Taking Comics Seriously: for Insight, Inspiration, and Creative Transformation

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By: Michael Dooley

Next week’s San Diego Comic-Con started touting its movie and TV show programming: AMC’s Breaking Bad! BBC/PBS’s Sherlock! Woot! Also as usual, there’ll be plenty of activities for designers who are tuned into comics. Regular Imprint readers may already know that Peter Kuper, Arlen Schumer, Craig Yoe, and Eliza Frye are among the hundreds of participating artists. But there’s one worthwhile activity that will fly under the radar of nearly all the 100,000-plus attendees: the Comics Arts Conference.

art by Scott Gandell, who will be at Comic-Con's Society of Illustrators of Los Angeles booth.

Exclusive art for Imprint by Scott Gandell, who’ll be at Comic-Con’s Society of Illustrators of Los Angeles booth.

The Comics Arts Conference is an amalgamation of comics scholars, professionals, critics, and historians, and it’s been an integral part of Comic-Con for over 20 years. Its first program included talks by Will Eisner and Scott McCloud and topics that spanned from “Rhetorical Methodologies of Comics Studies” to Tijuana Bibles. It currently runs 15 sessions over the Con’s four days. Full disclosure here: I’ve been part of CAC programming in the past. I also included two of its participants on my 2011 SDCC “Top 13 Highlights” list. They were part of the annual, interactive “poster session,” a lesser-known aspect of this little-known educational track.

Here’s how these poster sessions work: Over a two-hour span, you can wander freely around an open room where 30 presenters display posters that introduce an array of themes. And you can listen to, and participate in, casual conversations about the topics. And if one starts to sound like a drop down a rabbit hole of geeky obscurantism, then you quickly move on to another that sounds more like a Mad Hatter tea party.

For those interested in expanding their graphic language skills, the three-person “Postmodern Comics Group” looks most promising. One will explore how writer Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons play with linear time in Watchmen. Another will deal with how Chris Ware “manipulates the formal techniques of comics to create a meta-comic.” And the third will focus on Dave Mazzucchelli’s extraordinary Asterios Polyp.

If you haven’t yet heard about it, Asterios Polyp is a witty and clever graphic novel about an arrogant, self-centered architect whose life is falling to pieces. It’s also a masterfully bold stylistic expansion of the art and potential of visual narrative, strongly rooted in a Saul Steinberg sensibility. Far too many graphic novels come across as mere aspirational storyboards for feature films. But Mazzucchelli powerfully exploits the formal qualities of his medium to produce an exceptionally innovative work.

The presenter, Joyce C. Havstad, is a philosophy instructor at UC San Diego. She also maintains an academic site here and a pop culture site here. Our interview about her upcoming talk covers the role of comics scholarship in crossing boundaries and expanding knowledge. It’s also illustrated with dollops of Polyp pages.

I also discussed the relevance of the Comics Arts Conference with co-chair Kathleen McClancy. So let’s begin there…


Kathleen, how would you describe the Comics Arts Conference and its relation to Comic-Con?

Kathleen McClancy: The mission of the CAC is to bring together academics, comics professionals and fans. Each of these three groups has something to say about the medium of comics, and each has its own perspective on, and beliefs about, comics. But too often there’s little communication between those groups; bringing these different perspectives together allows for a fuller, more rounded conversation as well as unexpected insights. The Con as a whole is designed as an opportunity for those kinds of conversations to happen, particularly between professionals and fans; the CAC brings academics to the mix, opening the door to a critical engagement with comics for everyone.

We serve the Con’s educational mission by focusing on understanding how comics work as a medium, what effect they have in the real world, and how they change us as readers. For instance, we usually have at least one panel on “comics theory,” and that discussion becomes a melding of the approaches of academics, who analyze the medium’s language; of professionals, who create it and manipulate it; and of fans, who translate it and transform it.

Bill Sienkiewicz will be among the artists at Comic-Con.

Bill Sienkiewicz will be among the artists at Comic-Con.

What are some examples of how CAC’s presentations are important beyond academia?

McClancy: There’s an unfortunate divide in American culture between the academy and the real world. The assumption is that academic conversations are, at best, pitched at a level too high for humans to hear or, at worst, pointless debates over inconsequential details. But the reality is that attendees are already having the kinds of conversations we have at the CAC. They’re already asking the questions we posit in our sessions every time they sit over coffee to talk about why they are underwhelmed with the most recent crossover, or whether Tobey Maguire’s or Andrew Garfield’s Spider-Man was better.

CAC panels provide a background for these debates as well as a language of discussion. Fans already know that X-Men‘s Jean Grey will never stay dead; hearing a CAC panel about Umberto Eco’s theories on the oneiric climate of comics can reframe that knowledge in productive ways, by explaining the relationship between the medium and its content.

At least once every year I’m approached by an attendee who’s just found
the CAC programming for the first time and who is amazed not only that it’s possible to be a professor of comic books but also that there’s a programming track at Comic-Con dedicated solely to engaging in these kinds of discussions.

Dave McKean will be among the artists at Comic-Con.

Dave McKean will be among the artists at Comic-Con.

What have been a couple of the more lively CAC presentations?

