‘The mainstream has caught up with Comic-Con culture, not the other way around’

Hillary Chute, professor of English and art and design, is a comics scholar whose writing and teaching on the medium has spanned a decade. Photo by Adam Glanzman/Northeastern University

More than 50,000 people are expected this weekend at Boston Comic-Con, a celebration of pop-culture fandom where visitors will dress up in costume and immerse themselves in the comics, graphic novels, movies, TV shows, and games they love while meeting the actors and artists behind them.

For Hillary Chute, professor of English and art and design at Northeastern, Comic-Con is fascinating on many levels. As an expert on comics and graphic novels, she has attended San Diego Comic-Con—where the event began in 1970, long before it exploded into a global phenomenon.

“They are really fun,” Chute says. “I was intimidated at first. But the whole vibe is so friendly and so much about fan communities coming together. It makes for an uplifting time. You see whole families going together. It’s also a space where you have permission to be creative.”

Cosplay, or costume play, has become an integral part of Comic-Con, and is emblematic of the larger “do-it-yourself” movement of making things, Chute says. Attendees arrive dressed up in detailed costumes of their favorite characters; last year, in fact, she attended a Comic-Con panel on how to make a costume.

Cosplay, she adds, has also moved into making political and social statements by inverting gender expectations and transfiguring popular characters. She offers two Star Wars-related examples, where men may dress up as Princess Leia and women may dress as female Wookies. “We’re now seeing ‘crossplay’ and people performing the characters they chose in ways that puts pressure on gender taxonomies,” she says.

Photo by Adam Glanzman/Northeastern University

On a larger level, Chute says she’s been struck by how “the mainstream has caught up with Comic-Con culture, not the other way around.” Some of today’s huge mainstream pop-culture hits—see Game of Thrones, The Walking Dead, and Dr. Who, to name a few—involve genres such as Sci-Fi, fantasy, and technology and take center stage at Comic-Con. “There’s a big focus on geek culture being the valued culture in our society in general,” she says.

Chute is a comics scholar whose writing and teaching on the medium has spanned a decade. In the fall semester she’s teaching a course titled “The Graphic Novel” that will explore the history of the graphic novel, with an emphasis on contemporary work.

Chute says that when most people think of comics, they think superheroes—but that’s only one genre. History has produced romance comics, horror comics, western comics. Today, she says, there are science and educational comics. One particular genre she’s focused on right now is non-fiction.

Notably, Chute says, comics cultures are sprouting up across the world, including in Middle Eastern countries that have experienced revolutions in recent years. Webcomics, she says, have become a popular format in these countries, due in large part to the lower bars to entry and circulation. In fact, ABC News and Marvel Comics teamed up last year on a digital comic, called Madaya Mom, sharing the true story of a family’s struggle to survive in a besieged town in Syria.

In her forthcoming book, Why Comics? From Underground to Everywhere, due out in December, Chute explores what makes comics special and what the art form can do that others can’t. These are central questions to what has motivated her scholarship.

Chute studies the dynamic at play between the words and images in comics, two elements she says don’t necessarily match. “It’s a narrative form that takes place through one track, prose, and another track, images,” she explains of comics. “Then they come together in the reader’s mind to form a narrative. The words are doing one thing and the images are doing another, and the narrative is the dance between them.” As a result, she says, comics evoke reader participation by putting them in the position to fill in the gaps between the words and images.

When Chute attended Comic-Con last year, she wrote about the experience for Artforum, an international monthly magazine specializing in contemporary art. She observed a large focus on independent and experimental comics, not just pop-culture smash hits such as the aforementioned Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead. As she put it, the “Comic-Con is not about comics anymore” argument isn’t quite accurate. Rather, it’s still very much about comics, but just not singularly so.

“The whole horizon is becoming more expanded and inclusive,” she says.