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Why are so many contemporary comics and graphic narratives written as memoirs or documentaries of traumatic events? Is there a specific relationship between the comics form and the documentation and reportage of trauma? How do the interpretive demands made on comics readers shape their relationships with traumatic events? And how does comics’ documentation of traumatic pasts operate across national borders and in different cultural, political, and politicised contexts?

The sixteen chapters and three comics included in Documenting Trauma in Comics set out to answer exactly these questions. Drawing on a range of historically and geographically expansive examples, the contributors bring their different perspectives to bear on the tangled and often fraught intersections between trauma studies, comics studies, and theories of documentary practices and processes. The result is a collection that shows how comics is not simply related to trauma, but a generative force that has become central to its remembrance, documentation, and study.



Chapter 1. Introduction: Documenting Trauma in Comics

This introduction unpacks some of the many complex connections between trauma, comics, and documentary form. It begins by theorising trauma as a ‘sticky’ concept that troubles disciplinary boundaries, before suggesting that comics such as Art Spiegelman’s Maus (1980–1991) have played a significant role in the active production—rather than simply reflection or reification—of cultural and academic conceptions of trauma. It then turns to a critical overview of Caruthian and other hegemonic models of trauma, combining this with brief outlines of each of the book’s chapters to show how they seek to unsettle a dominant ‘trauma paradigm’, or to divert away from a recognised ‘trauma aesthetic’. In its final section, the introduction emphasises the important contributions made by efforts to decolonise trauma studies, exploring how several of this book’s contributors are informed by and continuing this important work, especially through their re-evaluation of the figure of the witness. The introduction concludes by drawing out and reiterating the book’s overarching contention: that comics are a generative force at the core of trauma itself, moulding and melding it into new shapes that might provide new models for working it through in the future.
Dominic Davies

Documenting Trauma


Chapter 2. Hierarchies of Pain: Trauma Tropes Today and Tomorrow

Trauma has become a pervasive cultural model for representing individual and collective injuries and suffering. This process has produced what may be called a trauma aesthetic, a set of recognizable tropes in widespread use in trauma narratives. This chapter examines the adoption of this aesthetic in graphic narratives, focusing on the special capacities of the form. Familiar tropes, such as dissociation and the somatic trace, are presented in complex combinations of visual and textual components, often exploiting the differential appearance of text and image to introduce a dynamic of belatedness or disarticulation. This chapter analyses five works ordered according to their diminishing reliance on ‘trauma’. The trauma aesthetic is used, though not explicitly, in Catherine Meurisse’s La Légèreté (2016) about the Charlie Hebdo attack, Jean-Philip Stassen’s Déogratias (2000/2006) about the genocide in Rwanda, and Emmanuel Lepage’s Un printemps à Tchernobyl (2012) about the aftermath of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. By contrast, it is absent from Mazen Kerbaj’s Beirut Won’t Cry (2007/2017) about the Israel-Hezbollah conflict and Josh Neufeld’s A.D. about Hurricane Katrina (2009). These works’ reliance on formalized and sanctioned trauma tropes not only is influenced by narrative characteristics, such as temporal distance from the event or the presence of a single narrator-protagonist but may also be motivated by the prestige conferred by trauma as recognized suffering, affecting the canonization and translatability of the graphic narratives in question.
Katalin Orbán

Chapter 3. Emotional History and Legacies of War in Recent German Comics and Graphic Novels

Comics and graphic novels provide a singular way to explore and portray historical events and narratives, particularly dark heritage and difficult history. Recently, several German-language graphic novels and comics have been published which explore the Third Reich and the Second World War from the perspective of those who experienced it first-hand: ordinary citizens, war children, Hitler Youth members, soldiers, and civilians. Such works, which include literary adaptations, memoirs, and oral testimony, can be viewed as part of the recent turn towards ‘felt’ or ‘emotional’ history [‘gefühlte Geschichte’] in German-language representations of the past—a shift towards an ‘emotional’ account of history, in contrast to documentary descriptions, that offers a chance to encounter not only what happened, but how it felt to be there. This chapter examines narratives of war and dictatorship in three recent works: Lina Hoven’s Love Looks Away (Liebe schaut weg, 2007), Barbara Yelin’s Irmina (2014), and the crowd-funded Großväterland: Eye-Witnesses Tell about World War II (Großväterland: Zeitzeugen erzählen vom Zweiten Weltkrieg, 2016). It considers the aesthetic strategies used to depict the past, particularly the adaptation of authentic documents such as diaries, photographs, and letters. Close readings of the primary texts are situated within a discussion of how such works contribute to the highly contested legacy of that historical period within contemporary cultural memory.
Alexandra Lloyd

