Adviser: Jennifer Bean
Tracing the emergence and popularity of comic art and theorizing comics in relation to epistemological paradigms, this dissertation takes graphic narrative representations of persecution as its primary object of inquiry. In the past few decades, graphic narratives depicting persecution, from Art Spiegelman's Maus (1986) to Alison Bechdel's Fun Home (2006), have topped national bestseller lists and become standard texts in high school and university classrooms. While these works undoubtedly have been successful because their serious subject matter corresponds to conventional ideas about what makes good literature, the comics medium also affords new ways to conceptualize history. The formal properties of the medium, such as comics' spatial representation of time and visual-verbal tension, lend comics the capacity to contest dominant notions of history, both in offering counter-histories of specific events and in revealing the logics that implicitly inform the telling of history.
The primary materials of my study treat topics ranging from legally sanctioned discrimination to violent genocides. The title of my study emphasizes my commitment to demonstrating how comics' formal properties explode, by which I mean both expand and upset, history. These materials include graphic novels that narrate histories of persecution in fictionalized settings and nonfiction graphic narratives that use archival research to document past events. Combining philosophies of history and theories of modernity with formal analysis, I explore how comics engage temporality, subjectivity and vision, and argue that these conceptual frameworks for apprehending history themselves participate in the violences they render legible. Due to the medium's fragmented, spatial-temporal arrangement, comics interrogate temporal boundaries, often visually associating times of past oppression with readers' present. Comics complicate universal history at the level of visual register as well, using iconographic images and anachronistic period-specific art styles to denature linear time, for instance. Comics' multi-modal use of visual and verbal signification, layered across panels and pages, animates the contest between the perspectives of historical witnesses and those of the artists who popularize their accounts. For these reasons, comics not only broaden the practice of historiography, but also challenge historical epistemology and question the status of history telling as a mode of representation.