Observing the Observers Verbal Portraits from the Comics: Philosophy & Practice Conference, University of Chicago, May 2012

The writer needs to think as visually as the artist.

This is especially true in my chosen medium, but even without the presence of graphic narrative’s pictures, any serious writer needs to have characters visible in the mind’s eye. The close watching of human behaviors, physical qualities, and similar traits is a source of detail to borrow and inspiration to run with; the mere imagining of a single physical attribute may lead to a character’s entire backstory being formed.

It took me many years to learn how to pay attention to people, and it is a skill I am still honing, but I will always remember the moment when it became apparent to me how clearly the lesson had been learned. I was interviewing a friend of mine about her life to get some psychological insight for a project I had conceived… which is now, in part thanks to her, taking on new proportions. While taking notes, various aspects of her presence became more and more apparent with time: when her eyes would shift at some memories and glow at others. When she would pick at a small scab on her pristine white skin. And when how, deep in thought, she would finger her necklace. Suddenly, much richer and more textured creations came into my mind than had been imagined before.

The writer needs to be as visual as the artist.

Although for artists the significance level ratchets up. Observation of life and people is the foundation of their entire existence. In particular, the artists whose work has so greatly influenced me, my colleagues in the world of graphic narrative, whose portraiture skills, ranging from the ultra-realistic to the fancifully grotesque, have reinvented the comics world from the DC and Marvel tradition of heroes and action to gripping, emotional stories which break the rules of genre.

There is a lot to be written about the Comics: Philosophy & Practice conference held at the Logan Arts Center of the University of Chicago last month. The archives will preserve all what was said, but when I decided this was something I had to document from my point of view, the idea of truly looking at these luminaries, scrutinizing them a little as they scrutinize others, latched on to me hard.

What follows are my notes from the field.

W. J. T. Mitchell is one of the more foremost scholars in the University of Chicago, an expert on “reading images” who has just turned his recent Harvard lectures into a new book. To accompany such an unusual specialty, Mitchell, who is the university’s interlocutor for two one-on-one talks on Friday (the only event) and Saturday, dresses as the media has taught us to think the liberal academic dresses. The first night, he wears a sweater under his light blazer, and the next afternoon, a Dark Side of the Moon T-shirt to accompany the same blazer. Mitchell is equally casual in his stage presence, introducing himself with the phrase, “I’m going to ask a lot of stupid questions,” and only rarely betraying his knowledge of the artistic image. He lets his fellow conversationalists talk from their identical stuffed green armchair, listening, only gently prodding, absorbing the info as a man who feels he still has much to learn.

The entire first night is given over to Art Spiegelman, whose self-portrait on the program cover is a face with a curving, Hogarthian line of beauty in place of eyes, nose, mouth, etc. In person, Spiegelman has wavy hair, a neatly-trimmed mustache and beard, and thick spectacles. He smokes a long, thin electronic cigarette, and never have I seen an electronic cigarette look so Bohemian. He seems eager to relax and enjoy himself, but the Mac PowerBook which has the slideshow of images stored on it is malfunctioning, and Spiegelman takes it on himself to try to fix it while Mitchell and the rest of us indulge in good-natured laughs and he mutters “This is an argument for the old-fashioned book… oh, fuck!”

Similarly, there’s a divergence between what Spiegelman says and how he says it. His words confirm that this is the man who wrote Maus and thus changed the literary landscape forever. As that book was about our complex relationship to history and ancestry, provoking such confusing and uncertain thoughts that the protagonist is stuck between his actual human self and the mouse visage he devises, uncertain of which is which, so Spiegelman is of two minds on how the ephemeral art form of comics became high art and if this is a good or bad thing. Indeed, the very notion of a “graphic novel” annoys Spiegelman. Declaring the label really means “it looks like a book if you don’t look close,” he further snaps, “I’ve been called, God knows why, the father of graphic novels, and I’ve been asking for the blood test ever since.” But these words are delivered in the same voice that Tony Roberts used in Annie Hall to continually exhort “Max” to come to the sexual paradise of California, a voice rich in self-recognizing humor, and he expresses an abiding love for comics, including a devotion to the golden age of Mad, and an appreciation of technology allowing the most beautiful books ever to be made.

