Unkenny Valley

Hillary Chute at the 47th Comic-Con in San Diego

The forty-seventh edition of the San Diego Comic-Con International. (Photo: Jody Culkin)

THE SAN DIEGO COMIC-CON INTERNATIONAL—or “Comic-Con,” the biggest convention of its kind in North America—hosted a record 167,000 attendees in 2015. This year, they apparently broke records again, with an estimated 175,000 people swarming the massive, sunny San Diego Convention Center, a flurry of professionals and fans parading against its wide, stunning views of the water. I was one of those people. For talismanic protection against the “Bronies” (look it up), I wore a necklace made by Gary Panter. “Unkenny” (or uncanny), it proclaims, a reference to George Herriman’s classic comic Krazy Kat.

The joy, and also the fear, of navigating Comic-Con is the sheer democracy of its offerings: The range and scale is enormous. One sees this on the teeming convention floor with its hundreds of exhibitors, from the major movie studios to individuals who sell tiny handmade felt animals. And one sees this in the programming, which presents outsized events packed with thousands, like “Women of Marvel,” or esoteric panels like “Ball-Jointed Dolls Collectors Group.” (“Doll creators, owners, and enthusiasts discuss the world of ball-jointed resin dolls.”) It has become a cliché to note that Comic-Con, which began in 1970, is not really about the comics anymore—now that so much focus is on television, film, novelty toys, video games, cosplay, and the stuff of fantasy culture in general. But I went there for the comics. And there was a lot going on.

Left: Artists Gilbert Hernandez and Daniel Clowes. (Photo: Fantagraphics) Right: Spider-Men. (Photo: Hillary Chute)

The Comic-Con version of “it’s not about the comics anymore” is that it’s still hugely about comics, just not singularly so. As cartoonist Daniel Clowes told me, “I feel like we have a much bigger audience than we used to, but so does everybody else. Now there are so many comics it would literally be impossible to know about every comic coming out, even in a given two weeks.” Clowes, who created the classic graphic novel of teenage girl friendship, Ghost World (1997), was at Comic-Con for the first time in fifteen years, promoting his new sci-fi-inflected graphic novel, Patience.

Comic-Con 2016 was a big year for independent publishers of artists like Clowes, such as Seattle’s Fantagraphics and Montreal’s Drawn & Quarterly. Or California-based Image Comics, which has a more mainstream genre aesthetic, but was founded in the early 1990s with the mission to produce “creator-owned properties”—comics for which the artists would not have to give up copyright to characters. (Image may best be known right now for The Walking Dead, the source for the popular TV show, and Saga, which the handsome young man sitting next to me on the plane to San Diego described as “Alice in Wonderland meets Star Wars on acid.”) That copyright is even still an issue to be debated shows how fractured the world of comics is—a fracture that an enormous umbrella event like Comic-Con, with the huge presence of commercial companies like Marvel and DC, can’t help but underscore. Fantagraphics, which publishes Dame Darcy, Ed Piskor, Jacques Tardi, and Robert Crumb, among others— and Drawn & Quarterly, which puts out Lynda Barry, Adrian Tomine, Shigeru Mizuki, and Julie Doucet (who I covered for Artforum in 2014), are publishers of auteurs, people who both write and draw the comics they create. Many comics companies, including Image, which largely employs teams to create its titles, however experimental the content, as in Saga, are not auteur-driven.

On Friday night, at the Eisner Awards (basically the Oscars of the comics industry), the best-known auteurist publishers, Fantagraphics and Drawn & Quarterly, conspicuously cleaned up. Bill Griffith, creator of the syndicated, enduring alt-hit Zippy the Pinhead, won in the category “Best Writer/Artist” for his graphic memoir Invisible Ink. Accepting the award on his behalf, Fantagraphics publisher Gary Groth took the moment on stage to ask if the Eisners’ committee would consider changing the category to “Cartoonist”— which was met with loud applause and cheering. We can think of the art of the cartoonist, currently flourishing, as inhering in the capacity to create a world—narrative, aesthetic, graphic—through marks, in both words and images.

