comics philosophy and practice

Outtakes from Comics: Philosophy and Practice

I’m in the midst of work on a 4-page comic reportage on the Comics: Philosophy and Practice conference, that featured a series of panels with some of the greatest cartoonists of the modern era. And as anyone who’s ever done journalistic comics (and probably journalism of any kind) knows, most of your best material ends up on the cutting-room floor. So here, therefore, is a glance at my cutting-room floor.

Photo by Sarah Blauser

Art Spiegelman:  It’s that rereading, that searching for the chicken fat that gives sustenance, that isn’t from about how many images and texts can you consume in 45 mins of trolling for porn on the internet, but how can you actually focus on something in a world that’s moving faster and faster. And that focus is something that books allow for. And therefore, books may have a life that’s of more interest than just what vinyl fetishism is for music listeners. There may be something specific to books that gives them a franchise on their continued existence.

Art Spiegelman: I might sometimes be self-deprecating, but I’m very proud now that Maus is used as a canonical text. It means that the royalties keep coming in, and it means ultimately that the work will continue to be read, and it’s made to be read. I have to get past my schoolboy snarl and accept the fact that it’s not only bad stuff that happens in classrooms. I’m just wary of getting dried out and hung, rather than considered.

Art Spiegelman:  When I first saw Robert Crumbs’ manifesto in the form of a parody page: “Drawing cartoons is fun, Oboy! Time to draw again! Anyone Can Be a Cartoonist!” … It had this line on the bottom that has became rather well known in my set. And it’s now the closing conferences’ , or penultimate conference’s title: “It’s only lines on paper, folks.” And that seemed like, really profound to me at a certain moment, and then I realized that was pernicious thing I had ever heard.

It’s an interesting thing, and it certainly gives license to allow one to doodle and to make whatever’s in one’s head visible, but it also can be a dangerous thing. The thing is, drawings have a danger. Lines on paper include most written things, which would include Martin Luther’s dangerous texts and uh, Mien Kampf and beyond, you know? The idea of making lines on paper is a way of recording thought and getting it past your oral field.


photo by Ryan Standfest

Hamza Walker to Ivan Brunetti, regarding his instructional book Cartooning: Philosophy and Practice: I’m going to out you as a modernist. The reduced nature of your style, and just the idea of writing a philosophy and practice book that would—and I don’t know how conscious you were—that would greatly resemble Paul Klee’s pedagogical sketchbook.

Ivan Brunetti: that’s a great book , but I didn’t have that high an aim. Actually, the title “Philosophy and Practice” was meant to be a joke, it’s kind of a parody of the whole University of Chicago thing, it’s supposed to sound overly dry, an oxymoron: cartooning and philosophy.

HW: Unfortunately you’re speaking to the same … it kind of cancelled itself out. So I took it at face value.

IB: It’s..a multi-layered joke.

Ivan Brunetti: I just wantted to say all the things I wish somebody had said to me at some point. I was somebody who was actively discouraged most my life from pursuing anything artisitic, and I know there are a lot of people who go through that, or there are just circumstances in their life that prevent them from pursuing this kind of thing. This is a rarified pursuit, and it’s a privilege.

Crumb: Indeed.

IB: Most people are stuck washing dishes or shoveling shit or whatever. Most people’s lives are horrible. And they don’t even have a chance to do this stuff, but you want to read stories from people that actually have to live those lives. And so over the years I’ve come to see that maybe there’s some purpose that I wasn’t even aware of. And I overwrote the book in that sense. I should have made it simpler, but I’m just trying to help people. Even college students. Most of them are confused scared kids. And most of their teachers are telling them stupid stuff, I mean really.


Lynda Barry: Truth!

GaryPanter: Really stupid stuff!

Crumb: They like that. They resonated to that remark.

IB: I mean, they know what I’m talking about. I’m just trying to encourage them to make things, and it just seems like school is designed to make people—I mean it did it to me—to overthink things, and to talk yourself out of things, so I’m just trying to break down a lot of barriers and get people just to start making something. The stuff from students I see, the less they think about it and overwork it, the more interesting it is, but when they start to worry about it and get self-conscious, it starts to get worse and they can’t even see it.

When I was growing up we lived in a Chicago bungalow. And I thought that was a great form of architecture. It’s beautiful, but it’s built for working people, and there’s something humble and simple about it. And that’s kind of the aspect of cartooning that interests me, the humility of it , and here’s something almost practical about it. Unassuming, but it does take skill, but you do have to respect learning that skill and the craft of it, just like a bricklayer has to.


Justin Green: There’s a power to our humble medium that’s unique. We know how to balance images and words in a way that becomes kinetic, and that’s not animation …

Phoebe Gloeckner: It’s something else…

Carol Tyler: Dance.

Justin Green: …it’s closer to music than art, really …

Carol Tyler: Yeah, movement.

Justin Green: … because people can recall specific panels.

Aline Kominsky-Crumb: Opera, I think it’s like opera.

