I flew down to Columbia, South Carolina week before last to attend and present a paper at the 2016 International Comic Art Forum conference. As I write this I am still buzzing a bit, inspired by spending three whole days surrounded by more comics scholars than I have ever seen in one place, and having some of the deepest and most informed academic conversations—about comics of all kinds—than I have ever had.
I have been to more academic conferences in my time as a scholar than I can recall, but this was the first conference I had ever been to dedicated to nothing but comics, and in my experience so far the best academic conference I have ever been to period. You might think that the subject matter is the biggest influence on that feeling, but no, I’ve been to other conferences dedicated to my various scholarly interests. What made it such an amazing experience was the combination of rigorous high-level work on all aspects of comics (each paper presented was sharp and smart and deeply engaging), and the sense of community and support. This was the very first conference I have ever been to without a single example of the academic posturing that mars the experience so often. Everyone was not only friendly, but generous with their time and their responses. The conversations at ICAF2016 were as enriching as the presentations and the question and answer periods that followed them. It makes me wonder if the marginal position of comics studies in relation to literary and art studies makes for a more supportive and close-knit community of people looking for everyone else to succeed.
For those unfamiliar with ICAF, let me quote their website:
The International Comic Arts Forum is an annual academic conference dedicated to promoting the scholarly study and appreciation of comic art, including comic strips, comic books, comics albums and graphic novels, magazine and newspaper cartooning, caricature, and comics in electronic media.
It was founded at Georgetown University in 1995 by Tristan Fonlladosa and Guy Spielmann, and has recently allied with the Comics Study Society. The CSS, founded in 2014, is a comics studies professional organization to further promote the field.
The conference went from the morning of Thursday, April 14th and went through the early evening of Saturday, April 16th. What follows is an overview of the panels and events I attended, but is by no means meant to be comprehensive or give detailed summaries of the presentations. Unfortunately, I did not take consistent notes, so don’t take my having less to say about some papers as a sign that they were not as good. In fact, sometimes it was just the opposite, where I’d be so engaged I could not write fast enough and had to just listen. So, that said, if anyone remembers things differently or wants to add/correct anything, please contact me via email or make a comment below. I am not opposed to revisions, retractions and additions.
This was also the first conference I’d ever been to where Twitter was a constant source of secondary conversation as folks live-tweeted talks and followed digressions that might have, under other circumstances, sidetracked a good question and answer session. You can go back to the conference dates and check out the #ICAF2016 hashtag for a lot more insight on the events (just ignore the tweets for the International Council on Alternative Fuels). Because of the wide use of Twitter I am going to include the Twitter handles of the presenters and other attendees I mention when they are available, in case you want to add a bunch of comics scholars to your timeline.
The sketches and notes included below were also taken from Twitter. The first two are by Charles Hatfield [@charleshatfield], and the rest are by Nicolas Labarre [@LabarreN].
Thursday, April 14
When I registered Thursday morning (having arrived late the night before) one of the first people I met was the site coordinator and conference host, Qiana Whitted ([@QianaWhitted] Associate Professor of English and African American Studies at University of South Carolina), who I already knew through her writing on The Hooded Utilitarian and because she reached out to me over email a couple of years ago and we’ve been in contact ever since.
After an introduction to the event by Qiana, Charles Hatfield (CSS interim president), and José Alaniz (ICAF president), the keynote presentation was given by Michael Chaney, Associate Professor of English and Chair of the African and African American Studies Program at Dartmouth College. His talk was entitled, “Where? Reflections on Richard McGuire’s Here and the Spatial Ontology of Comics.” I was not familiar with McGuire’s Here, but after Chaney’s talk it jumped to the top of my list. Chaney got us thinking about the comic’s representation of place in relation to a kind of non-linear view of time and how the comic works to de-center the human as the focus of understanding being, while also reminding us of the inescapability of human perspective even as we contemplate deep time. [UPDATE: You can watch an excerpt of his keynote here.]
On Friday, I’d have a great long talk with Michael Chaney at lunch and walking back to the conference site, and I was super grateful for his generosity and encouragement regarding my own work and career prospects.