Artists Derf, Lynda Barry, and Matt Groening. (Photo: Jody Culkin)

Artists whose work exists in boundary spaces—especially spaces between the conventional categories of fine and commercial art—got a lot of love at Comic-Con. Lisa Hanawalt, a special guest of the convention, just published Hot Dog Taste Test, a truly hard-to-classify book that combines—in full color with her loose, fanciful line—stories, food reporting, doodles, wacky lists, and illustrations of animal-people. Hanawalt, thirty-three, is also the producer and designer of the acclaimed animated comedy BoJack Horseman, which stars an alcoholic washed-up TV star who also happens to be a horse. At the Eisners, Lynda Barry, the cartoonist, novelist, playwright, former exhibiting painter, radio commentator, spoken-word artist, and tenured professor of Interdisciplinary Creativity at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, was inducted into the Hall of Fame. (So was her college buddy, The Simpsons’s Matt Groening, who, when it was his turn to accept the honor, ascended the stage to announce, “My influence is Lynda Barry.”) Barry, who got her start in book publishing in the late 1970s when New York’s Printed Matter bought her Xeroxed comics to sell at their store, used to exhibit her paintings in galleries before her dealer told her to stop admitting to anyone that she watched TV while she painted. “Rich people,” Barry told me in 2008, “need [art] to be this sort of deep experience, and they’re sort of buying the talisman of the experience.”

Barry’s title as a professor of Interdisciplinary Creativity sounds too good to be true, but it’s an apt designation for a cartoonist, and also for someone whose central artistic pursuit for over thirty-five years has been about the nature of images across media. Barry’s recent “activity books,” What It Is, Picture This: The Near-Sighted Monkey Book, and Syllabus—which weave dense, brightly colored collage, narrative comics, and expressionistic drawing into philosophies of memory, pedagogy, and storytelling—are groundbreaking: Richly graphic, and moving, they invent a hybrid genre that generates from within the comics universe but totally transcends known categories. They’re artists’ books on a different scale. At the SRO “Drawn & Quarterly: After 25” panel on Saturday, publisher Peggy Burns recalled that while she was thrilled to sign Barry, she was relieved not to be the house production manager.

Outside the San Diego Comic-Con International. (Photo: Jody Culkin)

Sunday I caught up with Clowes, who was signing books all weekend. People have tattoos of his characters, particularly of Enid, the intellectual punk teenager from Ghost World. Taking a break from the convention floor, we found a little shaded area on an outdoor terrace overlooking the ocean that seemed meant for stroller parking. We sat on the concrete, Clowes with a hot dog and me with my first Frito Pie. (The food inside the Convention Center is gross.) Clowes, who was recently the subject of a major traveling retrospective, “The Art of Daniel Clowes: Modern Cartoonist,” told me that he felt he didn’t fit into either the world of Comic-Con or the fine art world. Yet Clowes was inspired by a sort of fusion of the above: the early Jack Kirby Marvel comics “that are actually really beautiful and crazy and strange… the Pop art intensity of it is still really appealing to me.” As Clowes—a Pratt alumnus who pilloried art school in one of the funniest comic strips of all time, “Art School Confidential” (1991)—explained, “I feel a lot of the time like my personality is more like a collector than an artist.”

He enjoyed seeing the curated collection of his comics pages on the wall, despite the fact that he created them for print. The often-uneasy translation of something meant for print to a wall is one reason many cartoonists feel uncomfortable about the recent surge of interest from galleries and museums. But looking at his own show, the craft and labor that comics demand when done best was evident in the display of the originals. Clowes admired the density of his work, and what he called the “little pockets of intensity” that seeing comics on the wall made evident. “I wanted the show to get across how much stuff you have to be able to do to do the full-on kind of comics.”

Artist Lisa Hanawalt. (Photo: Jody Culkin)