Chapter 4. The Past That Will Not Die: Trauma, Race, and Zombie Empire in Horror Comics of the 1950s

The zombie has a long history in American culture. Fear of voodoo and zombies as forces to be used against white rulers by oppressed black people date back to slavery, with a clear flashpoint around the Haitian Revolution (1791–1804) when the island and its people won their independence from the French. This marks the zombie as a traumatic, racialized body. Haiti again played a prominent part in the American cultural consciousness following its military occupation by the US from 1915–1934. A key example of this is White Zombie (1932), widely regarded as the foundational text for zombie cinema. In horror comics of the 1950s, zombies and Haiti frequently reappear, drawing on and repositioning these traumatic histories in new domestic and geopolitical contexts. The imperialism evident in American interventions in the Caribbean and South and Central America, including the occupation of Haiti, is positioned against the growth of economic, cultural, and ideological empire in the early Cold War. Domestic contexts contribute to racialized readings and the perceived threat of the burgeoning Civil Rights movement to existing racial, social, and economic hierarchies. Lastly, the zombie can be read in terms of the traumatic deaths of soldiers in the Second World War and the Korean War, with both conflicts offering exoticised settings and the threat of the ‘native’ Other. The zombie therefore offers a space through which multiple past and present traumas, as well as anxieties about future practice and its impact on the US, can be explored.
Michael Goodrum

Chapter 5. Exploring Trauma and Social Haunting Through Community Comics Creation

Social haunting, as defined by Avery Gordon, is the sense that all is not as it seems; that something is happening that cannot be detected by our empirical senses. For Gordon, social ghosts are ‘haunting reminders of lingering trouble’ that notify us that ‘what’s been concealed is very much alive and present’ (Ghostly Matters: Haunting and the Sociological Imagination. Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 1997: xvi). This chapter draws on findings from two projects informed by the notion of social haunting, and which involved working with two contrasting groups in northern England: the first from a traditional working class community affected by deindustrialisation and the second a group of migrant women who have come to the UK from Bangladesh. While the experiences of these groups differ in many ways, both projects used aspects of comics creation to produce graphic narratives that in some way represent traumatic or unsettling events that have had an impact on participants’ lives.
Sarah McNicol

Chapter 6. Comic: “Documenting Trauma”

Without Abstract
Nicola Streeten

Traumatic Pasts


Chapter 7. Traumatic Moments: Retrospective ‘Seeing’ of Violation, Rupture, and Injury in Three Post-millennial Indian Graphic Narratives

This chapter examines visual moments from three Indian graphic narratives, each anchored in or inspired by real historical and political events: the Emergency (Delhi Calm), the Partition of India (This Side, That Side) and the Nirbhaya New Delhi gang rape case of 2012 (Drawing the Line). All three were published post-millennium by Indian publishing houses and each graphic narrative retrospectively explores various experiences of trauma. This analysis of a series of visual moments from these three Indian graphic narratives aims to illuminate the form’s propensity for expressing acts of remembering alongside the multilayered and often complex aspects of trauma narratives. The chapter also considers the significance of this recent turn to the use of the graphic narrative form within the Indian post-millennial scene to depict stories of trauma and societal rupture. The chapter argues that this (re)telling of challenging or taboo aspects of culture and society is especially significant in an Indian context, where traditional, established visual representations of India and ‘Indianness’ have until now been mostly celebratory and uncritical of such issues.
E. Dawson Varughese

Chapter 8. This Side, That Side: Restoring Memory, Restorying Partition

In this chapter, we examine how three different graphic narratives from the anthology This Side, That Side: Restorying Partition (2016) contribute to puncturing the silence that has long obscured the violence accompanying the partition of the Indian subcontinent. We argue how these narratives, in their collaborative authoring and through their textual and aesthetic strategies, defy artificial borders to create a new collective memory culture, one that seeks to confront and thus to heal a suppressed social trauma that continues to haunt these nations. Through explorations of genre, narrative voice, and aesthetic representation, we demonstrate how these graphic narratives challenge violence, whether of colonial historiography or postcolonial state policy, and how comics can effectively portray displacement and resistance. The resurrection of old memories and the sharing of traumatic testimonies also build empathetic solidarities that counter the habitual and mutual othering that informs antagonistic national histories, thereby inviting the recognition of shared pasts and hope for shared futures.
A. P. Payal, Rituparna Sengupta