The first actual panel was entitled, “Representing Race and Gender.”
1: Representing Race and Gender
Moderator: Elizabeth Nijdam, University of Michigan
- Draw Your Demons: Identity, Humor, and Trauma in Autobiographical Comics by Women of Color, Francesca Lyn, Virginia Commonwealth University
- Little Brown Girl, Packing a Tool Belt: Ben Hatke’s Little Robot and Black Female Archetypes, Michelle Martin, University of South Carolina
- Prominent, Notorious, and Overlooked: Black Lives in the Marvel Universe, Osvaldo Oyola, New York University
As you can tell, this was the panel in which I presented my own work. I was concerned that being on the first panel on the first day that there would not be many people there, but the room was full. I guess following Michael Chaney helped.
Francesca Lyn’s paper focused on Lynda Barry’s One! Hundred! Demons!, which Barry calls an “autobiofictionagraphy,” in which truth claims are not the primary goal, but the memoir serves as a way to create a space to confront and explore intergenerational trauma and a sense of racial melancholy through what Lyn calls “constructed nostalgia.” This made me think of Sinead McDermott’s notion of “critical nostalgia,” which those familiar with my writing and this blog know is a recurring lens I use in considering the historical narratives around collecting of both comics and music and within narratives in those texts. The notion of “racial melancholy” also got me wondering if Lyn was familiar with Jose Esteban Munoz’s “Feeling Brown, Feeling Down,” but I forgot to mention it to her.
Michelle Martin’s paper considered the ways in which the little girl protagonist in Ben Hatke’s Little Robot (which I was not familiar with), embodied what Sheri Parks’ calls “the sacred dark feminine” in her book Fierce Angels, and the degree to which viewing the character through that lens can resist the destructive stereotypes of the “strong black woman.”
My paper, which is part of a larger project whose ultimate shape I am still not sure of, looked at representations of Black characters and Black life in late Bronze Age Marvel Comics that are not what Ramzi Fawaz calls “the urban folktale”—that is, my look is at comics not meant to explicitly address social issues, and appearing in second-tier comics like my illustrative example, back-to-back story arcs in 1978 issues of Marvel Two-in-One. I’ll be posting some version of this paper on the blog next month some time. But this paper had its origins in my hunt for every Bronze Age appearance of Brother Voodoo. [[UPDATE: You can now read a revised/expanded version of the presentation here]].
The discussion afterward was lively and sharp. I can’t remember all of it, but I do recall someone bringing up the possibility of putting Little Robot into conversation with Marvel’s Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur (which may share some similar themes), Lyn suggesting that sometimes “nothing happens between panels” and challenging Scott McCloud’s famous theory of closure in comics, and Jose Alaniz asking me how the fact that artist Ron Wilson—who drew the comics I was talking about—is African-American might complicate my claims (short version: I don’t think it appreciably does).
After a luncheon provided by the conference and CSS, there were two concurrent panels that got shuffled around due to some presenters who, unfortunately, couldn’t make it. This means we were deprived of a presentation on the new Ms. Marvel, but still the panel I attended was a good one. The other one was:
2A: Comics Form, Comics History
Moderator: David Allan Duncan, Savannah College of Art and Design
- Comics and Objecthood: The Matter of Comics of David Mazzucchelli’s Asterios Polyp, William Orchard, Queens College/CUNY
- Honoré Daumier: Caricature and the Conception/Reception of “Fine Art,” Jasmin W. Cyril, Benedict College
2B: Superheroes Across the Globe
Moderator: Brian Cremins, Harper College
- Fighting in the Streets, Fighting for Place: Superheroes in Yang and Liew’s The Shadow Hero and Okupe’s E.X.O. Matthew L. Miller, University of South Carolina – Aiken
- “The Stereotype is a Fact of Life”: Race, Iconography, and Stereotypes in American Comics, Jeremy Carnes, University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee
Matthew Miller discussed the transnationality of superheroes in the books he presented on, claiming that superheroes allow immigrants a space of play with identity and to unite communities across borders (something not that different from what I claim in my dissertation—though I was more focused on literary representations of comics reader engagement with comics as a way to frame and perform identity in transnational contexts).
