A Comix Panel

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Six of America's top cartoonists converged in the belly of the Philadelphia Free Library last Saturday for a far-reaching discussion that touched on everything from their increasing use of new technology in their works, how comix may or may not fit into a museum, and whose works they currently admire. The panel included Art Spiegelman ("Maus," winner of the Pulitzer Prize,) Kim Deitch ("The Mishkin File,") Charles Burns ("Black Hole,") Chris Ware ("Jimmy Corrigan: Smartest Kid on Earth,") Richard McGuire ("Here,") and Kaz ("Underworld") and was moderated by Chip Kidd, editor of Pantheon's graphic novel division.

The first thing TIME.comix noticed: Some of these guys looked like their drawings. Burns sports a nearly bald pate and black-rimmed eyeglasses. Chris Ware, with a large Corrigan-esqe head, tries to bashfully shrink into his chair. Kidd, whose sweeping part of dark hair and wire-rim glasses give him the look of a teenage Devo fan, began by asking Art Spiegelman what it means to be a successful cartoonist. "It's a very mixed blessing," Spiegelman said. "I've felt this incredible weight ever since 'Maus' became a crossover hit because it puts all these eyeballs looking over you shoulders. ... The flip side of course is you have all these half-baked notions and somebody will say yes." By way of example Spiegelman spoke of a musical theater piece he's been working on with composer Phillip Johnston, called "Drawn to Death: A Three Panel Opera" about the rise and fall of the American comic.

To the question, "What is the future of independent publishing," the panel was surprisingly upbeat. "I think it will exist in one form or another," Charles Burns said. Though he didn't think the commercial prospects were very good, "people will keep on buying as long as you put stuff out there." Spiegelman likewise felt it was "relatively promising in its own weird way. As publishing itself becomes this totally marginalized activity, there's room for us marginal types in it." Chris Ware, ever the pessimist, pointed out that "the problem is that [comix] always end up in this section called 'graphic novels' which some bookstores don't even have so they end up in 'Science Fiction,' or even worse, with 'Role Playing Games.' I can't go into bookstores any more because if you see [your book] it's always in that section, or else you don't see it. Either way it's depressing."

Asked how he felt about being included in this year's Biennial exhibition at New York's Whitney museum, Ware said he felt flattered but dismissed it as "luck of the draw." "It's also fairly nonsensical because the clip that I'm including you have to sit down and read. You can't spend a lot of time looking at the artwork on the wall. It's the difference between art for reproduction and art for display." Richard McGuire then spoke of his own recent work, installations of large comix panels that hang from the ceiling, as an example of finding a gray area between these two types of art. When McGuire asked Ware if installations were something he would "get a charge out of," Ware shrugged. "A comic strip original is not necessarily something you get an aesthetic charge out of," he replied. More hopeful, Spiegelman piped in, "On the other hand, you put it on a wall — they look, you know?"

Charles Burns, whose novel "Black Hole" has been appearing in serialized format since 1995, spoke on the challenges of writing an ongoing series. "It's not so much like writing a novel where you can go back and edit, or have someone say, 'Change this around,'" Burns said. "[Earlier] I was inking this table-top filled with dirty dishes, doing all these little ellipses and cups for hours. I still have hours to go. That alone, to go back and break it open again, is too much." Incredibly organized, Burns says he knows what's in the last panel he'll be drawing four years from now. Another unique aspect to long-term comix, Burns points out, is that your drawing style will change and the characters will look different from five years ago. Ware, who says he has been working on a story for three years that takes place in three hours sometimes thinks "working this way is insane."

When asked what recent work impressed them, the panel universally agreed on Dan Clowes' "Eightball" #22 (see TIME.comix review), a book made up of multiple short stories that also relate to each other. Spiegelman added that what he is most "in awe" of right now is the "weird dialogue" going on between the work of Clowes and Ware. "What is natural for Dan Clowes — narrative development of characters — has found a responsive chord in Chris, leading [Ware] to do more with his characters. Conversely, Chris's very natural feeling for form seems to have affected what Dan does."

Asked to describe how digital printing has affected their work Spiegelman described his process as increasingly virtual. "I have two tables, one of which has my computer on it and the other of which has my 19th century equipment. I find myself moving back and forth all the time now. ... Rather than correct a drawing I'll end up scanning it in and fixing it on screen." Where he once had multiple sketches and drafts, it's now easier to keep re-manipulating and changing the work. "I actually end up writing the comix by making notes in a notebook and then working it in boxes in Quark Xpress [a layout program] before there's any artwork done so I can figure what rhythms I want and how much language can fit in a box." Has it improved his work? "No," he says.

The panel wound down with an exchange about how the events of September 11 have affected their work. Spiegelman said he suffers from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (he lives in downtown Manhattan.) He has been working out his feelings in a series of comix for the German newspaper "Die Zeit." The other panelists felt overwhelmed by the idea of dealing with the disaster. "I'm sure it can be done, but boy, the chances of falling into something that is just going to be smarmy are lethal," said Kim Deitch. "Crying superheroes," Burns derisively suggested, though just such a thing has been done (see TIME.comix 9/11 coverage.) "Superman can cry," insisted Kidd, "He lost a whole planet!"