Chapter 9. Visual Detention: Reclaiming Human Rights Through Memory in Leila Abdelrazaq’s Baddawi

It is commonly assumed that comics are uniquely able to facilitate ethical engagement and empathetic reading practices through a collaborative meaning-making process. This chapter reads Leila Abdelrazaq’s comic Baddawi to challenge this celebratory claim, showing how it is particularly precarious in relation to non-fiction comics that deal with issues of conflict, violence, and human rights—or what Sidonie Smith calls ‘crisis comics’. Such readings have shifted critical discussions from the subject matter of the comics to readers’ ability to see and recognize the subjects on the page as human. In considering Baddawi’s relationship to contested history and its mobilization of the medium’s inherent visuality, I argue that Abdelrazaq breaks away from other ‘crisis comics’ by granting her subjects what Nicholas Mirzoeff describes as the ‘right to look’. By emphasizing the way in which history collides with the individual and shapes their autonomy as a subject, Abdelrazaq uses the medium to assert a fundamental right to exist and a right to narrate the experience of the lives of the dispossessed—in her case, Palestinian refugees.
Haya Saud Alfarhan

Chapter 10. Comic: Crying in the Chapel

Without Abstract

Embodied Histories


Chapter 11. Folding, Cutting, Reassembling: Materializing Trauma and Memory in Comics

Visual representations of trauma and memory are common in comics and graphic novels and have been explored at length by scholars. Less widely discussed, but nonetheless significant, are the ways in which trauma and memory have been realized materially through the physical forms that sequential arts have taken. This chapter addresses these forms, first examining two examples of visual metaphors used to explore the effects of trauma: Rosalind B. Penfold’s torn timeline image from Dragonslippers and Nicola Streeten’s broken vase from Billy, Me and You. The chapter then proceeds to consider three instances where the material form of the comic has itself been brought into play by creators: Joe Sacco’s The Great War (2013) which uses folding, Dana Walrath’s View From the High Ground (2016) which uses cutting, and Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas’ Red: A Haida Manga (2010) which asks its reader to take apart the whole book and reassemble it. In each of these examples, the reader is required to make physical interventions upon the text, simultaneously acknowledging the bodily impacts that trauma can have and the physicality of trauma’s causes.
Ian Hague

Chapter 12. ‘To Create Her World Anew’: Charlotte Salomon’s Graphic Life Narrative

This chapter discusses Charlotte Salomon’s Life? or Theatre?, a sequence of 784 paintings created between 1940 and 1942 by a young German-Jewish artist. Focusing upon three key paintings within the cycle, and in particular their representations of open windows, this chapter argues that Life? or Theatre? is a complex, kaleidoscopic rendering of multiple graphic life stories, which can be opened up and better understood through the vocabulary of comics criticism. By focusing on the spaces between pages—the gutter—this chapter exposes how these are vital, generative gaps charged with meaning. In so doing it challenges reductive, biographical readings of Salomon’s life and work, insisting that Life? or Theatre? is a visual and textual representation of many life narratives, taking on the shapeshifting form of an epic, reiterative cycle.
Emma Parker

Chapter 13. Una’s Becoming Unbecoming, Visuality, and Sexual Trauma

The autographical narrative Becoming Unbecoming (2015) interweaves Una’s own coming-of-age story with the collective histories of women living in Yorkshire in the mid to late 1970s. The chapter considers Una’s formal and graphic strategies to work through her personal experience of sexual trauma alongside her exploration of the ‘Ripper’ murders, which she witnessed first-hand when growing up in Leeds. Becoming Unbecoming critiques the regimes of visuality that have framed the victims of gendered violence in the media, and produces alternative modalities of seeing that simultaneously draw attention to the silencing of women and to the challenge to represent trauma. Drawing on comics studies, gender theory, and extensive interviews with Una, the chapter explores how Becoming Unbecoming proposes new forms of visualization that are disengaged from the overt visuality of violence and its mythologizing implications for both victims and abusers.
Ana Baeza Ruiz

Chapter 14. Discourses of Trauma and Representation: Motherhood and Mother Tongue in Miriam Katin’s Graphic Memoirs