Jeremy Carnes [@jmcarnes] (who was also my roommate for the conference) began his presentation considering Scott McCloud’s claims about amplification through simplification and the negative results of caricature in comics for racialized characters. I noticed that the first slide Carnes used in his presentation on McCloud demonstrating the “universality” of the simplified human face is, of course, a white face. Carnes used this idea to consider, as example, Will Eisner’s weak defense of his Ebony White character in his legendary The Spirit comics. Ebony White is frequently used as the quintessential example of Black stereotype in popular comics. Carnes went on to explain, using Eisner’s response to criticism of the character, that rather than think about the result of readers seeing these stereotyped characters, creators blame everything but themselves, from the time the comics were made to alleged positive response by readers of the same race of the character.
The resulting discussion revolved around skepticism of how successful Yang’s Shadow Hero is in avoiding stereotype and resisting assimilationist narratives of immigration, and about the recent racial redressing of superhero characters at Marvel. One of my favorite comments, by Frank Bramlett from University of Nebraska – Omaha, suggested the productive narrative possibilities that emerge from addressing the way formerly white characters now navigate the complexities of operating bi-culturally in their worlds.
3A: Comics at the Borders and the Barricades
Moderator: Brittany Tullis, St. Ambrose University
- Art at the Borders: Spiegelman’s Place in the History of Immigration Comics, Cara Koehler, Otto-Friedrich-Universität Bamberg
- Comics, Form, and Anarchy: Anti-Authoritarian Politics in Anarchy Comics and Beyond, Frederik Byrn Køhlert, University of Calgary
I attended this panel and while found it quite interesting, but the tweets about the concurrent panel had me thinking that maybe I chose the wrong panel to attend. I was distracted through most of the panel. Nothing against the people doing the two papers—I was especially interested in Køhlert’s detailed look into Anarchy Comics as a way to consider the oft-offered chestnut that there is an “anarchic streak” in comics, and to think of the rhizomatic non-hierarchal possibilities of comics. But I was sad to miss Mark Minett’s presentation on origins and the Golden Age, and somehow didn’t realize that Aaron Kashton [@aaronkashtan] was presenting in that panel as well.
Anyway, it was:
3B: Perspectives on Comics Production
Moderator: Bill Kartalopoulos
- Nothing but Flat, Dead Wood? Comics Moving from Digital to Print, Aaron Kashtan, Miami University (Ohio)
- Is there a “typical” adaptation into comics? Nicolas Labarre, Université Bordeaux Montaigne
- Origins/Stories: A Historical Poetics of the Origin in the ‘Golden Age’ of the Superhero Comic, Mark Minett, University of South Carolina
Afterwards, a group of seven of us went a local brew pub and ate dinner before heading for the event over at the Columbia Museum of Art. I should say, however, that dinner really cemented for me the instant sense of camaraderie I had with my fellow comics scholars. Very spontaneous groups making plans and gathering up to go get lunch or dinner. Between panels ICAF kept us well-fed and the beautiful South Carolina weather let us hang outside on porches and patios, getting to know each other and our work as we waited for each panel to begin.
At 7 pm, at the museum auditorium, we got the pleasure of hearing Gary Jackson read his comics-inflected socially and personally meaningful poetry. He read poems from his collection, Missing You, Metropolis. His poetry somehow manages deep reference without being gimmicky, by using the comics language to reveal something thoughtful, rather than simply revel in the obscurant. The dude has a poem called “Nightcrawler Buys a Woman a Drink,” inspired by the infamous Uncanny X-Men #183—one of my favorite issues.
The main event of the night was a fabulous talk by cartoonist Keith Knight, “They Shoot Black People Don’t They? A Cartoonist’s Look at Police Brutality in the U.S.” You probably know his work because many of his cartoons have gone viral, especially at the height of the events last summer in Ferguson and other places in the U.S. You can see his cartoon The K Chronicles here. Knight took us through a bunch of his cartoons and told us some about the arc and obstacles of his career. He was funny and very real. He had this exasperated quality when it came to talking about the ways we are deeply embedded in a history of corruption and injustice, like he’s come back into Plato’s cave from outside to explain. You know what I’m talking about, that kind of realness where laughter is the only option, because shit this fucked up is absurd to the point of despair.
