A Life of Lines

(Jane Fentress)

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. Below is a report on the “Graphic Novel Forms Today” panel.

Vaulted as if to fit a human brain and a half, Chris Ware’s close-cropped pate is curiously reminiscent of the oblong-skulled people that march through his comics. The similarity was brought into relief on Saturday, when Ware and fellow cartoonists Seth, Dan Clowes, and Charles Burns spoke together about the form, content, and future of graphic novels. Projected behind the four middle-aged and oxford-shirted men (all bespectacled with the exception of Clowes), were giant images of their work: serialized comics, hardbound and multivolume novels, magazine covers, and even Burns’ petite zine,“Free Shit,” which has, so far as Burns can recall, 17 or 18 volumes, and “may be shitty, but definitely is free.”

The zine, like Burns’ opus “Black Hole,” reflects his biography. Growing up around punks in Seattle in the 1970s, Burns wanted to draw, Xerox and distribute his own stuff as he saw others do.“Black Hole,” which follows teenagers in the Pacific Northwest as they become deformed by an unnamed disease, is wrapped up completely in the cultural landscape at the time of Burns’ adolescence. If an artist’s work is a reflection of his personality, then Burns’ affinity for the cut-up aesthetic is still very much alive. To him, line, form, space, shape and structure–the basic elements of style–exist to be tinkered with and tweaked, perverted and subverted, broken down and reassembled until they take on a newer, more startling appearance. This insistence on radicalizing the medium, along with the sheer force and ingenuity of his vision, has cemented Burns in the contemporary canon of illustrators.

But Burns was by no means the sole star of the panelists. Prodded by the panel’s moderator, Chute, the reluctant cartoonists discussed the often-humble beginnings of their projects as well as their recent works, some of which are so intricate and sprawling that they’re not even two-dimensional anymore.  Ware is quick to shrug off the accolades both from Chute and his peers, who all attest to fearing for their jobs after seeing Ware’s distinctively ingenious and structurally liberated work, particularly his form-defying “Acme Novelty Library.”

Ware isn’t finished. His upcoming work, “Building Stories,” will be packaged in discrete components: pamphlets, mini booklets, map-like foldout episodes⎯all of which tell the story of an apartment building in Chicago and its residents. Ware stops to describe one projection of a panel that features a husband and wife.  These two are central to the action in “Stories,” which has appeared in serial form in the The New York Times for a number of years. With this particular page, which features a hand and a woman undressing, Ware says he wanted to show the way “the touch of aggression” is often not far from the display of affection.

Indeed, for artists who are said to depict “mostly lonely and distressed people,” as one attendee put it, the four seemed to be more preoccupied with illustrating not just affection, but empathy–that value which Ware said was just about the only thing he wanted to express in his work, and, he added, instill in his children.