McClancy: Some of the most popular panels we’ve had center on Batman and psychology: the discussions about whether Bruce Wayne has some kind of psychological disorder — and if so, what kind — can get pretty rowdy, especially when you bring together [Batman movie producer] Michael Uslan, [Batman comics editor] Denny O’Neil, and a couple of psychologists, all of whom also are fans.

We also have at least one panel every year on teaching: sometimes on teaching comics themselves, sometimes on using comics to teach other disciplines. Those panels can be really fascinating, bringing together middle and high school teachers with parents and students and pooling approaches.

How are your poster sessions valuable?

McClancy: The one-on-one aspect is central to its goals. But I suppose it’s not really just one-on-one; that would imply that each attendee only talks to one presenter at a time, and vice versa. What actually happens is that the session turns into a kind of extended Q&A: presenters start discussing their work with the presenters next to them, attendees start making connections between presentations across the room from each other, and so on.

As a result, the poster session encapsulates the aims of the CAC by fostering a kind of cross-pollination of ideas.



Joyce, as a philosopher, what interests you about comics?

Joyce C. Havstad: I’ve always loved stories, in any form. As I kid I grew up with books more than film, TV, or comics. But as I’ve gotten older, I’ve discovered that each medium has its own way of telling stories. And in each medium you often find certain kinds of stories rather than others, certain styles, and finally, certain strengths and weaknesses. I enjoy the stories that comics stereotypically tell. But perhaps even more than that, I enjoy observing and exploring the tensions that I perceive in comics. It’s a medium which I think is rather uniquely positioned. I think that comics tend to exist in the in-between spaces: between words and pictures; between serial, open-ended stories and finite publications; between art and entertainment.


And what led you to Dave Mazzucchelli’s work?

Havstad: For one, Asterios Polyp is just a very good graphic novel. But for another, it’s an example from comics that really displays the chimerism that I was just discussing. It’s comics, and it’s deep and existential. It’s about Greek mythology, while also documenting a sort of mid-life crisis. It features academics alongside auto mechanics.

In fact, this work is explicitly about the folly of dichotomization, about the immaturity of seeing the world in simple oppositions. The world is a much more complex and interesting place than that. And what I really like about the graphic novel is that although the author overtly tells us that it’s a mistake to divide things into dichotomies like man vs. nature or linear vs. plastic, he also shows us this lesson by bringing together, in his work, things that aren’t often found together. He crosses the very lines he’s trying to blur.


Now, how is postmodernism adapted into Asterios Polyp?

Havstad: Throughout the graphic novel, Mazzucchelli repeatedly opposes proffered oppositions or dualities. And I think that there’s a lot to be said for not just telling but also showing. This is something that comics, with its striking combination of words and pictures, is really well suited to do.

The first clue that postmodernism is going to be important: Asterios Polyp is the main character. When the story starts out he’s an aging professor of architecture at a prestigious school. His first academic book, based off his doctoral work, was called Modernism with a Human Face. But he leaves it all behind, and the graphic novel is really about his life after that: his post-Modern life.


Second clue: Asterios Polyp has a nonstandard narrator. This figure is neither the protagonist nor an agent of direct action in the story. But then again the narrator is not a purely objective or omniscient observer either. So the narration is neither straightforwardly first-person nor third-person in any of the usual senses. This is nonstandard narration, which is almost a requirement for postmodern literature.


A third way in which Asterios Polyp displays its postmodernity is with ambiguity. It’s filled with allusions, puzzles, hints, and unresolved issues. Absolutely classic examples of this sort of thing in the postmodernist canon can be found in Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 and Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five.


A fourth example: another prominent theme in postmodernism is fragmentation. The modern way of life is one that supposedly leads to fragmentation of the self, and postmodern works draw attention to that by being overtly fragmented themselves. Initial postmodern attempts at fragmented style drew on the stream-of-consciousness style of some modern writers; see the beginning of James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man for my favorite example of this style.

Now, comics are already highly fragmented in a sense, by their panels. But Mazzucchelli takes it much further than usual. Near the end of the graphic novel is a segment that dep
icts recollection, much like Joyce’s Portrait does, actually. Several pages of this segment display a highly fragmented, somewhat stream-of-consciousness style in terms of both drawing and storytelling. It’s a beautiful and compelling segment that strongly evokes postmodern literature.


What are the goals of your talk?

Havstad: The idea is basically to expose the sort of boundary-crossing that Mazzucchelli has done in Asterios Polyp – bringing elements from postmodern literature into his graphic novel, for example – in order to document some of the ways in which techniques and styles can be imported from one medium or genre into another. Hopefully this will: one, help observers understand how this particular piece of art is constructed and functions; and two, help artists consider how they might look beyond one tradition and into others for sources of inspiration and creativity.

Joyce Havstad will be in Comic-Con’s room 26AB next Saturday, July 20th, from 1:30 to 3:30 pm to continue the conversation on Polyp and postmodernism with anyone who stops by.


Additional Resource: Did You Miss HOW Design Live?

Or, do you want to get the scoop on some of the sessions you didn’t get a chance to see? Check out the HOW Design Live ONLINE Event, July 17-19th!