Feb. 27 2013 12:00 AM

Low, middle and high culture converge at the MSU Comics Forum


There are questions you both love and hate to hear. Ryan Claytor gets one often: “Where do I start reading comics?”

You can’t blame people for asking him. Claytor, 33 writes and draws comics, teaches comic art at Michigan State University and organizes the MSU Comics Forum, an annual gathering of creators, scholars and fans coming this weekend on campus, now in its sixth year and growing. 

But how do you answer such a question in 2013? In the Middle Ages, “book” meant “Bible.” In 1965, “comic book” meant “superhero.” Both media have diversified a bit since then.

“I don’t think there’s been a more exciting time to be a reader of comics than right now,” Claytor said.

Library and bookstore shelves groan with graphics, from R. Crumb’s stern take on the Book of Genesis to Chris Ware’s bleak existential glyphs to kitchen-sink tales of everyday life. Comic artists are breaking ground in history, science, politics, horror, humor and genres yet unnamed. The speakers, films and panels this weekend at MSU will cover subjects as diverse as comics in the Islamic world, journalism, pop culture, annoying fanboys and on and on.

Ann Arbor’s Josh Neufeld, the first comics journalist to get a Knight-Wallace fellowship, will be at the journalism panel.

“It’s very nice to see comics getting that smart-people imprimatur,” he said sardonically.

Neufeld is best known for his intimate-yet-epic 2009 book on Hurricane Katrina, “A.D.: New Orleans After the Deluge.” He gravitated to comics journalism after reading the pioneering work of Joe Sacco, gritty chronicler of everyday life in Bosnia, Gaza and other global trouble spots.

Floored by Sacco’s meticulous work, Neufeld dropped the autobiographical comics he was producing up to then and jumped into journalism. He spent three weeks as a Red Cross volunteer in post-Katrina Biloxi, Miss., gathering first-person stories and assembling them into a turbulent, emotional mosaic. “I’m a cartoonist, and I’ve always told stories through comics,” he said. “It’s just more satisfying as a creator to add the comics element to storytelling.”

More recently, Neufeld illustrated Brooke Gladstone’s witty expose of big media, “The Influencing Machine,” which got some love from Stephen Colbert and The New Yorker and has already become a staple in journalism classes.

Besides taking part in panel discussions, Neufeld will hang out at the fan-fair-ish Artist’s Alley Sunday with keynote speaker Nick Bertozzi (see related story) and a few dozen Michigan and Midwest comic creators. 

Unlike high-brow academic conferences or comics conventions, the MSU forum throws academics, creators and fans together in a tight space.

“That’s part of the fun,” Neufeld said. He’s happy to schmooze with fans and artists from the Spidey-Star-Trek-Star-Wars-Dark-Knight basement that still thrives under the edifice of respectability. 

“The dirty secret of all of us fancy cartoonists is that we all started out in comics because we loved superheroes or funny animal comics,” Neufeld said. “A lot of us don’t do it any more, but that bone is still in our bodies.”

Claytor is no exception. He went through a Disney phase and was later taken with the droll “Groo the Wanderer,” a satire of muscle-bound barbarian comics.

Claytor’s strips, collected every few years in soft cover under the title “And Then One Day,” take a gentle path, following the author’s daily musings while getting out of bed or looking at the night sky.

“I process things visually a lot more successfully than I do prose, but I also like writing and reading,” he said. “Comics are a great hybrid of the two. I wouldn’t know how do it in any other medium.”

Claytor teaches comics and other art classes at MSU and an advanced comics course at U of M Flint. He’s in “embryonic talks” about creating a comics specialization or minor at MSU.

Many comic artists, Claytor included, feel that comics broke through to respectability in the public mind when Art Spiegelman’s Holocaust chronicle, “Maus,” won a 1992 Pulitzer Prize. 

After “Maus,” comics saturated the surrounding culture, and not just as kitsch or pop decoration. The pitiless brushstrokes of Chris Ware and David Clowes put a new edge in often-smug New Yorker covers. An unprecedented, multi-generational story, told in four separate New Yorker Thanksgiving covers last fall, was another conspicuous moment in what Ware called comics’ “walkathon towards literacy.”

Today, if comics were a monster, it would be called The Thing With Three Brows: high, middle and low. The Graphic Novels section of any bookstore is still loaded with riffs on bubble-armed beings like the Hulk, Superman, X-Men and so on. But there are potboilers, soap operas and other “civilian” page-turners, along with a growing body of journalism and autobiographical work from masters like Sacco and Clowes. Even science and philosophy has been served by books like “Logicomix,” about the intellectual development of Bertrand Russell, and a slew of science-oriented comics by Ann Arbor’s Jim Ottaviani. 

At the top of the shelf now is Ware’s strange new “Building Stories.” Claytor considers it Ware’s best work yet and another watershed for the medium. It’s not a book, but a box of various-sized documents, from tiny leaflets to flip books to newspapers, that tell a cumulative story. There are no directions on how to read it, so the reader is left to flit through its labyrinthine cityscapes like a guardian angel (or a fly) and piece the story together.

Ware’s work has already converted many skeptics. In a recent review, New Republic critic Steve Almond admitted that he sighed “Oh, Christ,” at the sight of “Building Stories,” but went on to declare it “one of the most important pieces of art I have ever experienced.”

Claytor shows his students work like “Building Stories” and Nick Bertozzi’s story-in-a-map “Boswash.”

“This is what you can do with comics,” he said. “You’re not relegated to 24-page, floppy, saddle-stitched books. You can do any format you want.”

When Claytor talks about technique, he uses cinematic terms like “two-shot” and “POV,” but comics artists have power most film directors can only dream of. Even Stanley Kubrick can’t stretch and shrink the screen to fit the subject. Comic artists still struggle for respect, but total control of the universe is no small compensation.

“Talk to comic artists who write and illustrate their own work and inevitably you’ll hear, ‘Yes, I am a control freak,’” Claytor admitted.

MSU Comics Forum
March 1-2
Snyder-Philips Hall, 2nd floor
For full schedule of films, panel discussions and other events, see www.comicsforum.msu.edu

That fish is way too big

A trip inside the human brain, a fishing chipmunk, a girl’s first tattoo and a “slightly less evil story” are all bound up in the first-ever, 92-page MSU Student Comics Anthology, ready in time for this weekend’s MSU Comics Forum.

Special Collections cataloguer Ruth Ann Jones wanted a comics anthology to kick off the library’s publishing venture as a nod to MSU’s massive collection of over 200,000 comics, 2.5 million strips and shelves of history and criticism.

The collection will be the library’s first in-house product from the Espresso Book Machine, a robotic print-on-demand contraption the library bought this year.

 “The topics are fascinating and not fannish at all,” Jones said, noting the absence of superheroes or galactic warriors. “One of them, I don’t quite understand, but the jury liked it.” (That would be Leslie J. Anderson’s “The Grackle,” a cryptic tale of birds and cats rendered in dark washes.)

Jones and her staff cast a campus-wide net in October and got 30 submissions by 17 creators. Some had training and others did not. The three-man jury consisted of MSU comic art instructor Ryan Claytor, Special Collections comics curator Randy Scott and Samuel Thomas, a retired history professor who studies editorial cartoons.

The anthology is $12 at the Main Library Copy Center on 2 West; on shop.msu.edu; and on Amazon.com starting Friday.