- Courtesy Of Vermont Folklife Center
- From "A Stranger Walks Among Us," 1972 Justice League of America comic
The phrase "pulp culture" comes from the practice of printing popular stories on pulp paper, pioneered by Argosy magazine in 1896. Once derided as trash, pulp literary forms have multiplied, thrived and, in many cases, won cultural respectability. Still, their humble origins are reflected in the title of Burlington's upcoming Pulp Culture Comic Arts Festival and Symposium, which seeks to honor and explore one prominent pulp descendant: comics.
The inaugural installment of this hoping-to-be-annual fest focuses on nonfiction comics. Held at the University of Vermont beginning on October 19, it includes discussion panels, workshops, a daylong symposium, and a display of comic arts from more than 30 cartoonists from New England and Québec. A long-term exhibit curated by the Fleming Museum of Art is on view in the Bailey/Howe Library. Keynote speakers are industry notables Art Spiegelman, Joe Sacco and Alison Bechdel.
The three-day event is organized by UVM and the Vermont Folklife Center in Middlebury. The latter's interest and experimentation in the medium can be traced to Andy Kolovos, director of archives and research.
In addition to sustaining a childhood interest in comics, Kolovos says, "I've been curious about ... the use of comics as a documentary medium and an ethnographic medium."
Kolovos says he saw the potential of comics to capture and share personal narratives while collaborating with Middlebury's Open Door Clinic on an ethnographic cartoon project: Local cartoonists paired up with undocumented individuals to tell the latter's stories. For years, the VFC's staff has documented stories through audio and video. As Kolovos sees it, cartoons are a logical next step.
"Using comics to talk about cultural issues is something I'm really interested in," he says. "Thankfully, I've discovered there are people who are interested in similar things. The event, for me, is a way to draw those people to Burlington."
Among those people are Sacco, Bechdel and Spiegelman. Each of the acclaimed artists uses the medium to recount personal histories, real-life events or fictionalized cultural commentaries.
Sacco is a comics journalist known for his 2001 graphic novel Palestine, which relays his experiences in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. On the Friday of the festival, he'll talk about how journalism intersects with cartooning.
Bechdel, a Vermont resident, established herself with "Dykes to Watch Out For." That groundbreaking, lesbian-centric strip was carried in gay and alt-weekly papers from 1983 through 2008.
Bechdel went on to publish Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic, a 2006 graphic novel that hinges on family memories, her own coming out and her closeted father's suicide. It became an award-winning Broadway musical (see review of the new Vermont Stage production) and led to, among other things, the cartoonist's recent cameo on "The Simpsons." Now a James Marsh professor-at-large at UVM, Bechdel will give a live interview on Saturday night.
Spiegelman also has used comics to unearth family history. Maus, serialized from 1980 to 1991, depicted his interviews with his father, a Holocaust survivor. In 1992, it became the first graphic novel to win a Pulitzer Prize. Spiegelman will speak on Thursday evening.
Pulp Culture includes a fair-style event in the Fleming's Marble Court with regional comics.
"The people who organized this are largely comics fans," Kolovos says, citing UVM professor and cartoonist Isaac Cates and cartoonist and illustrator Glynnis Fawkes. They wanted to host an event that, unlike the massively popular Comic-Con festivals, focuses on the intellectual aspects of nonfiction and fiction comics rather than the costumes they inspire.
Toward that end, the comic artists will participate in panel discussions about such subjects as ethnographic and autobiographical cartooning, and comics as a medium to discuss health care. Who says cartoons are just for fun?