Iowa Comics Conference Notebook

Iowa City, strange to say, beckoned. The lure, as you might guess, was comics. My partner and I have a nettlesome newborn, so I’ve been scaling back my travels. But when literary and film scholar Corey Creekmur invited me to a comics conference, I knew this was a temptation that would override all my nesting instincts.

Novelist Eugenia Rico with Joe Sacco, Ana Merino, and Gary Groth

The University of Iowa is famous for its Writers Workshop, a legendary creative hothouse where Flannery O’Connor, Raymond Carver, Rita Dove, Andre Dubus, and countless others honed their novelistic and poetic skills. But in the last few years, the humanities program at Iowa has also developed a small but vital enclave of comics scholars and cartoonists. Aside from Corey, Iowa is also the home of Ana Merino (who has done important work on Spanish comics and the history of Fantagraphics) and Rachel Marie-Crane Williams (who has been producing a series of thoughtful and deeply-documented comics about America’s racial history).

For the conference that ran from October 4th to the 9th, Corey, Ana, and Rachel gathered together a stellar crew of cartoonists, publishers and scholars. Among the cartoonists were Jessica Abel, Phoebe Gloeckner, Gilbert Hernandez, Jaime Hernandez, John Porcellino, Joe Sacco, and James Sturm. (I have to say, I’m not sure who else they could have invited to top this list unless they organized a séance to conjure up the spirits of Rodolphe Töpffer and George Herriman). Also on hand were publishers Gary Groth and Peggy Burns as well as comics scholars José Alaniz, Bart Beaty, Craig Fischer, Charles Hatfield, John Lent, and Frenchy Lunning.

A few notes on the conference:

Cartoonists on Stage. For work and family reasons, I missed the first half of the conference and so didn’t get to hear Abel, Gloeckner, Porcellino and Sturm give their talks but Sacco gave a powerful presentation about how he puts together books like Safe Area Gorzazde and Footnotes to Gaza. The research and first hand reporting that goes into these works is inseparable from their aesthetic potency. It’s not so much a matter of the time and intense work that goes into Sacco’s research, impressive though that is, but also the moral scruples and sense of responsibility he brings the task. What separates Sacco from the run-of-the-mill war correspondent is not just his talent but also his reflexivity, the way he’s always questioning what he’s doing and pushing himself to probe deeper into the stories that he is telling. Seeing Sacco’s art blow-up to movie screen size while he methodically explained how it was put together also gave me a new appreciation for his graphic mastery, especially his affinities with the heavily cross-hatched Thomas Nast-inflected style that Crumb uses in his recent works. It would be interesting to compare Crumb’s handling of the landscape of the ancient Middle East in Genesis with Sacco’s rendition of that same area in recent decades.

Joe Sacco and Jaime Hernandez

Still Enthralled by Love and Rockets. Meeting Jaime and Gilbert Hernandez and seeing them interviewed on stage was particularly gratifying for me because I had just read Love and  Rockets #4 (I actually got my copy in Iowa City since it sold out in my hometown). Everyone, of course, has been raving about Jaime’s story in this issue, which like the magnificent “Browntown” in L&R #3 is one of best comics ever done. I’ll freely confess that at the end of the new issue when I saw how Jaime had tied together the fates of Hopey, Maggie, and Ray I started crying like a baby. When I started burbling to Jaime about all this, he said that in working on his recent comics he was thinking that if he were hit by a bus tomorrow and killed he wanted to leave behind a story that would complete his life's work. Having achieved that goal, the question now is what will Jaime do next.

