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Professor’s book explores the essence of comics—from superheroes, to sex, to the suburbs

Professor Hillary Chute has published a new book, Why Comics: From Underground to Everywhere. Photo by Adam Glanzman/Northeastern University

Visit a movie theater in America today, and you’re bound to find a superhero flick playing on one if not multiple screens. From Hollywood to Comic-Con, comics have gone mainstream. But there’s much more to the medium than Batman, Wonder Woman, and the Avengers.

In her new book, Northeastern professor Hillary Chute examines the history and culture of comics. The book—Why Comics: From Underground to Everywhere, published in December—delves into the superhero phenomenon but also the essence of comics’ appeal more broadly and how the art form differentiates itself from others.

“I wanted to write a book that would be accessible to people with a keen prior interest in comics as well as those encountering the art form for the first time,” said Chute, a comics scholar whose writing and teaching on the medium has spanned more than a decade.

Inspired by that charge, Chute’s 464-page book focuses on 10 major themes: disaster, superheroes, sex, the suburbs, cities, punk, illness and disability, girls, war, and queerness. Each chapter’s title begins with the word “Why”—as in, “Why Disaster?” and “Why Superheroes?”—and the book features more than 100 pages of illustrations, in full color and including some never before reprinted.

As a New York Times book review noted, “[Chute] puts across complex ideas without academic jargon,” adding that her writing can be “helpfully instructive” and “sometimes beautiful,” and “her enthusiasm can also be contagious.”

Chute—who holds appointments in the Department of English and the Department of Art + Design—said one chapter that stands out to her is “Why Punk?” She’s been a fan of punk culture and music since her teenage years, but she had never written about it extensively until now. “The more I worked on this chapter, the more I realized it stood in for the whole argument in this book—that is to say it highlights stories with a do-it-yourself ethic, people working from the ground up with no commercial backing,” she said.

The superhero chapter, by contrast, was among the most challenging to write. “It’s not my comfort zone,” she explained. “But I knew I couldn’t publish a book for a broad audience without a chapter on superheroes, so I faced it head on and taught myself a lot.”

Chute said she has mixed feelings about the impact superhero films have had on how the general public views comics. On one hand, the films’ massive popularity may lessen some readers’ interest in going beyond the movie theater and also give the impression that comics are all about violent superhero action. On the flip side, though, Chute believes these films have helped comics become more accepted as part of mainstream popular culture, and in an indubitably positive way.

“I like the idea that some of these superhero films and stories become on-ramps for people to delve deeper into the issues that the whole world of comics brings forward,” she said.

One theme that cuts across the entire book is how comics are handwritten, and how this brings a particular intimacy to the art form missing from other mediums such as film and TV. “It’s almost like looking at a diary or a manuscript,” she said. “You can tell a lot about the maker of these works by the handwriting, the way that person draws, that person’s style.”

Chute also underscored that comics have always been an accessible art form for creators—in that they need nothing more than a pencil and paper. That accessibility, she said, has only grown with the advent of web comics.

“There’s a humbleness in the tools that go into making comics,” she said, “and now that people can create their own comics and put them online, there’s a platform for uncensored work that comes directly from the source. I think there’s something really powerful about comics as a populist form.”