The Yellow Kid

This weekend Low Library played host to “Comic New York: A Symposium”, a two day event that hosted a wide range of players in the comic industry ranging from illustrators to execs to academics. Cartoon Commandos Louise McCune and Alex Eynon ventured over on Sunday for two of the panel discussions, “New York as a Breeding Ground” and “Comic New York and the Academy.”

The stately room where the talks took place was brimming with enthusiasm if not with crowds—many of the people seemed to come from outside of the University, drawn more by their genuine enthusiasm for comics than by the enticing prospect of a top-notch cookie spread and name brand tea. Bwog got the sense that many attendees were insiders, or otherwise die-hards, from the collective thoughtful nod that would occur at mention of even the most obscure comic. In fact, some of the guests were not shy about voicing their opinions during the proceedings. Most memorable was one portly gentleman sporting a vest adorned with Bruce Springsteen and Superman patches who frequently shared his commentary, much to the chagrin of the panelists.

In the first panel cartoonists Al Jaffee, Miss Lasko-Gross, Tracy White, and Dean Haspiel held court on the subject of New York as the birthplace of comics as we know them. The history starts with the famed “Yellow Kid” strip in the late 19th century and takes off in the depression, where creative types graduating from New York area high schools found one of the few industries that welcomed them with open arms. Al Jaffee, one of many notable alumni of Dewitt Clinton, joked that “there must have been some fungus somewhere” to explain the multitudes of comic writers that came out of that school in particular, including co-panelist Dean Haspiel. But nobody put it better than Tracy Write, who attributed her capacity for storytelling to the experience of growing up in New York. “When you grow up here, especially as a kid… you can’t help but wonder about everyone’s story,” she mused. “That gets your imagination going.”

In the second panel, consisting of Professors Jonathan W. Gray (CUNY) and N.C. Christopher Couch (UMass Amherst), and the former head of DC Comics, Paul Levitz, the praise of New York City continued. Levitz reaffirmed the earlier assertion that kids on the streets of the city were the true breeding ground for cartoonists, adding that comics told almost strictly a “New York story” until the early 80’s.

As the discussion veered towards the place of comics in Academia, Couch (a recipient of three separate Columbia degrees) teared up while lauding our fair university’s recent acquisition of the archives of Chris Claremont, a long-time writer of “The Uncanny X-men” series. Our own Karen the Librarian was repeatedly praised for spearheading the creation of a graphic novels collection at CU. The academics asserted the importance of comics as a part of American studies, Art History, and literature, and emphasized both the value of and the difficulties presented by their interdisciplinary nature. Gray took an optimistic view of the progress of the art form in the context of university studies, while Couch, from a slightly older generation, bemoaned the field as “ghettoized” in academia, and Levitz, the lone denizen of the business world, seemed to be bemused by the focus on archives and dissertations. What came across more than anything over the course of the afternoon, however, was the centrality of the comic to pop culture and the centrality of New York to comics.

The First of His Kind via Wikimedia Commons