Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Comics & Medicine 2011

My wife Karen and I made it home from the second international "Comics & Medicine" conference in Chicago--or, as one of our participants called it, "the Coolest Conference on Earth." I can't disagree. Assembling a detailed, coherent trip report would take days. Instead, I'll report some random impressions and annotate some photos to try to capture a feel for it. If you want to know more, you'll just have to attend the next one (whenever and wherever that'll be . . .).

First, we lucked out on weather. Every forecast we saw predicted thunderstorms all weekend. The day before we arrived was a muggy 100 degrees. But once we landed in Chicago, temperatures were moderate and I only had to pull out my umbrella once. Complaining that we would've liked it a few degrees warmer would be ungrateful. Karen and I took an extra day Sunday to play tourist, and just look at the sky in that photo above! Lucky. The city treated us very well.

I was a little worried going into the conference that last year's in London went so well we couldn't recapture its magic. That fear was unfounded. For Chicago we expanded from one day to two, added workshops, receptions, and book signings that everyone seemed to enjoy, and I think successfully caught lightning in a bottle again with a similar catalytic mix of doctors, nurses, academics, writers, cartoonists and others from as far afield as Australia and Europe. The most common complaint was that we had too many good things going on at the same time for anyone to get to them all. The last I heard, 80 people had registered: a few more than in London but still quite a small group, which allowed a lot of interaction and intimacy. Participants especially seemed to appreciate a chance to mingle with our special-guest speakers Paul Gravett, Phoebe Gloeckner, David Small and Scott McCloud, all of whom stuck around for other panels as they could and were totally accessible and friendly.

Here are some pictures and notes, in roughly chronological order. I notice that I don't have many photos of panels; I was kept very busy moderating two panels and giving my own 90-minute workshop, and just didn't have a chance. Most of these pictures were taken by Karen.

Thursday night's opening reception in the lobby of Thorne Hall, a large auditorium in which Scott McCloud spoke on Saturday. We had an art exhibit set up with 19 or 20 pages of relevant comics art and accompanying commentary, including one from Mom's Cancer. These weren't originals, but reproductions on foamcore board; although an exhibition of original art would have been fun and we briefly considered it, the responsibility, liability and hassle would have been enormous. In contrast, we could stack up and toss around these posters without worrying about them. It was a smart solution.

Karen and I dashed straight from airport to hotel to reception as fast as we could, arriving in good time. On the right is Paul Gravett, the dean of UK comics journalism and criticism, whom I met in London last year. He's an incredibly knowledgeable, charming, and kind man who gave an opening talk in London that everyone liked so much that we bought him a plane ticket to come do the same in Chicago. Paul also moderated a panel on David B.'s Epileptic. I love Paul. In the middle is acclaimed illustrator and Stitches author David Small. I'll have more to say about David and his wife Sarah later. David opened his keynote address the next day saying that he didn't really know what "graphic medicine" was or why he'd been invited to speak until he saw the artwork here at the reception. Then he got it.

My new BFF Sarah Leavitt. She's a Vancouver cartoonist whose book Tangles, about her mother's Alzheimer's disease, is getting great reviews and award nominations in Canada, and has just found publishers in the U.S. and U.K. Sarah and I began corresponding a while ago when I passed on the best advice I could about getting published and such, and I already considered her a good friend before we finally met in person about 30 seconds before this photo was taken. Sarah seemed awesomely shell-shocked all weekend.

Our conference's host, although the actual events were held at the law school next door. Co-organizer MK Czerwiec did a fantastic job working with Northwestern University to help us out with facilities, publicity and logistics. Northwestern was very, very generous to us--more than they needed to be.

One of the law school buildings where our panels were held. The campus was an interesting mix of old ivy-covered brick buildings like these side by side with modern concrete and glass, and all a block from the shores of Lake Michigan.

After the reception, the conference organizers and a few others went out for Thai. Sitting across from me were co-organizer MK Czerwiec (Chicago nurse/instructor/cartoonist), cartoonist and keynoter Phoebe Gloeckner, and co-organizer Ian Williams (U.K. physician/cartoonist). I think Phoebe has her iPhone out to show us photos of her cats.

My Friday workshop on "Making Comics: See One, Do One, Teach One." About two dozen people attended, which was a fair proportion of the conferees. Karen got video of almost an hour of the middle of the workshop. When I have a few minutes, I'll try to break it into 15-minute chunks for YouTube and fill in the missing material for a subsequent post. In brief, I was surprised and very gratified by the audience's willingness to do my little exercises and share them with the group (my mini-laptop has a built-in webcam that I used to project their drawings onto the screen). I've never done anything like it before and ran out of time before the end. Everyone nonetheless seemed to enjoy it, and I think one or two might have actually gotten inspired to make some comics. Mission accomplished. After I finished my workshop, I was able to relax.

Scott McCloud arrived Friday afternoon and hung out for that day's reception (yes, another reception!). Scott and I quickly renewed our acquaintance, which to that point consisted entirely of Scott handing me my Eisner Award and saying "Congratulations" in 2005, about which I made a little joke when I introduced his speech on Saturday. I had the treat of introducing Scott to Sarah, who gave a workshop on turning diary into narrative, with some very thoughtful exercises that I liked a lot. I believe Scott is contractually obligated to wear plaid to every appearance.

Phoebe Gloeckner at the same reception, bending low to take a photo of cartoonist John Porcellino walking down a staircase. I bet it is an awesome photo.

