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What the %$#! Happened to Comics?

With these five words (and four cleverly chosen symbols) began a fascinatingly unique event in comics history. Under the shadow of the massive NATO conference that overtook the Windy City for the weekend of May 18-20, the University of Chicago mounted a historic meeting of the minds entitled Comics: Philosophy and Practice. An academic gathering designed to further the development of “transformative collaborations between scholars and artists,” Comics is but the first in an annual series of such conferences. Sponsored by the University’s new arts initiative, the event was housed in the brand new, ultra-modern Center for the Arts, erected on the staid South Side campus and jutting into the sky like an empathetic doodle itself. Most of the weekend’s program centered on dialogues or panel discussions between professorial staff at the University and a fleet of the industry’s most successful cartoonists with careers spread out over decades. Featured guests included Lynda Barry, Alison Bechdel, Ivan Brunetti, Charles Burns, Daniel Clowes, Phoebe Gloeckner, Justin Green, Ben Katchor, Aline Kominsky-Crumb, Françoise Mouly, Gary Panter, Joe Sacco, Seth, Art Spiegelman, Carol Tyler, Chris Ware, and the one-and-only R. Crumb.

I have to admit that my proudest moment that weekend was actually being able to utter four complete intelligible words to Robert Crumb directly — without a single stammer or faint head. Here was one of the legends of comic art of the last fifty years standing next to me and I held my cool. To be fair, those four words were something like, “The bathroom’s over there,” but I managed to get them all out as if the guy was just anybody. And honestly, what surprised me most about the weekend was just how intimate the occasion was. Far from a stuffy academic symposium or hurried book signing, Comics seemed to quickly develop into a sacred space where camaraderie between cartoonist and audience was palpable. Young aspiring cartoonists from the university’s own art program mingled with English department scholars, while lucky fans of cartoon history rubbed shoulders with donors and the guests of honor themselves. And it felt like something we all had equal stake in, somehow. More than once during the panel discussions did the artists themselves comment that this was really a unique opportunity to speak to one another — and share just what an influence they’ve been on each other.

In some sense, Comics was an interesting collision of realities for those artists whose autobiographies grew almost unilaterally out of a sense of personal isolation. Every cartoonist present began their careers with overwhelming personal anonymity and a craving to express their experience of the world on the page. But the lines that would eventually converge to create such seminal works as Maus (Art Spiegelman) or Dykes to Watch Out For (Alison Bechdel) carry with them the power to humanize or dehumanize, idealize features or exaggerate flaws. In actuality, to hear some talk verbally about themselves can seem almost more detached than what appears on drawn pages. Whether the subject is Palestinian relations with Israel (as in Joe Sacco’s Palestine) or Robert Crumb’s own self-portraiture in panel and word balloon, there’s an honesty to the page itself that transcends words alone. At the same time, comics defy objectivity in a way discussion never can. These women and men tell stories through the graphic novel because it brings something into relief about a situation without having to pretend its absolute veracity. The artist is both a translator of and distiller to an essential truth we’re all drawn into when reading.

Crumb

That commonality we experience in isolation was a running theme in more than one featured cartoonist’s work that weekend, but especially stands out in the work of Robert Crumb. While Crumb is perhaps most famous for a certain salaciousness in art style, reaping criticism for sexist and racist portrayals going back to his founding of the underground comics movement, his autobiographical comic strips stand out as singularly honest and self-reflective. Today, Crumb has no compunction about describing his adolescent self as a maladjusted geek, but the sincerity with which he has depicted that reality in drawings over a long career speaks louder than the statement itself. Crumb’s figure of himself in solitude and hapless loneliness exhibits a rawness that I have only seen reflected to the same degree in one other great cartoonist’s work of the last century: Charles Schultz.

Good Old Charlie Brown

Charles Schultz’ self portrait in the visage of famous Peanuts character Charlie Brown may be seen as a more innocent take on the human condition, but the similarities are not to be missed with Crumb’s work. Once you peel away the influences of a post-World War II desire to reclaim innocence in the wake of wartime trauma, Charlie Brown represents the solitary figure for the 1950s in much the same way Robert Crumb does for a more sexually revolutionary time twenty years later. Early volumes of The Complete Peanuts, carefully curated by Fantagraphics Books, show a much more contemplative and worldly figure than the one who would be seeking out the Great Pumpkin by the time I learned to read. Charlie Brown was alternately sought out for consolation, and rejected by all those around him in sharp, humorless fashion. Both a trickster at times and a chronic worrier, he mirrors Schultz’s own childhood as a shy, self-conscious kid tormented by bullies and authority figures, with a curious mind and a deep internal world that would eventually spill out onto the page.

Crumb walking

I often wonder, if Charlie Brown had been allowed to age in real-time, and grown into adolescence side-by-side with Robert Crumb, would he appear to be a similar lanky figure of self-disappointment and aggrandizement? Rather than growing more culturally safe year after year, the Peanuts gang might have faced the late sixties with the awakening and awkwardness of young adults fumbling about in a search for truth wherever they were told it couldn’t exist by the authority figures of the time. This alternate universe might not have made the newspaper syndicates happy, but it undoubtedly would have been revolutionary in much the same way Crumb’s work remains to this day.

Lynda Barry theorized that, like Charlie Brown frozen at pre-pubescence, adults who stop drawing at a young age never lose the perfection of their style. No matter how well a kid can draw before abandoning it for girls, boys, cars or a job, it always remains in the same condition in which it was left. Sure, those who don’t forsake drawing for culturally more appropriate activities may be doomed to a life of suffering for their art, they also get the opportunity to put something out into the world in a way few others ever can. Robert Crumb’s self-depictions have certainly evolved over the last forty-plus years, but to this day each comic he publishes encourages more and more artists to draw their own lives. Sitting next to many of these cartoonists professing as much in front of a crowd of onlookers, Crumb remained as self-deprecating — yet full of swagger — as the work itself in stating, “It’s only lines on paper, folks!”

To be continued.

Matt Santori-Griffith owns one business suit, three pairs of shoes, and over 15,000 comic books. He works a day job as an art director for several non-profit organizations, but spends his dark nights and weekends fighting the good fight on Twitter.com in the guise of @FotoCub. He has not yet saved the world, but isn’t giving up quite yet.

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