Joe Sacco, Mitchell’s other partner in dialoguing, could not be more different from Spiegelman. Sacco has received a heap of honors for his nonfiction comics, documenting in words and pictures the stories he has uncovered in Palestine, Israel, and the states which once were Yugoslavia. His work reveals a careful listener: he letters before drawing the pictures in a subversion of the comics norm, and he shies away from artsy experimentation or expressionism to create the most true-to-life images possible. Appropriately, his presence suggests an artistic flair. Trim, handsome, just the other side of fifty, Sacco wears a dark purple shirt with a flowery print design, blue jeans, brown shoes, and a fedora which he takes off for his talk to reveal thinning hair. The eyeless, tight-lipped self-concept in his books, inspired by a photo taken right after a woman broke his heart in which, Sacco says, he saw himself as a serious person, is not visible in the flesh and blood. And his voice fuses Maltese and American into an accent closer to English than anything else. But unlike many of his peers, Sacco does not gesticulate or even move much on stage. He sits quietly, controlled, listening, visibly thinking, dropping any conceit and artifice. He’s the sort of man you can trust, a man to whom you would want to tell interesting stories.

Deborah Nelson, her hair closely cut, her voice and smile warm and friendly, moderates the panel on comics and autobiography which begins the Saturday sessions. Three women and one man, all of whom know each other very well, engage in the friendliest and most spirited chatter.

Justin Green is the grandmaster, the man who (with Robert Crumb) made the world take notice of underground and alternative comics, the man without whom this conference probably would not have happened. The lean, wild-eyed youth whose fingers and toes turned to light-shooting penises in his autobiographical comics now has curly white hair down to his shoulders, faint whiskers, and just a small hint of potbelly. And to finish the contrast, this creator of hectic lines and torrents of words crowding his panels has the voice of a dopey Hanna-Barbera character, speaking in with an emphatic Burt Lancaster cadence. But his words… they are the words of a sage. Humble (“I wanted to present myself not as a hero but as a specimen”) and full of wonder (“We are part of a germane tradition of the graven image… [a great artist] on his deathbed said that in ten years, he would reach the point of clarity we all seek”), Green’s love for his art and optimism shine through every sentence, as when he describes seeing the Pieta and a scrap of a Crumb panel on the same day in Rome in 1967 and recognizing all in culture he cared about. But when he speaks of himself as a master bullshitter when it comes to putting his life on paper, the rumble becomes a great chuckle.

I’ve seen Phoebe Gloeckner lecture before, at last year’s International Conference on Comics and Medicine, and the impression is the same as it was then: a study in many, many contrasts. Gloeckner looks like a leading lady from a 1970s movie or sitcom with her wide eyes, easy & lovely smile, and wavy black hair… and knowing that she’s been actively making comics SINCE the 70s leads me to believe she has Dick Clark-style genes. Her presence is one of limitless energy: words comes out in an excited rush until she trails off, she moves her arms like a child playing a game, and she crinkles her nose and laughs when biographical details are messed up. She states early on that she couldn’t stand her life as a teenager, and her personality at times feels like it is aiming to recapture a lost idyll.

One might not suspect at first that she is a teacher of fine arts at the University of Michigan, or that her acclaimed multimedia comics draw on medical illustration training to present the most lurid, titillating, disturbing, anatomically-correct visuals you’ll ever find in literature. As the talk goes on, Gloeckner shows how self-aware and proud she is of her creations: in her point of view, depicting the ultra-personal transforms it into a shared experience, because we all have the same emotions and parts, we all “go to the bathroom.” And in one of the best lines of the day, Gloeckner makes a declaration for this communality which doubles as a rallying cry:

“If I’m going to be anything, call me a cartoonist, don’t add a fucking adjective like ‘female’ to it.”

