Comics Philosophy & Practice Summation/Review

By | Tuesday, May 22, 2012 7 comments
Lynda Barry
Alison Bechdel
Ivan Brunetti
Charles Burns
Dan Clowes
Robert Crumb
Phoebe Gloeckner
Justin Green
Ben Katchor
Aline Kominsky-Crumb
Françoise Mouly
Gary Panter
Joe Sacco
Art Spiegelman
Carol Tyler
Chris Ware

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.

Sacco took the stage next, being interviewed by W.J.T. Mitchell, one of the University professors. (And let me apologize now, but I didn't catch the positions or departments of the various UC people who did any of the presenting.) I personally like Sacco's work the most of the guests, and I probably learned the least from this talk. The gentlemen I sat next to throughout the weekend early on noted that he was hoping to see the creators go "off script" as they talked with one another; that is, many of these creators have been asked the same/similar questions often enough that they have stock answers. Not that they're invalid, by any means, just that the questions aren't new, so neither are their answers. This was most evident to me in what Sacco said because, as I was most familiar with him and his work, I had already read quite a bit about him. It was good to see him in person and hear/see his personality come through more immediately, but it was the least enlightening portion for me.

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.

The day ended with Hillary Chute discussing 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.

As Crumb and Kominsky-Crumb ducked out to catch a plane, Katchor lectured on "Halftone Printing in the Yiddish Press and Other Objects of Idol Worship." It skewed a bit away from comics and focused more on 19th and 20th century printing technology, but it was still interesting. Though I must admit that I found Katchor himself to be a bit stiff as a presenter.

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!
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Matt K said...

This is fascinating, and a good write-up. I'm really glad for you that you got to attend this!

Bhob said...

What else did Katchor talk about? That event was not streamed. No explanation as to why Katchor was rescheduled and then cancelled from streaming. Why? I once saw one of Katchor's slide shows of his comics; it was impressive, as images plus his narration breathes life into the comics.

I never heard specifically why Katchor's presentation was moved back from the original time, but I got the impression it was actually to accommodate Crumb's schedule and had little to do with Katchor himself. Aline noted earlier that they were leaving that day to visit her mother in Miami and, with the NATO conference in town, I suspect they felt it would take longer than originally anticipated to get to the airport. I saw Robert and Aline leaving from the conference with luggage almost immediately after Crumb's last panel.

As to Katchor's presentation itself, he was talking primarily about half-tone screening technology as it was used/seen in Yiddish newspapers of the early 20th century. It was sparked by a paper his father read (don't recall the name) that would run a photo of the paper's founder on the front page of every issue, but he showed how/why it wasn't a good reproduction and how it further deteriorated over time. That led into a history of half-tone screening more broadly, and how the images weren't necessarily meant to be strict pictorial accounts of people/places/events but more as a means to simply remind you about it. Sort of a visual lodestone for your own memory.

No reason was expressly given why Katchor's piece was not streamed. It sounded like it was lecture/presentation that he does regularly, though, so I would guess that he wasn't comfortable with having it recorded because it would theoretically diminish the potential for his being able to present the work in person. That's mostly a guess on my part though.

But the rescheduling and the non-streaming came across, to me at least, as unrelated.

Bhob said...

Thanks. Btw, your excellent review of the weekend is very similar to my own reaction. What did you think of the panel moderators? I missed the name of the last panel moderator (who wisely kept quiet after the panelists went soaring). The streaming resolution on speakers was very good, but the problem of giving a high quality image on art remains a problem. Even so, this was an improvement on the washed-out slide show images on Book TV.

Honestly, I didn't care for the moderators all that much, with the possible exception of Chute. The folks doing the panels acted less as moderators, and more as professors giving their own dissertations. They spoke a lot up front with few actual questions, and once the creators got a chance to speak, the mods didn't really have much in the way of follow-ups. Barry's "shut the fuck up" comments seemed particularly pointed and poignant.

The folks doing the one-on-one pieces were a little more engaging in that regard, but seemed to have a relatively superficial line of questioning. I was talking with one of the other attendees who actually got his graduate degree at UC and was taught by many of the professors/moderators. He confirmed that most of them would have nothing to do with comics when he was in school, and this was clearly a fairly recent development for them.

Chute seemed to me the most knowledgeable about comics and the most adept interviewer. However, she was hampered somewhat by Bechdel not really having good responses for her own work.
("What were you trying to achieve with this layout?"
"... ... ... ... that!"
Funny, but not very insightful or self-reflective.)

On the one hand, I get that they were academics in an academic setting, but on the other hand, they were dealing with people, many of whom never even went to college.

Bhob said...

Yes, Barry let them have it. I was reminded of a long-winded, convoluted James Monaco intro of Dennis Potter and Steven Bochco at the Museum of Television & Radio -- until an annoyed Potter interrupted with a remark like, "Are we going to have to listen to this crazy talk all evening?"

Do you know if these panel discussions will be archived?

I don't know. I would've assumed so, but I see that their archives have other live webcasts referenced that don't actually have content behind them.