COME COMMENCEMENT SEASON, many universities seek out the politically powerful and lofty — figures with that certain global gravitas — to step up to their leafy graduation lecterns. Mortarboards muster the call of capital-I Importance. Yet after this month, a breed of clever and inspiring figures may have just moved to the top of many a dean’s speed-dial.
Send in the creators of comics.
Two of the best commencement speakers in recent days — a claim bolstered by online reaction — have happened to be men who know how to render wisdom within a word balloon:
The acclaimed Neil Gaiman — author of adult novels and children’s books and epic graphic novels, and recipient of both the Newbery and Carnegie medals — wittily beguiled the graduating class of the University of the Arts in Philadelphia. And then, the attendees’ friends. And family. Word rippled outward via social media. According to the university, as of late Thursday, his inspiring speech had been viewed more than 120,000 times since last week.
And then there was Mike Peters — the Pulitzer-winning political cartoonist for the Dayton Daily News, and the Reuben Award-winning creator of the strip “Mother Goose and Grimm.” He returned to his alma mater, Washington University in St. Louis — nearly a half-century after graduating from there with a fine arts degree — and was endearing and surprising, right up to a skin-tight finish, when he offered a true “reveal.”
(You can roll tape (below) to see what we’re talking about.)
Comic Riffs caught up with Gaiman and Peters (both newly minted holders of honorary doctorates) to talk about sharing their wit, their wisdom — and their ability to inspire thousands of eager twentysomethings with genuine lessons, the personal rendered into universal truths.
Send in the comics? There may be even more next year.
ONE OF THE SEASON’S best graduation addresses was delivered by a man who, before last year, had very likely never attended one.
“I never had even been to a commencement speech until my wife [performer Amanda Palmer] gave one last year,” Gaiman tells Comic Riffs. “Maybe I attended one with one of my children [years ago], but if I did, I don’t remember it and it’s washed completely into the past.”
So the author of “American Gods” and “Coraline” and “The Sandman,” mulling and musing, worked on his speech a little at a time. ”I do what you tend to do, when you go back and forth, and write a bit of it and leave it and ... now you have these strange jumbled notes,” he tells 'Riffs.
Then the clarity began to come.
“I thought, I better give them the kind of information I wish I had had when starting out,” the British-born author tells us, as he drew upon his own creative discoveries and detours and “bitter experience.”
“It was the weird thing you discover as a writer where, if you’re trying to create a universal thing, you will fail. But if you try to create a personal thing, you sometimes find the universal that resonates with everybody.”
NEIL GAIMAN IN PHILADELPHIA:
Among the personal things Gaiman shares in the speech is a wish list of professional-life goals — a roster of dreams — that he says he wrote when he was 15 or 16.
“It was a huge list, all sorts of stuff,” Gaiman tells Comic Riffs of his ambitious boyhood hopes. “About eight years ago, I realized I’d done almost everything on my list. ... I talked to my mum and said: Remember when I was a kid — what did you think of the list when I showed it to you? She said she thought it was sweet but: ‘I never thought you’d actually do it.’ “
Gaiman’s address was filled with such personal anecdotes that resonated as universal insights. As a result, a “strange and wonderful thing” happened, he says. The speech went viral.
“That one dropped my jaw,” the “Graveyard Book” author tells Comic Riffs. “Because I haven’t done anything that went viral in the sense of so many people — [including] parents — sending links to it, even [shared] by people who know nothing about me.”
Gaiman also notes one last special wrinkle in this experience. Following the speech, he went to an official after-party with administration types. “Then I felt guilty, because all the graduates were in this whole separate area, and some were holding [books of mine] under their graduation gowns in case they could an autograph.
“So Amanda and I crept into the next room and signed a bunch of things.”
The entire event, he says, was just surprisingly special.
“I gave this commencement not because it was a paid gig, but because they asked,” says Gaiman, who notes that he did not attend university. ”I was just so honored to have been given a honorary doctorate of arts.”
MIKE PETERS IN ST. LOUIS:
[Peters takes the lectern at about the 4-minute mark]
“CHANCELLOR AND BOARD of Trustees, thank you so much. I hope you don’t go, ‘Oh God, why did I invite this guy?’ “
So joked Mike Peters at the top of his speech, but the truth he knowingly was touching on was this: How often does an institution of higher learning invite a legendary figure for social change — but ask the cartoonist to do the talking?
“Gloria Steinem and four other amazing people were there getting degrees,” Peters tells Comic Riffs. “Of course, I was honored giving the commencement address. Gloria leaned over and whispered: ‘I'm glad you're doing the address and not me.’ “
Perhaps those trustees were wise enough to know what the graduates would soon learn: Peters routinely delivers one whale of a talk.
Still, even for Peters, this responsibility was different.
“This was my college, and they were giving me an honorary doctorate, and it was in front of 17,000 people,” he tells Comic Riffs. But he, like Gaiman, is long trained at finding the truth and illuminating it with a writer’s clarity. “I knew if I had a message,” he says, “it should simply be that I was doing what I loved.”
Still, even for Peters, this speech’s cartoon payoff was different.
To embody the idea that the new graduates are each empowered as they face their future, Peters had a homemade-looking Superman suit on beneath his cap and gown. But would the stuffiness of these hallowed halls be his Kryptonite?
“I think the thing that really made me nervous was, I knew I was going to do the Superman thing, because it made the point about what I was trying to say, and the suit visually showed it,” Peters tells Comic Riffs. ”But I know university politics, and if the Superman thing didn't work, I was going to be pulled over the coals for ‘making a mockery’ of the commencement ceremony. I knew that. My wife taught college, so I know how it goes.”
Peters, of course, needn’t have worried. His heartfelt stories of overcoming personal difficulty while young were inspiring. And his big Superman finish wowed the crowd with a single bound.
“I was just glad the students got was I was trying to say,” Peters says, ”and it all came out great.”