Charles Burns, Chip Kidd, Seth and Chris Ware Panel (Part Three of Three)

Posted by on April 2nd, 2010 at 12:01 AM

Previously: PART ONE, PART TWO

KIDD: I don’t see my books about the superhero stuff that I do [as being] so much about nostalgia as about validation. I’ve been collecting Batman stuff pretty much uninterrupted my entire life, which is not something that I’m proud to sit here and say. Chris did this fake strip as a Christmas present for me one year. And I opened this up and I almost fainted because I thought it was real. [Laughter] I thought I had the single oldest original piece of Batman art, and then I got to the part where Robin’s lamenting that I’m already seeing somebody, and …

HEER: For those who can’t read it, it says: “It must be the work of Chip Kidd! I simply adore him! Though I hear he’s taken.” Which is sadly true.

KIDD: I literally felt like, well, “If I can publish a book of Batman toys, then I’m not nearly as pathetic as some people say I am.” [Laughter] And it just went on from there. “If I can publish a book on the Batman animated TV show by Bruce Tim, then it’s not totally gay to like it!” [Laughter] And I’ve been dogpaddling like this ever since.

So … obviously there’s a nostalgia component but it’s really more like a … rediscovery or really trying to make other people see this stuff the way I see it.

SETH: Well, nostalgia’s tricky because when you read things at a certain age, you invest these emotions into them. And then later when you’re an adult you have to go back and sift through and see whether the material actually is worthy of that level of interest in it again and it’s hard to separate your sentimentality towards it to see whether the work really stands up.

HEER: And actually, to get to Chip’s point, as well as what you said about the difficulty of nostalgia, I think some of the hostility that some hardcore comics fans have to some of your projects, like I know that there were some Peanuts fans who made very stupid, ignorant comments about the Peanuts book, but I think it’s because they were emotionally invested …

KIDD: They called it an act of necrophilia. [Laughter.]

HEER: But it comes from the fact that you’re tampering with their nostalgia. They have a sort of five-year-old memory of what Peanuts is, and what you’re trying to do is to get them to see Peanuts afresh, and for some people that creates a great deal of hostility.

KIDD: And, well, a lot of the hostility came from the fact that I reprinted the strips literally as if they were clipped from the newspaper and then we simply photographed them that way. It’s kind of hard to get that impression from here. I remember when I was thinking about trying to put this book together and what it would be, I called up Chris and I said, “I don’t suppose you know anybody who has an amazing vintage collection of early, early Peanuts strips,” and he said, “Yeah, me.” And he had just literally…

WARE: I didn’t say it like that. [Laughter.]

KIDD: A little more enthusiasm. But he had just purchased, on eBay for an outrageously low sum, a scrapbook of the first, I don’t know, three years of the strip?

WARE: Something like that, yeah. The great thing is that the collector who did this focused more on the sort of gag aspect of the early Peanuts strip and kind of cut out most of the ones that were about the characters as they developed, which just highlighted for me the fact that Schulz, when he published the first Peanuts volume, was a shrewd editor and artist, because he understood the real engine of the strip was the interaction between the characters and not the sort of more tossed-off gag type things, but this guy collected ’em. And in the back of the book, on top of that, he had party jokes pasted in. So I thought “Is he, like, trying to memorize these things for when he [laughter] went out in social circumstances, to try to amuse people, or …”

HEER: Pick up chicks …

KIDD: But what was even, to me, just logistically so extraordinary about this scrapbook that Chris so graciously lent to us for this project, was that when Peanuts started, it started in eight newspapers in the entire country. Eight. So, that meant — and three of them were in Pennsylvania near where I grew up. So this guy, whoever he was, recognized that Peanuts was special immediately, and started collecting these things. When you think about it, it’s one thing for somebody, even at the end of the ’50s, to start doing it, but to start doing it in 1950 was pretty amazing. Anyway. I think people were upset because they thought that I was showing a lot of Schulz’s work in a way that he would not have approved of.

WARE: Actually, I think it kind of highlights the whole problem of comics as art. Because you were presenting them as cultural artifacts. You were photographing them as printed objects. And I think what maybe upset people who didn’t like it is that they were used to seeing them more as type on a page or text on a page. The difference being that when you photographed them you could see the browning of the paper, the paper thread; you were showing … how it was originally presented. It was more of an art book. They weren’t really necessarily as much intended to be read in your book as they would be, say, like in the version that Seth is working on, where you’re presenting them literally almost as type. So maybe that’s what upset people.

