Sunday, December 2, 2012

All Hail the Comics Heroes

Chris Ware made several promotional posters for the "Comics, Philosophy, and Practice" at UChicago earlier this year.

Dear reader -- This thing was "in the can" in May, but went unpublished and grew dusty. Here it is now, five months later, but hopefully illustrative of something of the accelerating tide of comics' move to the mainstream. I know, I know--we've known that comics are "serious" for a long time....but there's a new urgency around the academy's acceptance of the form. This incredible meeting of comics minds was a testament to what's happening now.

Art Spiegelman’s electronic cigarette glowed neon blue as he puffed in the darkness offstage. The scene looked almost like a series of panels from the beginning of a superhero comic book: a stranger’s silhouette hangs in the shadows of an anonymous city, his face illuminated only by the tip of a Marlboro Red. As he exhales, he grumbles, “Forty years ago, we never guessed that this %@&*! would happen.”

In this particular context, “this %@&*!” was an academic conference on “Comics, Philosophy, and Practice” at the University of Chicago’s brand-new $114 million Logan Center for the Arts. Ten miles south of the NATO circus [this was the same weekend as the city-paralyzing show up at the McCormick Center--feels like a long time ago --ed.], the weekend’s symposium brought together its own group of summit-level characters—Lynda Barry, Alison Bechdel, Ivan Brunetti, Aline Kominsky-Crumb, Phoebe Gloeckner, Justin Green, Fran├žoise Mouly, Joe Sacco, and Carol Tyler, among others—and put them in conversation with scholars. When R. Crumb received his invitation from English professor and conference organizer Hillary Chute, he worried about boring the audience. “I try to be entertaining and not too serious or intellectual,” he wrote in a postcard (he doesn’t use email).

“This is, after all, about comic books.”

Of course, it seems like a long time since “comic books” earned recognition as a serious and intellectual medium—one that has established a following of serious and intellectual readers. Despite origin stories about underground presses in East Village lofts and homemade magazines with miniscule circulations, graphic narrative has found a safe home in university literature departments. More broadly, it seems an accepted truth that graphic novels and nonfiction represent some of our best contemporary literature, and that they deserve our closest readerly attention.

That comics count as high-art, and that everyone knows it, was driven home to me when I taught a freshman class on Bechdel’s memoir Fun Home. I asked whether anyone was surprised that we were reading something that looked very much like a comic book in a college classroom.

A comic book!

In college!

No one raised a hand, and I stood there in my tweed jacket like a balding, Hamlet-quoting square.

One can still marvel at (or lament) the speed with which comics have attained the academy’s gold star of legitimacy. But it seems more useful to try and figure out what the appropriation of comics by the university actually means for young authors, readers, and Hamlet-quoting squares. For Spiegelman, who joked about the “Faustian bargain” that admission to the ivory tower implies, it still sounds like a strange development. Justin Green, patron saint of autobiographical comics, was slightly less ambivalent. In his hypnotically soothing voice, he wondered what kind of occasion could bring together such a heavy-hitting group of comics authors.

It could be a funeral, he suggested—but then again it might be a wedding.

After all, would the academy really kill comics? Would it slice them up? Couldn’t one as easily argue that comics have already been drained of their subversive oomph by retrospectives at fancy museums and in edited anthologies?

And is Art Spiegelman really smoking e-cigarettes now?