Monday, March 26, 2012

Comics at Columbia

Yesterday, I took a trip into New York City with my cartoonist buddy Robert Berry to attend the first day of the Comic New York Symposium at Columbia University.  The symposium was the brainchild of Columbia Librarian Karen Green, a Medievalist by training and a graphics novel librarian by force of will.  Karen's been a big supporter of Rob's work over the last few years, and I've gotten to know her while riding on his coattails to all these cool comics events to which he gets invited.

The inspiration for the symposium was longtime X-Men mastermind Chris Claremont's donation of his archives to the library's Rare Book and Manuscript collection.   I think this is a very significant development, and Claremont's probably the most mainstream of comics writers, and that his career only stretches back into the '70s, and not the periods we generally think of as historically important.  I'd never seen Claremont speak before; generally, when I attend a comic book convention I tend to prefer blowing my family's savings wandering the floor to attending panels.  But Claremont's a tremendously engaging speaker, and I, never much of an X-Men fan, found myself enraptured like the world's biggest Marvel Zombie. 

However, before we get into the main event, the undercard featured several other panels of note.  Because the symposium was structured around New York City and its' impact on comics (as I said to Rob, only New Yorkers could spend a weekend talking only about New York City), we had a unique opportunity to see artists together on a panel that normally we'd never dream of linking.  I doubt very much you'll ever find another common thread in the works of John Romita and Ariel Schrag then "we're both in New York".  Both (along with Romita's son John Jr and Molly Crabapple, plus historian Kent Worchester) took part in the first panel of the day, which focused on New York City as a setting.  Sadly, though the panel was interesting, few outside of Crabapple really had much illuminating to say on the topic.  Somewhat inevitably, I suppose, the panel basically became a Romita-fest, with even moderator/ John Hamm-lookalike Chris Irving descending to fanboy worship.  But, you know, it's the Romitas.  JR JR did make an interesting point when he discussed how hard it was for him to draw Pittsburgh when he had to for a book and writer that he chose not to name (though it was Star Brand, for Jim Shooter) because he couldn't draw a city without making it look like New York.  And Schrag  stole the show when she described the fight she'd gotten into at Gay Prom.  So there's that.

The day's second panel (after an extended lunch break) continued our theme of celebrity lookalike moderators, as David Hajdu (author of the fantasic Ten Cent Plague) is a dead ringer for Last Picture Show director Peter Bogdanovich.  This panel focused on politics and cartooning, with longtime publisher and agent Denis Kitchen providing some fabulous insights into the minds and works of Will Eisner and Al Capp, among others.  Kitchen was joined on the panel by cartoonists John Carey, Sabrina Jones, and Peter Kuper; each cartoonist presented a brief presentation of both their work and their inspirations.  While interesting, I can't say that this format was as engaging as a straight free-form discussion with the same participants would have been

We'll never know what might have been...
The day's final panel, though, got everything just right, even if moderator Gene Kannenberg broke our streak of celebrity impersonators.  Focusing on indie/alternative/whatever you wanna call 'em comics (basically, things without super heroes), this was a lively, fun, informative panel.  I ended up buying Julia Wertz' book Drinking at the Movies based on one panel shown during the slide show (and Gene's recommendation).  But, honestly, the highlight for me was before the panel, when I got to meet R. Sikoryak, one of my very favorite artists, and share a story with him.  When I was a young lad dreaming of breaking into comics, one of my great ideas was to pitch DC with an Elseworlds (a series of alternate reality comics that would reimagine DC characters in different contexts.  Most of these saw Batman fighting the likes of Jack the Ripper, Dracula, as a cowboy, ect.) book called "Batman: Crime and Punishment".  You figure it out.  Anyway, this obviously never happened, but sometime later I saw Sikoryak's "Dostoyevsky Comics" strip in an issue of Raw; not only had he stolen my idea, but he'd done it by perfectly mimicking Dick Sprang!  Clearly, my book could never be taken seriously with this thing out there.  Just another brick in my "you're not breaking into comics" wall of shame. But Bob (I hope I can call you Bob, Bob) was very kind, and said that he wished he could read my version, and we even discussed which Batman characters I'd use (I have to admit, it's been a long time since I thought about this).  Anyway, you're still awesome, Bob, and anyone out there that doesn't own this is simply depriving themselves.

And then came the main event.  I have to say, I didn't really know what to expect; as I mentioned, I've never been a big fan of the X-Men, which is somewhat akin to liking Sesame Street, but not the stuff with the Muppets.  To be fair, I didn't read the X-Men until relatively late in Claremont's run (around the 220s or so); when I went back and read the earlier stuff, the stuff with which he made his rep and turned what had been an also-ran comic into the backbone of the Marvel Universe, well, then I got it.  That stuff's legitimately good.  Moreover, I quite like a lot of Claremont's non-X-Men work, on books like Marvel Team-Up, Spider-Woman, Iron Fist, and Ms. Marvel.  And, as I mentioned, the man's a delight.  I could have listened to him and Louise Simonson (who's also a delight) talk for hours.  Well, more then the two hours that they did speak.

Columbia recorded all the panels, and promises to put them online; when they do, I'll link to them.  If you watch the Claremont one, you'll see me ask him a question about Ms. Marvel, which requires some explanation, but as I am literally typing this with a broken arm, that will have to wait.  My only regret is that Robert and I had to hustle back downtown to catch our bus back home to Philly, so we missed whatever post-symposium fun there was to have (not to mention the second day).  But it was certainly worth the trip, even without the free lunches the criminology symposium going on at the same time received.


  1. Glad you enjoyed yourself, Ken! This line cracked me up: "only New Yorkers could spend a weekend talking only about New York City." And yet we did, and yet there was still so much left unsaid. This city's a treasure trove of both talent and history, and it felt fitting to begin with that focus. (Also, we didn't have a budget to bring in people from outside the city.)

    One correction, though: the event wasn't actually my brain-child. It was Chris Couch's brain-child, and he brought it to a group of us, and three of us ran with it. It's all in my opening remarks, which will be up soon, I hope!

    It was good to see you again, and I hope the arm heals swiftly.

  2. Thanks for the detailed overview of the day's proceedings, Ken, and your kind words about the panel I moderated. Two thoughts: (1) I had *wonderful* panelists to talk to / let talk, and great artwork to feature (so glad you bought Julia's book!); and (2) 10 years ago or so, Mike Allred told me I looked a bit like Matt Wagner, and in my long-haired 20s people said I looked like Andrew McCarthy(!) - so the celebrity-impersonation thing did *kind-of* continue. And if any city could spend two days talking about its connection to comics, well, New York *is* that place. Hope we can meet up again soon!

  3. Thanks for that post, Ken! It sounds great and it brings back some memories, since I did study at Columbia as an exchange student. And while becoming a short time Cuss-Fuss member back than, I guess I met Karen Green once or twice. And I did spend some time browsing that amazing graphic novel collection in the libraray. Great place!

    Really looking forward to see the panels online.