And that’s one of the reasons why comics just maybe never will be considered art: because it is an art of reproduction. Everybody can have one. But that’s the thing I like, actually, about it most — that there’s not, like, a cultural exclusivity to it. It’s not on a wall in a museum that some group of donors paid $12 million for. Everyone can take the book home and have a very kind of private, personal experience, but at the same time our culture doesn’t really value things like that. Unfortunately, it sees them as sort of a tossed-away things.

My goal at least is to make the best possible thing I can for a single person, whoever that person might be.

HEER: That’s a very good note for this portion of it. I think we have time for questions from the audience and it looks like there’s a lot of people out there. Yes?

MAN: What are some of the trends that you guys see today in comics and where it’s sort of headed? And also, I noticed a sort of division between the superhero comics and these more independent comics and is there a tension there? I don’t know, and you see those two worlds coming together. I’m sure I’ve seen a few independent examples where the worlds have come together kind of in a funny, ironic way, and I’m wondering if you see that merging. I don’t know if DC or somebody is interested in the independent world or vice versa …

BURNS: I don’t see it as a tension. I think there’s room for all those worlds to coexist. I think that’s what’s good right now: that there’s a large body of what I think is good, interesting work coming out. When I was a kid I genuinely loved reading Spiderman comics. I looked forward to the next issue; it was the right age for me and it was the kind of story that I really liked. I do remember that there was some disappointment … that I wanted better work. I remember buying a Batman comic and I knew it was crummy, but I bought it anyway ’cause I liked comics. … But for people who love superheroes, I mean, that’s great. They should be able to coexist. I don’t think there needs to be … warring factions. I don’t see it that way at all.

WARE: I do.

SETH: There is a bit of tension, though, I think. And the tension mostly for me is that, because comics is a small world, you have to deal with them. It’s not that I have any problem with superhero comic books; I’m more than happy for guys to be out there making them, and I could have easily been one of those guys and been very happy. But it’s the fact that you must deal with them, sort of, as a cartoonist. [Laughter.] I’m sure that there are authors out there that don’t have to deal with children’s books, for example, like if Salman Rushdie is giving an interview, nobody asks him about children’s books. But as a cartoonist you’re constantly returning to the superhero. I mean it is a potent image for us as cartoonists, anyway; we can’t really escape it, it’s been so formative. But I think there’s a weird focus on the superhero because the market’s sort of worked its way down to just being superheroes at some point.

WARE: Right. Plus, the predominant content of our language, basically. It’s not always gonna be that way, it just happens to be that way now. We grew up reading them, and it’s the most prevalent commercial content of comics in America. You go to another country, it’s not necessarily superheroes. There are hardly any superheroes anywhere in Europe. It’s not a popular genre at all. They like Westerns there, [laughter] and science fiction. And if we were there we’d be asked, you know, “Do you like Westerns and science fiction?” I don’t mean to interrupt you.

HEER: Actually, Chip might be a good person to bring in here, as well, because you’ve sort of straddled the borders of these two worlds.

KIDD: Right, I feel like I’m kind of the Kofi Annan of … “Can’t we all just get along?”

HEER: First Peter Lawford, now Kofi Annan.

KIDD: Yeah, right, we just shifted there, didn’t we? I’ve got this deep, heartfelt love of superhero comics, and I always will, and then I’ve got a deep heartfelt love of what everybody on this stage is doing, and, I don’t know. I think, going back a little bit to your initial question is, like, “Where are comics going?” Again, it’s too broad a question, I think it needs to be pared down. It’s like asking “Where are movies going?” or “Where is fiction going?” There’s so many different ways of answering that, that the first way to answer it is to start talking more specifically about … “What kind of comics?” You know, there’s the autobiographical stuff, there is manga, there is superheroes, there is all different kinds of things, and I think … that they at least seem to be garnering a larger audience than they have before, and as Chris likes to say … Well, do you want to say it?

WARE: I don’t know what I say. [Laughter.]