Justin Green: And there’s plenty for us still to learn. As long as you do this it’s astounding how you can’t ride, you’re always going to risk losing a few hours of work because you tired something it didn’t work, you know it doesn’t . Its’a humble cobbler’s type medium.


Lynda Barry: When I was in college, I had a teacher who was very influential, who is still a friend of mine, and she started out by asking this one question which is, “what is an image?” And I’ve been following …that question has kind of guided my life. Where it’s guided me now is neuroscience. I’m convinced that this drawing, and the thing we call the arts has an absolute biological function. We wouldn’t have hauled it with us through all our evolutionary stages if it didn’t. Right now it’s treated as like an elective? Or some kind of side thing? And I think It’s like saying your kidneys are an elective. They’re not so cute, and I’d be thinner without them. Let’s just ditch’em. I can’t figure it out. …

[In my class] I reframe the question: if this thing has a biological function, what is it?

We produced an enormous amount of work and looked at it together, but we never spoke about it the whole semester. And I was curious to find out that if we just did this work together, and it was hard work. They worked very very hard, would something happen? Could something happen that was apart from the critical mind or the analytic mind. Which I love saying here in the University of Chicago—it’s like all it is, is one throbbing vein, as far as I can tell. It’s like, “let’s talk about why the page numbers, why are they not in the center…does that have something to do with Aristo…” it’s like, shut the fuck up!


LB: So it’s a little weird for me to be here and not be nasty and throw spitballs at people when they’re up here talking about shit, you know?

Robert Crumb: Being analytical and shit, yeah.

LB: The analytical shit is tough. I’ll pay for analysis somewhere.


Student Sophie Riemenschneider

I really enjoy sitting in class and talking about all the comics, but it was refreshing to hear from the artists’ point of view, instead of being overly theoretical.

I like how Ivan Brunetti said he thinks it’s really important to figure out your layout on the page, that you have to go through the process of making mistakes when you’re drawing it out so you can make it work.

That night when I was sitting down to work on my comic and I was getting frustrated with the way it was looking on the page, hand drawing it., I was like, no, this is the way it’s supposed to be, you’re supposed to go through this process. It gave me confidence that although it was frustrating, I was going to get there.


Student Liza Dzul

I just loved the constant clash between crazily intellectual academics, and really kooky cartoonists who had been living, like, on the fringes of society, and just had no interest in discussing things on an academic level. Probably the most extreme example of that would be R. Crumb…


Robert Crumb [On working for the New Yorker, and specifically doing covers]: That’s more like what I’m used to thinking about, 20,000 [readership] at the most, when you work for an audience that size, it’s very particular and special. You knew they’re out there, one here, one there, but it adds up to about 20,000, that’s the audience for my stuff.

…But when you work for this magazine that has 1.2 millon that’s like mainstream, even if it’s on the upper end. On the upper-middlebrow end of things.

Dan Clowes: that’s the population of of San Francisco and Oakland put together.

Robert Crumb [to Françoise Mouly] : That’s a lot of power. You’re a powerful gatekeeper. A lot of shit that won’t get past you.It shouldn’t get past you.

That’s the faustian deal again that Spiegelman was talking about. The lure of the bigger audience. You’re going to reach one million people, and you’re gonna get paid well, so “OK, I’ll pull back a little bit.”

“All right, I know I can’t push this lurid grotesqueness too much, it’s not gonna be acceptable to those schoolteachers in Iowa and the lawyers in the skyscrapers, so you know, all right, I’ll compromise a little bit, and oh, they loved it.”

“OK, great, I’ll do another one, Oh, that one’s not acceptable, oh gee, I went too far that time. I’ll pull back again,”

…and eventually, you just like might as well go get your dick cut off, I dunno. I dunno.


Seth: I actually have books that I love where I have multiple copies of the book for some…I don’t know, some apocalyptic fear that the book will be lost. It’s like if the end of the world comes, I’ll need two copies!


Phoebe Gloeckner: And then I got Twisted Sisters…because I used to go down to head shops and sneak in and buy comics…and when I got Twisted Sisters, it was Diane Noomin and Aline Kominsky, and I memorized that comic book. I mean, I never read any other comics but underground comics.

Aline Kominsky-Crumb: It’s deeply disturbing that you were so into that work, I couldn’t imagine, it’s such a responsibility.

Phoebe Gloeckner: But I read it so many times, and every time I got something more out of it.

Aline Kominsky-Crumb: She had a fantasy that she would come and Robert and I be her parents. She had this fantasy that we would be like nice parents.

Phoebe Gloeckner: But you didn’t know that.

Aline Kominsky-Crumb: I didn’t know that, she told me that later, and I’m like, oh my god. We were so twisted, we were horrible. Ask our daughter about it, really, It’s not a good idea.


