I have just finished reading The Queer Art of Failure (Duke UP, 2011), Judith Halberstam’s refreshing, clever, and perambulatory exploration of how failures (of all sorts) can function as resistance, alternative, and challenge to a wide range of limiting paradigms and structures implicitly or explicitly designed to corset our knowledge, our bodies and our lives. Halberstam asserts that her project “dismantles the logics of success and failure with which we currently live. Under certain circumstances, failing, losing, forgetting, unmaking, undoing, unbecoming, not knowing may in fact offer more creative, more cooperative, more surprising ways of being in the world.” (2-3). Halberstam allows herself great freedom in this work, wandering from domain to domain with gimlet-eyed scrutiny coupled with delight in her journey. I was struck by her decision to bookend her study with two chapters on animation (particularly animated films that explore liberation, such as Chicken Run  and Finding Nemo ), the first chapter entitled “Animating Revolt and Revolting Animation,” and the last, “Animating Failure: Ending, Fleeing, Surviving.” Though Halberstam–cultural, queer and gender theorist–does not claim to be an expert in this medium, and granted that there are significant differences between comics and animation, I found her commentary provocative and relevant to my work in comics studies. Halberstam muses:
Very few mainstream films made for adults and consumed by large audiences have
the audacity and the nerve anymore to tread on the dangerous territory of
revolutionary activity; in the contemporary climate of crude literalism even social
satire seems risky. And in a world of romantic comedies and action adventure films
there are very few places to turn in search of the alternative. I would be bold enough
to argue that it is only in the realm of animation that we actually find the alternative
hiding. Non-animated films that trade in the mise-en-scene of revolution and
transformation, films like V for Vendetta and X Men, are based on comic books
and…graphic novels. What is the relationship between new forms of animation and
alternative politics today? Can animation sustain a utopic project now, whereas, as
as Benjamin mourned, it could not in the past? (22-23)
Nice. Halberstam ends on questions just like those we pose on PencilPanelPage! So, if we take some liberties and replace the word “animation” with comics, then we can consider the modified form of the question to be “What is the relationship between new comics and alternative politics today?” Is there something inherent to the form that allows or even encourages social critique to manifest more fully? I myself don’t have full answers to this yet, but when I think about Joe Sacco’s complex and situated reporting in Footsteps in Gaza, Safe Area Gorazde, and Palestine,
or Robert Morales and Karl Baker’s insufficiently heralded Truth: Red, White and Black (a troubling and sharply rendered account of the chemical experiments conducted on a battalion of black soldiers during WWII) or David Small’s Stitches and its indictment of both the law of the father and harmful medical practices, I think that this might be the steady thread which binds an otherwise disparate collection of graphic works on my shelves.
Through the use of unforgettable color schemes (bloody red and black in Inverna Lockpez and Dean Haspiel’s Cuba: My Revolution), composite characters who “contain multitudes” in Josh Neufeld’s A.D. New Orleans: After the Deluge, or multiple drawn renditions of tales of shape-shifters in Matt Dembicki’s collection: Trickster: Native American Tales—A Graphic Collection, recent comic works of a serious bent aim to explore some of our most entrenched tyrannies: contested places, subjugated peoples, the dangers of the family unit, oppression, poverty, colonialism, heteronormativity, compulsory reproduction, the romance plot, alienation, mechanization…. If I think about the terms privileged by Halberstam in her introduction: “loss,” “undoing,” “unbecoming,” “not knowing,” they read as apt descriptions of what “happens” in works like those I name above (and many others). We see traumatized individuals, social groups, entire peoples harmed by the actions of the state, dominant factions, employers, parents, even self-harm in the name of hegemonic concepts. Loss of country, loss of shelter, loss of autonomy, loss of identity—these are the tropes I see repeated in the graphic memoirs and histories that are being published today. Do you see a similar trend? If so, what is it about the comics medium that lends itself to questioning the social order?