Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Festival of Cartoon Art, Final Report

The Festival of Cartoon Art at OSU was in some ways a bewildering experience. I think I'm still processing what I saw there, but I can at least post a few of my photos and a few things I remember. It looks like this is going to be a long post. I'll break it up into twelve items of interest.

I've already said a little bit about the opening day of the festival, which provided some of my favorite moments from the whole weekend. On Friday and Saturday, the festival shifted venues (to a movie-theater / lecture-hall space that could hold all the people in attendance) and transformed into a different sort of event: a series of slideshow presentations made by cartoonists with significant reputations, punctuated by coffee breaks, meals, and receptions.

The lighting in the venue was pretty difficult for my little camera, and Jared Gardner over at Guttergeek has already posted some good pictures from the talks, but I'll include my pictures that turned out okay below.

1.) Jen Sorensen is an underrated cartoonist, as far as I can tell.

On the one hand, she's quite successful — as she put it on Friday, she does make a living drawing talking condoms (among other things) — yet on the other hand because her work appears in alternative weekly papers she isn't as well known as hacks with syndicated dailies, nor does she get the sort of critical respect that comes with a "graphic novel."

What I think will stick with me most was the visual she showed to explain how much of her income derives from her website. The point she was making was that it was a small percentage — 2%? 6%? something like that — but she depicted this as a fraction of a bowl of kibble. First, a hundred kibble pellets to represent the whole income, then a handful of pellets to represent the portion that comes from the web.

Now I'm stuck thinking about a cartoonist's annual income as a bowl of dog food.

2.) Dave Kellett gave a talk in which he espoused Kevin Kelly's "Thousand True Fans" business model as it applies to web-cartoonists: give your strip away, and make your money on the profit margin of your merchandise, book collections, and original art sales to the small fraction of your readers for whom your strip is their favorite thing on the web.

In some ways, the "Thousand True Fans" model is really inspiring—it's nice to imagine that all the talented cartoonists (and other artists) out there could find an audience that would keep them at least moderately remunerated. But I wonder about the economics of it. I'm sure there's a way to make it work, but I wonder what it would take, really, to produce enough new sellable material every year for each of your Thousand Fans to spend, again, the hundred dollars that makes up his or her portion of your bowl of kibble.

On the other hand, I left the room feeling more hopeful than skeptical. It was a good talk in that regard, probably especially for the cartoonists in the audience.

3.) James Sturm gave a great quick overview of his career, culminating with a bunch of really beautiful images from Market Day and a description of the Center for Cartoon Studies and what it has achieved so far. It made me proud to have been affiliated with the enterprise of CCS, even if it's only been in the minor way that I have been.

It wasn't during his talk, but over the course of the weekend either Sturm or Charles Hatfield let it leak that next year's ICAF conference is planned to be in White River Junction (instead of in Chicago or DC). I'm excited about that, as well.

4.) Dan Piraro's talk was hilarious — hands down, the funniest presentation in a weekend full of humor. For someone who draws mainly single-panel gags that represent only a single moment in time, he sure has a knack for comedic timing.

5.) The Festival organized an impressive gathering of cartoonists to pay tribute to Jay Kennedy, the former editor of King Features Syndicate and expert on underground comics.

There's Matt Groening and Bill Griffith during the panel. My pictures of Patrick McDonnell and Brendan Burford, who were also on the panel, didn't turn out well. Each of these luminaries related a couple of personal reminiscences about Jay Kennedy, and a composite portrait emerged of a character who had a lot to do with the shape of American cartooning.

6.) Gene Yang gave an informative talk about the source materials for American Born Chinese and the ideas that inspired it.

I hadn't read Gene's account of how even an editorial cartoon by Pat Oliphant informed Cousin Chin-Kee, and I was impressed, both with the overt racism in Oliphant's cartoon and with the seriousness Gene brought to writing such a ridiculous character. I was hoping that this part of the presentation might stir up some conversation back and forth with the editorial cartoonists in the room about the question of stereotyping, but no one took it up.

7.) Roz Chast was totally charming and very funny.

Among other things, she talked about how much she enjoys drawing lamps, and she showed an image of the first cartoon she sold to The New Yorker, a diagram that labeled odd little doodles as "chent," "tiv," "redge," "hackeb," and so forth. I'm used to seeing Roz Chast's cartoons now, but that early image reminded me that in fact there's a deep vein of weirdness in her work.

The Roz Chast correlative to Jen Sorensen's bowl of kibble was a slide or two of her pile of rejected cartoon submissions. It occupies two filing cabinets and four foot-high stacks of paper on top of those cabinets. It's fascinating, really, to imagine how many of those gag comics are probably very funny, and at least at this point completely unknown to the public.

8.) And then there were the big public lectures. Lots and lots of people turned out for "An Evening with Matt Groening." This is just a part of the audience.

The most memorable thing about the Groening talk, for me, was the awkward string of questions he dealt with after the presentation — mostly people stating they were big Simpsons fans, asking him what his favorite "couch gag" or Itchy & Scratchy torture was, and then asking for his autograph. He must have declined to give autographs fifteen times. And for good reason: look at that audience.

One guy even asked if he could have a lock of Groening's hair. (He had scissors and a Ziploc bag all ready.) Failing that, the fan asked, could I tug on your beard for good luck? The whole spectacle made me a little queasy, in part because I sympathize with the cartoonists who can't be forthcoming to every fan request, and in part because I know I still want to ask some people for autographs, too.

