Hillary Chute has revealed her superpower: wrangling 17 of the heaviest hitters in the literary comics world for the Comics: Philosophy and Practice conference, happening Friday 18 through Sunday 20.
Some of her favorite interactions have been with R. Crumb, who doesn’t correspond by e-mail. When I spoke with Chute earlier this month, the University of Chicago assistant professor of English read from a postcard Crumb sent in March. The conference schedule, he wrote, “looks okay to me. My biggest fear about such panels is that the audience will become bored. I try to be entertaining and not too serious or intellectual. This is, after all, about comic books.”
“I thought that was hilarious,” Chute says, adding that she’s on the same page as Crumb. “I’m excited to have conversations that aren’t too dry but are content-driven, serious conversations about where the field is going.”
The conference invites lauded sequential-art creators with a wide array of styles: Chris Ware and his architecturally precise layouts; Art Spiegelman and his moody black-and-white illustrations; Lynda Barry and her whimsically sketchy cartoons. Given that the roster also includes notables such as Alison Bechdel (who’s co-teaching an autobiography class with Chute), Joe Sacco and Daniel Clowes, it’s no surprise the free event hit capacity hours after registration opened. Still, Chute expects room for walk-ups. Unclaimed tickets will be released 15 minutes before each event. (Advice to hopefuls: Camp out early. The U. of Chicago will also webcast most of the conference live at on.fb.me/uchicagolive.)
What I didn’t expect for an event that intends to consider the future of comics were Chute’s own predictions about the medium. Though many publishing houses are increasingly delving into online distribution, she admits to having little interest in digital formats.
“Honestly, I’m such a print-culture person, that hasn’t been one of my areas of focus,” says Chute, author of Graphic Women (a 2010 study of five female cartoonists from Columbia University Press) and associate editor of Spiegelman’s MetaMaus (Pantheon). She’s an unabashed champion of the book format: “Although it seems anachronistic, I think that’s where the field is going. The graphic novel is upholding an interest in material objects among readers.”
Via e-mail, Sacco—an American Book Award winner whose nonfiction comics depict war zones such as Palestine and Bosnia—explains he’s not much interested in the so-called digital revolution, either. “Of course it’s possible to draw something specifically for the tablets,” he acknowledges. “I’m just not inclined to do that. If anything, I want to draw larger.”
Chute and Sacco are both struck by the increase in museums and galleries showcasing comic-book pages. (The Museum of Contemporary Art, which devoted a 2006 exhibition to Ware, will present Clowes’s traveling retrospective in 2013.) “I’m always interested in seeing my peers’ work on a wall,” Sacco notes. “It’s nice to see the brush or pen work up close to understand what physically has been done. But ultimately, the real object is the book. Comics are meant for the printed page. So I understand the gallery interest, but I’m somewhat ambivalent about it.”