Friday, April 15
Friday morning for me meant attending panel session 4A (4B was canceled when one presenter couldn’t make it and the remaining paper was shifted over to panel 4A):
The Politics of Pop Comics – Moderator: Brannon Costello, Louisiana State University
- “Remarkable Skin:” Luke Cage and the Stigma of Black Criminality, Tracy L. Bealer, Borough of Manhattan Community College
- Flags of Our Bastards: Southern Bastards and the Race Politics of the Weird South, Joshua Plencner, Drexel University
- Shades of Narrative Subjectivity, Rachel Graf, University of Washington
Three great papers. Bealer’s presentation put Luke Cage the context of mass incarceration and narratives of Black criminality that justify over-policing. The paper’s focus was just on the original run through Power Man & Iron Fist vol. 1, #125. Graf [@r_graf] engaged with notions of narrative subjectivity through consideration of comics journalism and issues of translation in Joe Sacco’s Palestine and War Rabbit by Rutu Modan and Igal Sarna. Plencer’s [@joshuaplencner] paper really got me thinking about regionalism and “weirdness.” His presentation was on Jason Aaron and Jason Latour’s Southern Bastards (what a great comic!) and its obsession with “southerness.” Plencer put the comic in the “weird fiction” literary tradition of writers like China Mieville, and suggested that that weirdness represents the sense of pursuing the unreachable or indefinable, the essence of place that is beyond the real. It made me think of how “weirdness” might be a way to convey a variety of regional literary traditions. Thinking on it now, I wonder how something like Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities might help consider how that sense of place is experienced as essential, but nevertheless constructed.
At 10:15 AM I went to Panel Session 5A:
5A: Comics and the South
Moderator: Brannon Costello, Louisiana State University
- Torchy Brown in Southville: Race, Place, and “Fashionable” Activism in Jackie Ormes’s Comic Series, Mora J. Beauchamp-Byrd, Spelman College
- “Here Was a Man”: Fathers, Sons, and the Legacies of Southern Hypermasculinity in Aaron and Latour’s Southern Bastards, Ellie Campbell, University of Mississippi
- Manners, Violence, and the Inescapability of Southern Iconography in Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon’s Preacher, Kelly Vines, Louisiana State University
Here I was most interested in hearing Beauchamp-Byrd’s presentation on Torchy Brown, which is such an important, but largely forgotten comic strip that needs more work done both in responding to it, but also in working to recover a lot of strips that may be lost. Beauchamp-Byrd examined a particular part of the Torchy Brown serial to consider her return to the South as a sophisticated and cosmopolitan character who simultaneously embodies the “model” type woman character with various fashion aspects like cut-out paper dolls with a variety of outfits in a spread (seen in a lot of comic strips of the era), while engaging with the serious issue of social and racial justice (the story Beauchamp-Byrd examines features a Black community whose water source is poisoned, leading to a sickness that needs a cure, retroactively echoing the Flint water crisis).
The second presentation on Southern Bastards was amazing as well, as Campbell examined the legacies of white hypermasculinity in the South passing from father to son and dependent on racist violence.
I wanted to stay for the third presentation, and while someone jokingly suggested that my past very vocal dislike of Garth Ennis’s Preacher was the reason I left before the panel finished, the real reason was because I hopped over to panel session 5B to hear Leah Misemer’s [@lsmisemer] presentation. She was part of my ICAF squad of folks hanging out at and between panels, and wanted to hear and support her work. Plus, her presentation’s focus on webcomics and the notion of “cooperative competition” is fascinating.
