The recent ‘Comics:Philosophy and Practice’ conference at the University of Chicago represented the greatest single gathering of comic creators in recent memory and Fuzzco sent me to soak it all up.
The list of panelists and speakers consisted of Robert Crumb, Daniel Clowes, Joe Sacco, Chris Ware, Art Spiegelman, Aline Kominsky-Crumb, Charles Burns, Justin Green, Phoebe Gloeckner, Seth, Francoise Mouly, Lynda Barry, Alison Bechdel, Ivan Brunetti, and Gary Panter. If you don’t care about comics that list means little so just imagine a field you care deeply about and think of 10 or so of the individuals most responsible for making that field what it is today. Now imagine them gathered in the same room for a weekend, happy to speak and answer questions about their work, process, and philosophy.
For me, the best event on the schedule was easily the panel of Clowes, Burns, Ware, and Seth on the form of the graphic novel, moderated by conference organizer Hillary Chute. Curmudgeons all when it comes to the concept of digital comics, Ware and Seth especially waxed rhapsodic when arguing the medium of the book is essential for true enjoyment of the form. I nodded vigorously in agreement from the bleachers. In making the argument, Ware previewed his upcoming ‘Building Stories’, actually a small collection of books in various formats making up a single, non-linear narrative, with no beginning or end, about the various inhabitants of an apartment building in Chicago. He’s been publishing the pieces for years in his Acme Novelty Library series but will be releasing the collection this fall through Pantheon.
Burns told a story about creeping past his sleeping parents as a small child to sneak a peek at the new Tintin book his father had brought back from a European business trip. The story helps explain why his new series, ‘X’ed Out’, is shot through with visual references to Hergé’s classic series, and further illustrated the deep emotional connection comics creators tend to feel with their childhood influences.
The conference wasn’t all object fetishizing and stories about childhood. Joe Sacco and professor W.J.T. Mitchell had an engaging back-and-forth about the former’s concept of graphic journalism. Sacco, trained as a journalist, has spent the last couple of decades traveling to zones of conflict and reporting his experiences in longform comics like ‘The Fixer’ and ‘Safe Area: Goražde’. His works are hard to match for emotional impact and balanced reporting of what it’s like to truly experience war. As the pair gave a methodical visual reading of several pages and panels from his works, Sacco spoke in detail about his process and what he thinks comics can accomplish that other reporting media cannot. Summary: a lot.
Much more was said, many more gems of insight offered, and it will be difficult to ever replicate what happened in terms of the sheer experience, intelligence and influence present. The good news for those who didn’t make it is that the whole thing was recorded and the journal Critical Inquiry will soon be hosting the videos on this page. Go ahead and watch some of it, you might learn something.