Peggy Burns and Jaime Hernandez

Recent Gilbert. Amid all the celebrations of Jaime, it sometimes feels as if Gilbert is getting the short shrift, unfairly so because Gilbert’s recent comics have the protean energy and relentless will to reinvention that rivals the Crumb of Weirdo and Hup. (If Sacco is reminiscent of Crumb in terms of graphic style, Gilbert has Crumb’s narrative moxie, willingness to put his id on paper and refusal to settle down in a single genre. Recent Gilbert has been controversial in some circles because of its pitiless examinations of human perversity, its sardonic play with genre material and its sometimes savage violence. But I think the nay-sayers are so focused on the surface of these works that they ignore the deeper humanity that underlies them: Gilbert these days is often doing stories about damaged people, but he does so in order to lament the damage of physical and psychological abuse rather than to nihilistically revel in sordidness. Rob Clough has described "King Vampire" (Gilbert's first story in the current Love and Rockets volume and one of a series of Fritz-related imaginary movies) as "a brutal takedown of the current cultural obsession over vampires." I think that's true enough but "King Vampire" is also a very effective horror comic, just about the only example of the genre aside from Charles Burns' work that genuinely makes the flesh creep. Gilbert is playing a curious game in these Fritz-movies: he's both needling popular genre material but also showing how to do genre right (something Jaime also did with his superhero  epic "Ti-Girls Adventures Number 34"). The B-movies are fictions within a fiction (akin to Hamlet's "play within a play") which are constantly juxtaposed with the lives of the "actors" (i.e. Fritz and her circle). Gilbert's second story in the new issue ("And Then Reality Kicks In") can be read as a companion piece to "King Vampire." Whereas the vampire story brings to the foreground the frenzied sexuality implicit in many horror films, "And Then Reality Kicks In" (a very revealing title!) is an examination of post-romantic (or perhaps post-alcoholic) second-guessing. When all of these stories of Fritz and her films are gathered together, I think we'll discover that the interplay of reality and fantasy will be a major theme.

The Comics Heritage. The two brothers were very good on their onstage interview with Corey. What I particularly like was the way they unashamedly talked about their roots in comic books and comic strips – in the traditions of Kirby, Ditko, Ketcham, Bolling and Lucey. I sometimes worry that in the age of the graphic novel these traditions will be forgotten, so it is always heartening to hear artists who are upfront about their pop cultural heritage.

The Quick and the Dead. In a discussion about publishing, book designer Craig Yoe provocatively argued that “The only good cartoonists are dead cartoonists” (this was said while the Hernandez Brothers were in the audience and I think Joe Sacco might have been there as well). Yoe also said “I publish dead cartoonists on dead trees.” The conversation on that panel went in many different directions so I didn’t get a chance to make a response to these points, but here’s how I would formulate it. Rather than giving preference to the dead or to the living, we might note that much of the excitement on contemporary comics is the strong ties between the cutting edge work being done today and classic cartooning done decades ago. Many of the best working cartoonists have a strong engagement in comics history (see Hernandez brothers above) and some are helping us get a fresh handle on that history by writing critical essays or designing reprint books (See Ware’s work on King and Herriman, Seth on Schulz, Doug Wright, and John Stanley, Richard McGuire on Sterrett, Tomine on Tatsumi, Sturm on Wortman, Karasik on Fletcher Hanks, etc.) The passion these cartoonists bring to comics history means that these reprint projects are not exercises in antiquarianism or nostalgia-mongering but rather the creation of a living tradition, comparable to what happens when Martin Scorsese does a film shot paying homage to Orson Welles or Eisenstein or when Bob Dylan does a riff reverberant with Woody Gutherie. The linkage between the living and the dead is what gives an artform its memory, its grounding, its layered depth. After reading Jimmy Corrigan, we see Gasoline Alley with different eyes, ones more sensitive to the melancholy and regret in King's work. Reading Jaime Hernandez's work changes the way we look at Ditko or Lucey because the Locas stories complete the arc that earlier cartoonists started. The past influences the present while the present gives us a new perspective on the past. Gary Groth and Peggy Burns were on the panel with Yoe and it is worth noting that both represent firms with lists that balance the classics with the contemporary (with Fantagraphics in recent years tending more towards classics while D&Q gives preference to contemporary comics).