Carol Tyler has earned as much praise as Gloeckner for her carefully-drawn, very moving three-volume graphic biography of her father, the culmination of years of witty and revealing paintings and comics. Of all the people who grace this stage, Tyler is the most down-to-earth artist, and one of the most down-to-earth people, period. If Gloeckner channels Genevieve Bujold or Glenda Jackson, Tyler is pure Carol Channing and Phyllis Diller: messy blonde hair just held together by a pencil, a face covered in wrinkles and laugh lines, and a flighty demeanor which sometimes explodes into her speaking IN ALL CAPS. Though a hint of nostalgia tinges Tyler’s art, the examples projected behind her are all rooted in an unwavering commitment to reality and bringing out our more suppressed emotions to the surface. “I don’t shy away from emotionally-charged subjects, like when I wanted to stab my daughter to death (during a period of post-partum depression),” she declares:

“The truth is people have horribly horrific thoughts and things happen… for whatever reason, we go to the horrible, horrible things… but PEOPLE LOVE IT!”

Aline Kominsky-Crumb dominates the middle of the day. Perhaps because during the panel, a photo comes up of her topless, examining her classic self-portrait depicting her looking into a mirror while sitting on a toilet, neither illustration nor photo leaving anything to the imagination. Floating out on stage with a turquoise shirt and silver witch’s necklace to complement her blinding red hair, she smiles at everything and everyone and the joy never leaves her face. To my slight surprise, she is the most measured on the panel. If the honesty in her comics is of the button-pushing variety, her honesty on stage is one of quiet strength. She is open about dealings with lousy publishers, annoying colleagues, and a tumultuous relationship with her mother which she fees guilty about, although she hastens to add that there’s a difference between being a giant monster and being less of a monster.

Throughout her panel discussion and subsequent conversation with Kristen Schilt — a professor entirely in black-and-white to her color, a silver-haired Edie Sedgwick who stays quiet and lets Kominsky-Crumb do the talking — a third voice is usually added to the mix, that of Robert Crumb himself calling out further details from the audience. Kominsky-Crumb doesn’t mind, comparing them to Burns and Allen with the most sincere affection. Ultimately, she declares her pride in carving out some ground for feminists by showing what is possible in their public and private lives, that holding principles does not preclude marriage and family. And about that toilet…

“It was natural for me! I have my best ideas on the toilet. It’s the opposite of erotic art!”

The afternoon panel is the overwhelming one as four men stare at the audience with cool-eyed glares, almost daring someone to make a sound.

Charles Burns takes the forefront, a bulky, stolid man with massive arms, his head almost completely bald. Of all the weekend guests he is the most difficult to form a first impression of, quite simply because everything in him guards against a first impression. He is silent and does not appear to breathe any air through his set jaw. His eyes are fierce black rocks set in the caverns of his face, peering out from behind thick black-rimmed glasses. And those frightening arms are folded across his blue shirt. No wonder this man wrote a book about angsty teenagers and the plague.

At the opposite end of the table is a forehead. Specifically, the forehead of Chris Ware, or possibly the second head of Chris Ware, as a profile could be mistaken for half of the number eight. It is impossible not to notice the forehead. For one, it fits in with the perfect geometric figures and predominant circles in Ware’s vision of the universe, his Acme Novelty Library and beyond. For another, it makes him appear to have stepped out of the pages of Dick Tracy or Adam West-era Batman. A less muted color for the suit he wears without a tie, and the elaborate villain role would be complete, especially when mixed with a THIRD level of roundness in his glasses.

Daniel Clowes, the only one without glasses, is not as scary as Burns or grotesque as Weir. He is aristocratically sinister, Addison DeWitt writ large. His face and body are drawn to a sharp thinness with lines of the purely ascetic, none more cutting than the bridge of his nose. The tailored black suit, also without a tie, is all but plastered to his body. Clowes is recognizably human, do not get me wrong, but there is a stylishness in his presence to an alien degree. Cartoony and real all at once, Clowes could have stepped right out of Ghost World or The Death Ray. He is the first to speak, and his voice’s gravelly timbre is not encouraging.

Seth is the only one who walks onto the stage with a broad smile, but this offers no comfort or familiarity, for in keeping with the Golden Age of Comics trappings of his art, his personal style is so aggressively retro and meticulously detailed as to be terrifying. He is a dead ringer for Harold Lloyd, a refugee who walked out of a frame of Barton Fink and into the Logan Center. His coat and wide-brimmed hat match, his Lloyd glasses are perched under slicked-back black hair with a few waves (yes, he’s the only one with hair), and even the tie and pocket handkerchief match as they accessorize his Warner Bros. gangster movie suit.