The historical trauma of World War II, the personal trauma of survival, and the integrity of the female body are connected in Miriam Katin’s two graphic memoirs: the black-and-white We Are on Our Own (2006) and the amazingly colourful Letting It Go (2013). Katin’s memoirs are very different, both in their topics and in their visual aesthetics: the first is about her childhood as a Jewish girl in 1940s Hungary and the second is about her bias against modern Germany in the 2000s. In this chapter, I show that while these two comics seemingly follow contradictory approaches to colour, page layout, tone of voice, and comics narration, they are in fact both expressions of the experience of trauma. Whereas the role of the gutter is frequently emphasized in the representation of traumatic events and memories in comics, I identify three other ways in which Katin narrates trauma in her graphic memoirs: page design; problematizing the relationship between the female body and its environment; and the visualization of spoken or written Hungarian, Katin’s mother tongue.
Eszter Szép

Chapter 15. Comic: First Person Third

Bruce Mutard

Graphic Reportage


Chapter 16. Comics Telling Refugee Stories

This chapter begins with an indicative survey of comics responding to the current ‘refugee crisis’. The comics in question adopt one of two distinct and established approaches. The first is reportage, usually featuring the author/creator as a central device, while the second re-works and renders testimony in visual form. In their different ways, both contribute to a wider repertoire of positive and sympathetic representations of refugees, offering a counter-point to hostile media and political discourse, often by a focus on the stories of individuals. Mobilizing compassion and moral responses through personal stories of hardship, trauma, tenacity, and survival has long been a tactic of reformist agendas and humanitarian advocacy. By their qualitative difference from dominant forms of factual discourse, comics offer certain advantages. They may also circumvent certain problems associated with photographic representations of suffering. Such comics can nevertheless run the risk of re-producing established victim tropes, and just as with other forms of representation, human-interest angles carry the potential to obscure political dimensions. In an attempt to consider and situate these concerns, the analysis considers the various positions and relations that constitute ‘refugee comics’: subjects, readers, creators, (im)materiality, and circulation.
Nina Mickwitz

Chapter 17. Migrant Detention Comics and the Aesthetic Technologies of Compassion

Comics by European and North American cartoonists about migrant detention centres introduce new forms of immediacy and intimacy to graphic memoir, documentary, and journalism as they detail atrocities of the present. This chapter explores how British cartoonist Kate Evans’s Threads: From the Refugee Crisis (2017) and Canadian cartoonist Tings Chak’s Undocumented: The Architecture of Migrant Detention (2014) use different framing strategies to draw subjects caught between displacement and emplacement. I argue that the hand-drawn, intersubjective form of comics allows cartoonists to disrupt the dominant ocular logic that over-documents and spectacularizes the migrant body, especially in mass media, and under-documents and hides the carceral spaces in which they are detained. Drawing on Kelly Oliver’s work on ‘carceral humanitarianism’, Nicholas Mirzoeff’s concept of ‘the right to look’, and Lauren Berlant’s theories of compassion, this chapter analyses each comic’s formal techniques, from perspective to page layout to facial caricature, as aesthetic technologies that cultivate compassion as a social relation, rather than an organic feeling, between Western spectator and migrant subjects. As such, these ‘compassion comics’ relocate the experiences of migrants from elsewhere to here, and their traumas from past to present, through visual practices of immersion, projection, and dislocation that seek to detain the reader in narratives of migrant detention.
Candida Rifkind

Chapter 18. Comics as Memoir and Documentary: A Case Study of Sarah Glidden

This chapter explores ‘documentary comics’ and ‘graphic memoir’ as distinct comics genres, discussing differences and similarities in their affordances and constraints, especially concerning their materialization as graphic narrative. The proposed distinction will be illustrated through a case study of two works by Sarah Glidden: her graphic memoir How to Understand Israel in 30 Days or Less (2010) and her documentary comic Rolling Blackouts: Dispatches from Turkey, Syria, and Iraq (2016). In addition to a discussion of Glidden’s authorial intent, which is explicitly stated in the paratexts or voiced as metanarrative commentary, this investigation focuses on a range of other narrative techniques used to represent subjective experiences that are particular to both the works and their genres.
Johannes C. P. Schmid

Chapter 19. Afterword

In her afterword to Documenting Trauma in Comics, Hillary Chute offers her thoughts on the collection and the chapters collected therein. She focuses on the collection’s presentation of distinct definitions of trauma, and distinct viewpoints on the value of the field of trauma studies, as well as the lexicon, both formal and colloquial, it has inspired. She argues that what is key to consider is that comics, the form, is not a vehicle for preformed content, but rather that ‘thinking in comics’—the work of creation—shapes the experience and articulation of what is documented.
Hillary Chute


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