By Susie Allen, AB'09
Photo by Jason Smith

When Robert Crumb first began scribbling cartoons for the underground magazine Zap Comix in the late 1960s, it seemed unthinkable that his offbeat and profane work one day would help fuel a groundbreaking academic conference.

Yet Crumb and other renowned cartoonists were the academic focus this May of "Comics: Philosophy & Practice," organized by UChicago scholar Hillary Chute, a pioneer in the relatively young field of graphic narrative studies. In a postcard accepting Chute's invitation to the conference at the Reva and David Logan Center for the Arts, Crumb added a word of warning about offering his work up for scholarly scrutiny.

"This is, after all… about comic books," he wrote. "It's not, you know, like it's about the threat to the environment of global warming, or something really serious like that… Let us keep in mind, this is about comic books!"

Comic books, it turns out, provide plenty of material for probing discussions. But it's a wide-open field of study, and much of the three-day conference was devoted to candid and often raucous conversations that explored the gradual "mainstreaming" of a genre once seen as crude and subversive.

Many of the 17 influential artists who took part in the event greeted this newfound cultural acceptance with a mixture of curiosity, bemusement and even trepidation. The title of Art Spiegelman's opening conversation seemed to say it all: "What the %$#! Happened to Comics?"

The historic gathering of cartoonists included Lynda Barry, Alison Bechdel, and Joe Sacco, in addition to Crumb and Spiegelman-figures who "have really set the terms for comics today," according to Chute, the Neubauer Family Assistant Professor in English Language & Literature and the College. "Comics: Philosophy and Practice" was a rare opportunity for a generation of boundary-pushing artists to come together and explore their craft with scholars and one another.

For Chute, it was especially fascinating to watch cartoonists asking questions of each other. "I loved seeing the kinds of conversations that were happening within the field," she says. Equally rewarding was the response from the artists who attended, many of whom told Chute the experience had inspired them to work. "That was the best response I could have heard."

The event was sponsored by the Richard and Mary L. Gray Center for Arts and Inquiry, which provides a forum for innovative collaborations between artists and scholars at UChicago through its signature program, the Mellon Residential Fellowships in Arts Practice and Scholarship.

Supported by the Mellon Fellowship program, Chute undertook a year-long collaboration with Alison Bechdel creator of the influential alternative comic strip "Dykes to Watch Out For" and author of the graphic memoirs Fun Home and Are You My Mother? The conference was the culmination of Chute and Bechdel's partnership, during which they also co-taught a course on comics and autobiography.

Artists and scholars in conversation

Chute and Bechdel put their collaboration on display when they took to the stage at the new Logan Center to discuss Bechdel's latest work, Are You My Mother?, which explores Bechdel's sometimes fraught relationship with her own mother.

During the conversation, Bechdel offered a glimpse of her unusual artistic process, which involves dressing up as each character, photographing herself, and drawing from the photograph. This painstaking process, she said, is not only a useful drawing aide, but also helps her develop an "emotional intimacy" with the characters. "It gives you this weird insight into the character," Bechdel said.

The discussion also highlighted some artists' hesitance to discuss the meaning of their own work.

"It's weird to talk about it," cartoonist Joe Sacco confessed. "You want the work just to speak for itself."

Yet Sacco, who has covered conflicts in the Middle East and Bosnia, spoke passionately about his motivations as an artist. In a conversation with W.J.T. Mitchell, the Gaylord Donnelley Distinguished Service Professor in English Language & Literature and the College, Sacco said he was driven to write and draw about war zones by "a sense of outrage at what's going on in the world…Anger is to me a constructive force."

Sacco, who studied journalism in college, discussed the challenge of balancing reportage and art. Though he feels an obligation to accurately portray his experiences, he also wants to exercise his artistic freedom.

In The Fixer, for instance, Sacco depicted an oppressively cloudy sky in Sarajevo. "To me this is how it felt," he said. "It's not a journalistic attempt to draw [clouds in Sarajevo].

"There's an expressiveness about drawing that I don't want to lose," he explained.

High-spirited discussion

In adherence with Crumb's hopes for the conference, the weekend's more serious moments were interspersed with liveliness (and heckling-Crumb added boisterous commentary to many of the panels from the audience).

Aline Kominsky-Crumb, for instance, cheerfully described her own work as "completely out there. It's like vomit."

For his part, the Canadian cartoonist known as Seth joked that his less-than-noble creative process starts with "who I want to get back at."

Dan Clowes, author of Ghost World, recalled waking up in the middle of the night to scribble down a brilliant idea for a new work. He woke to discover his idea was not quite as brilliant than he had initially thought: The note he had written to himself read, in its entirety, "earphone 1 1 earphone."

Clowes' fellow panelist Chris Ware piped up. "Can I use that?," he teased Clowes.

One of the weekend's most high-spirited conversations ended with Lynda Barry discussing her fondness for drawing monkeys -"everybody [expletive] loves a monkey," she said. Crumb then began to serenade a delighted Barry with the 1920s jazz tune "You're Bound to Look Like a Monkey When You Get Old."

According to Chute, the experience was especially meaningful to Barry, who has long admired Crumb's work. "Do you know what it was like to have Robert Crumb sing a monkey song to me at a panel?" Barry told her after the conference.

When the panel ended, the crowd jumped to its feet and cheered.

Originally published on July 30, 2012.