5B: Authorship and Influence
Moderator: José Alaniz, University of Washington
- Saga versus Spawn: The House Style(s) of Image Comics, Colin Beineke, University of Missouri
- Happy Ike, the Pink Kid, and the American Presence in Early British Comics, Michael Connerty, Dun Laoghaire Institute of Art, Design, and Technology
- Cooperative Competition: Reciprocal Guest Comics in Webcomics, Leah Misemer, University of Wisconsin – Madison
Misemer’s presentation gave the audience a lot to consider in thinking about reader response and the role of coordinated competition in developing interest in webcomics, by creating a kind of networked synergy that leads readers to engage with the playful online “beef,” essentially working to advertise each creator’s work to the other’s audience, but also building a kind of gravity that can draw in other readers. Misemer’s interest (like mine) is in how seriality gives us new ways to read comics, but also in thinking about reader engagement with that seriality. As she (rightly) claimed the “correspondence zone” created by this network between creators and their audiences provides us with a way to think about how “reading is an authorial practice and authorship is a reading practice,” especially given how in the friendly back and forth insulting, parody and inclusion of each other’s characters, these webcomics creators demonstrate their deep familiarity with each other’s work. It is almost as if the creators are creating a form of fan fiction that involves their own work.
I am sad that I missed Colin Beineke’s presentation on Image Comics visual styles, though we did get to talk a little bit about it afterwards.
At lunch a group of us walked over to the campus food court, and I was able to pick up the first trade of Southern Bastards, my interest piqued by the presentations by Josh Plencer and Ellie Campbell.
After lunch it was time for Panel Session 6. I attended 6B
6B: Swiping, Quoting, and Revising as Narrative Practices
Moderator: Brittany Tullis, St. Ambrose University
- Love, God, Rockets, and Science: Superheroes and the Power of Revision in Jaime Hernandez’s Comics, Corey K. Creekmur, University of Iowa
- Swiping or Quoting? Charles Burns’s Cut-Ups of “Old” Comics, Benoit Crucifix, Université de Liège / Université Catholique de Louvain
- Beyond the Blank Page: Meta-Textuality and Originality in Kill Shakespeare: The Tale of Blood, Jason Tondro, College of Coastal Georgia
Given that I have a forthcoming article in the new Journal of Comics and Culture on Jaime Hernandez’s God and Science: The Return of the Ti-Girls, Corey Creekmur’s presentation was the draw for me, and I wasn’t disappointed. He provided a very detailed overview of the additions to the God and Science story between its original publication in issues of Love and Rockets: New Stories and the hardcover collection of the stories into one volume. The question of varying editions of comics and the additions and revisions between them struck me as relevant to my work, not the least reason being that I wrote about God and Science without considering the differences in the different forms of publication at all. Creekmur raised a bunch of vital questions. For example, varying editions of comics/collections have implications for our scholarship & teaching. Which do we assign? Which do we address? What is Jaime Hernandez accomplishing by revising an alternative comic into something like a mainstream superhero comic?
Most striking to me (and in the Q&A portion of the panel, I asked Corey about this) was Creekmur’s assertion that while Love and Rockets has a range of subjects and distinct worlds created by Los Bros, they nevertheless respond to each other in important but inexplicit ways that creates a challenging tension in their serial. As Creekmur put it, not Love or Rockets, God or Science, but AND. Like my article, the presentation also explored the way Jaime Hernandez engages with memory and continuity (the latter of which Creekmur defined as an imaginary form of history). I look at the book as inventing a tradition of Latina superheroes. I wrote a little bit about it when I first read the book, which later got developed in the first chapter of my dissertation and soon will be printed in revised form as an expanded journal article.
The other two papers in this panel, while not as directly connected to my work, were also compelling. In particular, Jason Tondro’s deep dive into Kill Shakespeare was delivered with unmatched gusto, as he used the metatextual comic to consider how it honors its influences not by copying them, but re-imaging and re-creating them.
Panel 6A (which I did not attend) was the following:
6A: Queering Comics
Moderator: Frank Bramlett, University of Nebraska – Omaha
- The New Normal? Queer Comic Blogs in France Today, Michael Johnson, Central Washington University
- Robots, Cyborgs, and Webcomics: Queer and Feminist Politics in Jess Fink’s Chester 5000 XYV, Ashley Manchester, University of Florida
- “Um, actually . . . I’m a girl”: Tomboysim and Queering Schizoid Femininity in Liz Prince’s Tomboy and Yatto’s Pas mon genre! Lauranne Poharec, Memorial University of Newfoundland
After this session I took a needed break to grade some student papers and take a power nap to keep going. This means I missed the presentation by Belgian cartoonist Dominique Goblet. [UPDATE: But you can see a video of her talk here]. Afterwards, a group of us hit Mr. Friendly’s, a local restaurant, for some southern food. I had amazing shrimp and grits. From there it was time to return to the hotel to see Howard Cruse speak.
