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If these walls could talk 

Batman, Superman, Spider-Man, Iron Man.

Many of the most well-known comic book characters, and their artists and writers — DC's Jack Kirby, Disney's Carl Barks, Marvel's Stan Lee — have been men.

But Hillary Chute, University of Chicago professor and author of Graphic Women: Life Narrative & Contemporary Comics, says the graphic-narrative scene is diversifying.

"[Comics have] been seen much more as a man's field, and a sort of aggressively male field. So its audience is not only perceived to be largely men, but largely, sort of, adolescent boys, right?" the 35-year-old Chute says with a laugh. "And comic shops are seen to be, like, one big sweat sock that no girl would ever go into."

More laughing.

"For a long time," she adds, "the most famous cartoonists, both mainstream cartoonists, and literary cartoonists — so, cartoonists who both draw and write the stories — were men. But in the '90s, that really started changing in pretty marked ways."

In short, women are starting to flourish in a genre that's expanding to incorporate storylines beyond the superhero. And when Chute and renowned cartoonist Alison Bechdel join Acme Novelty Library's Chris Ware on Wednesday at a Colorado College symposium, they're likely to discuss how that looks and what it means.

Beyond metaphor

In Graphic Women, the first academic book to look at female cartoonists, Chute delves into five autobiographical graphic texts by women. They include one of the pioneers in the industry, Dirty Laundry and Twisted Sisters' Aline Kominsky-Crumb, as well as the Iranian author of the well-known Persepolis, Marjane Satrapi. Many of the stories, though not all of them, Chute emphasizes, are stories about families and domestic situations, spiked with issues related to sexuality, suicide, rape and other traumatic experiences.

Each of these cartoonists uses a first-person narrator, almost always seen as a character on the page. For example, in Persepolis, through black-and-white minimalist art combined with sharp wit, Satrapi invites readers in to experience what it was like growing up as a child in Tehran during the Islamic Revolution.

"Even though it's kind of a feminist trope to make the hidden visible," Chute says, "I think that in these works we see that in a really powerful and literal way. It's not only in metaphor."

The final chapter in Chute's book analyzes the work of Bechdel. Known most for her 25-year run of the comic strip, Dykes to Watch Out For, Bechdel published Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic, a memoir about her father, in 2006. It was Time magazine's No. 1 book of that year and a New York Times bestseller — the first literary graphic narrative, Chute says, to have been on that list since Art Spiegelman's Maus in 1986. As Chute says, it "blew everyone away."

In terms of subject matter, Fun Home revolves around Bechdel's closeted father and her own coming-out. But like the Pulitzer Prize-winning Maus, which dealt with the Holocaust, it's also about the process of interpretation itself. Bechdel redrew troves of archives in her quick, black line-art style: photographs, journal entries, her own childhood diaries. She even learned to rewrite her father's handwriting.

"There's something about that act of repetition," Chute says, "of re-creating an archive. And the way I like to think of it is, this kind of going back into the past to mark it with your own body, or to re-create it with your own body for the present that's incredibly powerful and incredibly moving."

More than a snapshot

The process Bechdel used for Fun Home is very similar to that of her second book, Are You My Mother?, which will come out in May. The same archiving appears, as does a very realistic type of drawing.

"I'm not drawing exaggerated, cartoony expressions," says Bechdel, 51. "I'm trying to show realistic expressions of emotion, realistic body language and gestures. I actually pose for all these pictures. I have like, I don't know, about 500 snapshots for each chapter. So maybe 4,000 pictures I took for the whole book, of me just acting out all these scenes.

"I feel like I need a certain level of naturalism in my drawing, because I'm writing about pretty deep emotions, and I don't want to trivialize them. But I run the risk of trivializing them, by trying to get them too literally and failing, so it's kind of a narrow window that I'm trying to slide through."

Both books are also similar in that neither conforms to a chronological plot; instead, they are both thematic. In the first, Bechdel addressed sexual orientation, gender identity and death. In the second, she organized the book around different pivotal ideas by Donald Winnicott — a mid-20th century pediatrician and psychoanalyst who looked closely at what happens in the early stages of being an infant, particularly between the baby and the mother, and when something goes wrong, what can happen.

Having just wrapped up the final manuscript in February, Bechdel herself still has a hard time describing Are You My Mother?. At a base level, it's a story about her mom and the shaky relationship between the two. And yet, she also drags her readers into her therapy sessions with her.

"This book about my mother is also a book about therapy and analysis and how that helps people and when it does help, how it works."

One big difference between Bechdel's first book and Are You My Mother? is that she wrote the first about her father after his death. With this one, her mother is very much alive, and Bechdel admits that although her mother respects her creative integrity "in a way that's kind of amazing," she struggles with feeling like a bad daughter by exposing what went on behind closed doors.

And yet, like the other women Chute has studied, Bechdel feels strongly about changing norms.

"You know, I came of age in the era of 'the personal is political,' and I took that very literally, very much to heart," she says. "And, for me, it was really salvational to learn that, the difficulties of my life weren't just my fault, weren't just my family's fault. They were part of a broader systemic thing going on in the culture. ...

"You know, to me it seems politically important, because if we all are keeping secrets, nobody knows what else is happening. I feel like we have an obligation to share with each other what is really going on in our lives, so that we can help each other. No one should have to think they're the only person going through something."

kakens@csindy.com

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