Now I have to talk about David Small and his wife, Sarah Stewart. David was a highly regarded children's book illustrator even before he created Stitches, the #1 bestseller and National Book Award finalist, while Sarah is a creative force in her own right whose book The Gardener (illustrated by David) was a Caldecott Honor Book. I reconnected with a lot of people this weekend, met many more for the first time, and feel like I made some friends among the many smart, friendly, talented people who attended and participated in the conference. But David and Sarah are special. First, because they both knew Mom's Cancer and said very nice things about it, and I am not immune to flattery. In fact I thrive on it. But seriously, they couldn't have been more friendly, gracious, open, or delightful. Also very appealing is how much they obviously love each other and what a strong, dynamic team that makes them. They are each others' biggest fans. After meeting them, I am an enormous fan of both.

Following Saturday's full day of panels and a great concluding public lecture by Scott, many of us took a big yellow school bus (Paul Gravett, giddy: "I'm on an American school bus!" Karen: "Don't you have school buses in England?" Paul: "Yes, but this is an American school bus!") to Quimby's Comics, a Chicago institution with an interesting mission. I don't think I saw a single superhero comic book in the place; instead, the long narrow space was packed with adult literary comics and graphic novels (in all meanings of the word "adult") with a special emphasis on supporting low-budget independent mini-comics. I was told that if you could write, draw and photocopy your comic, Quimby's would find a spot on a shelf for it. Paul Gravett was a kid in a candy store, flitting from the work of one undiscovered talent to another. Scott McCloud, John Porcellino and I sat down to sign books but mostly to talk shop and life. I also described my Mystery Project X to Scott and got his thumbs-up, which means something to me.

By the way, I mentioned on my Facebook page that Scott missed his 51st birthday party on Friday to attend our conference. So before Scott's lecture on Saturday, I huddled with Katie Watson--a Northwestern University professor, lawyer and comedian (!) slated to do the post-lecture Q&A with Scott--to inform her of that and decide whether we should lead the audience in singing "Happy Birthday" to him. We concluded she'd best handle it. Her first question to him: "What date is your birthday?" Heh. Got him.

John Porcellino (in baseball cap), Scott and I gathered around the Quimby's signing tables. The bowl holds little pretzels. In addition to hosting this signing, Quimby's staff manned tables at the conference, selling books that were either written by participants or the subject of panels. I must have bought a couple hundred dollars worth. Books make luggage heavy.

David Small and I bought copies of each other's books. Here's the kind of pro David is: he came to the signing even though Quimby's had sold out of Stitches the day before (the one I'm holding is a stray that Quimby's didn't know it had until a friend of David's found it on a shelf for me) and there was nothing for him to sign. He promised he'd show up so he did, I guess on the chance that someone might bring in their own copy hoping to meet him. Also note the photo booth behind me; its significance will be revealed later.

David and I pretended to angrily autograph each other's heads. I don't know why. It seemed like a good idea at the time.

An overview of Quimby's: me with my back turned and silver hair glowing phosphorescently, John sitting at the table, and Scott farther down. The guy on the right is a graphic artist who bought Whatever Happened to the World of Tomorrow just because he liked its design. Cool!

This one's going onto the "In the Wild" page of my Whatever Happened to the World of Tomorrow Facebook photo album. Quimby's sold out of Mom's Cancer the first day of the conference and was afraid I might be upset because they hadn't ordered enough. On the contrary, hearing the words "sold out" applied to my work is so rare that I enjoyed the novelty.

We managed to get 80% of the conference's organizing committee into the photo booth. From left are Dr. Ian Williams, Penn State English professor Susan Squier, Penn State College of Medicine Professor Dr. Michael Green, and yours truly. We worked MK in later.

There's MK! Below her is Katie Watson, and then Ian and I and Susan. Somebody took custody of these photos and promised to scan them. If they do, I'll share.

Your Second International Graphic Medicine Conference Organizing Committee: clockwise from me are Ian Williams, Susan Squier, Michael Green, Satan's Bride, and MK Czerwiec.

I've found a few mentions of the conference online. If you're interested in other perspectives, check out what Scott McCloud, John Porcellino (good photos!), and participant John Swogger said about it. More as they come up. LATER LINKS: Sarah Leavitt's blog.

I think we pulled it off.


Mike Lynch said...

Bravo! Looks like a grand time in Chicago for everyone! Looking forward to reading more once you've recovered, my friend!

Jim O'Kane said...

The Second International Graphic Medicine Conference should have been named "The Other Side of the Pillow," because it was obviously the coolest thing ever. Glad the weather and the participants both held up well. Looking forward to the video segments to come.

Sherwood Harrington said...

You know that all of your friends from the old racs days are very, very proud of you, don't you? Just in case you don't: we are.

karen(martnres) said...

Brian - truly you are cool - I hope you know this. If you ever do anything like this again, I'd love to be involved (I'm a logistical genius, but that is all I can offer!) I'm cool cuz I'm your friend!

Sarah Leavitt said...

It was such a fabulous experience to meet you, I might even forgive you for using such an odd photo of me at the reception. I wrote about you, too! Oh, and the rest of those conference people... http://www.sarahleavitt.com/comics-and-writing/comics/comics-medicine-2011/

sligo said...

stellar, man, simply stellar.

Brian Fies said...

Mike: Thanks! As you'll see if I get around to posting my workshop, I owe you.

Jim: Sadly, we didn't have time to see Apollo 8 at the Field Museum. It was on our list of "if you can't do it right maybe it's better not to do it at all"--it made no sense to try to dash in for a couple of hours. It's at the top of the "next visit" list.

Sherwood: That's really nice, thanks. It ain't nothin'.

Karen: Let's say we're both cool, even though we know neither of us is, and leave it at that.

Sarah: I added your post to my list, nice write-up. And you look great in the photo! I just think you were distracted by the table of free alcohol.

Sligo: Stellar indeed. Thanks.

Cathy Leamy said...

This was such an incredible conference! I feel like it's opened up all sorts of new avenues I never even considered. Thank you so much for organizing, and I can't wait to see what happens next year!