These are some of the most influential names in American comics in the last few decades. It would be hard to underestimate the collective impact they've had on the medium. And the folks at the University of Chicago got them all in the same room at the same time to talk about comics from May 18-20. It was an opportunity I -- and I suspect at least a few others -- could not pass up, even to the point of circumventing traffic issues caused by the NATO conference only a few miles away. (Although, truth be told, I took the train from the north side of Chicago to get there and, aside from seeing a few extra cops at some of the downtown train stops, had zero issues.)
I missed the Friday night opening remarks and discussion with Art Spiegelman. But Saturday opened with a rousing panel discussion featuring Gloeckner, Green, Kominsky-Crumb and Tyler talking about their autobiographic comics. These four folks were probably the least familiar to me and much of what they relayed was entirely new because of that. What struck me was how familiar Gloeckner, Kominsky-Crumb and Tyler were right off the bat, picking up on each others' thoughts and ideas, making for a quite energetic discussion. Interesting, too, was that Green piped up, they all immediately quieted and almost reverentially gave him the floor to speak his mind. They all noted, in varying ways, how they had a deep-seated need to express themselves through their work. There was almost uniformly an almost inability to do anything else. And yet, also uniformly, they noted that the experiences were, by and large, not cathartic at all.
Kominsky-Crumb was interviewed by Kristen Schilt next. There was a little rehash of material from the earlier panel she was on, but not much. I was mostly familiar with her history through the works of historians like Trina Robbins, so I was surprised to learn that there's still some animosity from some of those other female comic creators from back in the day. Robbins wasn't named specifically -- no one was -- but I didn't realize there was that deep a wedge between some of those creators. It would've been fascinating to get Robbins or another contemporary on the stage at the same time to get both sides of that story. One of the unique things about this discussion was Crumb providing additional commentary and remarks from the audience.
Burns, Clowes, Seth and Ware then took some time to talk about their work. Notably they focused on the printed comic/graphic novel as an object in and of itself, almost separate from its content. It provided an interesting contrast against the first panel, in that they all had a precision about their work that bordered on obsessive. A particularly odd contrast, considering that Green noted having OCD earlier in the day. But these (slightly) younger gentlemen definitely had a stronger eye towards the graphic design of the entire package to the point of citing specific board weights for the covers and such. This is Ware announced his impressive looking package for the upcoming Building Stories and there was an almost collective audible drool from the audience as they began to grasp what he was describing.
Mouly then spent time talking about the history of The New Yorker covers, showing some (for the times) racy images from the 1930s before it settled into a more banal postcard approach later. She segued into rejected covers that she's seen on her watch over the past two decades, and then brought out three of the artists who've provided covers for her: Clowes, Crumb and Ware. Crumb was pretty closed at first, seemingly still hurt by the rejection of his last work. Not so much the rejection itself, but that the piece was sent back with no explanation. Mouly apologized on stage, but Crumb remained a bit dour on things. Clowes and Ware were able to talk for a bit and, as Mouly largely let them go off on their own, Crumb opened up a bit more to them.
Are You My Mother? with Bechdel. Bechdel has been in residence at UC for a little while, so Chute had a good first-hand knowledge and appreciation of her work. The book only came out a week prior, so not many people had had a chance to read it yet, and most of the discussion was centered on the new material. More striking, I thought, was that Bechdel herself hadn't seemed to have really processed the book yet either. She was able to address questions about her prior work well enough, as well as pointed technical questions about materials or what-have-you, but she seemed to be at a bit of a loss over the why/wherefore questions about her new book. Also, photo reference shots of her in a suit rolling around on the floor? Priceless!
Day Two was shorter. It began with a discussion with Barry, Brunetti, Crumb and Panter. It started a bit slow as the moderator had a somewhat lengthy preface, but as he backed away somewhat and let the creators just talk, it got to be quite engaging. Brunetti looked like he felt overwhelmed or outclassed to be on stage with the others, but he had some interesting things to say about what he was doing in his comics classes. Crumb was also decidedly more engaged than the previous day, possibly due to Barry's seemingly boundless energy. What I liked, too, was that Crumb seemed at least nominally familiar with the other artists' work, and had a professional respect for what each one of them did, DESPITE some obvious differences of opinion on various subjects. Most of what I've seen from him previously suggested that he hated anyone not like him, but he clearly showed that he understood and appreciated that other people were following different dreams and that as long as you pursued your dreams, didn't "sell out" and always did your best, he respected you. This was by far the most engaged and engaging panel with discussion ranging all over the comics map, and a lot of energy (and non-sequitur anecdotes) provided by Barry. I was ready to be disappointed when the last audience question was why Barry drew herself as a monkey -- a decidedly banal query if you want to know what I think -- but it led to an impromptu verse of You're Bound to Look Like a Monkey When You Grow Old sung by Crumb. I felt it was, by far, the best panel of the conference and worth attending the whole thing just for these 90 minutes.
Overall, it was an absolutely fantastic conference. Especially considering that it was the first of its kind. There were some folks who tried grabbing autographs, and there were a few "can I get a picture with you"s heard but it was more about the information than the celebrity. The guests all sat in the audience when they weren't on stage, often asking questions just like any of the other audience members. I also saw Gary Groth walking around for a bit, and Jessica Abel was there live-tweeting things. (Though I didn't actually see her myself.) I overheard several people who had gone through the Center for Cartoon Studies, others who ran extensive graphic novel sections of university libraries, and others still who taught college level classes on comics. This was all about the medium of comics and exchanging information in a way and to a degree that simply doesn't happen at conventions, possibly because the commerce angle tends to get in the way. There were some tables set up to buy various works of the guests, but that was clearly not the focus. People came in to talk about comics in an extended and intelligent manner. And they did. And it was brilliant!