(Published in The Comics Journal | June 2012)
In his 1951 prose poem portrait, “Chicago: City on the Make,” Nelson Algren presented an aggressive, gritty, and realistic view of the city that got to the heart of its struggle for an American identity. Fueled by Algren’s belief that art needed to connect people above all other functions, he pursued his vision of Chicago by admitting to a culture that the more sanitized bourgeoisie mostly wanted to avoid: the working class ethos that was the lifeblood of the city. In fact, Chicago was the same city (prior to his taking up residence in Greenwich Village) that gave rise to Claes Oldenburg’s notion of a grittier street-based art freed from conventional gallery and museum practices. Oldenburg had been greatly influenced, as other Chicago artists of the 1950’s were, by Jean Dubuffet’s 1951 Arts Club of Chicago lecture, “Anticultural Positions”, which essentially made the case for looking beyond traditional definitions of high art, to find art in that which has been overlooked. Dubuffet stated:
Our culture is an ill-fitting coat–or at least one that no longer fits us. It’s like a dead tongue that has nothing in common with the language now spoken in the street. It drifts further and further away from our daily life. It is confined to lifeless coteries, like a mandarin culture. It has no more living roots. I aim at an art that is directly plugged into our current life, an art that starts out from this current life, that immediately emanates from our real life and our real moods.
On May 18th through the 20th, 2012, the city was the site of “Comics: Philosophy & Practice,” a conference hosted by the University of Chicago and organized by Hillary Chute, an Assistant Professor of English at U of C. Seventeen luminaries of the medium were in attendance, many of whom have a strong personal history with the city and its environs. It is no accident that Chicago has been home to cartoonists and the making of comics, born of working class roots and a sensibility that reflects the very character of the city. Its textural influence, simultaneously down-to-earth and sensational, has resulted in comics that display a deeply felt connection to one’s environment, unlike, say, fantasy or science fiction.
While Lyonel Feininger was imported from Germany in 1906 to create Wee Willie Winkie’s World and Kin-Der-Kids to entertain the working-class immigrant readers of the Chicago Tribune, it was the familiar Tribune pillars of Harold Gray (Little Orphan Annie) and Chester Gould (Dick Tracy) who remained more closely influenced by the city itself. There has long been an oscillation between plain earthiness and the sensational grotesque in comics emerging from Chicago, all reflecting the “urban life,” from Frank King to Gould to Boody Rogers, and all the way through to the “architectural” comics of Chris Ware and the “neighborhood types” of Daniel Clowes. Gould’s vision of a physically abnormal criminal element was not far removed from Chicago painter Ivan Albright’s warts-and-all portraiture (his horrific Dorian Gray comes to mind), which predated the city’s “Monster Roster” artists in the ‘50s and the Hairy Who in the ‘60s, artists influenced by comics and now influencing the medium itself. It is worth noting that currently on view at the Art Institute of Chicago is a retrospective of the work of Roy Lichtenstein, often frowned upon by cartoonists as an appropriator of the medium, rather than an engaged assimilator such as Jim Nutt or Karl Wirsum of the Hairy Who. Nutt and Wirsum explored picture-making with deep psychological and expressive resonance beyond mere “painting for painting’s sake” or emotionally icy responses to consumerist culture, by then the declared modus operandi of the art world proper (New York). They did so, in part, by being voracious devourers and assimilators of “impolite” material such as comics, dredged up from the cultural gutter.
The notion that comics belong in the gutter still fuels discourse. Since the acceptance of comics as a medium worthy of rigorous debate, as well as research and presentation in both the art and literary worlds from museums to long-established publishing houses, and as fodder for scholarly dialogue in the circles of academia, those who are still toiling in the trenches as cartoonists continue to grapple with what can be called an identity crisis. At the core of this crisis is the notion of “acceptance.” This conversation recently found voice in an essay at the start to Kramers Ergot 8. Titled “Notes on Camp, Part 2”, by musician Ian Svenonius (who also hails from Chicago), it lays bare the uneasy relationship between art world/academic forces and the increasingly self-aware mode of comics production.