If the crowds were a little thinner for Art Spiegelman's talk the following afternoon, it was probably only because he was competing with President Obama, who spoke at a rally about a block away right after Spiegelman's lecture ended.

One of the things that surprised me about Spiegelman's talk is that he still seems to object to the term graphic novel. I can understand why, but I also think that particular taxonomic battle may have been lost now. Do we have an alternative term? Spiegelman's choice, a comic long enough that it needs a bookmark, doesn't seem practical.

9.) Despite the high-power cartooning celebrity in place at the Festival — and I haven't mentioned all of the speakers, much less the cartoon celebrities who were in the audience (from Jeff Smith to Jeff Keane, from Lynn Johnston to Richard Thompson and others I didn't see) — I think the aspect of the event that had the biggest impact on me was the opportunity to connect and reconnect with some of my academic colleagues. It's always nice to come away from an event like this having met for the first time a few fellow travelers, or to have extended your friendships with people you already knew.

I snapped a couple of decent photos of my friends over at "Thought Balloonists," ...

Charles Hatfield (above) and Craig Fischer (below).

(These were taken while we were waiting for the Groening talk to start on Saturday evening.) I didn't get any pictures of Peter Sattler or Susan Kirtley or Jared Gardner or any of the other scholars I spent time with over the weekend, but I think that those connections and friendships are going to be the best thing to come out of my trip to OSU.

10.) By the time I got to the exhibit of Billy Ireland cartoons over at the library, I was pretty over-saturated with cartoon imagery, but I did manage to snap a few pictures, and looking at them now in retrospect I'm really bowled over by the level of craft evident in those pages. Here are some highlights:

On first glance at this image, I thought, "What an effective caricature of William Jennings Bryan." I have no idea why I was able to recognize Bryan — I couldn't have told you what he looked like, but I recognized him before I noticed his name down in the lower right corner. The mind works in weird ways.

(Ireland's The Passing Show often had little observations like this to mark the changing of the seasons.)

And look how well observed these wolves are! (If you're curious about why one wolf is labeled RUEFISM, here's an explanatory link.)

11.) I brought my robot sketchbook to Columbus, and though I didn't ask for a lock of his hair or any other DNA sample, I did have a short conversation with Matt Groening about the design of one of my favorite robots while he drew this quick doodle.

I got a few other robot doodles while I was in Columbus; perhaps I'll post them some time when I don't have other "content" to share.

12.) I think the Festival of Cartoon Art was an incredible success this year, and an incredible testament to the efforts of the researchers and organizers at OSU. I doubt I'll ever be in a crowd of cartooning luminaries with a friendlier atmosphere.

My only uneasiness or ambivalence about the event had to do with the category it occupied. I know I'd have felt more at home—felt more like a researcher doing his work and less like a fan appreciating things I already liked—if the cartoonists had more often presented ideas, arguments, and detailed accounts of their process. It's enjoyable to have a cartoonist reading his or her strips to you, but that sort of presentation doesn't usually provoke much conversation. Given the incredible collection of talent at the festival, it seems a shame that there weren't more challenging ideas about the direction of comics, or the possibilities of the medium, or the problems of cartooning, et cetera, circulating during and after the presentations. This strikes me as a sort of missed opportunity: why not have a gathering like this work as a think tank, as well as a celebration of the medium? Or maybe those impulses aren't entirely compatible.


Mike Rhode said...

Excellent write-up.

Isaac said...

Thanks, Mike! Do you see yourself in that photo of the crowd at the Groening talk?

Mike Rhode said...

Hah! Now I do, thanks. I know exactly what you mean about Groening too - I also got a sketch at the main Fest before this talk. I apologized to him in the bar at 1 am for asking, after seeing this.

Isaac said...

For what it's worth, Groening seemed to be perfectly okay with autographs or doodles during the smaller part of the Festival — he just had to say no to the big crowd because it would have meant staying in the auditorium all night (and into the morning).

Mike Rhode said...

At the Wexner book store, he said something like "I'll do this for a couple of you, but that's it because then everyone wants one." I had no idea what he was talking about, never having seen THAT level of crazed fandom.

Colin Tedford said...

I briefly met Jen Sorenson a few years ago & picked up the comic-book version of Slowpoke she did before the strip, and it was so good! I love the strip, but I'd really love to see her cut loose on some longer works. Maybe when she gets a little farther down the road she'll do her own version of Alison Bechdel's move and release some fantastic satirical graphic novel (sorry, Art Spiegelman!)

I mostly just call comics "comics" regardless of length, but I don't grump when people call 'em "graphic novels". I sometimes use "book-length comic", which has the same number of syllables as "graphic novel", when I want to be specific. I don't even like the term "comics" much because it's not very accurate either, but it's shorter and I've just accepted that a lot of names have historical reasons & aren't very "accurate".

The Thousand True Fans model is pretty inspiring, although there don't seem to be a lot of actual examples to back it up. Even if it had no other value, though (and I'm sure it does), I still think it's useful for pointing out a different model of "success".

Sounds like it was quite an event!

Isaac said...

It was quite an event, Colin.

I think I tend to use graphic novel as a term more often than a lot of cartoonists do, because its currency in popular media has made it possible for me to organize college courses where I teach smart, literary comics and have a good label I can use to communicate what the class is about. In the old days, I used to call the class "Comics as Literature," but since I mostly teach long-form comics, and since I didn't like the action of the preposition in my old formula ...

Anyway, I think it's convenient. It's nice to be able to separate the ambition of a "serious" and hefty story from the ambition of posting some doodles on DeviantArt or whatever.