Talking Kirby. I was lucky enough to have read in galley form Charles Hatfield’s forthcoming book on Kirby, a path breaking analysis of Kirby as both a commercial artist and a master of writing with pictures. So I naturally took the opportunity to chat with Charles and others about Kirby, conversations that were helped by a museum exhibit that accompanied the conference. The exhibit included a Kirby page from Captain America #104 and there was much debate about the possible inker, with Syd Shores as a likely suspect. In fact it turned out to be a Dan Adkins and Jim Steranko job. The usual Kirby themes were hashed out: his amazing conceptual fertility, the degree to which he was the guiding hand behind the 1960s Marvel comics, the disagreements about his skills as a writer of dialogue. Despite the familiarity of these topics, it was refreshing to hash them out with an informed crowd. My big thought about Kirby right now is that he was a genre-blender. During the 1940s and 1950s Kirby worked in a wide spectrum of genres (science fiction, superheroes, westerns, romance, monster, horror, crime). In the 1960s and 1970s, Kirby utilized his adeptness at all these genres by mixing and matching them in new ways: thus the Fantastic Four has science fiction (Reed Richards), superheroics, monsters (the Thing), teenage romance (the Human Torch), adult romance (the Sue/Reed/Sub-Mariner love triangle), and much more. Its this fusion and confusion of genres that gives Kirby's mature work its distinction feel. Kirby is, if not an inexhaustible topic, at least one that rewards repeated disputation and engagement. If someone wants to set up a conference on Kirby, I’m game.

The Fate of the Floppy. Citing the hilarious self-reproach found in the latest issue of Optic Nerve, Craig Fischer wondered whether the traditional American comic book (now widely denigrated as “the floppy”) was “a format without a future.” From the audience, John Porcellino took exception to this prognosis. Porcellino acknowledged that the floppy was, for the most part, no longer commercial viable for firms like Fantagraphics and D&Q who work through Diamond and the big book stores. But countering that is the emergence of smaller boutique publishers like Koyama Press who can sell floppies through an alternative distribution network that includes funky conventions like SPX, mail order, and stores that are friendlier to alternative comics. I found Porcellino’s argument persuasive. it is the case that over the last year there have been a number of excellent alternative comic books: Crickets #3, Lose #3, Pope Hat #2. And even with the more established alternative companies, Michael Kuperman’s Tales Designed to Thrizzle has found a substantial audience and Optic Nerve has never lost its readership. Porcellino was optimistic not just about the future of the floppy format but also the medium, noting that there is a vital new generation of cartoonists emerging. During an onstage interview, Jaime Hernandez echoed this sentiment by saying that there are more good cartoonists working now than in the whole history of comics and that new talent is coming out of the woodwork all the time.

Frenchy Lunning

Academia and/or Fandom. In the two panels on criticism, the issue of academia’s relationship with the larger comics culture came up. Gary Groth upbraided academic critics for their tendency to write jaron-heavy theoretical prose and their unwillingness to make evaluative judgments. I didn’t have time to take up these issues, but from where I sit Gary’s view of academia is slightly dated. The big problem with academic comics criticism is not that it is too theoretically abstruse but rather that it all too faithfully mirror the taste of fan culture. My sense is that there are many academic books and articles coming out about superhero and commercial comics (especially if they are written by Alan Moore, Grant Morrison, and the like) as well as studies of a few select “graphic novels” (Maus, Jimmy Corrigan, Fun Home). Everything else (newspaper comics, the undergrounds, alternative comics by folks like Lynda Barry, Gary Panter) tends to be under-explored. The only significant counter to the relatively narrow North American canon is the excellent work being done on international comics (Lent and Lunning on Asia, Beaty on Western Europe, Alaniz on Russia and Eastern Europe, Merino on Spain). Now I don’t begrudge the attention to Alan Moore and a select few other cartoonists. Much of this work is interesting and some of it is superb (I was very happy to blurb Annalisa Di Liddo’s ideas-rich study of Moore). Still, it would be nice to have an academic literature that worked more vigorously against the grain of fan culture or tried to expand our sense of the comics canon by making the case for under-appreciated or non-canonical artists. But most of that work is being done by cartoonists or freelance intellectuals like Dan Nadel. The whole issue of evaluation is a bit of a red herring since academics always make evaluations implicitly by their choice of subject matter. If you write a book on Grant Morrison, you are at the very least saying that his work is complex enough to warrant a book length analysis.

