The Graphic Novel: An Interview with Michael Chaney

Dartmouth's Michael Chaney

Dartmouth’s Michael Chaney

I initially wrote the below for the newsletter that goes out every other month to my former college classmates, and one of them, Ann Jacobus, who writes for and teaches writing to children and young adults, said that others might be interested in the below. Good idea, Ann! (By the way, read more about Ann and her work here.) So here’s a slightly edited version of that original article – and you can read more about Michael and his work here. He’s an Associate Professor of English and the Vice Chair of that department at Dartmouth College, and among other classes, he teaches one on graphic novels. Now what graphic novels are you reading?

Tell us about your background, Michael.

I’m originally from Ohio, Cleveland Heights, OH. I realized after a while that we lived in that town specifically for a strange set of enormously complicated historical and political reasons. My grandfather was a black American GI and my grandmother was a German. My mother grew up a mixed race occupation baby in German and sought to find her biological American father, who was then living in Cleveland Heights – a town that had been known for its lenience towards miscegenation since at least the 1930s. I grew up, therefore, having a deeply experiential understanding of what today’s literary critics and theorists would call hybridity. It was a fetching concept for many, but a way of life for me. This made my impressions of literature seem original, I suppose, to many of my high school teachers of literature, who encouraged me to pursue my passions for literature in college. In terms of professors, I would place a lot of the blame for my becoming a professor on Dewey Ganzel at Oberlin College. I remember well an American literature course he taught, discussions were always on Friday, and we students would have it at his house. He always had cookies for us. We’d collect in his study, surrounded by books and quietly turn over all the tiny threads of implication in novels by James and Twain, Howells and Chopin. I was truly converted during those discussion sessions.

In your bio for Dartmouth’s English Department, it says that you study “the interrelationship of literature and visual culture.” What does that mean and how does that show itself in the 21st century?

I was an artist for some years before going to grad school – an oil painter and a muralist – and I was drawn to the different ways that pictures make meaning from written texts. I became very interested, for example, in the implicit visual imagination readers might sense in the poems of Emily Dickinson – how her writing depicts a world that is felt as much as it is seen. And this interest led especially to my interpretations of, among other things, the visual imaginary in antebellum slave narratives and the complicated tensions between words and images in contemporary graphic novels and comic books. Other researchers in this field, which some call visual culture studies, look at similar signifying tensions in digital art, the internet, TV and cinema, and advertisements, but I’m committed, of course, to studying how they play out in literature.

I know that you will teach a class on the graphic novel. When I was a kid, I holed up at the public library reading the Tintin and Asterix series, a precursor to what is now called the graphic novel. Now, my middle school-aged son can go to the library and pick from an entire wall of graphic novels. What drew you to this genre? How has the genre changed, evolved? Do you see it as becoming more and more mainstream – and, if so, why?

I was a fan of the X-Men as a kid – a multicultural “family” of outcasts with special but misunderstood abilities. That comic sounded only one allegorical step removed from my own family, so I was a fan after reading the first reading experience of that comic. I remember, too, encountering words that I had never heard of before (I was maybe eight years old), words like sibilant – as in, “The alien tentacle emitted a sibilant hiss as the laser struck it.” I was a logophile from an early age, and these comics from that period got my attention and didn’t let go for nearly a decade. The changes in graphic novels are global and sweeping. The giant of US superhero comics was dwarfed in the 1990s by a collision with Manga and then later modified considerably with the rise of 1960s underground comix, culminating in masterworks like Spiegelman’s Maus and Satrapi’s Persepolis (both of which owing much to my home town hero of Harvey Pekar! – another proud resident of Cleveland Heights). Graphic novels can be literature these days. I almost never have to explain that to people anymore, not like I used to back when I started teaching them ten years ago.

When it comes to graphic novels, there are the more obvious and famous – Maus and Persepolis – but what others might you suggest that people read?

My reading list contains some of my favorite examples of the form – the autobiographical stand-outs like David B.’s Epileptic, Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home, and Lynda Barry’s One Hundred Demons. It also has Alan Moore’s wildly popular Watchmen, which is a post-superhero-meets-the-Ubermensch story, as well as one of the most philosophical texts on identity you’ll ever want to read in David Mazzuchelli’s Asterios Polyp.

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