Looking at Suffering: A Review of Ethics in the Gutter

Ethics in the Gutter: Empathy and Historical Fiction in Comics

Kate Polak
The Ohio State University Press
September 20, 2017

CONTENT WARNING: This book includes discussions of genocide, alcoholism, sexual assault, and racism, as well as images depicting blood, gun violence, animal cruelty, and lynching.

Cover to Ethics in the Gutter: Empathy and Historical Fiction in Comics, by Kate Polak

Comics’ ability to portray violence is notoriously tied to the 1954 publication of Frederic Wertham’s Seduction of the Innocent. Images of crime and horror were causing juvenile delinquency, the psychiatrist claimed, and repeated depictions of suffering rooted comics in perversity. Wertham’s manipulation and fabrication of evidence has been widely denounced. However, questions about what it means to look at suffering and violence remain present in comics today. In her Eisner-nominated book, Kate Polak asks how fictional comics can simultaneously represent historical suffering and question those representations.

Historical atrocity is the center of each comic in Ethics in the Gutter: Empathy and Historical Fiction in Comics. The five comics Polak analyzes are rooted in different experiences and events, but they all draw attention to the dangers inherent in the representation of suffering. The representation of history has consequences, Polak explains, and comics have the ability to address those consequences in ways that other media cannot.

Polak uses a narratological approach for her analysis of the formal structures of comics. The field’s discussion of focalization, or the relationship between the act of seeing, the agent that sees, and what is seen, is central to Polak’s investigation of the complex ethical position that the reader has to characters and events. On the one hand, the panel presents a particular way of seeing. Writers and artists choose what is seen and how by controlling the ways text and image are both revealed and concealed. The gutter, on the other hand, prompts the reader to consider the connections between panels and to reflect on the boundaries of seeing and knowing. Few scholars have considered the ways that narratology’s study of the processes, functions, and structures of narratives intersect with comics, and this makes Ethics in the Gutter an asset.

The integration of fiction into conversations surrounding comics’ ability to represent experience is valuable as well. Fiction can avoid the objectifying nature of narratives insistent on facts alone while honoring the ways that individuals’ experiences are unique and separate from what the reader sees. As a result, fiction offers more ways of considering the complexities of human experience. The comics in Polak’s book draw on historical reality while exposing the vast distance between what “we think we know and what we fail to understand” about trauma.

Cover to Jean-Philippe Stassen’s Deogratias: A Tale of Rwanda

The breadth and intensity of Polak’s book is immediately apparent in chapter one. “Being a Dog: Transformation, Focalization, and Memory in Deogratias” is about the memories and post-genocide struggles of a perpetrator involved in the Rwandan genocide. Jean-Philippe Stassen’s Deogratias: A Tale of Rwanda challenges the reader’s understanding of experience by foregrounding how images of atrocity are mediated. Deogratias transforms into a dog when memories of his past become overwhelming. As a result, the negotiation of the perpetrator’s experience makes visible the intervention of the author. Stassen’s role is further emphasized through the representation of other media within the panel in addition to the few number of panels drawn from Deogratias’s point of view. Polak argues that these factors push the reader to recognize images of suffering as truncated and arranged representations.

Polak shifts from a global perspective of large-scale atrocity to individual experiences of violence in the United States with “Just Like Sally: Rape and Reflexivity in Watchmen.” Chapter two analyzes the attempted rape of Sally Jupiter by The Comedian in Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’s book. This particular scene reveals how Sally’s experience with sexual violence resists reader identification and empathy. While Deogratias is told from the point of view of the perpetrator, Sally’s point of view is unavailable to the reader. As a result, Sally’s experience resists both identification and empathy. Polak argues that the scene reveals the inability to know and understand the experiences of another person. Rather than trying to understand Sally’s perspective, the reader must consider how her personal trauma contributes to the large-scale violence as well as the overall narrative in Watchmen.

