What Went on at Comics: Philosophy and Practice
The weekend of May 18–20, the University of Chicago’s Gray Center was the home to a new event: the Comics: Philosophy and Practice Conference, an unprecedented event comprising an amazing assortment of comics legends. Speaking on various panels throughout the weekend: Lynda Barry, Alison Bechdel, Ivan Brunetti, Charles Burns, Dan Clowes, R. Crumb, Phoebe Gloeckner, Justin Green, Ben Katchor, Aline Kominsky-Crumb, Francoise Mouly, Gary Panter, Joe Sacco, Seth, Art Spiegelman, Carol Tyler, and Chris Ware. The event was organized by Hillary Chute, author of Graphic Women: Life Narrative and Contemporary Comics. We talked with Carol Tyler after she returned from the conference to get her thoughts.
You called Comics: Philosophy and Practice "paradigm shifting." How so?
It’s hard to describe how much for me it changed everything, in terms of my feelings and going forward. It very much affirmed my commitment to pen-dipping and storytelling. I felt happy to be a member of this great club. We all felt that. It seemed like our voices have been strengthened by being together. This event had all kinds of small moments and intersections that became greater than the sum of its parts. It was complete. So much of what we do today—with computers, with devices, with online comics—I don’t know. There’s isolation and illusion there. We’re from another place - the print tradition. This conference gave a sense of solidity to that.
Most of us were old friends, so it was great to see everybody. And those of us who hadn’t met before became friends immediately. That was the energy. Conference attendees and on-line viewers understood—and saw and realized how much underground comix & alternatives are really important. That was also what this weekend was about. It reaffirmed this industry’s roots and where we all came from. And yet we’re not fossils. We all still have so much to say.
How were you invited to participate, and how did everything come together?
Hillary Chute from the University of Chicago got in touch several months ago but I was involved with the care of my terminally ill mother who died in February and my sister, who is going through chemo. So I wasn’t exactly tuned in. I told Hillary, “Sounds great! Sure!” and didn’t make much of it at the time. But then it all came together! Hillary and the University of Chicago people were awesome. It took place at the new Gray Center, and the University of Chicago really stepped up.
Hillary has really put together a thesis and a philosophy about comics. This is something significant that really resonated with me. I teach students, and they all want to do comics—particularly online comics. I tell them first and foremost you’ve got to have this connection to the physical work, this pen-dipping connection. You’ve got to understand the comics tradition before you post. You gotta have a mind behind the mouse.
Were you excited to see how comics were being honored and valued at this event?
Yes! It reaffirmed what this lineup of creators do…and has been doing for decades. It’s very basic and traditional, and yet it’s NOT obsolete. We're still very much alive and kickin'.
It was awesome to see this lineup together. But while it felt like a complete group, of course, it wasn’t—we were missing a ton of other friends who I wish could have been there. But what we did have was the “Chicago 17,” and that felt great.
What was the attendance like for the weekend?
Attendance was pretty good considering the NATO summit that was going on at the same time. The event was sold out, but it was hard to get there due to road closures. I mean, big city whole freeway closures. Thank God for Internet streaming!
There were FBI, CIA, and police everywhere. They even imported cops from towns like Philadelphia – lots of guys with shaved heads and sunglasses talking into their shoulders. We were at the same hotel as most of the world’s diplomats. Or, I should say, they were at OUR hotel. But we all knew the NATO thing was just a foil for the real action—17 awesome cartoonists in town talking about comics. [Laughs] But really, that added another dimension to the weekend.
What stood out for you about the panels?
All of the panelists sat there all day long for each other. That was great. We were present for each other all weekend. Everybody was interested in what everybody else had to say. And everything that was said on the panels was great. I felt like I was “with” everything everyone said. It felt like we were literally all on the same page.
If there were one thing I could change about any part of the weekend, it would be for all of us to be on stage together at the same time. Wouldn’t that be crazy madness?! Love it. But that’ll be next time.
Overall, it was the small connections including having plenty of time to be together that made a big wonderful feeling. That made the weekend for me. I needed that after crying through the last eight months. I felt like I earned this weekend with every tear.