Ostensibly, this very issue, and all the tributaries that flow into and out of it, was to be addressed during “Comics: Philosophy & Practice.” With the group of seventeen artists brought in to discuss the “unprecedented interest and attention” comics is currently receiving, the question “where is this vital field moving?” was the declared rallying point of the conference. And when the term “comics” was used, it referred specifically to the “philosophy & practice” of American alternative and independent comics and made little to no mention of the capes-and-tights variety. The underlying thread running throughout the discussions that unspooled was very much about grappling with the “vulgar” origins of comics and what it means when something created out of a need to entertain and make money is only very recently the subject of analytical discourse. This is something that other arts such as cinema and design have long since come to terms with, due to their less ephemeral nature. Certainly, such a debate relates directly to Chicago’s history as an urban cultural outsider (facing off against New York and L.A.) and the homegrown, working-class artistic ethos it has spawned.
Of the artists who participated in the conference, it was Robert Crumb who, from the audience, frequently shouted a number of comments that were meant to defend the medium against interpretation and over-analysis. At the very start of the conference, Miss Chute read aloud a postcard sent to her by Mr. Crumb, announcing his misgivings about an unholy alliance between academia and comics. He suggested that such an enterprise would bore an audience. “IT’S ABOUT COMIC BOOKS,” he emphasized. And yet, throughout the discussions, all of the personalities involved managed not to induce any boredom. Indeed, there were more than a few willful attempts to steer away from academic inquiry, as a continuation of the medium’s uneasy relationship with institutions. Aside from Crumb, the other chief participants were Lynda Barry, Alison Bechdel, Ivan Brunetti, Charles Burns, Daniel Clowes, Aline Kominsky-Crumb, Phoebe Gloeckner, Justin Green, Ben Katchor, Françoise Mouly, Gary Panter, Joe Sacco, Seth, Art Spiegelman, Carol Tyler, and Chris Ware. Ware, Clowes, and Brunetti are all artists with a deep Chicago connection and in the audience were a number of younger Chicago cartoonists currently shaping the medium—among them Nate Beaty, Lilli Carré, Edie Fake, Paul Hornschmeier, Onsmith, Laura Park, and Jeremy Tinder. Seeing these younger cartoonists facing the stage certainly begged the question as to why the newest generation of comics authors, those who would truly have something to add to a conversation concerning where the medium is headed, were not included in the discussions. Absent were the likes of Sammy Harkham, Ben Jones, Ron Regé, and Johnny Ryan, to name a few that spring immediately to mind, artists who must know what the pulse of comics is and what results when tradition and evolution meet within such an elastic medium.
Things kicked off with “What the %$#! Happened to Comics”, a conversation between W.J.T. Mitchell, a Professor in English and Art History at U. of C. and editor of Critical Inquiry, and Art Spiegelman, intended to sketch in a picture of the medium’s origins and where it seems to be headed. When asked if it is a curse that comics are now an academic subject, Spiegelman characterized such acceptance as a “Faustian deal.” He discussed the unsavory origins of the medium as entertainment for the “great unwashed masses,” before the form was cleaned up for greater, more widespread acceptance on the way to mass medium status. He indicated that in the very history of the medium, there has consistently been a tug-of-war between the vulgar and the genteel. But now that comics have fallen from the glory days of record circulation, librarians, who once led the charge to have comics banned and burned, “are the best friends comics can have.” However, Spiegelman added, taking the danger out of comics by putting them into the classroom is like administering medicine. “Some cartoonists are now making comics for the academy—it dries the medium out.” Mitchell asked what it means when comics are no longer a “guilty pleasure.” Spiegelman: “It’s a bad thing. MAD was the codex. It ruined my life. It gave me the ‘original sin.’ It gave me the parody before I knew what was being parodied.” Spiegelman continued, “The term ‘graphic novel’ is a euphemism for ‘respectability.’ [Will] Eisner grabbed it out of his ass—he was nothing if not a talented merchandiser.” He concluded the discussion of comics-as-respectable medium by warning about the danger of allowing the medium to get arid under such conditions. “It’s important to keep it vulgar.”
