A different kind of comic con came to Chicago this past weekend as the University of Chicago hosted Comics: Philosophy and Practice, a three-day academic conference that hosted the biggest names in the history of alternative comics and graphic novels.
The roster of guests is literally the Who's Who of comics: Art Spiegelman, Robert Crumb, Phoebe Gloeckner, Justin Green, Aline Kominsky-Crumb, Carol Tyler, Joe Sacco, Charles Burns, Dan Clowes, Seth, Chris Ware, Francoise Mouly, Lynda Barry, Alison Bechdel, Ivan Brunetti, Gary Panter, and Ben Katchor. Moderating the creators were a selection of scholars from the university, with backgrounds and perspectives ranging from English lit to sociology, reflecting the multiple facets of the conference's programming.
Spiegelman possibly nailed down the whole theme of the weekend in one sentence during his keynote conversation with W.J.T. Mitchell on Friday night called What the %$#! Happened to Comics?. Pointing out the use of random punctuation marks as a shorthand for swearing, he remarked that it was like comics in that "it's not pictures, it's not words, it's something that happens in your mind." Despite articulating the entirety of comics theory in less than a minute of the conversation, the conference went on to include panels on the roots of autobiography in comics, techniques and designs of fictional graphic novels, and more.
The conference was relatively unhampered by the city of Chicago sharing that weekend with a NATO summit, which created transportation issues for, well, the entire city. Despite that, the auditorium in the newly completed Reva and David Logan Center for the Arts was filled to capacity and warranted an overflow room (the conference, which was free but required advance registration, filled up in record time.) The event was also webcast live, and questions via Twitter were incorporated into the Q&A sessions from as far away as Athens, Greece.
In addition to the panels, several artists were featured in one-on-one conversations. The day after Spiegelman's introductory talk featured conversations between Mitchell and Joe Sacco, Aline Kominsky-Crumb and professor Kristen Schilt, and Alison Bechdel and Hillary Chute.
The last conversation there is of particular significance, as it ties into the origin of the event, which began when Chute proposed the idea of bringing Bechdel (whose graphic novel Are You My Mother? was published this spring) to the university. Bechdel was a Mellon Fellow this spring and collaborated with Chute on a class, as well as having her work featured in an exhibition at the college's Center for Gender and Women's Studies.
Chute discovered comics in grad school through Spiegelman's Maus, and has since written the book Graphic Women, an overview of female graphic novelists and worked with Spiegelman extensively on the book MetaMaus. As comics continue to become integrated into academia and the literary culture, Chute is one to watch. Considering her articulation on the subject and her connections with the creme de la creme of comics, its only a matter of time before someone has the bright idea to throw a truckload of money and resources at her to make something happen. If the world of comics makes any sense, being able to claim collaborations with Spiegelman and Bechdel alone should be enough of a golden ticket to get any future project of hers off the ground and running.
Beyond the scholarly insights of the weekend (which included numerous ruminations on the idea of comics as educational tools and well as the ethics of journalistic and autobiographic cartooning,) the conference had a few revelations on future work from a number of the contributors. Chris Ware showed selections from his forthcoming ephemeral work Building Stories, out from Pantheon this fall, which explores the lives of the residents of an apartment building in Chicago through a collection of differently sized and designed minicomics. Joe Sacco revealed that after his work on the graphic novels Palestine and Safe Area Gorazde among others, he had grown wearing of conflict zones and was considering a work of fiction for his next project.
The most breaking news came from Bechdel's conversation with Chute. having just toured 16 cities to promote her new book, Bechdel had of course been faced with the question of her next project, and had suggested an interest in a work exploring her family as a whole to examine the dynamics of family structure. (Her two graphic novels have centered on her relationship with her late father and her ongoing relationship with her mother.) During the Saturday night conversation, Bechdel revealed that her mother had strongly objected to a third work on their family and threatened to cut off Bechdel's access to the family archives. When asked during the Q&A how she would feel about doing a work of biography on someone separate from her own life, she expressed interest, saying that it would have to be someone that she could get a substantial work out of. (In addition to the exploration of her relationship with her mother, Bechdel's latest book also features threads of critical biography on Donald Winnicott, Virgina Woolf, and Adrienne Rich woven throughout.)
In her opening remarks, Chute described Chicago as a "comic city," and if it wasn't before, she's certainly made it one now.
Poster design excerpted above by Chris Ware
Greg Baldino lives and writes in Chicago, the latter for an ever-widening spectrum of publications. Follow him on Twitter at @gregbaldino.