Tom Spurgeon's Web site of comics news, reviews, interviews and commentary

December 20, 2013

CR Holiday Interview #04—Brian Cremins

imageI met Brian Cremins this fall in Columbus, Ohio, where it was my honor to introduce his paper on Pogo. I was intrigued by his thesis that Walt Kelly was writing as much about his beloved Connecticut home town and its now-lost early 20th Century glory days as he was any more widely-accepted culprit on the map of the United States. I found him engaging in person as well. Cremins is one of a growing group of comics academics between 35 and 50 years old that are as comfortable negotiating the public sphere in which comics exist as they are theory and jargon. I asked him to join me here to talk about elements of his work and the changing world of comics academia, and was happy when he accepted. As much as I've benefited from their work, I know very little about what scholars with a focus on comics actually do. -- Tom Spurgeon


TOM SPURGEON: Brian, before we get into some basic biographical information, I was wondering if you could talk a bit about the academic conference we both attended at the front of the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum opening weekend. First, could you walk through how you approach a conference like that? Like really basic stuff. You hear that this is going to happen, and you think of presenting why, and how do you determine what that might be, and what do you hope to get out of it?

BRIAN CREMINS: Before I get started, let me thank you again for asking me to do this, Tom. It's been fun to work through these questions with you, and thanks also for sending the follow-ups. Let me apologize in advance for being long-winded, but I figure that, since I tell my students to read the directions and to answer questions as thoroughly as possible, I need to follow my own advice!

SPURGEON: There is no such thing as a long-winded CR Holiday Interview.

CREMINS: Generally an academic conference will make a very broad call for papers, but the CFP for Columbus made a few specific suggestions -- like papers about Charles Schulz and Walt Kelly. Kerry Soper, who just published a great monograph on Kelly and Pogo, and I had been corresponding over email, so I asked if he'd be interested in putting together a Walt Kelly panel. 2013 would have been Kelly's 100th birthday, so a panel on his life and work seemed like a great idea for the academic conference that opened the Festival.

Once I submit a proposal for a conference, it's usually two months or longer before I get a response. Sometimes I'll submit an abstract based on a paper I've already published, as in the case of the article on Edie Fake's Gaylord Phoenix I presented at Michael Chaney's Dartmouth comics conference in the spring. I was in the process of writing that essay for the Journal of Medical Humanities when I saw Michael's CFP. I adapted some of the material I already had, added some material on Kane and Spider-Man's adventures in the Savage Land, wrote an abstract, and submitted it.


For the OSU paper, I started with the Kelly essay I'd published in Brannon Costello and Qiana Whitted's collection Comics and the U.S. South in 2012. I took a look again at that one, which I'd started writing and researching in 2008, and discovered that my ideas had changed significantly.

Since I'm in the middle of writing a book about the Otto Binder and C.C. Beck's run on Captain Marvel, I felt very distant from the Kelly research, until I realized that the issue of nostalgia -- and the theories of nostalgia I've been reading in the work of Svetlana Boym and Susan J. Matt -- are also present in Kelly's work.

I still struggled with what I wanted to say until we visited my parents in Connecticut and I had the opportunity to work in the clipping files at the Bridgeport History Center in Kelly's hometown. As I read the newspaper reports from the Bridgeport Post, and Kelly's Barnum series from the early 1930s, I had a new idea for my paper. Without that trip, and without that drive from Waterbury to Bridgeport through the Naugatuck River Valley, I don't think I could have written this new essay on Kelly. I needed to be there to understand why he writes so affectionately about his childhood in Bridgeport.


As other academics and artists will tell you, conferences are a good way to see old friends. At its best, a conference is also an introduction to new ideas, or books, or artists, or writers, or theories. I know I've been to a great conference when I get home and I'm still taking notes, still thinking about the people I'd met and considering their ideas. The Billy Ireland Festival this year was one of those conferences. When I got back to Chicago, I bought a copy of March, because I remembered Qiana's paper, and I was reading The Eternals again because John Jennings had shown all his Kirby remixes during his talk, and I was looking at Eisner because of James Vance's talk. Those are just a few examples.


SPURGEON: Until this year, I haven't done one of those since 1997 or so, one of the ICAFs in the room above the Holiday Inn conference room where they had SPX. I assume you've been doing these a while in some form yourself. Two things I noticed is that there seems to be a post-TED talk approach to visuals and dramatic presentation style, but it also seemed to me -- and this just might be that particular event -- more open to independent scholarship and maybe more something that a general audience could understand. Can you talk about how they've changed? Will that continue, do you think?

CREMINS: Since my Ph.D. research was focused on early African American film, I'm accustomed to the use of technology at academic conferences, although in the late 1990s, when I first started presenting at places like the American Literature Association, we were using VHS tapes and praying that we'd synced them correctly before we got on the plane! My very first comics-oriented conference was the Popular Culture Association in Toronto in the spring of 2002, which, to this day, is still one of the most memorable conferences I've ever attended.

Gene Kannenberg had invited Thierry Groensteen as a keynote speaker on Martin Vaughn-James' The Cage, and we all did field-trips to The Silver Snail and to The Beguiling. I walked into The Beguiling and there's Joe Matt, Seth, Chester Brown. "They really do hang out together," I remember thinking. It was like stepping into one of their
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