Addressing what happens when comics become wall art allowed into galleries and museums, Spiegelman noted: “There is more to the Faustian deal than I originally thought. There are sub-clauses. The mingling of words and pictures is now allowed, and what is being achieved is way past Lichtenstein, way past Barbara Kruger. Something new is emerging. The avant-garde is exploring a new place where the pictures are not as easily articulated, not as happily contained.” This led the conversation to a dual consideration of new media and how a younger generation of cartoonists is reconsidering the form itself. “A book is easier to make because of this thing that is supposedly killing it. There is now a focus on the book as object—a new function in the world of the iPad.” Spiegelman noted that the history of comics has been the history of printing up until now, and that the medium has looked to the book-as-object as an answer. “The book, or ‘graphic novel’ is the current dominant form of the comic. The problem is that it requires great labor.” He indicated, however, that the book does not play to the greatest asset of the comics form—that the medium is one of compression, of reducing-down— the shorter, the better. In response, Spiegelman sounded a note about a move away from the book and a return to short-form comics out of the necessity of doubling as “wall art.”
Phoebe Gloeckner, Justin Green, Aline Kominsky-Crumb, and Carol Tyler took part in the panel discussion “Comics and Autobiography”. Gloeckner made clear an important distinction of autobiographical comics: “It’s not to present the self as hero, but as specimen.” Contrary to the perceived view that comics trafficking in autobiography are highly narcissistic exercises, Gloeckner pointed out that through the exploration of the self, a universal understanding could be achieved. “The less you hide things, the more universal, the less personal it gets.” By being in the story herself, not simply reflecting from the outside, she said that she was “not after true fact, but after an emotional truth.”
Justin Green, long acknowledged as the “father of autobiographical comics” by his peers, began by citing his influences—visits to the Art Institute of Chicago that yielded many viewings of the “The Rock” (1944-48) by American painter Peter Blume, and works by the Ashcan School of social realists. He then recounted how in the summer of 1967, while studying art abroad in Rome, he happened across a comic by Robert Crumb and that this became “a call to action.” Speaking directly to a current assessment of the form, Green said, referring to the onslaught of digital media, “Why would so many cartoonists get together? For a funeral.” After the applause that followed, perhaps in recognition of what may have been perceived as a sad truth, Green added, “Or for a wedding. Every artist starting now must reckon with new media.” Green went on to address the character of comics as art: “There is a power to our humble medium that is unique. We write, we know how to balance image and words. That’s kinetic. It’s closer to music than to visual art. It’s a humble cobbler’s medium.”
Joe Sacco, in conversation with W.J.T. Mitchell, who acknowledged that Sacco was a sign of “what the fuck has happened to comics,” acknowledged that underground comics and the work of Art Spiegelman had opened up a new space for adult comic books— a space that took some time for publishers and editors to catch on to, but was now being recognized and supported. Sacco, like Spiegelman and many of the other panelists speaking at the conference, spoke to the idea of comics as supporting a “voice of subversion,” and credited the fostering of this to MAD, which gave one “the right to be angry, to go crazy.” The discussion of Sacco’s work, dealt also with the identity of the comic book artist as outsider, as someone willing to go quietly into unsafe areas, in this case war zones such as Sarajevo and Palestine, and illuminate what is not represented in wider, more acceptable, cultural circles. In fact the anger Sacco had referenced, later manifested as outrage with the willful negligence of mass media news organizations to fully address or delve into the stories for which he provided a much more telling, intimate perspective— relating to what Gloeckner had earlier described as an “emotional truth.”
“Graphic Novel Forms Today” consisted of a conversation between Charles Burns, Daniel Clowes, Seth, and Chris Ware. Once again, the conversation returned to a consideration of the book as object, with Clowes stating that “cartooning is ephemeral. When it becomes a book, it becomes concrete and enters into the world in a very real way.” Chris Ware made a case that, for him the beauty of the book lies in its ability to open up and unfold an immersive reading space: “The book is bigger on the inside than it is on the outside.” In fact, there was a surprise reveal before the audience and the panelists themselves, of Ware’s forthcoming Building Stories, which will consist of fourteen individual publications housed within a box. Ware indicated that he has been consistently moved by qualities found in the box constructions of Joseph Cornell, a number of which are on permanent display at the Art Institute of Chicago, and that this led to a consideration of the form of this new publication. Perhaps by the very nature of those speaking on the panel, very little time was spent truly considering the possibility of presenting the graphic novel form by digital means. Clowes mentioned Mr. Wonderful, the serialized strip he created for the New York Times’ “Funny Pages,” and the experience of having it kept online against his wishes by the Times when he expanded the story into book form, and insisted that this put a dent in the sales of the book. Ware made reference to “Touch Sensitive”, a 2011 piece he created for the iPad, each touch of the screen affecting subtle changes in the story, but did not appear to be invested in the results. He did suggest, however, that “newsprint was the fiber optic cable of the 19th and 20th centuries.”
