In the midst of the chaos and protest of the NATO summit meeting held this past weekend in Chicago, an amazing comics convention took place at the University of Chicago. Simply called Comics: Philosophy & Practice and hosted by the Richard and Mary L. Gray Center of Art and Inquiry, the event offered a virtual who’s who of the most inventive and celebrated cartoonists of the last 50 years and featured such acclaimed and subversive artists as R. Crumb, punk cartoonist Gary Panter, graphic memoirist Alison Bechdel and comics giant Art Spiegelman, to name just a few.
This conference was slightly different than your normal Comics Con and I mean that in the best possible way. The conference focused on dissecting the careers and approach to art making of the artists featured; admission was free and the focus was on the lectures and less on the merchandise. The symposiums were also set up in a linear fashion—never more than one lecture going on at anytime, unlike the multiple-track programming held at most comics shows—which was very nice and didn’t force attendees to pick one great lecture over another. Actual attendance was on the smaller side, with only about 300 conference attendees. But the entire of the conference was streamed live on the wed, allowing many more to view the presentations via the internet. Participants streaming the simulcast were also able to participate in the panel Q&A’s via Twitter. In just 3 days the conference had over 1,400 hashtag mentions.
The conference started off Friday afternoon with a conversation between Art Spiegelman, author of the groundbreaking work of Holocaust graphic nonfiction Maus, and University English professor W.J.T. Mitchell, delightfully called What the %$#! Happened to Comics. The conversation was so wonderfully casual that it almost seemed as if they were two friends catching up over a cup of coffee and not two professionals speaking about their “craft” on a stage in front of hundreds of people.Speigelmen puffed on his electric cigarette and discussed the history of underground comics, scrolling through dozens of images projected onto a giant screen behind him. He explained how the field of cartooning had changed from its early roots and how 100 years ago one would be expected to be able to draw all the racial stereotypes if he wanted a job cartooning. At one point Speigelman clumsily flipped through his power point presentation stopping on an ad from 1908 that boasted “Earn $20 to $200 a week as a cartoonist,” and remarked, “the funny thing is, that’s still true today.”.
Saturday morning kicked off with a panel called Comics and Autobiography which featured Phoebe Gloeckner (The Diary of a Teenage Girl), Justin Green (Binky Brown and the Holy Virgin Mary), Aline Kominsky-Crumb (Twisted Sisters) and CarolTyler (You’ll Never Know). The panel discussed the process of producing works about one’s own life. Some used the process as a cathartic release while others felt like they had to simply get the work on to paper, as if they were compelled by an unknown force. Kominsky-Crumb discussed the differences between her comics and her actual life, saying that she drew ugly grotesque figures because that’s what she felt inside and that’s what she had to draw, while actually she was (and still is) a very attractive woman. In real life, she explained, “I wanted to look sexy and I wanted to have sex with men and these feminist women acted as if I was some sort of [feminist] Uncle Tom.” She also admitted that she does feel some guilt for the less than flattering way she drew her mother in many of her early autobiographical comics. During the Q&A an audience member asked if she had ever apologized to her mother for the way she depicted her all those years ago. She responded “let’s not go crazy, she’s still the same person, just a little bit nicer.”
Later in the day comics journalist Joe Sacco, author of such great works as Palestine and Footnotes in Gaza, satdown with W.J.T. Mitchell for a one-on-one conversation on his past work, future plans, and the process of melding comics with journalism. In 1992 Sacco spent a considerable amount of time in Israel interviewing countless locals, cataloging their experiences in the conflict ridden West Bank and the Gaza Strip. What emerged from this meticulous process of on the ground research was a beautiful work of non-fiction called Palestine that won Sacco the American Book Award. Sacco discussed his process of being embedded in war-devastated locales, what he called “one of the worst, most horrible, anti creative environments.” Sacco relies on the photographs he takes as well as stories from eyewitnesses to create what he described as “the most honest telling of the story possible”.
The last, and perhaps the liveliest, panel was Lines on Paper which featured Lynda Barry (Blabber Blabber Blabber Volume 1 of Everythin)g, Ivan Brunetti (Cartooning: Philosophy and Practice), R. Crumb (Zap Comics) and Gary Panter (Jimbo’s Inferno). This panel was more or less just a forum for four amazing cartooning icons to pretty much just talk shop and answer questions from the audience. Its off the cuff feel was very enjoyable. The discussions seamlessly bounced from one topic to the next. Gary Panter told a story about taking LSD and drawing a pornographic comic commissioned by an oddball farmer in some small town in Texas. The farmer later buried the comic for unknown reasons.Mad Magazine was mentioned as a common influence among all the artist on stage. R. Crumb from time to time made nervous noises into his microphone and mentioned that he “hated rock n’ roll.” Lynda Berry swooned over the comic strip Family Circus, to the dismay of the rest of the panel, and Ivan Brunetti was charming and humble, finishing every story he told with “someone else talk, I’m talking too much.”