KIDD: That you feel that there are more good cartoonists working today than ever before in a single time in the medium.

WARE: Yeah, I think so. Well, I mean, the reason I got into comics, or kept doing comics as an adult, really is ’cause I can do whatever I want, nobody ever tells me what to do. I’m not edited, I’m not changed. And I would never, ever work for a company that would want me to do that, like DC or Marvel would. They would want to own a property. I’d be somehow told what to do. Occasionally, I get calls from the syndicates like United Media saying, “We’d like you to do a strip,” and within 10 minutes or so I get them to tell me “Oh, yeah, we have to own the characters, we have to approve this, we have to approve that,” and I think “Well, why would I want to do that?” I mean, if I lived like, for 350 years, I might try it for a decade or something … [Laughter] I’m gonna be dead in 40 years! I don’t have that much time! This stuff takes a long time. And I don’t want to do that. Actually, I don’t know why anybody would want to do that, but some people do. … I don’t have… Well, I’m gonna dissolve into pejorative comments, here, if I don’t… So I’ll be quiet.

HEER: There’s some more questions. In the red?

WOMAN: Sure. I’m very interested in the status of illustrators and comic-book artists within the art world. And now that you guys are all high art … [Laughter.]

BURNS: We are?

WOMAN: How are things changing in that regard for you, and what impact can that have? Also, now, we have the advantages, in hindsight, if there had been more federal support in the past, for perhaps the previous generation to yourselves … [If you had] gotten grants, in years past, would that have helped, or would it have spoiled the isolation that you spoke to earlier, that in a way has contributed to the wonderful stuff that you’ve made?

WARE: Wow.

BURNS: As far as the idea of it being accepted as a fine art, do you mean specifically about being hung on a gallery wall, or something like that? Is that what you mean?

WOMAN: That you’ve been written about academically, that you are getting hung in national galleries, for instance, and that you are now acceptable at dinner parties … [Laughter.]

BURNS: I always look at the originals as being… They’re like mechanicals for the final product, which is a book or a printed piece. I, as an artist or as a cartoonist, I love looking at those things. I love looking at Chris’s work or Seth’s work on the wall, to look at how they drew this and how they corrected that, and I like looking at them as an object. But it always seems kind of awkward to see them in that setting, in that kind of, looking at them on a wall, like that. You’re not reading them, they’re not doing what they should be doing, which is … you know, sitting and looking at them on the printed page, for me.

WARE: Well, in terms of art, there aren’t that many comics that reach into your soul as far as they can and pull out a complicated mass of desire, frustration, fantasy, memory, all the things that go into making life confusing and worth living, and put it out on the page. There’s really only a handful of cartoonists that do that. And the more they do that, the more it will be considered an art, whether or not it’s hung on the wall, or printed in books or written about.

And the mechanism of reading comics, or looking at comics, has more to do with reading pictures than it does looking at them. A gallery and a museum context asks the viewer to look at things rather than read them. So, I had problems, at least when I was in art school, of actually getting my art teachers to read my comics. They’d literally take them and turn them upside down and say “Oh, this is a nice composition.” And I’d think, “I’m paying… this is like … $400 an hour, here, will you please just read it [laughter] and tell me if the story affected you?”

So, Art Spiegelman has a really great quote about comics in the art world because up until recently they were treated entirely as a stand-in for popular culture. If you drew a comic panel it meant, like, “Look, pop culture sucks, and I painted it big, but it’ll look really nice in your living room.” And he said “Basically, Roy Lichtenstein did for comics what Andy Warhol did for soup.” [Laughter.]

HEER: Now, Seth, you have a museum show that just ended recently. D you want to speak to this question?

SETH: It’s a tricky question, because I do think that the profile of comics has been going up in the last 10 years, and I think it’s very obviously true that there’s been more attention paid, and having this show is a good example of the kind of seriousness of intent that wouldn’t have been paid to my work 10 years ago, and if it was in a gallery, it’s like what Chris would have said, it would have been there either as source material for something else, or as an ironic stance or something, but I felt like the work was presented very straightforwardly, to allow people to actually see it without any ironic distance between what I was doing and the work. I mean, it’s not the same as reading it. That is the real experience. You can’t present a whole comic book in a gallery. You could put 200 pages up, but people aren’t going to read it any more than watch a film in one-minute segments for five hours.