Ana Merino, Bart Beaty, Charles Hatfield, Corey Creekmur, Craig Fischer, Rachel Marie-Crane Williams

Not Talking About Comics. Even I can get sick with comics talk and in fact my favourite recent conversations are often non-comics chats with comics folks. At TCAF I had a great conversation about Alice Munro with Chris Ware, Seth and Brad Mackay. We all admired Munro’s fiction, with Chris singling out her pitch perfect dialogue, Brad her narrative gifts and Seth her psychological acuteness. At Iowa, Gary Groth and I bonded over our mutual dissatisfaction with that much-praised auteur Clint Eastwood, a dunderhead director in my opinion. Jose Alaniz, Craig Fischer, Charles Hatfield, and I also had a good film talk about the merits of Kubrick and Bergman (with the other guys being much more negative about Kubrick than I was). Surprisingly, Peggy Burns was nothing but comics talk. She had some fairly juicy gossip to share, although alas nothing I can repeat. One bit of gossip about Peggy: The University of Iowa is one of the top five party schools, so the campus was thick with inebriated students enacting the rites of mating season. When we went to a bar, though, we were such an wizened crew that we had no trouble getting in, except for Peggy who was carded.

The Craft of Interviewing. The panel on "Editing Comics Criticism and Scholarship" included two major interviewers, John Lent and Gary Groth, so I took the opportunity to ask about the craft of interviewing. John has interviewed a raft of cartoonists from around the world for The International Journal of Comic Art, The Comics Journal and elsewhere. He has traveled as far afield as India, China, the Philippines, Cuba, and New Zealand to talk to cartoonists. Lent's interviews are often the first and only interviews these otherwise anonymous cartoonists give and will therefore serve as the bedrock for future studies. And of course the interviews Gary has conduct over the last three decades are arguably the core of The Comics Journal. For Lent, the main issue is having the right translator to sit in on the interview. He often gets a cartoonist to do the translating, so that they'll know the technical language of the trade. Gary, meanwhile, has learned the craft of interviewing on the job, although he did cite the famous Playboy interviews of the 1960s and 1970s as a model. If you look at Gary's early interviews, most of them are merely competent, although they sometimes have fireworks because of his willingness to question the aesthetic assumptions of mainstream cartoonists and writers. But over time, Gary started putting much more research into the interviews and asking questions that were more pointed or grounded in the subjects history. Of the many interviews Groth has done, I'd single out the ones with Howard Chaykin (TCJ 109), Robert Crumb (many issues but especially 121), Jules Feiffer (124), the Hernandez Brothers (126, with R. Fiore also asking questions), Jack Kirby (134), Todd McFarlane (152), Gil Kane (many issues but especially 186 and 187), Art Spiegelman (180 and 181), Charles Schulz (200), Chris Ware (200), Phoebe Gloeckner (261) the Deitch clan (292). Tellingly, Corey Creekmur frequently referenced the old Groth/Fiore interview with the Hernandez Brothers when they were on stage. The interviews from IJOCA and TCJ will be informing our sense of the medium's history for many years to come.

Why Comics Criticism? Here is something I wanted to say on the panel on comics criticism but didn’t get around to: The vocation of comics criticism might seem strange. Certainly Dan Clowes highlights the absurdity of being a comics critic in his portrayal of Harry Naybors in Ice Haven and Drew Friedman did a variation of this theme for his cover of Best American Comics Criticism. Yet it is worth recalling the pivotal role that comics criticism played from the 1960s to the 1980s in pushing the medium forward. The graphic novel is one of those rare artistic forms that was theorized and imagined before it was achieved. Long before A Contract With God or Maus or Watchmen, a cohort of critics in publications like Graphic Story Monthly and Panels imagined what it would be like to take the idiom of comics and apply it to a long form narrative. Spiegelman and Eisner were both part of those conversations (echoes of which can be found in the letters page to the Spiegelman/Griffith edited Arcade). So comics criticism can in fact have a very progressive role to play, although of course often falls below its potential.

All in all, the Iowa conference was a rich, intellectually-fertile experience. One can only hope for future conference so well conceived and organized.