The “Blown Covers” discussion, introduced and moderated by Françoise Mouly, art editor for The New Yorker, co-founder of the enormously influential RAW, and founder of Toon Books, was occasioned by the publication of the Blown Covers book, which details Mouly’s editing process and presents a number of rejected covers. The discussion became noticeably awkward concerning a rejected 2009 cover by Robert Crumb depicting a gay couple applying for a marriage license. The resulting exchange seemed to hinge on the uneasy balancing act of a “vulgar” artform putting on “genteel” airs for mass consumption. With Mouly placing the circulation of The New Yorker at 1.044 million, Ware, a veteran of numerous covers, chimed in: “Your sphincter tightens when you do a cover for The New Yorker.” Reacting to the numerous written complaints Mouly received in response to a 1994 cover by Crumb, Crumb scoffed, “Loyal readership—that’s pretty fuckin’ square. Keep it light—L-I-T-E.” Mouly expressed regret and recounted how the 2009 cover was sent back to Crumb without any explanation, as the result of a flawed process that lead to the cover’s rejection by editor David Remnick. But this clearly opened up, quite publicly, a sore spot for Crumb. Looking at the rejected cover and attempting to lighten the mood, Ware asked, “Did you have fun drawing the legs?” Crumb: “Well, whatever.” Clowes: “This is an intervention.” Flanked by two cartoonists currently working quite well within the parameters of The New Yorker cover format, Crumb characterized the process of making content more palatable for a wider-ranging, more conservative audience by adding: “You might as well get yer dick cut off.” End of discussion.
If there was a showstopper at the conference, it was “Lines on Paper”, with panelists Lynda Barry, Ivan Brunetti, Robert Crumb, and Gary Panter. Moderated by an animated Hamza Walker of the Renaissance Society at the University of Chicago, it brought out the greatest amount of humor from the participants, as any attempt to hone in on an academic focus was thrown to the wind. Barry began by comparing drawing to a means of transportation. “Draw a beak, a cigarette, write a sentence about someone you hate, and you are here.” Brunetti steered the conversation toward considering the medium within a working class ethos: “When I grew up, I lived in a bungalow—working class architecture. Unassuming, but done with skill and craft.” He likened his own drawing to writing, a calligraphic gesture that was based more on the use of letter forms to communicate clearly. Panter embodies the comfortable marriage of the high/low schism experienced by the medium. At one point a Panter notebook entry was projected, listing influences as diverse as Sergio Leone, Russ Meyer, Captain Beefheart, Karl Wirsum, Jack Webb, and Jefferson Machamer, with a few names scratched out. Crumb begged the question: “I wanna know about those revisions.” Seth asked Panter whether in this stew of high and low influences and assimilations, he had a system for assigning value. Panter suggested that they were all cultural artifacts he was responding to. Crumb pointed out that the process of assimilating all of the influences resulted in a thing that is uniquely Gary Panter. Eventually, however, the discussion turned to other matters seemingly unrelated to the academic objectives of the conference. Panter imparted the wisdom, “Be a producer, not a consumer,” and recounted a time when he and a friend took LSD and made a porno comic entitled Pee Dog: The Captain’s Final Log. Evidently it was last seen being buried in the desert by a farmer. Barry made a public confession that Family Circus was a major influence on her. Crumb, incredulously: “Family Circus?!” To close the session out Crumb sang a little excerpt from the Clarence Williams tune “You’re Bound to Look Like a Monkey (When You Grow Old)”. It worked wonders on the audience and the panelists.