Photo by Ryan Standfest

Joe Sacco [looking at a panoramic double-page spread of Gaza from Palestine]: There are many elements in this page that appear in individual panels later . Repeated imagery to me is the power of comics. It’s different from photography —it’s strength is that one image tells the whole story. To me comics’s strength is that many images tell the story. And you can repeat certain things, like the mud, or the garbage or the graffiti. So the reader, you don’t have to mention it, the reader is there all the time with those things.


Fans who flew in from out of town

Todd Purple (from Boston): I’ve been to comic book conventions, but that’s like a totally different thing. And in describing to people … my boss is like, “what are you doing in Chicago this weekend?” And it s hard to describe to them why I’m so excited and to try and dissassociate it from the autograph signing/fan thing. And I mean I’m very much here because I’m a fan. But it’s hard to describe to people what this was going to be like.

JA: Is this like what you thought it would be like?

Totally, and even better. Lke I said, with everybody in the audience, and the talks have been really great. It’s been really cool. A totally different level.

Robert: One thing that’s kind of funny is that when we flew in, someone asked, are you here for NATO? And we had no clue that was even happeneing.

[NATO was having a massive meeting in Chicago the same weekend that practically shut the whole place down.]

Mercedes: No way! We didn’t have a clue.

RH: We felt really bad, because like, isn’t this the ONLY THING that’s happening in Chciago?

MC: Yeah, this is the thing!

RH: The people that are here are just like rock stars and we’re so excited, and don’t realize that the rest of the city is kind of oblivious to it in a way.

MC: We went to the Dan Clowes signing at Quimby’s on Thursday, and he asked, because I’ve seen him so many times in Toronto, he’s like “what brings you to Chicago?” And I’m like, are you … come on. Are you joking?

JA: You’ve been out to see Dan Clowes so much that he recognizes you?

MC: At this point…when he as at TCAF,

JA: You do have a Dan Clowes look, you know?

MC: Well, wtih the glasses. And the name Mercedes…

MC: He was there all 3 days for the last TCAF, and I went every single day with a different stack of books or posters or prints, or figurines or whatever, and so at this point, I think he’s just used to signing my name.  And for like Wilson and Mr. Wondrful, and I think he’s just like, this is getting starnge…

RH: And the restraining order hasn’t gone into effect yet…

MC: Not yet, not yet.


Kathleen Dunley [teaches comics in online classes at Rio Salado college in Arizona]: I have a student in the Go Army ed program. I teach online, so we get students literally from around the globe, and he had just done some tours through some of the areas Joe Sacco writes about, and one of the projects, they can pick any book , any genre, and at the end, I recommended to him that he read Joe Sacco! And his first thing was, this is going to be too cartoony, I don’t know if I can really read about these disasters in this format, and I just said, just try it, if you don’t like it, you know, I”ll reimburse you for the book or something. And he’s been loving it. He’s probably, I hope, watching the webcast right now.

JA: You’re teaching online, your students mostly see you on a screen. They can see this on a screen. And yet you’re here in person.

KD: It’s really funny. They’ll call me and be like, do you have an office? Yeah, I actually have a really nice office, you can have some coffee. And sometimes, they’re like, wow, you look exactly like you do in class. Well, is that a good or a bad thing? It’s a little post modern, a little surreal, but … it gives me the flexibility to just stop in the middle of the semseter and come out to Chciago, so I like it.

JA: You could have watched this on a scren, at home.

KD: Not the same. I’m old school, I have to admit. My employer would kill me if they kenw how much of a luddite I really was … There’s something about the energy and talking to other people, and really seeing folks … I kind of had that moment too, like oh my gosh you are real, you look exactly like you do in pictures!


W. J. T. Mitchell, UChicago English professor and editor of Critical Inquiry, who interviewed both Art Spiegelman and Joe Sacco.

Art Spiegelman was like, oh my god, this is like a summit conference, the NATO of underground comics.

What I would compare it to intellectually, it’s a game-changer for the university. But it’s beyond just the university. When I was a graduate student at Johns Hopkins, there was a symposium, the great ’68 structuralist symposium, that brought together all the great French thinkers …post structuralism, deconstruction, everything was on the table there. And I think this has historical significance of that kind. It’s a momentous intellectual event, it’s not just a bunch of stars showed up. The level of discussion has been extraordinary. They’re bringing their A game.

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Meet Jessica Abel

Meet Jessica Abel

Author. Cartoonist. Teacher. Coach.

I help people whose imagination and creativity are the ultimate source of everything they do in their professional life stop grinding and start carving out the deep focus needed to finish—and launch—the game-changing work they want to be known for.  Discover my Courses, Join the FREE Creative Engine Workshop or find out more about me.


  1. Charles Hatfield on June 4, 2012 at 12:15 pm

    Awesome, Jessica, thanks! I love the mix of voices here.

  2. MK on June 6, 2012 at 9:02 pm

    Thanks for this!!! Super helpful with my current research.

  3. Susan Squier on June 22, 2012 at 10:12 am

    Yes, I echo them both: this is very helpful, not only with research but in quieting the frustration I’d been feeling at not being able to be there!

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