Femininjas: Women in Fiction Fight Back


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.

You’ve seen the new ‘Star Wars’ movie — should you read the book tie-in?


If you can’t get enough of the new “Star Wars” movie, Obi-Wan Kenobi is not your only hope. Use the Force — of a book.

Alan Dean Foster has dozens of novels to his credit, as well as a formidable number of media tie-in works for major franchises such as “Star Trek” and “Alien.” Foster penned the first “Star Wars” novelization (credited to George Lucas), as well as “Star Wars” expanded-universe novels. Now he has written the novelization for “The Force Awakens,” which just broke the U.S. box-office opening weekend record with $248 million in ticket sales. I loved J.J. Abrams’s movie, and Foster’s book does it proud: It’s fast-moving, atmospheric and raises goose bumps at just the right moments.

Novelizers typically don’t see the film before they write the book. They’re given a screenplay and some still photos, and they work from that. So it’s a testament to Foster’s skill and professionalism that he not only evokes entire onscreen worlds but that he also gives us glimpses of an even more vast, unseen universe that has arisen from his impressive imagination.

“Hmm! Adventure. Hmmpf! Excitement. A Jedi craves not these things,” Yoda advised Luke Skywalker. But “Star Wars” fans do. Thank the Force that Foster delivers. (The e-book was released Dec. 18; the hardback version will arrive Jan. 5.)

Snobs may dismiss such books as an attack of the clones, but for as long as humans have had media, we’ve had media tie-ins. Our ancestors no doubt provided narrative accompaniment to the cave paintings in Lascaux, France. Flash-forward 17,000 years to the dawn of the motion picture industry. Novelizations — books based on screenplays and illustrated with photo stills from films — became popular with such classics as “The Perils of Pauline,” “The Ten Commandments” and “Metropolis,” as well as movies now lost or forgotten. In 1918, even Jack London penned one based on a romance called “Hearts of Three.”

Since then, myriad well-known authors have adapted their work or that of others. The very long list includes H.G. Wells, Louis L’Amour, John Steinbeck, Orson Welles, Graham Greene, Arthur Miller, Pearl S. Buck and —Zut alors! — Jean-Paul Sartre. Although novelizations are often regarded as a phantom menace, most of the authors just named were working writers and, I suspect, disinclined to turn down a paying gig. As Samuel Johnson said, “No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money.”

My introduction to novelizations came in 1995, when my agent asked whether I would be interested in adapting the screenplay for Terry Gilliam’s “12 Monkeys,” a flick inspired by one of my favorite films, Chris Marker’s sublime 1962 short “La Jetée.” Gilliam’s screenplay was by David and Janet Peoples; David had co-written the screenplay for “Blade Runner,” another of my favorite movies.

I am not a blockhead. I said, “Yes!”

But I had no idea how to adapt a 110-page screenplay into a 213-page novel. I had no still photos, no set designs, no information about the cast, other than that it starred Bruce Willis and a relative newcomer named Brad Pitt. So I called my friend Terry Bisson, a Hugo and Nebula Award-winning writer who had done novelizations for “Virtuosity” and “Johnny Mnemonic.” His advice, rendered in a thick Kentucky drawl:

“This is all you need to know: If the script says the character ‘sits in a chair,’ he doesn’t ‘sit in a chair.’ He ‘ambles thoughtfully across the thick oriental carpets that covered the wooden floor of his expansive, tastefully furnished living room, and settles slowly and with a prolonged sigh into a large, overstuffed, red-velvet armchair.’ ”

Lesson learned. After I turned in my manuscript, David and Janet Peoples called to say I had done a great job.

I had two small children to support, and I write my own “serious” fiction very slowly. But this novelization work was fast and fun, and good money for the amount of time it took. I went on to do a half-dozen tie-ins, including one based on Chris Carter’s “X-Files” movie, “Fight the Future,” and the pilot for his TV series “Millennium,” which I had to write in five days.

A few years later, Bisson provided my entry to more media work, this time in the “Star Wars” universe. He had done two “Star Wars” young adult novels starring the 10-year-old Boba Fett and wanted to know whether I would like to carry on with the series. I loved “Star Wars,” and my 10-year-old son was a huge fan. He had a Boba Fett helmet! How could I say no?

Those books were a delight to write. David Levithan, my editor at Scholastic and himself a successful Y.A. writer, introduced me to Lucasfilm’s Jonathan Rinzler. They both offered encouragement and very little in the way of restrictions. With each story, I was given a title and a character or place that had to come into play: Aurra Sing; Jabba the Hutt; Mace Windu; the planet Aargau (which existed in the “Star Wars” universe only as a name, so I got to create an entire planet’s history, ecology and culture).

Otherwise, I pretty much had free rein to create the plot, characters and young Boba’s own sensibility. Boba Fett grows up to be a bounty hunter, the nemesis of Han Solo, but as a mom, I felt I had a responsibility to show him as a resourceful, sensitive, sometimes frightened orphan who overcame his fears and even made a few friends his own age.

The best part of writing those stories was the fan mail I received from young boys, some of whom confessed to having read few other books. One shy third-grader named Evan asked whether he could do a phone interview with me for a school project. Afterward, his mother got on the phone and told me that the assignment was a report on a famous American. I was Evan’s first choice. His second? Thomas Jefferson.

Star Wars
By Alan Dean Foster
LucasBooks. 272 pp. $28

Originally posted on WashingtonPost.com.