Manuel Betancourt

Post Bang Conference or How ‘Comics and Kid’s Lit’ was fun!

June 11, 2008 · in Comic Books

Post Bang: Comics Ten Minutes After the Big Bang!
Friday, June 6 2008
An all-day symposium on the growing cultural significance of comics curated by Art Spiegelman and Kent Worcester

Blogging about an academic symposium – it seems like an attack on everything I get taught in grad school, but I do feel that the more interesting part of a panel like this is the interactions and the personal reactions from the audience (consider it [retroactive] liveblogging in an academic setting).

1:30-2:45 Comics and Kid’s Lit
Fran├žoise Mouly (moderator, Art Editor of the New Yorker and founder of TOON BOOKS), Lisa von Drasek (Children’s Librarian of the Bank Street College of Education), Leonard Marcus (historian and critic of Children’s Lit, author of The Wand in the Word), Mo Willems (author of Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus! and Knuffle Bunny: a cautionary tale) and Sara Varon (author of robot dreams and chicken and cat).


The second panel for the Post Bang symposium, held at the Cantor Film Center @ NYU last Friday dealt with the relationship between Comics and Children’s Literature. After introducing the panelists, Mouly put forth the very simple (albeit provoking) question: IF children like comics, can we ponder, WHY?

What followed was a conversation mainly dominated by Mo Willems and Lisa von Drasek, whose strong and colourful personalities were no match for the quiet demeanour of Leonard Marcus and the subdued and straightforward answers of Sara Varon (“I just make things I like” seemed to be the only thing Varon could muster when asked if she wrote for a particular young audience). “Nobody suspected the comic strips” began Willems when trying to convey the freedom the medium allows for and answering Mouly’s question; “When people take comic strips seriously,”he added, “I’ll have to sculpt pooh-pooh or something.” [what difference in tone and in subject matter, I thought, from the initial panel on comics and canon-making!].

What was really interesting about this panel (the one I was least interested in, as I hadn’t really given this particularly subject a second thought) was the way the panelists handled their different takes on the issues raised. Case in point: in the liveliest part of the conversation, Mouly and her panelists took to answering the question of whether Children’s Literature (condescendingly dubbed Kid’s Lit) was ghettoized by the publishing companies and whether in that ghetto the picture-book was looked down upon in contrast to its wordier counterparts. Willems and von Drasek spoke to the way Children’s books (and by default it would seem, picture books – which as Varon pointed out, need not be, but are marketed as, kid’s 2-4+ books) are indeed ghettoized, sometimes causing its authors little freedom to ‘move up’ as it were to produce ‘adult-oriented’ material (“Jim Henson couldn’t have made Goodfellas” joked Willems).

Despite differences among the panelists (Mouly stressed several times how she had experienced first hand a certain dismissing attitude from publishers when it came to picture book, in their manuscript-based system; while Willems and von Drasek seemed much more optimistic about the situation, for example), the panel as a whole suggested that things were changing when it came to the way picture-books and comic books were seen by publishers, teachers and libraries. Von Drasek shared many an anecdote regarding the way her work had indeed breached the way for picture books to be picked up and bought at her library; yet her anecdotes also (as did Willems’ points at times) pointed at the inevitable censorship inherent in the cultivation of early readers.

Time and time again, the panel faced the very crucial point of is the word more important than the image; but then, if what we want to nurture is quality readers and quality work, why would it seem (as Mouly pointed out) that such renowned Children’s Classics are remembered as much for their images as for their language (think Cat in the Hat, Goodnight Moon, Curious George)? The consensus seemed to lie in the apparent ‘readability’ and ‘accessibility’ of picture/comic books, which the panel concluded was as much a strong as well as a misleading label. But this is inherent in all ‘All Ages’ products, it indeed broadens the audience, but it need not intrinsically be limited to just kids. If we are seeing a revival of the ‘funny books,’ Willems said, it is because ‘funny isn’t scary anymore’ and pop culture has embraced it, and if in this time and age, it gets the kids reading and sponsoring a self-selective reading practice, well so be it!

Check back for commentary/’retroactive liveblogging’ of the rest of the panels:

11:00-12:15 Comics and Canon Formation
1:30-2:45 Comics and Kid’s Lit
3:00-4:15 Comics and the Literary Establishment
5:30-6:45 Comics and the Internet
7:00-8:00 Art Spiegelman and Gary Panter in conversation
8:15-9:30 Hillary Chute interviews Lynda Barry