Howard Cruse, celebrated creator of the graphic novel Stuck Rubber Baby and strips like Wendell (published in the Advocate), editor of the foundational Gay Comix, gave an unmatched presentation. He really opened up to us about his life and career, and it was so moving we were all choked up, including Cruse himself, who choked back tears at the memories he explored. When he opened up the floor for questions there was a long silence as we all composed ourselves. I know I felt it. He talked about his influences, but not in terms of the artists and writers he admired, but his experiences a gay man from Alabama, and coming to terms with the toxic culture of white supremacy in the South. Oh, and lots of LSD helped, too. I can’t even give his presentation justice here. All I can say is if you haven’t already read Stuck Rubber Baby you should, and that Cruse’s talk was exemplary of the kinds of cross-cultural and intersectional networks that are made possible by deep empathy, leading to productive solidarity across difference. [UPDATE: You can see Cruse’s talk here.]
Saturday, April 16
I am going to just shamefully admit that I slept through the first session on Saturday. The reception after Howard Cruse’s talk went late, and the long conference days were catching up to me.
However, if you are interested, here are the panels:
7A: Body Horror, Body Politics
Moderator: José Alaniz, University of Washington
- Aw Dude, Gross: Michael DeForge’s Horrific Mundane, Tim Jones, Louisiana State University
- Stripped Down in Yugoslavia: Bordo’s Imperfect Bodies in Comics and Film, Paul Morton, University of Washington
7B: Redrawing the Nation
Moderator: Bill Kartalopoulos
- On The Pastoral Imaginary of a Latin America Social Democracy: Costa Rica’s El Sabanero, Héctor Fernández L’Hoeste, Georgia State University
- Graphic Parenthesis and Nationalist Anxiety: (Re)membering Jacque Tardi’s Adele Blanc-Sec and Paris, Nhora Lucia Serrano, Hamilton College
Instead, I did not get to my first panel of the day until 10:15 AM. And it might have been the best panel of the weekend.
8A: Comics Readers
Moderator: Qiana Whitted, University of South Carolina
- “Tiny Flashes of Light”: Otto Binder and Nostalgia in the Comic Book Fanzines of the 1960s, Brian Cremins, Harper College
- Comics Reading and Social Justice: The Strange Case of Robert Peebles, Christopher Pizzino, University of Georgia
- Reading Plus: Early Popular and Participatory Cultures in Comics, Carol L. Tilley, University of Illinois – Urbana-Champaign
Brian Cremins’s look at an Otto Binder Tawky Tawny story (the Marvel Family talking tiger was a kind of alter ego for Binder) was a way into considering the tensions in comics fandom scholarship and the role of nostalgia in shaping comics history. But rather than take my word for it, you can read a little preview of the paper on Brian Cremin’s own blog, here. I can’t wait for his book on Captain Marvel to come out. It looks like he is doing great work with it.
Christopher Pizzino’s presentation threatened the audience’s ability to keep their composure once again, as he told us the story of a 14-year old Black boy accused of firing a gun into the air off his roof, the bullet then killing an attendee at the Polo Grounds. This boy would end up being Frederic Wertham’s first example of a juvenile delinquent ruined by comics in his infamous book Seduction of the Innocent. Pizzino’s archival work in Wertham’s papers at the Library of Congress reveal not only that Peebles was innocent of the crime, but that chances are he was not nearly as much of a comics reader as Wertham characterized him, and more importantly, that Wertham knew the boy was innocent, but kept the knowledge a secret in order to keep his primary case study in the effects of comic books on kids.