So the panel begins with a degree of otherness, of four geniuses of the medium defiantly setting themselves apart from the rest of the hall. Burns and Ware are even identically resting their chins in their hands to commence proceedings.

That is, until Clowes corrects a detail in his introduction and finishes with, “You’re welcome.” They start laughing. And soon, they’re speaking with the voices of poets on the book as an object. Seth declares books are beautiful, the best way to take in information. Clowes describes them as sculptures which crystallize in his mind as he nears completion. Burns, the last to articulate any words (Ware has given a short introduction in a voice cracking with emotion), relates to Clowes… “there’s a moment in suspended time when you just want the thing to exist… the idea of the physical object pushes you forward.”

“For me,” Ware finishes, “books are a metaphor for the person. A book has a spine, it’s bigger on the inside than on the outside, and it can lie to you. The author makes it inviting with the package, the presentation, but you open it up and it surprises you, it contradicts you.”

With this Romantic common ground achieved, the panel becomes an insightful comedy show, the audience almost rolling on the floor as the authors rhapsodize about Borges stories, mercilessly mock the New York Times Magazine’s abandoned comics section (which published their work), and all laugh in agreement when their common trend toward self-conscious, hapless, isolated heroes is pointed out. Burns describes inventing his own language and font. Seth shows pictures of the model city of his comics world which he builds in his basement. Ware enthralls everyone with a preview of his new book Building Stories, which will actually be fourteen differently-shaped books in a box, the story they tell having no beginning and no end. Clowes sighs about the pressures of putting out a monthly book, how he ended an issue of his legendary Eightball with a character getting shot and got to part two eighteen months later, and how Fantagraphics wouldn’t publish his work in color at first because it didn’t sell as well as their pornographic comics. By the time Ware gets the last word, “I start in the upper left hand corner and I draw and whatever happens, happens,” the audience knows they have been given the ultimate treat.

Francoise Mouly, who for two decades has been in charge of cover art for The New Yorker, is class personified. Her dark curly hair is only just turning gray, and her thin, tanned body is clothed in a dress which looks hand-painted, accompanied by a white sweater top. But the most noticeable part of her attire is a silver necklace and silver rings which glow and glimmer as she keeps moving her arms and head… and she does this a lot, since this is mostly a lecture on the history of the magazine’s art and covers which got rejected.

As her voice, beautifully accented to the point where the stereotypical “ze” for “the” feels natural, waxes poetic over the projections behind her, every conception one could have of the stylish, the cosmopolitan, the artsy, the New York, fuses into her dynamic presence. Mouly loves her job, loves working with the artists who create for The New Yorker, many of whom are in the audience tonight, including her husband Art Spiegelman. (Going by Mouly’s words, their long marriage doubles as a mutual fount of inspiration and encouragement.) The only thing she dislikes is turning down covers, and she runs through this history of pieces she rejected or was pressured into rejecting or almost did reject. Her most charming moment of absurdity comes when she compares the famous Barack-and-Michelle-as-terrorists cover to an actual cover from 1936 in which tall, blonde, muscular runners are aghast when a short, dark, curly-haired man with a large nose crosses a finish line with a joyous smile. “The joke,” Mouly says with a healthy dose of irony, “is, ‘Oh, look, a Jew would win a race!’”

To discuss some of the covers, Mouly brings out Clowes, Ware… and Robert Crumb himself. During her earlier talks, Aline Kominsky-Crumb compared her husband to a grandfather, and here he is wearing a golf cap just like my grandfather used to wear, with thick glasses, a neatly trimmed beard, and a bow tie. He looks charming, harmless… until he begins railing at Mouly for a cover of his which got rejected, tries to bring Clowes into the fray, and finally unleashes the Dionysian soul behind Fritz the Cat and Mr. Natural when he calls out to one and all, “Once you start doing covers for The New Yorker and you’re thinking of other people’s taste, you might as well cut your dick off.” Crumb eventually pacifies Mouly. “I don’t deal well with rejection myself,” he says with understatement.