Cover to Scalped by Jason Aaron and R. M. Guera, Vertigo Comics

Chapters three and four turn toward the tangled relations minority groups have with trauma and memory. “‘We’re Still Here:’ Authenticity and Memory in Scalped” focuses on Jason Aaron and R. M. Guera’s fictional portrayal of the 1975 shooting of two FBI agents on the Pine Ridge Reservation. The conflicts among each character’s dreams and memories of the shooting indicate the unstable ties between memory, perception, and the act of witnessing. Further, the character’s attempts to narrate the incident points to the ways that memory is reframed through narrative. In Scalped narrative and memory are integral to identity. As a result, characters wrestle with identities defined by the incident and struggle to understand how the past informs the present and connects to the future. Polak argues that this complex relationship between memory and narrative highlights the historical marginalization of minority perspectives and identity in order to promote an understanding of how the past connects to present-day circumstances.

In “My Children Will Remember All of the Things I Tried to Forget: Bayou and Intergenerational Trauma,” personal and cultural memories collide to create a network of memory. Jeremy Love’s Bayou follows Lee Wagstaff, a young African American girl in 1933, as she traverses an alternative reality in an attempt to save her father from being killed for a crime he did not commit. Lee’s journey through the alternative reality is punctuated by her own memories of violence as well as intergenerational memories of slavery and institutionalized racism. The series foregrounds memories that dominant narratives have obscured while reminding the reader of the long history that defines those memories. Polak argues that the various contents and textures of remembering illustrate how both hidden and enshrined memories affect the present as well as future possibilities.

Page from Mike Carey and Marcelo Frusin’s “The Pit,” Hellblazer, Vertigo Comics.
Page from Mike Carey and Marcelo Frusin’s “The Pit,” Hellblazer, Vertigo Comics.

The final chapter returns to a more global perspective and addresses an atrocity whose struggle against effacement continues today. “Telling the Wound: Framing and Restricted Narration in Hellblazer” looks at Mike Carey and Marcelo Frusin’s “The Pit,” the last comic in the “Third Worlds” arc of Hellblazer. The genocide of Tasmanian Aborigines is central to the story arc as Constantine and his girlfriend, Angie, seek out ghosts of the genocide to gather information about an impending attack. Points of view throughout the comic continually shift to resist reader identification and acknowledge the inaccessibility of victims’ experiences. The narrative underscores the lack of knowledge the reader can truly have about the trauma others experience. Not only do Constantine and Angie not understand that they do not have the “whole story” of what is impending, but the information they were given is also obscured from the reader. Polak argues that the comic works to make the reader aware of their own lack of knowledge and the pitfalls of misunderstanding.

Chapter five’s final argument is representative of the book as a whole. Ethics in the Gutter is ultimately about the awareness that we must have as readers and viewers when engaging with images and texts that depict atrocity and victims of atrocity. Polak makes it clear that the formal structures of comics encourage readers to reflect on their drive to understand, imagine, and connect with historical fiction.

Kate Polak’s book is (understandably) heavy. Each chapter presents the historical context that the comics are rooted in, and all of the contexts are brutal. Polak’s thorough research and detailed discussions of historical events provide a valuable example for anyone working with similar content. Her framing makes it clear that scholars need to consider how they are talking and writing about depictions of suffering, even if it is fictional. With thoughtful examples and engaging analyses, Kate Polak’s book is a strong addition to comics scholarship on narratives of trauma.

Ethics in the Gutter will point researchers to a range of resources. If you want to learn more about Polak’s narratological approach, check out James Phelan’s Living to Tell About It: A Rhetoric and Ethics of Character Narration. If you’re interested in thinking more about the ethics of looking, Susan Sontag’s Regarding the Pain of Others is the place to start. For anyone interested in thinking about life-writing after reading Polak’s investigation of fiction, Elisabeth El Refaie’s Autobiographical Comics: Life Writing in Pictures and Jane Tolmie’s Drawing from Life: Memory and Subjectivity in Comic Art are also Eisner-nominated books.

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Morgan Podraza

Morgan Podraza

Morgan is a professional weirdo. She drinks at least 4 cups of black coffee everyday to fuel her research on comics and film. Tweet her cute animals and silly gifs at @MorganPodraza.