Wertham is a complicated figure in the comics field. Though he is widely reviled by fans, there have been plenty of folks who have acknowledged not only his anti-racist work, but over on the Comics Journal Ken Parille called Wertham America’s Best Comic Book Critic in 2013. I’ve written my own look at rehabilitating Wertham’s work from the perspective of him as a cultural critic of the Frankfurt school in my post, “Wertham Was Right (Left),” and of course there is Bart Beatty’s book Fredric Wertham and the Critique of Mass Culture. The falsifications in Wertham’s work revealed by Carol Tilley in 2012 made it harder to be sympathetic to Wertham. Chris Pizzino’s revelation, however, does more than compound the falsifications, it reveals how Wertham overvalued the influence of comics so recklessly that his assignation of delinquency recapitulated racist outcomes in pursuit of saving children. In other words, Wertham’s desire to save children from victimization led to him victimizing them a second time. The case of Robert Peebles exists at the intersection of race, class and literacy concerns. And reminds us of the terrible power of rhetoric to shape the trajectory of young lives. It certainly gets me thinking about the way that young people are still judged by the media they consume. These days the rhetoric around violent video games is probably the most common example, but I think of moral panics around things like heavy metal and gangsta rap, and Dungeons & Dragons as well.
The final paper in the panel was presented by Carol Tilley, and she detailed a wealth of early examples of participatory culture and fan activism in the comics world. Among these was a fan made comic from 1954 called “The Uncanny Adventures of (I Hate) Dr. Wertham,” which you can read about here. Tilley complicates the simple assumption that kids read comics to “escape the mundane,” by exploring the fanzines and other materials generated by young fans of the Golden Age of comics. Of course, a substantial obstacle to this work is not only the very ephemera of the material, but that these once kids are now very elderly and very many of them have passed away, thus in many cases we’ve missed our opportunities to get firsthand accounts of this work. Luckily, some current comics scholars (like Leah Misemer) are doing work with letter columns and fan participatory culture, ensuring more recent materials will have an opportunity to be reserved for future study.
The focus on readers and thinking of readers as authors and authors as readers jibes with the notion of (re)collection I explore and define in my dissertation, though my concern is not limited to only fan material production, but ways in which these reading practices provide framework for positionally performing racial, ethnic and gender identity.
Simultaneous to the Comics Readers panel, was Panel Session 8B, which clearly I could not attend, but the amount of laughter and energized conversation we could hear through the wall makes me think it was a great session as well.
8B: Image/Text in New Contexts
Moderator: Andrew Kunka, University of South Carolina – Sumter
- Comics Theory for the Ages: Text and Image Relations in Medieval Manuscripts, Jesse D. Hurlbut, Brigham Young University
- Partners in Crime: Text and Image in Kyle Baker’s Nat Turner, Marc Singer, Howard University
- Quality Time in the Gutter: Using Comics to Foster Critical Thinking and Argumentation, Michael VanCalbergh, Rutgers University
After lunch we got to hear the Lent Award Lecture given by Eike Exner of the University of Southern California. His talk, “The Influence of Pre-War Translations of American Comic Strips on the Development of Comics in Japan” was the result of some amazing archival work in Japan scouring over microfiche newspapers to note the shape of influence of American comics on their presentation in Japanese newspapers. While manga is not really in my wheelhouse, I could not be more impressed with Exner’s work, and found his claim that rather than being two distinct media, “manga” and “comics” share a common lineage to be persuasive. Since Japanese translations of comics like Bringing Up Father and Felix the Cat were common and popular in Japan in the 20s and 30s, I am struck by those Western comics scholars who think of Japanese manga as emerging from some unknowable culture, like you need to be Doctor Strange to truly learn its mystic ways.
At 2:30 pm, Cece Bell, author of El Deafo gave a touching representation, explaining the autobiographical elements of her graphic novel for children. Having lost her hearing at age 4 to a bout of meningitis, she explained that she developed a love for the television superheroes that influenced her. She calls the 1960s Batman a TV show for deaf people, what with its bright POW! And BOP! The fact that Bell’s graphic novel won a Newbery Award also points to the increased willingness for librarians to turn to graphic novels as a tool to promote children’s literacy. This a far cry from the days of comic book moral panics and concerns about their lack of educational merit of the 1940s and 50s. Heck, even in 1982, I remember getting my copy of G.I. Joe #2 taken away by my 5th grade teacher. I didn’t get it back until the end of the year, and dreamed of stealing it from the desk drawer where I knew she kept student contraband. [UPDATE: You can now see Cece Bell’s talk here.]