Hillary Chute and the University of Chicago are to be congratulated for organizing and hosting such an ambitious conference. The display of excerpted comic book pages and panels, as projected onto an enormous auditorium screen, with conversations unfolding at the foot of these magnified images, was a galvanizing experience for all gathered. Hopefully, other institutions capable of assembling such an event will follow suit. The exploration and questioning of the medium has only just begun, and several issues touched upon during the course of “Comics: Philosophy & Practice” can serve as platforms for further inquiry: notions of funding and distribution (publishers were noticeably absent from the conversation, although Alvin Buenaventura and Gary Groth were present in the audience); of political content; and of race in relation to content, creators, and audience. A look around the auditorium revealed that the audience was primarily white, middle-class, and college-age. During the “Lines on Paper” discussion, when moderator Hamza Walker had asked, “Did you ever think you would see a black president in office or a conference on comics hosted at a university in your lifetime?” Ivan Brunetti smartly replied that he was waiting for the day to see a black cartoonist participating on a panel. In a discussion aimed at the state of the medium today, it would seem a crucial point of inquiry as to why independent cartooning is populated with mostly white, working- to middle-class creators for an audience that seems to be the same. And what of the equivalent to the introduction of the Guttenberg press? There was much hemming and hawing and dancing around the impact of digital devices on comics, but it is surely a conversation that must find its way into the room in the fullest possible way, sooner rather than later. Lastly, the issue of self-awareness is a very important one that was touched upon by Spiegelman in his opening discussion with Mitchell. What happens when a medium becomes so aware of its own historical footprint that it either attempts to package the results as a formula to be reiterated, or strives to use that knowledge as a starting point for testing the boundaries of the form itself? What role does entertainment and commerce continue to play in a medium founded on such strategies? It would be appropriate to summon Manny Farber’s well-known 1962 essay “White Elephant Art vs. Termite Art”, apropos of the oft-mentioned vulgar-genteel split.
The conference had an emotional tenor that trumped much of the more rigorous academic inquiry. This is completely understandable given the roster of participants and the resulting mix of personalities. Despite the best intentions of the moderators, deeply moving anecdotes and a tremendous amount of quick wit overtook the analysis. But what else could be expected? If you invite a group of artists like these to the table, you are most certainly going to have a party, albeit a very smart one, rather than a focused, solemn affair. It seems in keeping with the “vulgar-genteel split” that the medium has historically experienced that this would be precisely how such a conversation amongst peers would progress. If the participants took a discussion of the medium too seriously they could be accused of exactly the sort of hermetic post-creation sideline commentary that tends to isolate rather than acculturate an audience.
After one panel discussion, Chicago artist Paul Nudd gave me a vigorous shaking when I ran into him, exclaiming, “Look—it’s Crumb. It’s R. C-R-U-M-B!” And it wasn’t just those in the audience who were elated by the presence of a cartooning hero or two—the panelists themselves were frequently excited to be in the presence of one another. Such an atmosphere resulted from the sight of cartoonists from across a number of generations maintaining an extraordinary level of enthusiasm and youthful delight in a medium they so clearly love and have dedicated their lives to. I heard the word “inspiring” conjured by many younger artists during that weekend. There was a shared experience of humor and a pursuit for artistic freedom that reminded me of a well-known exchange between Willem de Kooning and Philip Guston, as recounted by Guston:
When Bill de Kooning saw the [Marlborough show, in 1970] he said he liked it very much. You know, everybody thought those paintings were about the hooded figures and the bad condition in America and so on. And that was part of it. Every artist hopes to give his own interpretation of the world. But they were about something else too. When he saw the show, after embracing me and congratulating me, he said, “You know, Philip, what your real subject is? It is freedom.” And I said, “That’s right, Bill. You’ve got it.” And then we embraced again and he said, “Why, of course. The whole idea is for the artist to be free.”
One evening, as I was leaving the conference with Paul Nudd and Onsmith, in pursuit of a meal, Daniel Clowes strolled by. Nudd shouted out: “Where’s Ribs ‘n’ Bibs?” Clowes, without hesitation responded: “5300 South Dorchester.” He knew the Hyde Park environs well. We did make it to the fine barbeque establishment in question, but unfortunately once there we were told: “We’re out of pork. Beef only.” A barbeque beef sandwich it was. Soaked with sauce. With some fries. And it was great.