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February 5, 2018

Book Notes - Hillary Chute "Why Comics?"

Why Comics?

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Previous contributors include Bret Easton Ellis, Kate Christensen, Lauren Groff, T.C. Boyle, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Jesmyn Ward, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

Hillary Chute's Why Comics?explores modern comics with scholarship and contagious zeal.

Kirkus wrote of the book:

"Chute clearly has a deep understanding of, experience with, and affinity for comics culture. Best of all, though she analyzes with an academic’s rigor and supports her themes with extensive research, she doesn’t write like a professor… For anyone who wants a crash course in contemporary comics, or wants to teach one, this is your book."

In her own words, here is Hillary Chute's Book Notes music playlist for her book Why Comics?:

One of the most fun aspects of working on Why Comics? was writing the chapter called "Why Punk?," about the cross-pollination between punk culture, including punk rock, and underground independent comics. So I write about a lot of bands in that chapter, and was thinking about a lot of punk music. I reprint Gary Panter's amazing flyer for The Screamers, and Bobby London's cover of Blondie for Punk magazine, both from 1977, in the book. But other stuff inspired me too! Why Comics? takes a close look at comics culture, including profiling some of today's most famous cartoonists. A lot of contemporary cartoonists are big-time music lovers and record collectors. Robert Crumb's obsessive record collecting is featured prominently in the documentary Crumb, for instance, and he has done many series of musician portraits like those collected in R. Crumb's Heroes of Blues, Jazz, and Country. Chris Ware even puts out a magazine devoted to ragtime, called The Ragtime Ephemeralist, on the side. And Harvey Pekar, before his death, actually worked as a freelance jazz critic, as well as very seriously collecting records. So a lot of different genres were going through my head as I wrote the book, both from within the book and from without.

1. "I Can't Do Anything," by X-Ray Spex
In one of the scenes from Jaime Hernandez's Love and Rockets that I reprint, a group of girls—the main characters—sings this in unison. They are very X-Ray Spex—kind of bratty, totally charming.

2. "Kool Thing" by Sonic Youth
I write about the artist Raymond Pettibon as a key figure producing work that is related, formally and culturally, to comics, even though it may not be comics per se. Pettibon—born Raymond Ginn—did the album cover to Sonic Youth's Goo, one of most iconic album covers of the past thirty years. (Check out all the riffs on it online.) Pettibon is steeped in the music scene, and created the famous, enduring four-bars logo for Black Flag, his older brother Greg Ginn's band, when he was really young, basically a kid. His Goo cover is one of my favorite images, and "Kool Thing" is to me that album's essential track. Goo came out my first year of high school.

3. "Rough Going (I Won't Let Up)" by Hamilton Leithauser
In February 2017 when I was deep into writing Why Comics?, I went at the last minute on a random Wednesday night during which there was a snowstorm to hear Hamilton Leithauser play a sold-out show in Harvard Square, Cambridge, where I live. I first met Hamilton over a dozen years ago when he was in the band the Walkmen. This show totally rewired my brain. I bought the LP and listened to it every single day for months and months. "Rough Going" is a neo-doo wop song that I find infectious and as you can probably guess from the title it provided a lot of encouragement.

4. "Last Kind Word Blues" by Geechie Wiley
This track is collected on Crumb: Original Soundtrack, from the classic documentary about Robert Crumb. "Last Kind Word Blues," from the early 1930s, is a haunting song featured prominently in the movie, set with some of Crumb's most disturbing comics images, and I now associate it deeply with Crumb himself, who is a subject of my book. A fascinating article about Geechie Wiley, an obscure blues singer, was the cover story for the New York Times magazine in 2014. John Jeremiah Sullivan, the author, notes that he first heard of the singer in the movie Crumb: "I have been fascinated by this music since first experiencing it, like a lot of other people in my generation, in Terry Zwigoff's 1994 documentary Crumb."

5. "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road" by Elton John
Lynda Barry, another cartoonist I profile, once told me she had "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road"—the part of the song where Elton John sings those words—stuck in her head forever, and then that sing-songy phrase became stuck in mine too. She mentions the song in the beginning of her book What It Is.

6. "Let it Loose" by the Rolling Stones
The first time I interviewed the comics journalist Joe Sacco, who I write about in the context of comics about war, it was in 2005, for the Village Voice. Since he mentioned he was working on a long-gestating book about the Rolling Stones (a much lighter project than his usual conflict-zone reporting) I asked him what his favorite Rolling Stones song was, and he named "Let It Loose," which is my personal favorite on Exile. I saw him recently at a lecture he gave in Vermont, and we went out afterwards with a large group and bored everybody by having a big, long, animated Stones conversation. He later joked about our "joint Nobel in Rolling Stones Studies."

