By Nicoletta Mandolini
Representing Acts of Violence in Comics
Eds Nina Mickwitz, Ian Horton and Ian Hague
New York: Routledge
Hardback: 120.00 £
Ebook: 22.50 £
There was a time, approximately around the beginning of the second half of the Twentieth Century, when comics were considered as a mere tool for entertainment. Back then, the academic debate on the use of violence in comics was mainly focused on the dangers of displaying gruesome acts by means of such a popular medium, accessed by such a young readership. This resulted in the demonization of graphic narratives, which was followed by important acts of censorship (think, for example, at the strict regulations imposed by the Comics Code Authority in the U.S. during the 1950s). Now that comics’ dignity as an art form has been recognised by critics and academics, the debate has switched and scholars have started asking themselves other, equally important, questions. How can comics contribute to the political act of denouncing the horrors of war? When it comes to sexual and gendered violence, how can comics represent the phenomenon without re-victimising the abused? How does the combination of text and images facilitate the reception of narratives aimed at sensibilising the reader on anti-violence stances?
Representing Acts of Violence in Comics (Routledge 2019), edited by Nina Mickwitz, Ian Horton and Ian Hague, is one of the first scholarly books to address these issues. Paired with its companion volume, Contexts of Violence in Comics (Routledge 2019), the publication stems from a conference organised on the topic of graphic narratives and violence by the Comics UK Forum in 2014 (https://comicsforum.org/comics-forum-archives/comics-forum-2014/). If Contexts of Violence in Comics focuses on critical points such as the issues of history and memory, war and peace, urban conflict, law, justice and censorship, by giving relevance to specific historical and geo-cultural contexts (the Spanish civil war, the Second World War as seen through the lens of French comics, the Lebanese civil war, the Swedish comics market and the Second World War, the use of comics by the American defence industry), Representing Acts of Violence in Comics aims at analysing the narratological and stylistic techniques employed for depicting abuse in graphic narratives.
The editors’ decision to divide the volume in four different sections testifies of the interest in prioritising a medium specific and thematic approach. The first section, entitled Depiction because of the authors’ declared interest in the formal characteristics of the texts, includes contributions on graphic narratives such as Keiji Nakazawa’s manga Barefoot Gen (John Miers), the underground comix anthology magazine Slow Death (Laurike un t’ Veld) and on the representation of biblical violence in Robert Crumb’s The Book of Genesis, Siku’s Manga Bible and the series The Goddamned (Zonne Domoney-Lyttle). The second part, Embodiment, gathers two chapters that look at the body (considered both object of the representation and subject engaged in the physical act of reading) as a crucial component in the representation of violence: Laura A. Pearson’s analysis of Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas’ Red: A Haida Manga and Ester Szép’s reading of Joe Sacco’s The Great War. The third unit, Humor, looks at irony as a strategy used to portray different kinds of abuse in the British comics Beano (Christopher J. Thompson) and in graphic memoirs centred on episodes of sexual or domestic violence (Nicola Streeten). This last essay functions as a trait d’union with the last and most conspicuous section of the book, dedicated to Gendered and Sexual Violence, with chapters by Maggie Gray on Alan Moore’s The Ballad of Halo Jones, Joseph Willis on The Last Man and The Walking Dead, Jamie Brassett and Richard Raynold on the figure of Marvel’s supervillain Killgrave/The Purple Man.
As this brief summary shows, the analysis is conducted through a close reading that, in some cases, leads to important reflections on graphic narrative’s ability to overcome the problems of representability of abuse and its traumas. Szép’s affective investigation of Joe Sacco’s work, for example, identifies in the performative and, together, material dimension of the reading experience imposed by The Great War’s giant publishing format the possibility to reduce at a minimum the risks of approaching images of violence as a remote spectacle. Another valuable contribution is given by Gray on the ethically controversial matter of representing gendered violence. Supported by her analysis of Moore’s comics strips, she states the imperative, for feminist portrayals interested in describing gender hierarchies without confirming stereotypes or dichotomies, of showing “the dystopian reality of what is, while sketching utopian possibilities of what could be” (155). Graphic narratives, according to Gray, can be considered a powerful tool for such an enterprise.
The table of contents also demonstrates the editors’ effort to diversify the analysis by including studies on different types of violence (direct and indirect abuse, war violence, colonial violence, environmental violence, sexual and gender violence) as they are represented in different typologies of graphic narratives (graphic novels, mainstream comics, independent comics and even research-based comics). Notwithstanding this visible effort, Representing Acts of Violence in Comics mainly focuses on Anglophone texts (the only exception being the Japanese manga Barfoot Gen). This decision, which contradicts Contexts of Violence in Comics’ attempt to follow a global perspective, deprives the volume of a crucial aspect and risks to corrupt the work’s integrity. In presenting their book as a general investigation on violence and comics, without specifying the Anglophone-centric perspective from which the analysis of most contributors clearly stems, the editors somehow confirm the problematic tendency to impose the analysis of cultural products published in English (the language that, not by coincidence, is culturally hegemonic at present) as universal. Far from being a marginal issue, the awareness of power relationships (even in the realm of languages and culture) is an imperative when it comes to every discussion on violence and its representations.