A star-studded panel discussion officially launched “Graphic Details: Confessional Comics by Jewish Women” at San Francisco’s Cartoon Art Museum on Thursday, October 21. But not everyone on the panel agreed that the exhibit’s theme even made sense. Trina Robbins, one of the leading lights in comics and a noted “herstorian” and author, questioned why the show focused solely on Jewish cartoonists, noting that some of her favorite fellow artists — including the acclaimed Alison Bechdel and Phoebe Gloeckner — were overlooked because of their non-Semitic origins.
Despite the fact that “Graphic Details” also includes two of her own autobiographical works, “Out of the Closet and Into the Frying Pan” and “Big Sister Little Sister,” Robbins insisted she prefers telling stories about subjects other than herself— and even took younger artists to task for neglecting material of politics, fiction and history in favor of their own lives. Vanessa Davis, one of the newer stars of the medium, disagreed, arguing — compellingly — that as much craft, process and emotion goes into autobiographical work as into other genres. She did, however, take issue with the show’s “confessional” tag; the word, she said, implies that the artists want to share something lurid, when much of her own work illuminates the absurdity and hidden meaning of day-to-day experience.
Two more comics pioneers rounded out the panel. A feisty Sharon Rudahl — who helped found the Wimmen’s Comix collective in 1972 — gave an impassioned “Fight the Power”-type call to action for artists to create more politically engaged work. And Caryn Leschen, best known for her syndicated “Ask Aunt Violet” illustrated advice column, made a strong case for autobiographical comics as therapy. Laurence Roth, a professor of English and director of the Jewish Studies Program at Susquehanna University in Selinsgrove, PA, moderated; “Graphic Details” curators Sarah Lightman and Michael Kaminer quite literally bookended the panel, sitting at the end of the dais. “ Seeing the show on the walls of the Cartoon Art Museum, was a thrill, as it bought the show we had been working on after months of emails, to life,” said Lightman, in from London for the event. “Hearing the artists of the show discussing their work and comics in general was turning it into a 3D experience.”
“Graphic Details: Confessional Comics by Jewish Women,” sponsored by the Forward, runs through January 30 at the Cartoon Art Museum, in San Francisco. The show will travel next to Toronto, where the Koffler Centre for the Arts will present it at the Gladstone Hotel galleries from February 17 - April 15.