After another break we had the final event of the conference. Originally it was supposed to be a conversation between legendary comics writer Roy Thomas and Sanford Greene, a current rising star artist of the superhero comic world, who is currently working with David Walker on the refreshing Power Man & Iron Fist series. Unfortunately, Roy Thomas suffered a death in his family and could not make it. Instead, Charles Hatfield, Interim President of the Comics Studies Society talked with Greene, getting him to tell us about his animation work and various projects, and a little about his influences and his artistic development. Greene credits Rob Liefeld’s X-Force (well, the Spike Lee-directed Levi’s commercial featuring Liefeld and X-Force) as inspiring his desire to do comic art for a living, but also admits that as he honed his craft he started to notice the flaws in that “More is more” style (well, more of everything but feet). Greene also cited Alex Toth as the influence that taught him that less is more. The best part of Green’s work is the range of bodies and postures in his work, and he explained how the composition of the characters bodies is a form of storytelling as well, giving readers visual cues about the character’s personality, but that he had to work through a lot of “wonkiness” to convey that.
It was a great talk, even if I found Greene’s answer to a question about the sincerity of Marvel’s dedication to more diverse representation to be unsatisfying. While I think it’d be naïve to expect some kind of political purity from a person, let alone a corporate entity like Marvel, I also think the track record is so bad that any effort on Marvel’s part is naturally treated with skepticism and bound to appear insufficient in addressing the concerns of fans and scholars about comics’ failures. And, I am not just limiting that to the Big Two, alternative comics are white as hell, too. Still, couldn’t expect Sanford Greene to talk shit about his employer, but I think he could’ve been a little realer about it, and not have sidestepped the issue by bringing up the contentious Marvel Hip Hop variant covers promotion from last year. Maybe my dissatisfaction stems from Greene dismissing “people with blogs” who criticized the variants, because I am one of those people, but mostly it was because he used the endorsement of some rappers to grant those covers authenticity and even suggested that some of the bad feelings was driven by artists who were not invited to participate. He’s wrong. As I have written before, hip hop is a site of contention, a complex culture with sharp tensions, movements and counter-movements and relations to capital. DMC can’t co-sign for everything. There is naturally going to be conflict about what some see as an exploitation of hip hop culure and others see as just another example of hip hop’s goal of “getting up.”
As a lover of Marvel Comics and hip hop, it seems like as natural a fit to me as it did to Axel Alonso and whoever else, but as usual, the Big Two are terrible at PR and too arbitrary in following up on their claims regarding valuing greater diversity. All you need do is read Alonso’s shitty response to Ronald Wimberly’s Eisner Award-nominated “Lighten Up!” to know he is more concerned with perceptions than sincere questioning of the status quo. (By the way, you should read Wimberly’s response to the response). White supremacy is insidious. [UPDATE: You can now view the discussion with Sanford Greene here].
The conference ended with some closing remarks and the announcement of the newly elected officers for the CSS. I stood for election for Member-at-Large, but didn’t win. I didn’t expect to, but I hope to stay involved with both CSS and ICAF in the years to come, so plan to stand for election again as I make myself and my work more well known in this circle of scholars.
After this, four of us headed over to Cosmic Ray’s comics to indulge our nerdy obsessions and do some actual buying of comics. It was your typical little comic shop, the back issues were a little overpriced, though Ray and his employees were super nice. We all bought a few things. I got a little closer to completing my collection of all of Marvel’s Assistant Editor’s Month issues from 1984.
It was a great weekend and I made not only a load of contacts, but as cheesy as it sounds I feel like I made friends. Next year (well, in 18 months) the conference is in Seattle and I am already looking forward to it. Eighteen months from now seems much too far away.
15 thoughts on “The International Comics Art Forum 2016”
So much time and work obviously went into this, and I hesitate to even call it a recap because it’s so much more than that. Thank you! I learned a lot reading this, and I was there!
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