What the %$#! Happened at “Comics”?

This past weekend, the University of Chicago hosted “Comics: Philosophy & Practice,” a conference drawing together 17 of the world’s best-known alternative cartoonists, including Art Spiegelman and R. Crumb. Neubauer Family Assistant Professor of English, Hillary Chute, organized the conference, which featured Professor W. J. T. Mitchell and Assistant Professor Kristen Schilt as moderators. The nine panels, which ranged from a discussion of comics as memoir to “Halftone Printing in the Yiddish Press,” were held in the UofC’s new Logan Center for the Arts.

Scholars, even the cool ones, are unmistakable. In and out of the classroom, they always seem to carry a strange aura of erudition and one-minded passion: they know what they’re doing, and they’re not going to get sidetracked or involved in anything less than a dialectic argument comparing Renaissance woodcuts and Spiegelman splash panels.

That’s a caricature, of course, but even in reference to Hillary Chute and W.J.T. Mitchell, two scholars fighting as hard as they can against that stereotype of disconnected uncoolness, it can seem wholly appropriate. Introducing comics godfather Art Spiegelman for the conference’s opening discussion, Chute spoke as the ideal ambassador between the popular and the academic. She was, in a word, cool.

But when she gave way to Spiegelman and his interlocutor, distinguished professor W.J.T. Mitchell, she also gave way to the old stereotype of the out of touch academic. Mitchell wanted to talk big themes and overarching ideas, and Spiegelman wanted to talk, period. When you’re trying to bring the conversation around to museums, philosophers, and artistic ideologies and the guy next to you is smoking a Cruella de Vil—length electronic cigarette, thoroughly enjoying himself while cursing the newest version of Powerpoint (“Ah this isn’t set up right–Christ on a stick!”), it‘s hard not to come across as a little ridiculous. While interviewing graphic journalist Joe Sacco the next morning, Mitchell tried to correct by following Chute’s lead, trading in his collared shirt for a Pink Floyd “Dark Side of the Moon” T-shirt underneath his cream-colored jacket.

What Mitchell, Chute, and the other academic moderators couldn’t help, though, is the fact that the questions they’re asking are the sort of thing that artists are hard-wired to deflect and ignore: What did you mean by this? Why did you do it this way? In conversation with cartoonist Alison Bechdel on Saturday evening, Chute couldn’t get a word from Bechdel as to why she juxtaposed a pair of conflicting images on a page from her most recent work. “What effect were you going for here?” Chute asked. Trying to come up with an adequate explanation for several seconds, Bechdel finally gave up, turned in her chair, and pointed up to the page projected on the screen behind her. “I don’t know, that

Bechdel’s not a fool, and Chute’s not naïve. More than anything else, the communication issue seems to be one of translation, trying to put into words something that might be better left shown and not said. You can’t blame the artist and the scholar for trying, though, even if the end result is a little awkward, as it was with Mitchell and Sacco at the conclusion of their talk. In his classic rock T-shirt, Mitchell turned to thank Sacco, not with a handshake, but with a fist bump. Surprised and looking for a handshake, Sacco managed to close his fist at the last second and bump back. Ungainly, perhaps, but for a moment, W.J.T. was just one of the guys.