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Cartoonists are notoriously inarticulate creatures. Unlike most writers who can and will talk your face off discussing the nuances of their own genius, and visual artists who often wisely choose to let their work speak for itself, cartoonists are made to stand up and explain themselves with alarming regularity. How would like it if every time someone asked you what you did for a living you had to convince them that it was in fact a real thing for which people get paid? Recently their output has begun to be held up to the same level of criticism as literary writing that doesn’t have pictures, and the artists are expected to be wise and eloquent in public. In that spirit the PEN/Faulkner foundation invited three of the most highly regarded cartoonists around to the DC Jewish Community Center to discuss their work and talk to each other on Friday.

Chris Ware, Alison Bechdel, and Lynda Barry were set up in the small auditorium without much guidance except for the hidden agenda of any forum on comics: prove to the public that your work is worth the respect of a snobby adult audience.

The event started with the authors reading from and discussing their work presented on slides on a big screen as they read from a clunky microphone in the projection booth. Lynda Barry started out by reading a section from her work in progress WHAT IT IS that tried to capture, in startlingly huge and colorful Cornell Box drawings, the process of writing a comic. “What is… the imagination?” asked a scary clock-faced ghost. “Is it in us? Is it somewhere else?” Later in a series of awkward dogs, she asks, “Where do the dogs come from that you do not remember, but haven’t quite made up?” It was visually quite a shift from her sparse black and white daily comic, but managed to hit the same note of silly profundity that I’ve always loved about her work. I’ve been reading Barry’s Ernie Pook’s Comeek since I first discovered the City Paper, and over the years, without ever having seen a picture, have come up with an image and voice for her that turned out to be entirely accurate somehow. When she eventually came up to the front, her microphone never really worked, she didn’t need it broadcast her cheerful crackly Midwestern voice across the space.

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Next up, Alison Bechdel narrated a very carefully prepared pictorial history of how she became a cartoonist. She used a bunch of pages from her comic memoir, Fun Home, which came out last year, but connected that story of how her rather messed-up family life contributed to her art with her early obsession with Charles Addams. Showing one slide where Gomez asks Morticia, “Are you happy darling?” and she responds, “OH Yes darling, completely!” Bechdel related how, as a kid, this seemed like an utterly mysterious response, entirely without humor. Far from being repulsed or scared, she was drawn by Addams dark images, seeing a kind of truth in his character’s ability to say the opposite of what we normal people would like to believe about ourselves. Her own work takes on the difficult task of describing the inherently political existence of out lesbians—in one example from her very first year of drawing Dykes to Watch Out For a character is constantly mistaken for a man. “This certainly is still a problem for a lot of us,” she added, “Like for instance today in the women’s bathroom at the Corcoran?”

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Chris Ware started out his slideshow by apologizing. It’s been said by various snarky internet commenter-types that he looks just like Jimmy Corrigan, the star of his most successful graphic novel, (little glasses, thinning hair, slight paunch) and I guess I’m adding to that nerdfire by saying that he sounded somewhat like the nebbishes in his books too. But after admitting to not being as prepared as the other two cartoonists, he gave a pretty fascinating breakdown of the physical process of creating one of his complex and meticulously drawn strips, in particular the series of covers he made for the Thanksgiving 2006 New Yorker. Did you know all those often jarringly bright colors in his work are added by computer after he finishes the scene in blue pencil? No you didn’t, stop lying. As for whether his work actually is autobiographical, he at first said that it decidedly was not.
But then he started showing new pages from Rusty, a work-in-progress about a boy who overhears his parents having a horrible fight and retreats into an obsessive fantasy about being a superhero with superhearing. “Again, this is not at all based on my life at all,” Ware said.
Click, next slide: a faded Polaroid of a young boy with wispy blond 1970s hair dressed up in a home-made red and gold felt superhero costume brandishing a plastic sword and grimacing. “This is a picture of me.” Pause, click.

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The three authors then jogged down the platform like Olympians to the front of the stage, where Dan Raeburn (a college professor who seemed bemused by his position as a moderator) asked the panel a lot of questions that seemed to be designed to generate discussion, but didn’t. He would ask something like, “How do you edit your work?” and then each artist would give a very individualized answer. The issue, as he pointed out eventually, is that nobody teaches anyone how to be a cartoonist. “You’re like freaky species on the Galapagos islands,” he said, “All developing in isolation into something totally unique but similar.” In some ways that is one of things that makes comics such a vibrant “fine” art right now, since unlike most other kinds of non-popular entertainment, there aren’t a bunch of stifling university programs to teach cartoonists how to be bland.

On the other hand it can be lonely as a nascent sea-monkey, so it’s good to know that established authors like Barry take the time to encourage younger talent. She had apparently been a big supporter of Ware’s when he was a confused art-school student, and he surprised her by reading the letter she wrote him. In it, she gave him the one piece of support every young artist of any kind wants to hear: “You’re the real deal.” Being welcomed into the community, becoming a part of a tradition—can’t cartoonists simply point to this to defend themselves against their detractors? When someone in the audience finally brought out the dusty joke: “Are cartoonists really artists who can’t draw or writers that can’t write?” Bechdel was ready with the response. “Both of those are true for me. I’m not putting myself down, that’s just not what I do. I’m good at combining them into something new. That I’m actually OK at.” It turns out that when the need arises, even hybrid artists can be eloquent champions of their form.

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