mickey (Art Spiegelman’s alter ego), inhabits a world of George Herriman–inspired Nazi cats and Jewish mice. This choice was inspired by Spiegelman’s research, through which he discovered that Nazi propaganda often represented Jews as rats: “Posters of killing the vermin and making them flee were part of the overarching metaphor.”

Spiegelman has said that his work “materializes history.” In Maus, as in I Saw It, the bodies of the dead are revived and revised, by hand, on the page. Like their human counterparts, many are then disembodied again, executed or consumed by camp crematoria. In Maus, as opposed to the earlier three-page, densely crosshatched “Maus,” the reader’s identification with those in the concentration camp is heightened by what Chute calls a “shaggier” drawing style: “the specified features of the animal characters are replaced by a more minimal notational style—a visual system in which the reader cannot ‘take comfort,’ as Spiegelman puts it, that ‘it ain’t you.’” There is no comfort in Maus; it “goes into the camps and stays there at length, re-creating a world meant to be studied and engaged at one’s own pace.”

Maus’s publication was a game changer for comics, the moment when the medium came of age as a documentary form worthy of scholarly study and serious critical attention. With regard to the latter, Spiegelman insisted on no less. In a 1991 letter to the editor of the New York Times, he took the newspaper to task for placing Maus on the fiction bestseller list.

. . . to the extent that ‘fiction’ indicates that a work isn’t factual, I feel a bit queasy. As an author I believe I might have lopped several years off the 13 I devoted to my two-volume project if I could only have taken a novelist’s license while searching for a novelistic structure. . . . I know that by delineating people with animal heads I’ve raised problems of taxonomy for you. Could you consider adding a special ‘nonfiction/mice’ category to your list?

The Times responded:

The publisher of Maus II, Pantheon Books, lists it as ‘history; memoir.’ The Library of Congress also places it in the nonfiction category: ‘1. Spiegelman, Vladek -- Comic books, strips, etc. 2. Holocaust, Jewish (1939-1945) -- Poland -- Biography. . . . 3. Holocaust survivors -- United States -- Biography. . . .’ Accordingly, this week we have moved Maus II to the hard-cover nonfiction list, where it is No. 13.

• • •

Like Spiegelman, Joe Sacco is the son of immigrant parents, who survived German and Italian airstrikes on Malta during World War II. Born in Malta, Sacco lived in Australia until 1972, when at the age of ten he moved with his family to the United States. He received a bachelor’s in journalism, and although he cites the New Journalism of the 1960s and ’70s as a major influence, he grew disenchanted with a journalistic career after college. He moved to Malta, where he created the country’s first narrative comic, before returning to the United States. He founded an alternative comics journal and did satirical comics work before becoming engrossed in the ongoing Gulf War. This led to Palestine, which was published in nine installments beginning in 1993, received the American Book Award, and was collected as a standalone work in 2001. His later works, Safe Area Goražde: The War in Eastern Bosnia 1992–95 (2000), The Fixer: A Story from Sarajevo (2003), Footnotes in Gaza (2009), The Great War (2013), and Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt (2012, with Chris Hedges) all explore “how history becomes legible as history.”

An on-the-ground journalist, Sacco immerses himself in the lives of those who lived (and are living) through conflicts that have torn their countries and lives apart. His crowded pages, the result of Sacco’s “saturation reporting,” are dense with meticulously drawn, almost photorealistic details. Sacco calls his work “slow journalism.” One can get lost in the pages for hours.

Sacco never loses sight of individual bodies, dead or living. He writes: “You see extremes of humanity in places like Palestine and Bosnia. . . . Mostly what you see is innocent people being crushed beneath the wheels of history.” His work expands the limits of what can be documented. In “A Thousand Words,” a six-page installment of Palestine, Sacco recounts his unsuccessful attempt to photograph Israeli police brutalizing a peaceful protest of Palestinian women and children. He was not standing in the right place to get the shot. “There’s nothing here,” an editor tells him. A camera limits what an artist can capture in ways that drawing does not: Sacco eloquently explains how the comics artist’s ability to place himself anywhere within the frame can surpass even a camera, to capture Henri Cartier-Bresson’s “perfect moment.” “When you draw, you can always capture that moment,” he writes. “You can always have that exact, precise moment when someone’s got the club raised.”

Sacco’s close-up drawings put the reader in a crowd being attacked by Israeli soldiers as the club slams down. Palestine’s final, black frame underscores the brutality of everything we’ve read so far, but also might suggest a tabula rasa for beginning a new story. In the Middle East alone, myriad artists have joined Sacco in creating comics of witness, including Magdy El Shafee’s Metro: A Story of Cairo (2012); Wajdy Mustafa’s Levant Fever: True Stories from Syria’s Underground (2015); and Ari Folman and David Polonsky’s animated film Waltz with Bashir (2008). In a world in which sophisticated photo editing has taught the savvy viewer to approach purportedly documentary photos with due skepticism, pictorial journalism—trustworthy, ironically, for the undisguised nature of its contrivance—might in time achieve nearly equal footing with more conventional documentary forms.

• • •

In her introduction to Disaster Drawn, Chute recalls Roland Barthes’s visionary 1970 essay “The Third Meaning,” which analyzes still frames from Sergei Eisenstein’s 1944 film Ivan the Terrible. The essay was also one of the first to describe the ability of comics to “open up the field of meaning through its dual inscription and mobilization of time.”

Barthes notes the two most common ways a viewer responds to a film or series of related images. The first is largely informational: we register the characters, settings, costumes, time frame, and dialogue, and from these construct a narrative that interprets the series of images. The second meaning is symbolic. Whatever information we’ve already absorbed can be deepened, and our perceptions perhaps altered, by an image’s symbolic or metaphorical weight: a clenched fist; a bowed head; teeth bared in a grimace that might be a snarl or smile.

There is a third, subtler hermeneutic Barthes identifies, which he terms the “obtuse meaning.” This meaning derives from the profound pleasure found in a purely visual depiction. Think of the sublime moment in Chris Marker’s 1962 La Jetée—a film consisting solely of black-and-white still frames, except for when we see the motion of a woman’s eyes suddenly opening to gaze into our own. It is the moment that can only be experienced in film or another diegetic art, Barthes states, “namely the photo-novel and the comic-strip. I am convinced that these ‘arts,’ born in the lower depths of high culture . . . present a new signifier.”

In comics as with film, our recognition of the artist’s hand and eye elevates our experience from that of passive viewer to engaged witness, even as we acknowledge the unreality of what we see. As film critic Matt Levine wrote in a blog about Barthes’s essay:

In the fissures and cracks of the filmic image, when we realize that pictures on film are indeed unique in a limitless number of ways, the transfixing real-unreal rift by which cinema operates becomes quite clear. This is what the third meaning is about: realizing that these images are illusions, and becoming simultaneously enraptured by how immersive, striking, and real they are.

It is this real-unreal rift that Sacco explores so memorably in his work: “the past and the present cannot be so easily disentangled,” he says in Footnotes in Gaza. “They are part of a remorseless continuum, a historical blur.” And while photographs that claim historical accuracy can be faked, provoking outrage, we know (and trust) that the artist’s hand and eye have collaborated to create the images we linger over in the work of Sacco, Spiegelman, Nakazawa, and the emerging artists whom they have inspired. They render the unspeakable in a language we can all understand, conjuring voices and histories that might otherwise go unheard.

Originally published on BostonReview.net.