The Saturday ends with what many think will be the other great highlight, a conversation between award-winning icon Alison Bechdel and the Chicago professor and renowned scholar who organized the conference, and who has been a longtime friend and recent teaching partner with Bechdel, and is recognized as perhaps the foremost scholarly authority on comics in America, Hillary Chute.

Above them is the actual outline Bechdel worked from to write “Are You My Mother?”

Chute has been directing the proceedings since the opening night, when she introduced Spiegelman and Mitchell. So slender you fear that she might be invisible if standing perpendicular to you, she walked on stage that evening in blue jeans and a black sleeveless shirt which revealed her own drawing, tattoos on both forearms. The tattoos, however, are almost covered by her hair, flowing, dirty blonde, running all the way down her back to her posterior, but somehow kept in check to frame her face perfectly. She somehow channels the Pre-Raphaelite model and the modern-day hippie (think Joanna Newsom) all at once. But her appearance is nothing compared to her mind: her remarks are insightful, well-timed, and when thought over afterwards clearly represent months, if not years, of study, inquiry, answer-finding.

Today, Chute wears a long-sleeved top with the two basic tones of comics, black and white, in alternating stripes. She had moderated the Burns/Clowes/Seth/Ware panel, and wisely kept out of their way except to ask just the right questions to send them off on intellectual flights of fancy.

Bechdel appears ready to sing a rousing verse of “The Lumberjack Song” in her checked red shirt and blue jeans. Her dark hair is crisply cut into a near flattop, and her jaw is even more firmly set than Charles Burns’s. I had seen Bechdel lecture in 2010, as she was preparing the new book Are You My Mother? which had been released mere weeks before this conference. She had looked just as severe, but her reading from her masterpiece Fun Home belied this visage with its warmth and emotion, and her dialogue with the audience was welcoming and fun.

Tonight, though, there is something in the mood on stage. It might be that both parties are reacting differently to the end of a long day of lectures. It might be that Bechdel is reticent or still unsure about her lovely but elliptical and dense Mother. But from the beginning, while Chute is lanky, loose, and expressive in her chair, Bechdel is as firm and stiff as the horrendously complex chart displayed behind her of the new book’s outline. Chute has come prepared with probing questions and a delightful eagerness which any grad student prays they have at the end of their schooling. With the men earlier, Chute’s fandom was clear in the joy she took in listening, and now her body language and tone are even more committed and excited. Bechdel, however, remains impassive, her answers either very direct or wandering in confusion.

In a typical exchange, Bechdel says that her intention going in was to “get to the feelings” of her relationship with her mother “through the ideas” of authors and psychoanalysts, translating the intellectual into the emotional. “Did that happen,” Chute asks? “I don’t know,” Bechdel replies, “I haven’t had the chance to read the book yet!” And when Chute, stretching her hands out wide, asks a final question about time and space and how Bechdel represents them, part of the reply is “I don’t really have anything to say about it. I’m sorry.” Bechdel opens up a little more during the audience Q & A, but she never cracks a smile, and Chute laughs nervously and even makes a fish face while drinking water during a long rambling, question.

It seems Bechdel, to bring this full circle, is as uncomfortable with “the fortuitous popularity of the graphic novel” as Spiegelman. “I’ve kind of corrupted my own memories hopelessly to write these books, and that’s a loss. I’ve lost a connection to my own past, but that’s okay because I’ve foisted it off on everyone else.” Bechdel even declares, in sharp contrast to much of the weekend, that she never wants to use just pictures and thus incorporates more words than usual in her comics…besides, “people in the mainstream, they like more words.” The perfect marriage of words and pictures, which Spiegelman touched on, does not seem as interesting to Bechdel, or as attainable.

And yet, in my final observation, Bechdel, now smiling and looking far happier, takes time at the evening’s end to chat with fans, to praise their art, to encourage a new generation of creators…of people who will observe in different ways from she and her peers.

Andrew Rostan

Andrew Rostan's first graphic novel, "An Elegy for Amelia Johnson," was named one of the best comics of 2011 by USA Today. His second book will be published by Archaia/Boom! Studios in 2015. When not telling fictional stories, he enjoys nothing more than conversing with his fellow Recorder members and the rest of the world.

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