But I think that — to take the second part of your question, about whether or not support from the arts or from the government would have made any difference — I don’t really think that that would be the answer. I mean, obviously certain artists could have used a grant, and had they been the type to apply for a grant back in the past, if it had even occurred to them, they might have got one. It certainly would have encouraged certain artists to explore things. But I think that there weren’t that many artists that were moving in that direction, just because of the nature of how comics has evolved. Cartoonists have tended to view themselves, because they’ve been on the outside of the art world they’ve had more of a connection to the commercial world, and they’ve understood they had to make a living somehow, and then try to produce art on the side, if they were doing that.

It’s only, I think, in this modern sphere, that we have a certain group of cartoonists that are looking at the field as a primary source of artistic expression. Maybe in an alternate reality there would have been more cartoonists that could have used that kind of help, but it’s just, I think, now more than ever there’s been a climate has developed where now more than ever would be the time to support artists. I mean, you could find a handful of artists back in the ’70s who were working in underground comics, who thought of themselves as real artists, and if there had been some kind of cultural support for what they were doing, I think a lot of those guys might have stuck around, and a lot of them disappeared except for the few most committed of them, like Kim Deitch or Robert Crumb. I guess it is a failing of the culture not to have recognized anything in comics, but it’s also a failing in comics, to have not presented much for them to recognize.

WARE: Well, that’s the quote of the evening.

HEER: Yeah. [Laughter] You have a question?

MAN: You all talk about what comics have influenced you, and nostalgia in general. Seth and Chris in particular, you’re clearly influenced by design and typography of another time. So I’m wondering what, aside from comics, has influenced the look of your work.

SETH: Just about everything. I feel like I’ve absorbed everything that I come in contact with and then try to pick and choose what’s of value to me. It’s really hard to narrow it down. But I guess aesthetically you’re attracted to different things. For myself, one of the reasons I’m so firmly fixated on the ’20s and ’30s … I’ve come to think of it as there are certain textures to different time periods, I can’t think of a better word for it, but there’s a feeling to these different times, that you feel through the pictures and through the graphics and through the packaging and whatever, from these times, and you’re drawn to certain ones more than others. And when I just see that work from the early part of the 20th century, there’s a hand-done aesthetic to it that really appeals to me, the way the lettering looks. Even just in the aesthetics of the way people looked. You know, everybody’s wearing wool and cotton, and there’s something appealing about looking into those photographs. People just look different. And there’s something that just grabbed me about that. I’ve certainly tried to intellectualize it over the years, as to why I would have an attraction to this period specifically, but I think it really just comes down to an aesthetic response. There’s a workmanship in a lot of this stuff that speaks to me, that when I look at a modern candy-bar package, that just doesn’t speak to me. I just look at it and think, like, “Could they squeeze a hundred more things on this package design?” There’s … something that you just want to take from it, and it’s as simple as that.

WARE: I think it’s also because I really, really loved my grandmother. [Laughter.] Seriously. There’s something about the time in which she grew up — there was a certain dignity to it, and the sort of things that were in her house I was really moved by, as a kid, I guess. I mean, this is in addition to what Seth is saying.

HEER: Do you also want to say a little bit about music? …

WARE: Somewhat, yeah. But I would just get kind of nattery, I’d just go on and on about it or something forever. [Laughter.]

HEER: OK. Another question?

WOMAN: I’d just like to know, initially, how difficult was it to find your first publisher, and did you get many rejection notices?

WARE: Well, to say really quickly here, I never actually sent anything out, because I didn’t want to be rejected, because I had been all through school, [laughter] and had some, you know, bad … school dance experiences and stuff, so. The only thing I actually did try, ever, to do, was to get in the student newspaper when I was in college, which I was ready to be rejected from, but then I got lucky and I wasn’t. And then from there it was just the visibility of doing it, and that people came and asked if they could publish my stuff, so it was a very charmed sort of existence, I was extremely lucky. I don’t know if I could have done it if I had to keep sending things out. They have classes now in art school that teach you how to kind of put yourself out there, and ring doorbells and shake hands and stuff like that, which seems anathema to being a cartoonist. Or even an artist, for that matter. I don’t know.

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