7. "Sign of the Times" by Harry Styles
I listened to this song a lot during the period I wrote Why Comics?. It's dark and louche and super 70s, a high voice crooning repetitively about "the bullets." It's existential, in a way that fits right now. I heard it on the radio one day driving to work, with no pre-existing notion of Harry Styles or One Direction, and was immediately hooked.

8. "Hard to Explain" by The Strokes
When I started working on Why Comics?, I was teaching a graduate seminar at Harvard on "The Graphic Novel." One day in class we were discussing the effect of what in comics is called "the gutter"—the blank space, which is often white, in between panels. One of my grad students, who is studying poetry, mentioned how an analogue to the gutter effect in comics would be the pause in the Strokes song "Hard to Explain." At first I thought this was curious—I was surprised to hear a Strokes song from 15 years before invoked seemingly out of nowhere in my seminar—but I liked the point, and it became something I thought about a lot, especially as his comment kicked off a massive re-immersion for me in their first album Is This It, which I had loved since it came out in 2001 but which had kind of fallen by the wayside. The comment rescued that album from the wayside for me and brought it back into my life. I just Googled the song and there's tons on the internet about its "hard pause." Someone wrote on a message board: "When it first came out, everyone in the club I was in kind of fell over and looked confused when the pause came!" Now I associate the Strokes with thinking about articulated absence. I gave a rare Strokes 7" to my research assistant who worked with me on the book for a present. "Hard to Explain" is now the gutter song. (By the way, one of the best chapters in Jennifer Egan's Pulitzer-Prize winning A Visit From the Goon Squad is about a kid who keeps an inventory of "great rock'n'roll pauses.")

9. "Needles and Pins" by the Ramones
This is one of my favorite songs. The Ramones represent a crossover between punk music and comics, of which they were fans and which appears in a lot of their album art, so they loom large in Why Comics? "Needles and Pins," a cover, appears on Road to Ruin, the 1978 Ramones album with a cartoon cover picturing the band that was originally executed by Gus MacDonald and later modified by John Holmstrom, the cartoonist who was one of the founding editors of the massively influential Punk magazine. The 2005 box set Weird Tales of the Ramones even comes with a comic book anthology full of comics about the Ramones, by cartoonists such as Jaime Hernandez (who did the cover to my book).

10. "Ring of Keys" by Sidney Lucas and Beth Malone
This is from the soundtrack to the musical Fun Home, which was adapted from the 2006 memoir by Alison Bechdel. I write about Fun Home in the last chapter of Why Comics?, on comics and queerness. And I reproduce the page from the book in which the Alison character, as a young child, spies a person she names a "truck-driving bulldyke" in a diner, which causes her to feel a surge of joy and identification. In the comics page, the woman, who has short hair and a plaid shirt, has a ring of keys on her belt, completing her tough and competent look. Lisa Kron and Jeanine Tesori, who collaborated on the adaptation and song, did something brilliant in making a small visual detail—which goes unremarked upon in the book—a centerpiece of the musical. At the TONY Awards ceremony in 2015, the young actress Sidney Lucas, playing the child Alison, sang "Ring of Keys," which is both deeply touching and sweetly funny. Fun Home won the award for Best Musical.

11. "White Rabbit (Arabic version)," by Mayssa Kara
When I needed some energy I listened to the Arabic version of "White Rabbit," sung by the amazing Lebanese singer Mayssa Kara. The original "White Rabbit," by Jefferson Airplane, a San Francisco band, came out in 1967, when underground comics were just about to really explode on the scene in that city. So I like the psychedelic framework of that song, but in the Mayssa Kara version, it's even more stripped down and propulsive building to the crescendo at the end and it feels emotionally raw in a way Grace Slick's version doesn't. This song feels like an injection of something powerful to me.

Hillary Chute and Why Comics? links:

the author's Wikipedia entry
excerpt from the book
excerpt from the book

Comic Book Bin review
Kirkus review
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette review
Popmatters review

History News Network interview with the author
News@Northeastern profile of the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

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Book Notes (2015 - ) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2012 - 2014) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2005 - 2011) (authors create music playlists for their book)
my 11 favorite Book Notes playlist essays

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