Almost eight years ago now, Yale University Press released a thick, glossy book by Todd Hignite called In the Studio: Visits with Contemporary Cartoonists. It was a collection of interviews with indie cartoonists, among them Robert Crumb, Art Spiegelman, and Chris Ware. The book not only reproduced, in its almost 500 full-color illustrations, examples of the work of the artists being interviewed, but also reproduced the comics they read and loved and studied and borrowed from while developing their own way of drawing and of telling stories.
Last month, the University of Chicago Press released a book by Hillary L. Chute called Outside the Box: Interviews with Contemporary Cartoonists. While it doesn’t have as many lush, dramatic reproductions of comics new and old as Hignite’s book has, it’s nevertheless a satisfying survey of the artists who have turned and are still actively turning the graphic novel into a new kind of literature—and in so doing are now being stamped with the approval of academia and its elite university presses.
Chute’s book contains 11 interviews and spans the range of the comic medium’s creativity, from the artists whose work is fully fictional (Ware, Daniel Clowes, Charles Burns, and Adrian Tomine), to work that’s closer to memoir and essay (Lynda Barry, Alison Bechdel, and Spiegelman), to new forms of political journalism (Joe Sacco and Phoebe Gloeckner), to theory and aesthetics (Scott McCloud). Chute also interviews two women who were at the helm of the most important underground comics magazines of the 1980s: Aline Kominsky-Crumb, who co-edited Weirdo with her husband Robert Crumb, and Françoise Mouly, who co-edited Raw with her husband Art Spiegelman, and who today is the art director of The New Yorker.
Chute is a minimal presence in the interviews and gets her subjects to talk about how they got into comics, how they got their breaks as professionals, and what their stylistic and storytelling preferences are. The conversations are cross-cut with full-page excerpts from the cartoonists’ work, allowing you, while reading, to take a detour into a page from a graphic novel, then return to the interview and keep on going. In Chute’s interview with Ware, there’s a two-page spread of how a single page of his comics grows from fluffy sketches with a non-photo blue pencil, to then having black ink applied and all the details sharpened and the text written out, to then, finally, having color applied digitally and, as it were, all the scaffolding taken down and cleaned away. Those two pages alone can teach you more about how professional creativity works—about what it takes to go from a vague notion of a scene in a story to actually having that scene become polished and sharp and legitimately, nicely, beautifully finished—than a semester of art classes or creative writing workshops.
If there’s something missing in Outside the Box, it’s the acknowledgment of cartoonists outside the U.S. and the English-speaking world who are also creating the kind of dense and confrontational and artful comics as the people Chute interviews here—cartoonists in Canada like Seth and Chester Brown, or in Europe like Joost Swarte and Ulli Lust, or in South Africa like Anton Kannemeyer and Conrad Botes. It may be the case that New York, Chicago, L.A., and the Bay Area are where the majority of the people in this book either currently live or got going in their career, and yet it’s just plain old provincial to assert that it’s only in America that worthwhile work is being done today in indie comics.
Aside from that, how refreshing it is to listen to these cartoonists talk about a branch of the culture here in America that isn’t plagued by feelings of decay, repetition, malaise, or despair. Yes, it’s a little unnerving that indie comics are being swept up into the machine of academic scholarship, as if soon enough they’ll become ossified and frozen and just another object for observation, but that hasn’t happened quite yet, and these interviews are as good a reminder as any that, at least for the world of alternative comics, the blood is flowing and the people believe.
Hillary L. Chute’s Outside the Box: Interviews with Contemporary Cartoonists is available now from University of Chicago Press; to purchase it, click here.